Leveling the playing field

The more small-business owners understand how big businesses compete unfairly and do not contribute their fair share of state taxes, the more pressure can build for real reform.

Small business owners get it: They follow the rules, but preferential treatment for giant companies puts them at a disadvantage.

Case in point: Lora Fraracci, who had an excellent guest opinion in today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette about practices big companies use to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The problem is not exclusively an issue with the lax U.S. tax code. It is a big problem at the state level as well.

Ms. Fraracci runs a residential and commercial cleaning business. As she noted:

“As a small-business owner in Des Moines, I play by the rules and pay my taxes to support our American economy. I create jobs that will continue to support our local economy. When the playing field is so uneven it makes it hard to realize this dream.”

The issue has been receiving some national attention, but many may not realize the prevalence of this problem and its extension to state taxes. While Ms. Fraracci and other small businesses, or Iowa focused businesses, follow the rules, large companies they may serve can find a way to either (1) avoid the rules, or (2) block stronger rules.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has written about these issues for some time, and the reports are on our website.

The biggest Iowa breaks come in two ways: tax loopholes and tax credits.

Tax loopholes have been estimated to cost the state between $60 million and $100 million a year. Loosely written law is an invitation to big companies’ lawyers and accountants to find ways to lower their firms’ taxes. Multistate firms can shift profits to tax-haven states and avoid taxes they otherwise would be paying in Iowa. That creates the uneven playing field Ms. Fraracci sees.

Iowa could fix this by adopting something called “combined reporting,” which the business lobby has fought tooth and nail when proposed in the past by Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver. Many states — including almost all our neighbors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska) — already do this. See our 2007 report, which remains relevant because Iowa has refused to act.

Tax credits are particularly costly, rarely reviewed with any sense that they will be reformed. This is illustrated best with the Research Activities Credit, which provides a refundable credit to big companies to do something they are likely to anyway: research to keep their businesses relevant and competitive.

In 2013, that credit cost $53 million, with $36 million of that going to companies that paid no state income tax in Iowa. The default position must be that this is wasted money, because it is never reviewed in the regular budget process the way other spending is examined every year — on schools, law enforcement, worker protection and environmental quality. In Iowa, spending on tax credits is spending on autopilot.

Read here about Iowa’s accountability gap on tax-credit spending.

Looking ahead, as a new legislative session approaches and we hear repeatedly that things are tight, keep these points in mind to better understand the real fiscal picture facing Iowa. The more small-business owners understand this, the more likely pressure can build for real reform.

Owen-2013-57  Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project

Will outrage translate into policy?

The long and short of it: Iowa does not have to sit by while big companies drain the state’s coffers and push the bill to other taxpayers, both smaller business competitors and working families. And neither does the United States.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Oh, the outrage.

Apple Inc., is (gasp!) working the federal tax code to its advantage, exploiting loopholes in the code to legally avoid paying taxes. OK, but we’ve heard it all before.

Many are expressing outrage — not an unreasonable reaction. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan is leading hearings in Washington about the issue, noting, “Our purpose with these hearings is to shine a light on practices that have allowed U.S.-based multinational corporations to amass an estimated $1.9 trillion in profits in offshore tax havens, shielded from U.S. taxes.” He went on:

A recent study found that 30 of the largest U.S. multinationals, with more than $160 billion in profits, paid nothing in federal income taxes over a recent three year period. Zero. These corporations use multiple offshore loopholes that give them significant control over how much U.S. income they will report and how much tax, if any, they will pay.

Senator Levin is indeed shining a light on a serious issue, but you can already see the excuses coming.

As a New York Times story notes:

While Apple’s strategy is unusual in its scope and effectiveness, it underscores how riddled with loopholes the American corporate tax code has become, critics say. At the same time, it shows how difficult it will be for Washington to overhaul the tax system.

In Iowa alone, as we showed many years ago, this also happens with some big, multistate companies, which use gimmicks to get out of paying state corporate income tax. Instead of shifting profits to phantom companies in Ireland to avoid U.S. tax, these companies shift Iowa profits to shell companies in Delaware, where they go untaxed by either Delaware or Iowa. And it could be fixed, but Iowa lawmakers simply have chosen not to. Not acting, after all, is the easiest course.

Tell lawmakers privately about what’s happening and if it’s new to them, they express outrage. Wait a few weeks, and for many the outrage is gone. Frequently, the view changes to either (1) it’s something we need to accept so companies won’t move away, or (2) the issue is just too big to address.

Of course both arguments are what big business lobbyists want everyone to believe. And both are wrong.

The business lobby has obscured the fact that there would be no reason under Iowa tax law for these companies to move away if the state were to pass legislation to plug loopholes — and lawmakers certainly can do so, with a device called “combined reporting.” Read about it here.

The long and short of it: Iowa does not have to sit by while big companies drain the state’s coffers and push the bill to other taxpayers, both smaller business competitors and working families. And neither does the United States.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Small businesses understand competitive realities, role of government

There are lessons in the nationwide survey: Folks in small business understand that not all business tax breaks treat businesses equitably, or help the economy.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Political talk pandering to small businesses is commonplace, and often involves inaccurate assumptions about positions on taxes and the role of government. Thus, they are not only frequent, but frequently wrong.

A survey released today by the Small Business Majority (SBM) www.smallbusinessmajority.org — a nonpartisan small-business advocacy group — found wide acknowledgement of the need for more equitable, sustainable fiscal choices in Washington. As noted by SBM:

Contrary to popular belief, nationwide scientific opinion polling conducted earlier this month found that the majority of small business owners—more of whom identify as Republican than Democrat (47%-35%)—believe that raising taxes on the wealthiest 2% is the right thing to do in light of our budget crisis. What’s more, 40% strongly believe this.

The polling also found the majority of entrepreneurs see a productive role for government in helping small businesses achieve success. Nearly 6 in 10 agree government can play an effective role in helping small businesses thrive.

These are interesting results but they should not be terribly surprising.

Folks in small business know:

  • Budgets have two sides — spending and revenue.
  • Small businesses benefit when employees and consumers are educated, safe, healthy and financially secure.
  • Small businesses can compete when the playing field is level for all businesses; it’s hard to compete with bigger competitors who are getting special breaks from the referee — government.

And there are lessons in this for state policy makers as well.

Tax breaks geared to multistate corporate giants that can shift profits to other nations or states do not benefit small businesses, or all businesses equitably, and do not always help the economy. It is clear that people running small businesses understand this.

Iowa can make the playing field better, and restore squandered revenue, by plugging tax loopholes that are costing the state $60 million to $100 million a year. Several states already do this, including four of the six states that border Iowa: Illinois (home of Deere & Co.), Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska. But Iowa lawmakers have refused to defy the big corporate lobbyists that have stood in the way of this important reform, known as “combined reporting.”

You can learn more about that and other inequitable, unaccountable tax breaks in Iowa at the Iowa Fiscal Partnership website, www.iowafiscal.org.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director