Tax Day spin: Find refuge in the facts

It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today is, as we all know, “Tax Day,” the deadline for filing our federal individual income tax returns. It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar. You can’t even find refuge on the comics pages.

While the Tea Party folks and others have their spotlight today, take a few minutes to read this masterful year-old blog post from our friends at the Oklahoma Policy Institute: http://okpolicy.org/blog/taxes/classic-reruns-no-tax-day/

Beyond that perspective on the value of taxes in funding essential public services, other useful information also is worth considering today about who pays taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice, in a report this week about tax changes resulting from the recovery, or “stimulus,” legislation signed by President Obama last year, notes the following:

  • 99 percent of working families and individuals in Iowa benefited from at least one of the tax cuts signed into law by President Obama.
  • Working people in Iowa received $1,115, on average, from these breaks.
  • These tax breaks benefited working people at all income levels.

For the full report (3-page PDF) click here and for the Iowa-specific summary (4-page PDF) click here.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post (whose blog links to Jon Stewart’s take of the situation on “The Daily Show”) illustrate that lower-income Americans pay taxes, even if others might not want to acknowledge it.

As Stewart suggests, actually getting the facts about who pays taxes — which also include federal payroll taxes and state and local taxes — might not fit the outrage being pushed at a given moment: “Knowing that doesn’t make you as mad, does it?”

Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports have shown state and local tax impacts are far greater as a proportion of income for low-income Iowans than for higher-income Iowans, while corporate-income-tax loopholes and other tax breaks are draining the state treasury with little accountability, and critical services are being cut.

All food for thought on this day.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Missing an opportunity for tax-credit reform?

Nothing is objectionable about proposed tax-credit reforms — but much more needs to be done.

Christine Ralston
Christine Ralston

Iowa is missing an opportunity to implement strong transparency measures and to recapture revenue that it has been allowing to slip away for years.

Legislation passed by the Senate and now before the House appears to make only small, cosmetic changes to a serious structural problem. Generous tax credits have been leaking revenue out of the state for many years. Considering the recent scandal in the film tax credit program and the fact that Iowa, like most other states, faces revenue shortfalls of historic proportions, the state very much needs meaningful reform.

The Governor’s Tax Credit Review Panel made promising recommendations, and the Governor supported those recommendations when he issued a call for action in his Condition of the State address. Yet, the legislative package falls far short of the panel’s recommendations. For example:

Table comparing tax-credit reform proposals

It is important to note that lowering a cap is not the same thing as “saving” money. When the sum of all business credit claims is not reaching that cap, then the state is only reducing its potential liability and not saving any actual dollars.

The proposal is also lacking in essential new transparency measures. No additional disclosures regarding tax credits and expenditures are proposed in the plan. Iowans should know who is getting their tax dollars.

And this bill is certainly not good news for the thousands of Iowans who are seeing important safety net programs and jobs disappear during this recession.

Does this bill do something? Yes. Does it do much? No. Nothing in this bill is objectionable when considering the principles of sound tax policy. That said, much more needs to be done to move Iowa forward and to solve Iowa’s budget problems using an approach that is truly balanced.

Posted by Christine Ralston, Research Associate

Lessons from Oregon

Like Oregon voters, Iowa voters favor a balanced approach to budget challenges.

Christine Ralston
Christine Ralston

Iowa could learn something from Oregon voters about taking a balanced approach to budget challenges.

In a victory for fiscal prudence, Oregon voters recently passed two initiatives — Measures 66 and 67 — that upheld their legislature’s decision to use a balanced approach to their budget shortfall.

In Oregon’s case, lawmakers last session made cuts to the budget and raised income tax for the top 3 percent of filers. They also raised the corporate minimum tax from $10 and increased the corporate income tax rate for businesses netting over $10 million a year, and temporarily for most other businesses. As the Legislature already voted last session to use a balanced approach that included trimming the budget and raising revenue, this vote saves Oregonians from further cuts in important services. This is notable for two reasons:

■     Oregon is known for its opposition to raising taxes, having last voted to raise taxes about 80 years ago when it added a state income tax.
•     It is one of five states that does not have a state sales tax.*
•     It also has a statewide cap on property tax.
•     It has a “kicker” law that automatically sends money back to residents when revenues exceed forecasts. Oregon has no rainy day fund.
■    Given the opportunity for a direct vote, Oregon voters chose to retain a balanced approach and raise taxes on themselves rather than make additional cuts that would decrease funding for education, health care and other essential services.

Oregon’s voters truly understand the importance of a balance during difficult economic times.

So, what does this mean for Iowa? For one, the Oregon vote remarkably reflects the results of a survey of Iowa voters last fall.

That survey for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership found that Iowa voters favor a balanced approach to addressing further budget problems:

■     Six in 10 favor some increase in taxes and fees rather than making cuts alone.
■     By the same ratio, Iowa voters believe the wealthiest Iowans — those earning over $250,000 per year — and big corporations pay less than they should in taxes.

The situation is complicated, and Iowa voters recognize that using budget cuts or tax increases alone will not solve our balance problem.

Oregon’s unemployment rate is 11 percent, compared to Iowa’s 6.6 percent. Oregonians understand that a budget has two sides, and a balanced approach to spending and revenue assures a responsible way to protect critical services in difficult economic times.

Posted by Christine Ralston, Research Associate


* Federation of Tax Administrators website, http://www.taxadmin.org/fta/rate/sales.html (accessed on January 29, 2010). The other states are Alaska, Delaware, Montana and New Hampshire.

More transparency on biz handouts — eventually

Think opening the books on public business doesn’t bother corporations? Think again.

While transparency is good, and will result from a new law passed last year, lawmakers made a mistake in not having the new legislation take effect immediately.

Effect of transparency law
Research credit claims spike just ahead of disclosure law effective date

Lawmakers ordered annual public disclosure of recipients of the Research Activities Credit with claims exceeding $500,000.

Instead of an immediate effective date, the law carried a July 1 effective date. That gave companies two months to get their claims filed before the information gathering would begin — a temporary window to avoid disclosure. Some jumped through that loophole, to the tune of an estimated $25 million.

The Iowa Department of Revenue reported on this in its December Contingent Liabilities report for the Revenue Estimating Conference. After estimating RAC claims for FY2009 at $45.5 million and $46.1 million in August and October reports, that number spiked to $70.8 million in the December report.

The DOR report itself attributed the spike in the estimate to the new transparency law:

There was also a dramatic increase in the amount of Research Activities Tax Credit claims in FY 2009. The majority of the increase in FY 2009 claims is a result of corporations filing claims early, before the July 1, 2010, effective date for a new disclosure requirement for Research Activities Tax Credit claims exceeding $500,000. As a result the estimate for FY 2010 was lowered to account for those claims moving forward a fiscal year. (emphasis added)

The graph above shows where the steady upward trend in RAC claims broke sharply with passage of the disclosure law, claims spiking just ahead of the law taking effect, and the projected one-year reduction before the trend returns.

Think opening the books on public business doesn’t bother corporations? Think again. When public business is tied too closely to private business, as we see with the RAC, taxpayer accountability suffers.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Watching your quarters — transparent state finances

Companies receive secret checks. That’s business as usual in Iowa, where corporate giveaways are out of control.

Getting a handle on where corporate subsidies go can be slippery business.

When you put your money in, do you see where it goes?

It’s an important question for taxpayers, and it’s one the Iowa General Assembly may address further this spring.

The so-called “Research Activities Credit,” or RAC, has become an annual drain on the state Treasury of $30-40 million and is projected to reach past $60 million in a few years. But the biggest cost is not simply tax revenues lost to a credit against taxes owed. The biggest cost of the RAC is in its poorly named “refund” program. If a company can claim a credit larger than its taxes owed, it gets what’s called a “refund” — for taxes it never had to pay.

These “refunds” averaged about 92 percent of claims from 2000-05, and in 2005 averaged $3 million per recipient. That is money that never has to go through the regular budget process, scrutinized by legislative committees and weighed against the state’s priorities. If it were a grant, or a regular budget item, you would see where that money goes. But since it’s rewarded through the tax system, you don’t. The companies receive secret checks.

That’s business as usual in Iowa, where corporate giveaways are literally out of control.

Maybe this will start to change. A new law passed last year could be a critical first step toward transparency of subsidies to private corporations. Recipients of RAC claims above $500,000 will be named, with amounts received, in an upcoming report from the Department of Revenue.

You’ll be able to see where at least some of the money is going, and count your quarters — a half-million dollars at a time!

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

When corporations write their own tax laws

As an IFP report noted, Iowa could put up signs: “Welcome, Multistate Corporations: Cheat on Your Taxes Here.”

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Sunday’s New York Times asks a poignant question: What’s the record for shutting a loophole?

What caught the Times’ attention was about as brazen a move as we could expect from the shady-deal wings of corporate America: The tobacco industry, facing a 20-fold tax increase on roll-your-own cigarettes to help support the Children’s Health Insurance Program, just changed the label of a product to avoid the tax. Noted the Times:

Companies simply remarketed roll-your-own as “pipe tobacco,” which is taxed at one-tenth the rate and is not subject to any definitive distinction under the law. The result is that roll-your-own companies, while a small part of the cigarette industry, quintupled their output of pipe tobacco in just five months to 1.7 million pounds — enough to roll 42 million packs of cigarettes.

The evasion could cost the government more than $30 million a month in revenues, according to the Associated Press. But the potential cost to the public is far greater, since studies show higher cigarette taxes have proved to be an effective way to discourage children from smoking.

The new fear is that the gimmickry of rolling your own and using flavored (“pipe”) tobacco — now banned in packaged cigarettes — could prove irresistible for youngsters experimenting with life. And with death.

So, in one fell swoop, the industry effectively rewrote tax law on its own, without the help of Congress or the President, and not only defied the intent of Congress in finding a way to pay for better health for kids but found its own way to worsen kids’ health and drive up costs of health care.

There are lessons here for Iowa, not in terms of health policy so much as tax policy. Not that the Hawkeye State has ever been in any danger of setting records in the closing of tax loopholes. At this point, just shutting loopholes on the books for a generation would be nice, and beneficial to Iowa residents and small businesses.

For years, Iowa has allowed multistate corporations that do business here to effectively set their own tax rates. At the same time businesses complain about their income tax rate, most don’t pay it — because of legal but excessive tax breaks on the one hand and apparently legal shenanigans on the other, many businesses find ways to avoid taxes the law was designed to collect. As the cuts we’re seeing to critical public services attest, there is a cost to our generosity to big corporations.

As IPP’s Peter Fisher noted in the 2007 Iowa Fiscal Partnership report “Leveling the Playing Field,” we could just as easily put up signs at the borders: “Welcome, Multistate Corporations: Cheat on Your Taxes Here.”

By Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Iowa Fiscal Partnership supports suspension, investigation of film credit program

A critical problem with Iowa tax credits is a lack of transparency.

Governor Culver acted responsibly Friday by ordering a suspension of the state’s film tax-credit program pending further investigation of irregularities in the management of the program.

A critical problem with the film credit and many other economic development tax advantages offered to industry by the state of Iowa is a lack of transparency. State lawmakers and the public for the most part have no idea whether current tax breaks — which are typically granted as corporate entitlements — are actually performing as intended.

The initial investigation has exposed the film credits, as currently in place, as a boondoggle that is draining our state treasury. Further, this is coming at a time when our state leaders are anticipating budget cuts. All spending — including spending through the tax code — needs to be on the table when considering cuts to the budget.

Those taking advantage of apparent lax management of the film-credits program may indeed be ruining it for other filmmakers who have not done so. Nevertheless, there is no justification for continuing this program while all the problems with it are being sorted out, and while education and fundamental human services are threatened with budget cuts.

[The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint budget and tax policy analysis initiative of two Iowa-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines.]