A spotlight, not a floodlight, on business breaks

Iowa’s business tax credits will have grown by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

A bill in the Iowa House, HSB187, would cut a range of Iowa tax credits, eliminating refundability and capping overall spending on credits. There is significant opposition, because people like their tax breaks. But the issue is suddenly in the spotlight because these and other giveaways are responsible for Iowa’s serious revenue challenge.

There are solutions to the state’s rampant and often unaccountable spending on tax credits and other tax breaks. It is interesting that an interim committee that meets every year to examine a rotating set of tax credits has not produced any reforms. It’s not because reforms are not necessary. Rather, it’s a lack of resolve.

One of several strong recommendations in January 2010 by a Special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Gov. Culver in the wake of the film credit scandal was for a five-year sunset on all tax credits. This would require the Legislature to re-approve every tax credit.

That would be a start. Another option: Instead of eliminating refundability for all credits, which affects even credits where refundability makes sense (Earned Income Tax Credit), limit it where it does not. The Special Tax Credit Review Panel recommended eliminating refundability for big recipients of the Research Activities Credit (companies with gross receipts over $20 million). Another option would be to cap refundability for all credits at $250,000, which would not harm small players, either businesses or individuals, and would reduce the excessive checks to big businesses.

The scrutiny and demand for a return on investment on these credits would be too much for many of these special arrangements to withstand. Eliminating or capping wasteful credits would free up revenues for other priorities; some would invest more here or there — education, or public safety, or the environment — and some would simply use it to reduce overall spending. But either way, we would have the opportunity for a debate.

There is a danger in putting everything on the table at once. It presents a false equivalency of tax credits — that they are somehow all the same. It ignores the fact that some are for private gain and some for the common good, and some are a mixture. Some work, and some do not.

Some meet the purpose for which they were advertised (the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, which benefits low-income working families), and some miss the mark with tens of millions of dollars every year (the Research Activities Credit, where most of the money goes to huge, profitable corporations that pay little or no income tax instead of to small start-ups as envisioned).

Iowa’s business tax credits will have risen by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

Challenging all credits at the same time gets everyone’s backs up. That is a recipe to assure continued unwillingness to take on any of it. And that will not serve Iowa very well.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax credit reform, yes — but what kind?

Optimism for tax-credit reform must be tempered. There is a great opportunity; there also are pitfalls.

Reform of business tax credits in Iowa is long overdue, so the natural instinct is to welcome with open arms the interest of state legislators in a review of Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits.

Yet, optimism must be tempered. There is a great opportunity; there also are pitfalls.

Fooled us once

Iowa’s last look at tax-credit reform came in the wake of scandal in its film industry tax credit program. Despite a strong report with potentially game-changing recommendations from a special task force of state agency heads in 2010, not much came from the Legislature. As we noted then, legislators acted with fierce caution that no doubt sent the business lobbyists off to celebrate.

That time, the review resulted from a scandal of law and ethics. What remained, and remains today, is a scandal of fiscal ignorance and arrogance. Iowa’s spending on business tax breaks has soared in recent years, and this budget choice has been a contributing factor to the stagnant or declining commitment to public responsibilities: education, the environment, health and public safety.

Fool us twice?

Such skepticism should be understandable not only with the anti-bargaining and anti-worker legislation Iowans have seen in this session, but with comments by legislators. In one shot across the bow, Rep. Pat Grassley stressed legislators would put everything on the table, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which benefits low- and moderate-income Iowans.

Past study already has shown that, unlike Iowa’s most lucrative business tax credit, the Research Activities Credit:

•   the EITC has obvious benefits to the economy and Iowa working families.

•   the EITC benefits only people who need the help, where RAC is unlimited and in fact benefits some of the most profitable companies in the country.

•   the EITC benefits people when Iowa’s regressive tax system is otherwise stacked against them, where the RAC benefits those who already do well by Iowa’s tax code.

Already we know that the individual state and local tax system in Iowa — all effectively governed by state law — demands that people at the bottom of the income scale (actually the bottom 80 percent) on average pay 10 percent of their income in tax. At the same time, the wealthiest and most well-connected pay much less — 6 percent at the very top.

Already we know that Iowa’s total state and local taxes on business — again, all effectively governed by state law — are below the national average and by one national business consultant’s measure are among the lowest in the nation.

In a nutshell, heading into this discussion, beware the false equivalencies and more of the same business-lobby spin that has produced the unaccountable and unfair system that makes it difficult to fund critical public services.

And be sure we do not lose some important pieces now in place, including the transparency we have on the RAC with annual reports from the Department of Revenue.

We have called for reform and better oversight for years. If legislators are serious about it, this could be a good thing. If it is merely cover to further burden the poor, reduce transparency, or heap new breaks on corporations that do not pay their fair share, it could be one more step in Iowa’s low-road march to the bottom.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Oversight on the overseers of tax credits

These interim legislative meetings put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

You might have heard about a big meeting at the State Capitol today.

No, not that one, about whose portrait will hang in the Iowa House and Senate behind the presiding officer.

The meetings where there’s always some mystery are the annual reviews of selected tax credits. Only a few credits are reviewed each year by a panel of legislators. One meeting was in November; the other is today.

One tax giveaway — er, tax credit — on the agenda for today is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC.
No such review since these sessions started has produced meaningful reform, but the exercise does put information on the table and does put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

What we already know from previous evaluations and annual reports about the RAC is that it is costly — over $50 million a year — and that routinely at least two-thirds of the cost (and usually over four-fifths) goes to companies as so-called “refunds.” These are not refunds of taxes owed, but of tax credits the companies didn’t need because they owe so little, or no, corporate income tax.

Remember that when you hear the Iowa Taxpayers Association and others bleating about Iowa’s corporate taxes, which are actually low.
For perspective on the RAC, the $42 million given away in tax credit refunds under this program in 2015 would have paid for about 1 percent more in school aid, at the same time schools were told we didn’t have the money for it. Of course we did. Our legislators just chose to give it away, mainly to huge, profitable corporations.
In Room 103 of the State Capitol, 1:15 p.m., the public and legislators can hear from the Department of Revenue about the Research Activities Credit. And the session that follows at 2:15 on the Earned Income Tax Credit may be worth listening to as well, for contrast, as the EITC is a demonstrated boost to the economy while the RAC has never been demonstrated to be more than a drain on revenue.

You never know what legislators at the table will have to say about these issues, but we may get some insights.
As for that other meeting, we all now how it will come out.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen
Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Project Director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Don’t compound Iowa tax inequity

The big winners would be those with the highest incomes.

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The first report by a self-proclaimed conservative think tank in Iowa is getting some attention today, and reviving dubious ideas about taxes.

First, we applaud the recognition from Engage Iowa that our state’s various tax rates are not as high as they appear at first blush, because of federal deductibility — which permits tax filers to reduce their state taxable income for federal taxes paid. Ending federal deductibility, which Engage Iowa proposes, is something Iowa should consider. That would allow lowering the top rate to around 7 percent and eliminate the perception problem the group is so concerned about.

Unfortunately, however, this is not a well-thought-out plan to improve fairness and simplicity in Iowa taxes, or to assure adequate revenues for schools and other critical services, which are the best way to promote economic growth.

It compounds the overall regressive nature of Iowa taxes — and does nothing to help low- to moderate-income working families. In fact, for many families it would destroy the most important recent advance — the Earned Income Tax Credit. Some 147,000 recipients making over $10,000 — 70 percent of all EITC recipients — would lose the EITC.

While raising low-income Iowans’ taxes, the plan would buy down income-tax rates for higher-income Iowans with a sales tax increase. This would compound existing inequities in Iowa’s state and local tax system, which taxes the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers at about 10 percent, and the highest earners only 6 percent. The big winners would be those with the highest incomes.

The report’s claims about taxes and migration fly in the face of much published academic research showing that in fact taxes have very little influence on interstate migration. The claims that the flat tax would result in substantial economic gains to the state are highly suspect.

Finally, the group’s argument rests on discredited assumptions about Iowa’s so-called “business climate” and ignores the fact that Iowa already is very — perhaps overly — friendly to business. The plan places a great deal of weight on the Tax Foundation rankings, which have been thoroughly debunked. The author could have consulted more credible rankings of business climate, such as the Anderson Economic Group (which places Iowa 20th best, with below-average business taxes) or Ernst and Young, which has Iowa 28th, with an effective rate equal to the national average.

In short, the plan focuses mostly on a perception about Iowa taxes, a perception that is inaccurate but is cultivated by anti-tax forces, rather than ways to improve the stability and sustainability of funding for the critical public services on which all Iowans depend.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project

 

First Iowa Tax Day with expanded EITC

It’s Tax Day in Iowa, and many thousands of families are benefiting from the newly expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit.

Almost unnoticed as Iowans file their state income taxes today is that many thousands of families are benefiting from a newly expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Iowa legislators last year passed and Governor Branstad signed an expansion of the working family credit, doubling it from 7 percent of the federal EITC to 14 percent for 2013, and bumping it to 15 percent for this year. The increase was barely mentioned by the Governor when he signed it as part of a larger package of tax changes. Yet, as we noted recently — the boost is “arguably the most important legislation he signed last year.”

arguably the most important legislation he signed last year: doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. – See more at: http://www.iowafiscal.org/ifp-news-statement-on-governors-address/#sthash.NzN7o0IR.dpuf

New data from 2012, compiled by the Brookings Institution, sort out by legislative district the number and percentage of tax filers who benefit from the federal EITC, on which the state credit is based. We have put that information into a new Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder; the two-pager is available here. In the map below, the golder and greener the district, the greater its constituents use the EITC. In the green areas, over 20 percent of filers use the EITC.

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Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit is an important tool in making work pay for low-income households. We have shown how a further expansion could better fill the gap between low-wage income and a basic-needs household budget, as well as improve Iowa’s tax treatment of low-wage families.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

 

EITC boost would help families who need it — and economy

An EITC increase would raise the threshold at which Iowa families start to owe income taxes — putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most and encouraging them to spend that money in their local communities.

Heather Gibney, Research Associate
Heather Gibney

If you imagine a packed Kinnick Stadium on game day you have an idea of how many Iowans were kept out of poverty from 2009 to 2011 thanks to two refundable tax credits.

A new state-by-state analysis from the Brookings Institution finds that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 71,123 Iowans out of poverty, over half of them children.

The Governor’s Condition of the State speech Tuesday missed an opportunity to discuss the value of Iowa’s own Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to Iowa families and prospects for an expansion — something he has twice vetoed on grounds that he wanted more comprehensive tax reforms.

The Brookings analysis uses a new way of looking at poverty: the Supplemental Poverty Measure, an updated approach to the calculation of whether an Americans household is in poverty. So it’s a valuable look that we haven’t seen for state-level figures.

The EITC is designed to encourage work when low-income jobs don’t provide enough for a family to make ends meet. So, as a family earns more income, they become eligible for a larger credit; as their income approaches self-sufficiency the EITC gradually phases out.[1]

At the state level, Iowa families who are eligible for the federal EITC also qualify for the state EITC, which is set at 7 percent of the federal credit. Proposals in the past would take that higher, to 10 percent or even 20 percent. It can be an important break for lower-income working families because Iowa already taxes the income of many who don’t earn enough to pay federal income tax. Currently, a married couple with two incomes and two children who qualifies for the federal EITC doesn’t have to start paying federal income taxes until their incomes reach $45,400. That same family would have to pay Iowa income taxes when their incomes reached $22,600.[2]

The EITC is the the nation’s largest and most successful anti-poverty program, largely because it encourages and rewards working families. With Iowa’s 85th General Assembly under way, discussions about raising Iowa’s EITC above 7 percent may once again emerge after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last year.

An EITC increase would raise the threshold at which Iowa families start to owe income taxes — putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most and encouraging them to spend that money in their local communities.

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate

House vote: Thumbs up or thumbs down for 86,000 Iowa families?

Simply put, the House bill would undo the good work of 2009; the Senate bill would keep it, on behalf of working families and the economy.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Iowans would stand to lose much under a proposal this week in the U.S. House of Representatives. Citizens for Tax Justice offered a striking analysis last week highlighting the impact of the 2009 improvements in the refundable tax credits for low-income working families in Iowa.

Simply put, the House proposal would undo the good work of 2009 and increase tax inequities, while a Senate-passed bill would keep the good stuff.

One of the 2009 improvements is an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), an issue we have covered extensively at IPP and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Any attempts to weaken the EITC at either the state or federal level will harm low- to moderate-income working families in our state. More than 1 out of every 7 federal tax filers in Iowa claims the EITC (about 15 percent). But under H.R. 8, the tax proposal being offered by the House leadership, the EITC improvements from 2009 would be lost.

H.R. 8 also would fail to extend the improvements made in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in 2009, and in the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education expenses.

It is impossible to find balance in the approach of H.R. 8, which would end these provisions above for 13 million working families with 26 million children, while extending tax cuts for 2.7 million high-income earners.

The state numbers from CTJ (full report available here):

  • 86,321 Iowa families with 190,553 kids would lose $62.5 million ($724 per family), if 2009 rules on EITC and the Per-Child Tax Credit are not extended;
  • 17,503 Iowa families with 28,179 kids would lose $32 million if the Per-Child Tax Credit earnings threshold does not remain at $3,000, compared to $13,300 as proposed by H.R. 8.
  • 59,159 Iowa families with 139,806 kids would lose $30.5 million if the two 2009 expansions of the EITC — larger credit for families with three or more children, and reducing the so-called “marriage penalty” — are not extended in 2013.

These “Making Work Pay” provisions of the tax code are almost exclusively of help to working families earning $50,000 or less at a time of stagnant wages and a difficult job market in which the Iowa economy is shifting toward lower-wage jobs.

To address our nation’s serious deficit and debt issues, a balanced approach should do nothing to increase poverty or income inequality. The Senate bill passed last week would keep the EITC and CTC improvements from 2009, and follows that principle. The bill that has emerged in the House does not.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director