‘Nothing to see here, folks,’ 2017 edition

What really drives state growth is the rate of new business formation. And what matters most for entrepreneurial vibrancy is the education level of the state’s residents.

slide_taxfoundation-cropBasic flaws remain in Tax Foundation business index

The Tax Foundation released the 14th edition of its State Business Tax Climate Index (SBTCI) today (Sept. 28). The basic flaws that have rendered it of little use as a guide to state economic policy remain. While a few methodological tweaks have been made, it is still a hodge-podge of over 100 different features of state tax law, mashed together into an index number. The components are weighted illogically, and the result is a ranking that bears little or no relation to the taxes businesses actually pay in one state versus another.

The Tax Foundation acknowledges that they are not measuring actual tax levels on business, but rather the states’ tax structure. But they provide no evidence that tax structure influences business decisions. If you were a business, what would you care more about: the bottom line amount you will pay, or whether there were three tax brackets or five tax brackets involved in the calculation that got you there? The Tax Foundation would have you count brackets, and ignore the dollars.

The SBTCI has separate components for the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, property taxes, etc. So let’s consider the corporate tax component. Even as a measure of “structure” somehow, it falls short because it leaves out two major determinants of corporate income tax liabilities — federal deductibility and the apportionment rule — while including numerous minor features. As a result, the corporate tax index is a meaningless number.

Furthermore, the corporate income tax is much less important than the property tax, for most businesses. According to the Council on State Taxation, the property tax accounted for 43 percent of all business taxes, the corporate income tax just 11 percent, in 2014. Yet in coming up with the overall state rankings, the latest Tax Foundation index weights the property tax 14.9 percent, the corporate income tax 19.7 percent. That makes states with high property taxes and low corporate income taxes look much better on the index than they really are, and penalizes the states with a robust corporate income tax, a high state share of education funding, and low property taxes.

To make matters worse, the index weights change every year. This makes it impossible to know if a change in a state’s rank from one year to the next is due to a change in tax law, or just a change in the weights.

More importantly, the whole focus on business tax competitiveness is misplaced. State and local taxes are a very small share of overall business costs. What really drives state growth is the rate of new business formation. And what matters most for entrepreneurial vibrancy is the education level of the state’s residents.

2010-PFw5464Editor’s Note: Peter Fisher, research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP), wrote this blog for GradingStates.org, IPP’s separate website devoted to promoting a better understanding of various state business climate rankings. For a look at components of state policies that can promote prosperity, see this page on the GradingStates.org site.

Sensible context on school aid growth

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

There are many ways to measure Iowa’s lagging commitment to public schools. One is a comparison of growth in school aid to growth in state revenues.

As K-12 schools are a significant share of the state budget, it seems sensible that we would expect at least similar numbers of growth in one vs. the other.

Basic RGBThat is not the case.

While not a perfect comparison — there are moving parts with both figures — you can get an idea of the general trend in the accompanying graph. Net General Fund revenues have been coming in with average yearly increases around 4 percent,* while the key school-aid number, for Supplemental State Aid, has averaged about half that.**

The numbers below are taken from the latest Revenue Estimating Conference report, available here: https://dom.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016/03/rec-projections-2016-03-16.pdf

  • The actual ending balance for FY2015 (the budget year ending last June 1) showed a net over-the-year revenue change from FY2014 of 5.1 percent. For that same period, schools had 4 percent Supplemental State Aid — the only year that high since FY2010.
  • For the current year, the most recent official revenue estimate is for a 3.3 percent state revenue increase, while schools are operating on budgets reflecting 1.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2017, the estimate is for a 4.4 percent state revenue increase, and the deal just hatched at the Statehouse — 13 months late — is for schools to see 2.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2018, for budgets to be approved a year from now, the state is expecting 4.1 percent revenue growth. The school aid number for FY2018 by law was to have been set a month ago so school districts could properly plan their budgets when enrollment counts are set this fall, and to negotiate staff contracts without big uncertainties. That number has not been set and apparently will not be during this legislative session, as neither the House nor the Governor is interested.

Understand, the revenue growth number is held artificially low by the growing and incessant demand for business tax breaks that undermine revenues. So the net revenue number would be much higher if legislators wanted it. Instead, they continue to give away hundreds of millions of dollars before they even reach the state treasury.

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

Alas, that is not the political world in which we live.

*The average growth for general fund revenues includes both actual results for FY11 through FY15, as well as projections by the Revenue Estimating Conference for FY16 and FY17.
**Supplemental State Aid — which is a percentage for per-pupil cost growth that districts must use in building an enrollment-based budget — includes the recent deal approved by the Senate and House and expected to be signed by Governor Branstad.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
Mike Owen is a former journalist in Iowa and Pennsylvania. He covered state government for the Quad-City Times from 1980-85 and was editor and co-publisher of the West Branch Times from 1993-2001. He is serving his third term on the West Branch Board of Education, and is a member of the Professional Advisory Board of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communications.