The Tax Foundation’s indefensible mish-mash

What the “State Business Tax Climate Index” offers is, at its core, an indefensible mish-mash of “Stuff the Tax Foundation Doesn’t Like,” which should be the title.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Tax Foundation’s 2012 State Business Tax Climate Index is out, and not much has changed — including the political talk about it.

What this annual release offers is, at its core, an indefensible mish-mash of “Stuff the Tax Foundation Doesn’t Like,” which should be the title. Instead, the group slaps the term “State Business Tax Climate Index” on it, adds its slick logo and pretends the whole thing has meaning. For an ideological message, it may, but for decisions on business locations and expansions, not so much.

Problems with the methodology of this “index” are outlined in my 2005 book, Grading Places, published by the Economic Policy Institute. Much of the latest Tax Foundation (TF) report reads verbatim from earlier versions.

The Tax Foundation rests on contradictory messages. First, it claims that taxes paid make a difference in business decisions or growth, selectively citing literature to back the claim, despite a preponderance of evidence that taxes matter little. Then, it produces an “index” that has little relation to what businesses actually pay. In some cases, lower taxes actually produce a worse score on the index.

Rather than measuring what businesses actually pay, TF instead focuses on selected characteristics of the tax code while ignoring significant features. Results differ wildly from a ranking based on what businesses pay in many cases. This is because of the TF emphasizes rates of tax, without considering the base to which those rates apply. This feature penalizes Iowa, which in fact is a low-tax state for business; according to Ernst & Young, only 18 states have lower overall state and local taxes on business.

In other words, if a state — like Iowa with its single-factor apportionment formula — holds down the base on which tax rates apply, the Tax Foundation ignores the impact on actual taxes paid because it doesn’t like the rate structure.

Ironically, the report penalizes states that offer tax credits, which TF views as harmful to the business climate, a defensible position because it creates an uneven playing field for competing businesses, and jeopardizes critical public services that benefit businesses and their employees. But tax credits have strong lobbies in the Legislature. When the anti-tax politicians crow about Iowa’s low ranking in this report, something tells me that is one part of it they will not mention.

Like the Tax Foundation, they will stick with anything that backs the message they want to share, rather than examine the real issue of effects on business.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director

Is what Wal-Mart wants for Amazon also good for Wal-Mart?

“Leveling the playing field” — does Wal-Mart always want it?

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

An interesting column by Liz Peek on TheFiscalTimes.com notes Wal-Mart and other retail giants are banding together behind legislation to require Amazon.com to collect and pay state sales taxes rightfully owed on purchases made online.

OK, but why does Wal-Mart take advantage of its own wide reach to shield profits from state taxation?

As the Peek column notes:

Overall, retail sales over the Internet grew nearly 15% last year in the U.S., and totaled $165.4 billion.

Industry analysts are expecting that figure to swell to more than $188 billion this year. That presents quite a dual challenge to states unable to collect sales taxes on those purchases, and to traditional stores that are losing market share. Consequently, large retailers, and thousands of others across the country, have banded together to demand the playing field be leveled. (emphasis added)

So, Wal-Mart is demanding “the playing field be leveled.” Admirable, perhaps, but ironic, to be sure.

In an April 2007 report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, “Leveling the Playing Field,” Peter Fisher illustrates how Wal-Mart has gone to great trouble in tilting the field in its favor on corporate income tax. Wal-Mart created a multilayered, multistate structure to shift at least some profits where they are taxable to states where they are not. In a nutshell, Wal-Mart found a way to charge itself rent to reduce taxable profits.

All done by the book as the book has been written. But it creates an advantage for one retail giant that its small competitors who sell shoes, tires, clothes, office supplies, groceries, etc., cannot take. And Wal-Mart’s strategy is not the only one being used by large, multistate corporations to dodge tax responsibility. Many corporations do so by exploiting loopholes, the seams in tax law that companies use to defeat legislators’ intent.

Iowa could fix this — and level the playing field — with a simple solution already adopted by five neighboring states: Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. That solution is corporate combined reporting, supported by Iowa’s last two governors, but not once debated on the floor of the Iowa House or Senate.

When the solution not only could raise money for the state and make the playing field more fair for small businesses, this debate is long overdue.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

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