Today’s virtual House graphic: Iowa’s growing spending on tax credits

Growth in tax-credit spending by the state of Iowa has erupted over the last decade.

Editor’s Note: The Iowa House of Representatives voted Monday to deny the ability of lawmakers to use visual aids in debate on the floor. To help Iowans visualize what kinds of graphics might be useful in these debates to illustrate facts, we will offer examples. Here is today’s graphic, to illustrate state trends in spending on business tax credits.

170207-taxcredits-2007-21As the Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Fiscal Partnership have pointed out before, Iowa’s perceived budget shortfalls are largely self-inflicted. Iowa Department of Revenue reports provide a lot of data about tax credits, particularly in reports that are prepared for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines what revenue lawmakers have available to spend. These reports show the cost of those credits, which are also known as “tax expenditures,” because they effectively spend money through the tax code — revenues that otherwise would be available for fund schools and other public services.

Growth in tax-credit spending has erupted in Iowa over the last decade, tripling from $75 million in FY2007 to $237 million last year. They are projected by the Department of Revenue to reach $279 million in the current fiscal year, and to nearly $300 million in just four years.

For more information about Iowa spending on tax credits, see this page on the Iowa Fiscal Partnership website.

A taste of transparency

The costs just keep rising for the Research Activities Credit and many other business tax credits, with virtually no accountability.

This week we will get a taste of what transparency could look like for the hundreds of millions of dollars that Iowa spends through the tax code.

We’ll only get a taste, to be sure, as what we’ll see won’t be enough. But, thanks to a law that passed against difficult and powerful lobbying interests in 2009, we do get that taste — a glimpse into who benefits from Iowa’s largest and most generous business tax credit.

It’s the Research Activities Credit (RAC), a costly little gem that has provided big companies some big checks from the state — in some cases even when they pay nothing in income tax. The Iowa Department of Revenue projects the cost of this credit to grow by more than half in the next five years, from $52.4 million to $80.3 million.[1]

projected growth of RACCould this be a shrewd investment for the state? Not likely, or at least that must be the presumption, as the beneficiaries have neither shown nor had to show the state’s real taxpayers what they get in return for the giveaway. Click here for a look at the recent history on this credit.

Projected RAC costs tableThe economic development gurus defend the RAC with little more than a “trust us” argument, which of course is not a strong enough argument for public schools, or state universities, or community colleges, or cities with law enforcement and infrastructure challenges, or counties with mental health services and emergency response challenges.

And the costs just keep rising for the RAC and many other business tax credits, with virtually no public accountability. What little that is available will come in the Department of Revenue report that is due yet this week. It will show the total amount of claims, the total amount paid as checks to companies that do not pay state income tax, and will identify companies with over half-a-million dollars in claims. Stay tuned.

[1] Iowa Department of Revenue, Tax Credits Contingent Liabilities Report, December 2013, http://www.iowa.gov/tax/taxlaw/1213RECReport.pdf

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Watch tax spending more closely

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Iowa is behind — not that we didn’t already know that.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines several aspects of what states do in budget planning. Particularly noteworthy in the report for Iowa is its poor attention to the impact of tax expenditures — spending through the tax code. When we have a tax break on the books, such as a credit or exemption, it has an impact on the budget bottom line the same as if the lost revenues were spent on the other side of the ledger.

Most of this spending, as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has shown over the years, is on autopilot. These breaks exist year to year, never requiring renewal — unlike the kind of spending we do through direct appropriations, where critical services are subjected to annual scrutiny to exist or not for another year.

Here’s why it matters, according to the executive summary of the CBPP report:

When recessions occur, states must scrutinize all forms of spending.  An important tool for this is oversight of various tax expenditures (tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that reduce state revenue), which in many ways function as spending through the tax code. This will enable states to make sound choices between the most essential tax expenditures and those the state can forgo. For example, states can regularly publish tax expenditure reports that list each tax break and its cost. And states can enact sunset provisions so that tax breaks expire in a specified number of years unless policymakers choose to extend them.

The problem in Iowa is not a lack of analysis or data. The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) has produced solid tax expenditure studies in 2000, 2005 and 2010. They are found here on the DOR website. And there is considerable information outside those formal studies that illustrate overall costs — primarily a so-called “tax credit contingent liabilities report” offered three-to-four times a year by DOR for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference. Furthermore, a number of important tax expenditures have been the subject of in-depth reports to the legislative committee charged with reviewing tax credits.

So in what way is Iowa behind the curve? The CBPP report lists 10 ways states can better budget for the future, including one on the tax-expenditure oversight issue:

Oversight of tax expenditures:  expiration dates for tax expenditures after a set number of years to subject them to regular scrutiny of their cost and effectiveness, in addition to tax expenditure reports that list the costs of individual tax breaks.

Such expiration dates are called “sunsets.” A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Culver in the wake of the 2009 film-credit scandal produced a set of strong recommendations for reform, among them a five-year sunset on all credits. This proposal was ignored.

Furthermore, a review of tax credits on a five-year rotation set up by lawmakers in response to that panel’s recommendations has produced no apparent policy change; this perhaps is not surprising since the committee that reviews the credits has not issued findings that the credits are meeting the intent of policy, or producing a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director