Tax cuts: Already tried, failed

Iowa’s coming tax-cut experiment has been tried before and failed. Research showed the tax cuts appear to have slowed growth, taking money out of the economy.

Former Iowa Department of Revenue official Michael Lipsman discusses tax issues at a public forum last week at the State Capitol as former Senator Charles Bruner, left, and Senators Joe Bolkcom, Janet Petersen and Amanda Ragan listen. The institutional memory of experts such as Lipsman has been lost as legislators have rushed into plans to overhaul Iowa’s tax system, with most discussions taking place outside public view and earshot.

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Twenty-one years ago the Iowa Legislature enacted an across-the-board 10 percent cut in state income tax rates. That tax cut not only failed to spur economic growth, but bears a share of the blame for the under-performance of the Iowa economy in the years following. And it led to recurring revenue shortfalls and budget cuts.

Some in the Iowa Senate aim to repeat the experiment, this time with an 8 percent cut. There is no reason to expect a different result.

A 2004 report by Michael Lipsman, then head of the Tax Research and Program Analysis Section of the Iowa Department of Revenue, explains why the tax cuts of 1997 and 1998 had a negative effect on the economy.[1] That legislation cut all income tax rates by 10 percent, expanded the exemption for capital gains income, increased the pension exclusion, and exempted lineal ascendants and descendants from the state inheritance tax.[2]

The tax cuts were expected to reduce state revenue by $318 million in 2019. But Lipsman estimates that the effect of all these tax provisions was a reduction in revenue exceeding $600 million a year by 2002. Why the larger number? Because not only did the state take a smaller share of Iowans’ income in taxes, but income grew more slowly than it would have without the tax cuts.

This runs counter to the ideology of supply-side economics, which predicts that tax cuts will always spur growth. But Lipsman’s point is that it depends on the nature of those cuts — how much goes to non-residents, how much to high-income residents, where savings are likely to be invested, and where goods are produced.

The Iowa tax rate cuts, the pension exclusion, and the capital gains preference all concentrated their benefits on higher income taxpayers, and over a third of the inheritance tax benefit went to non-residents. The 3 percent of Iowa taxpayers with over $100,000 income got 24 percent of the benefit from the rate cuts, and these are the taxpayers most likely to invest their tax cut rather than spend it locally. It is likely that much of the tax savings was invested outside the state. Furthermore, most of the high-value consumer goods purchased by upper-income Iowans are produced outside the state.

At the same time, the tax cuts reduced state and local revenue, and public-sector employment dropped as a result. State and local government payrolls in Iowa decreased 16 percent from 1997 to 2002, over twice the rate of decline for the country as a whole. And state and local governments spend primarily within the state of Iowa, helping to boost the state economy. Cuts in public sector spending hurt the state economy directly (reduced purchases from local suppliers) and indirectly (reduced local purchases by public sector workers).

The upshot is that the tax cuts appear to have slowed growth, taking money out of the economy that ultimately ended up invested elsewhere, or went directly to non-residents, or was spent on goods produced elsewhere, instead of supporting Iowa businesses. In the five years leading up to the tax cuts, the Iowa economy grew at a rate nearly identical to the national economy: 28 percent. In the five years following the cuts, Iowa’s growth fell to 22 percent, compared to the national rate of 27 percent.

The massive tax cutting experiment in Kansas produced similar results — the Kansas economy slowed rather than accelerated. The experiment was a failure, and was ended by the Legislature.

The latest House tax bill would shower three-fifths of its benefits on taxpayers with income over $100,000, much more skewed to the top than the 1997 legislation. The Senate bill is likely to be skewed as well; it includes a pass-through income loophole that would cost $100 million, four-fifths of that going to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers.

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is not the definition of rational policy making.

[1] Michael A. Lipsman. The Economic Effects of 1997 and 1998 Iowa Tax Law Changes. Tax Research and Program Analysis Section, Iowa Department of Revenue, July 2004.

[2] These are the major provisions, accounting for 90 percent of the cost. The bills also increased the personal credits and the tuition and textbook credit.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

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