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.]

Help economy, fix revenue problem

Today’s startling report from the Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference removes any doubt about the impact of the recession on top of routine tax-cutting: Iowa has a big revenue problem.

Now, more than ever, Iowa needs to put reality into the rhetoric that everything is on the table in this fiscal crisis, and that points to three immediate responses:

• Use stimulus money to restore funds already cut from the budget;

• Restore funding and avoid further cuts where possible to help the economic recovery and to keep services going at a critical time;

• Recognize that stimulus funds and tax reforms are necessary to bridge the revenue gap created by the recession.

Iowa needs to fight off the temptation to cut budgets further. Budget cuts can damage the Iowa economy, creating more layoffs, at the same time they deny needed public services when more Iowans are hurting.

REC projections today painted a more dire picture than the one that led the governor to slash spending across the board by 1.5 percent for this year and propose 6.5 percent cuts in many services for next budget year, beginning July 1.

The projections mean Iowa has a $130 million larger gap for this year, and a $270 million larger gap for fiscal year 2010. Besides addressing the current budget-year gap, the governor and legislators will have to put a fiscal 2010 budget in place assuming those REC projections.

Many Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports have detailed the revenue roots of Iowa’s current fiscal challenges. Of particular concern are the explosion in corporate tax expenditures, including many giveaways that provide no accountability to Iowa taxpayers that they money is being spent as intended, or that experience has validated that intent.

In the current situation, there can be no more excuses for ignoring the revenue side of Iowa’s budget problems. See IFP’s news release today.

It’s the revenues, Iowans

Iowa’s declining revenues are at the root of the state’s budget problems, leaving Iowa open to the impact of the recession. In fact, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership released a report today detailing the role of revenue changes in our state’s budget crisis.

Iowa’s general spending grew at the same rate as the economy in the 1990s, but after the 2001 recession, spending never caught up to the levels of the growing economy — even though it has increased slightly over the past three years.

State spending in 2008 was 5.45 percent of the economy, 16 percent lower than it was in the 1990s.

Beth Pearson, an Iowa Policy Project research associate who co-authored the report, said tax reductions between 1996 and 2004 have contributed to Iowa’s budget crisis. These breaks cost the state an estimated $650 million in forgone revenue in 2004 alone.

Iowa policy makers need to keep a long-term focus, and to consider all spending, including spending through the tax code.

For more information on the report, visit our website at: www.IowaPolicyProject.org, or find the report here. For timely updates, follow our IaPolicyProject Twitter account.