Restoring equity in tax policy — Plug tax loopholes

Iowa is out of step with the majority of states by refusing to close corporate tax loopholes. Equity demands better.

Through the years in Iowa, very few lawmakers have had the courage to take on an utter abomination in our corporate tax system: tax loopholes.

It is one thing to expressly pass a tax preference — a credit, exemption or deduction — with a specific purpose, clearly defined for all taxpayers to see and reviewed for its effectiveness. (Iowa does not provide such accountability with many such preferences, but that is for another post.)

It is quite another thing, however, to see weaknesses in your tax code exposed and exploited by large companies, and to leave those holes open for routine abuse. Welcome to Iowa.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities discusses this issue as part of overarching tax policy that states can use to advance racial equity and sustain services responsibly. From the report:

States can nullify a variety of tax avoidance strategies employed by large multistate corporations by adopting a reform known as “combined reporting,” which treats a parent company and its subsidiaries as one entity for state income tax purposes, thereby minimizing companies’ ability to shift income earned in a state to other states that are tax havens (like Delaware and Nevada).

The figure below shows Iowa is out of step with the majority of states on this issue. All but one of our neighboring states has a corporate income tax, and all but one of those states has combined reporting to stop companies from avoiding taxes that were originally intended by the tax code to be collected.

The Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Fiscal Partnership have been encouraging Iowans to look at this issue for many years. We made it part of our 2018 Tax Policy Kit — explaining here how Iowa could save itself tens of millions of dollars that are squandered to companies that effectively set their own tax policy. The Iowa Taxpayers Association consistently defends this break that not only burdens our state, but tilts the playing field to big, multistate corporations and against Iowa-based, Iowa-focused businesses.

Two governors, Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver, at times proposed adoption of combined reporting, but the issue — while getting some attention at the committee level — has not reached a floor vote in the House or Senate.

Iowa’s tax code needs to be fair to all residents. It needs to generate revenue to sustain services that are important to all residents, from education to water quality to law enforcement to health care. To allow corporations to set their own rules by exploiting weaknesses in the tax code defies these oft-stated Iowa values of fairness and accountability.

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

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax reality: No pumpkin spice added

It’s so easy to overdo it — with pumpkin spice or with tax-cut rhetoric. Keep it simple. The tax cuts are for the wealthy, and come at great cost of services while making the tax system less fair.

You find it everywhere these days: pumpkin spice this, pumpkin spice that … tax cuts this, tax cuts that. It’s so easy to overdo it — with pumpkin spice or with tax-cut rhetoric.

Keep it simple. The tax cuts are for the wealthy, and come at great cost of services while making the tax system less fair.

Just ask the Iowa Department of Revenue, which produced the following analysis in May, just before state legislators rammed their backroom tax package for the rich through both houses of the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk. Yes, she signed it.

And here are the numbers behind those sections of the pumpkin above:

Put another way, almost 40 percent of resident taxpayers will get about 3 percent of the benefit of the tax cut in tax year 2021; over four-fifths of taxpayers will together see only about 26 percent of the benefit. On the other hand, the top 2.5 percent — families making over $250,000 — will receive 46 percent of the benefit.

This was a tax cut for the richest Iowans, who did not need a cut, and the bill overall will cost almost a half billion dollars in 2021.[1]

These effects have been apparent for months,[2] despite claims that are obvious distortions, according to the Department of Revenue analysis.

That analysis shows the average tax change in tax year 2021 for people making between $50,000 and $60,000 — this covers the latest median-income level of $58,570 — would be a $156 cut, or less than $3 a week. Don’t spend it all in one place. Meanwhile, the cut for millionaires would, on average, be $24,636.

By the way, the “fact checkers” who let loose-speaking pols off the hook for their exaggerations about tax cuts are often missing a critical point: Many Iowans, including some middle- and moderate-income working families, actually will see tax increases, or no change at all, if the new law is not changed.

Of course, most won’t see these effects right away, despite the promises. How convenient.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org.

 

[1] Iowa Department of Revenue analysis for Legislative Services Agency, May 2, 2018

[2] Charles Bruner and Peter Fisher, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, “Tax plan facts vs. spin,” May 5, 2018, http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-plan-facts-vs-spin/

See also: “A Roadmap for Opportunity: What real tax reform would look like,” Iowa Policy Project, http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180906-roadmap-taxes.pdf

Food for the fact-checkers

We’ll throw a penalty flag when we see bad information being spread about issues we cover. Case in point: the Governor’s spin about taxes.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we are nonpartisan and we do not support or endorse candidates for office. Rather, we hope those who do, and the candidates and parties themselves, will conduct their discussions on a foundation of fact.

When they do not, we just might throw a penalty flag. Our work is public policy research and analysis, to help people see what is fact and what is not, and to introduce context where it is missing. This is not always easy with complex issues, and there are gray areas. Where bad information is being spread, that interferes with the mission of our work, so we will do what we can to keep that record straight.

Very early in Wednesday’s debate between Governor Kim Reynolds and businessman Fred Hubbell, the Governor made at least two clearly unsupportable claims about taxes. These are issues we cover constantly.

First, the 2018 tax overhaul not only was costly, but overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply unsupportable, using data provided by the Iowa Department of Revenue in May before the bill passed. Those supporting the bill knew this would be the impact, and those writing it drew it that way.

According to the department, the legislation will mean either no change, or an actual tax increase, to nearly a quarter of resident taxpayers — 23.3 percent — in tax year 2019. For those who receive cuts, the average cut for millionaires was projected to be $20,021; for someone between $60,000 and $70,000 adjusted gross income, the cut was projected to be a tiny sliver of the benefit compared to millionaires — $232.

This flatly negates the Governor’s comment that, “In 2019, virtually every single Iowan will see their taxes go down.” This is clearly inaccurate. Further, as the law is phased in, the continuing impact will be that some will lose, some will not. Unquestionably it will affect public services as hundreds of millions in revenues are cut — which means Iowans who depend upon those services, and that is most Iowans, will lose even more.

Second, the Governor in pushing for new corporate tax cuts chose to play to the myths about business taxes promoted by the business lobby to drive down Iowa’s already low business taxes.

Business consultants have exposed the hollow core of this claim, most recently the Anderson Economic Group, which in June ranked Iowa 15th lowest in state and local business taxes (all of which are governed by state policy). Iowa business taxes consistently have been shown to be competitive.

For more information about both the tax legislation and Iowa taxes on business see these resources:

What real Iowa tax reform would look like, Iowa Policy Project “Roadmap for Opportunity” series, August 2018.

Iowa tax overhaul: Sorting facts, key points from spin, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, May 2018

Myth-Buster: Competitiveness no problem for Iowa taxes, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, March 2018
The problem with tax-cutting as economic policy, Peter Fisher, Iowa Policy Project, GradingStates.org
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A Roadmap for Opportunity: It’s Time to Put Iowa on the Right Path

At this critical juncture, Iowa can take the high road to shared prosperity, or go down a dead end.

181009-roadmap-logoIowa can unlock the potential of each individual and allow all workers to share in the fruits of their labor by making public investments in the foundations of a strong economy. Well-resourced schools, access to higher education, decent wages and protections, economic supports, clean water and renewable energy, and a cleaned-up tax system, all can pave the way to opportunities and broadly shared prosperity that Iowans want.

Unfortunately, policy choices have put us on a road that prioritizes corporate profits over worker wages and corporate tax cuts over the public investments that allow for a strong, sustainable economy. We are at a crossroads and our policy choices today and in the near future can either pave the path to economic opportunity in every corner of our state, or create roadblocks to prosperity for everyday Iowans.

Our people-first roadmap offers the way forward. It lays out the evidence-based, responsible solutions to our state’s most pressing issues, pinpointing several stops along the way that would mark progress for our state, such as:

pinCreating the workforce of our future and ensuring our children reach their potential. Iowa can and should ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need for every child to succeed, no matter where they live. We also must restore our commitment to higher education with more state support, lower tuition, and aid to reduce student debt.

pinBoosting economic security and supports for working Iowans. Giving Iowans’ lowest wage workers a long overdue raise, ensuring workers get paid what they’re legally owed, shoring up our system of compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, and restoring worker rights to collective bargaining can ensure that all Iowa workers are getting a fair deal. Iowans also need a boost in child care assistance, which can make or break the ability of a family to work.

pinRestoring a public commitment to the health and well-being of every Iowan, particularly seniors and people living with disabilities. Reversing the privatization of Medicaid and pursuing cost savings through innovation and efficiency rather than reduced services and worker wages are critical steps to ensuring access to health care for all Iowans — now and in the future.

pinEnsuring clean water and renewable energy for a healthy, sustainable Iowa. We can and must balance the state’s need for clean and abundant water with our agricultural economy by reducing water pollution. Likewise, Iowa should restore its legacy of leadership in renewable and efficient energy in order to create a cleaner, greener state for future generations.

pinCleaning up and restoring balance to the tax code. Right now, Iowa asks the lowest income Iowans to pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than those with the highest incomes. We can fix this by cleaning up corporate tax loopholes that squander precious public dollars that could otherwise be invested in shared opportunity for Iowans.

Iowa is at a critical juncture. We can take the high road that leads to progress and shared prosperity, or go down a dead end. The policies in this roadmap provide a clear route to a stronger Iowa. For more detail on each stop on the roadmap, please click here.

Too far for a tax-cutter

Home to roost: An advocate for lower taxes in the state Senate, Larry McKibben as a Regent sees an “attack” on higher education funding that will drive tuition increases.

Editor’s Note: This piece ran in the Wednesday, June 13, 2018, Cedar Rapids Gazette as a guest opinion from IPP’s David Osterberg.

The attack on higher education funding by the governor and legislative leadership has gone too far for at least one longtime tax-cutter.

Former state Sen. Larry McKibben, a member of the Iowa Board of Regents, expressed his concern about state support of universities. The regents voted Thursday to raise university tuition rates at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa universities, following $40 million in state funding cuts.

McKibben was forthright in blaming the legislative session for an increase in tuition at the three state universities and the loss of professors to better positions after years of low salary increases. From The Gazette’s story on the regents’ meeting:

“We have lost great folks, and now we are going to have to raise tuition,” McKibben said, noting that will persist “as long as we continue what I believe is, in my time on the board, the worst state government attack on our three public universities that I can ever remember.”

In fairness, the groundwork has been laid for this latest attack over many years. An Iowa Fiscal Partnership report in 2012 showed how spending on the UI, ISU and UNI dropped from fiscal year 2000 through fiscal year 2012.

An Iowa Policy Project analysis by Brandon Borkovec showed that adjusting for inflation, state funding for Iowa public universities has declined since fiscal year 2001 by 40 percent at UI, 42 percent at ISU, and 28 percent at UNI.

As a percentage of university budgets, the state share dropped by almost half from fiscal years 2001 to 2016.

Some of this happened on McKibben’s watch as one of the Legislature’s most powerful lawmakers on tax policy — one who often looked for ways to cut taxes, as he did in 2003 with a proposed flat tax that would have cost more than $500 million.

He did not intervene to rein in the Research Activities Credit, which sends more than $40 million a year to profitable corporations that pay no income taxes to the state.

He turned the other way as corporations raided Iowa’s treasury through tax loopholes at a cost of $60 million to $100 million a year.

As Regent McKibben, his new concern is understandable and his advocacy for college students laudable. He wants Iowa voters to pay attention and ask what candidates will do about severe underfunding that he says will assure more tuition increases. From the story in The Gazette: “I look forward to hearing the candidates say that,” McKibben said. “What are you going to do about higher education and our three great universities?” And what are you going to do to bring them back to level?”

These same trends were happening when McKibben was a legislator. Now, it seems, the governor and state legislative leaders have gone too far, even for him.

David Osterberg is founder and former executive director of Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Comments: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

15 yards, loss of revenue

Governor Reynolds’ remarks about her tax cuts for the wealthy fail any test of accuracy.

It’s time to throw the penalty flag on Governor Kim Reynolds. Her remarks about the tax cuts she signed into law Wednesday for the wealthy fail any test of accuracy. Iowans need to know the facts.

It would be different if she had acknowledged, and made a case for:

•  massive tax cuts for the wealthiest.
•  cutting revenues, assuring continued suppression of education and opportunity, public health and safety and investments in the future of Iowa.
•  continued massive corporate tax giveaways, as business tax credits have doubled in five years.

But those were not her messages — and those messages will not be repeated here. The Governor is (1) deceiving Iowans about some policies she has adopted, and (2) ignoring likely damage to the economy from these tax cuts.

She even put off some forward strides she had suggested but abandoned during the recent legislative session. The concept of “reform” is gone, as the bill does nothing to simplify taxes for at least four years, and leaves in place a system that already was heavily skewed to benefit the wealthy.

Here are a few critical realities:

  The income tax savings to a middle class family next year are only $3 to $4 a week (according to the Department of Revenue) — while the sales tax increase will offset such savings for many.
  Millionaires, on the other hand, will see on average an $18,773 cut for the year.
  Larger tax cuts scheduled to take place in five years might not happen because they are triggered by a revenue target that will be very difficult to meet. (But count on tax-cut proponents to campaign on them.)
  Instead of adjusting taxes in a way that cuts would be paid for, this legislation will actually take $300 to $400 million a year out of the budget. Those dollars could have gone to adequately fund education or public safety or mental health care.
  The bill makes $40 million in corporate income tax cuts.
•  The bill provides an unneeded tax break for wealthy earners of “pass-through” income from business.

Meanwhile, the bill fails to reform business tax credits, which have doubled in five years, to $400 million. And it also fails to raise the standard deduction or eliminate federal deductibility, both of which the Governor had proposed but compromised away.

As reviews and promotions of the tax bill proceed, keep these points in mind. And watch for more information, because the analysis will continue on a bill developed in secret, for signing at an invitation-only ceremony.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax bill: Know five points

The new tax plan abandons real tax reform for costly changes slanted heavily to the rich. It is more likely to hurt the Iowa economy than to help it.

Here are five things you need to know about the final version of the tax bill now scheduled for a vote in the Iowa Legislature this Saturday: (1) It is not income tax reform, (2) It is not a middle-class tax cut, (3) It is more skewed to the richest Iowans than previous bills, (4) It is very expensive and will force cuts in education, public safety and other services, and (5) It is more likely to hurt the Iowa economy than to help it.

As we have pointed out previously, real income tax reform would rein in expensive business tax credits that have little effectiveness, eliminate federal deductibility, increase recognition of the costs of raising a family, and raise the Iowa standard deduction — which would both simplify taxes for thousands of Iowans, and target tax cuts at lower and middle-income taxpayers. The tax bill does none of these things for the next four years.

Earlier versions of the House bill would have increased the standard deduction and eliminated federal deductibility, but those provisions were jettisoned in favor of $40 million in corporate tax cuts and more tax preferences for high-income business owners. The bill does little to reform business tax credits, which have doubled in five years. It adds a new and expensive loophole — a deduction for pass-through income from certain businesses.

For the next four tax years the bulk of the tax savings go to the most well off. In 2021, almost half of the tax cuts will go to the richest 2.5 percent of Iowa taxpayers, those making $250,000 or more. Their taxes are reduced by 18 percent, over twice the cut for those in the middle. For those making over a million dollars, the tax cut will average $24,636.

Meanwhile, those in the middle will see income tax cuts of $100 to $300 over the next four years, much of which will be taken back in increased sales taxes of $35 to $60.

All of this comes at a high cost to the state — over $400 million a year by 2021. With over half the budget going to education, this means the underfunding of our public schools and the rising tuition and debt for our community college and university students will continue.

The bill’s only “trigger” does nothing to guarantee fiscal sustainability, its purported purpose. The $400 million hit to the general fund will happen no matter how slow the Iowa economy, and state revenues, grow. We could hit a recession in the next two years, and those tax cuts will remain in place.

The only trigger governs an additional round of tax cuts for 2023. If the revenue target is met (and it would require growth rates of over 5 percent per year) then the annual cost of the bill jumps to $643 million. Only then would federal deductibility end, and the higher federal standard deduction come into play.

If the bill’s backers are counting on growth to come to the rescue, they are willfully ignoring all evidence to the contrary. The last major income tax cuts in Iowa, in 1997-98, not only failed to stimulate growth, but likely contributed to the subsequent slowing of the state’s economy. The tax cuts in Kansas led to slower growth.

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