Hyperbole Alert: The drumbeat to cut corporate taxes in Iowa

Want to talk reform? Then recognize the real problems — we receive less in corporate tax than we used to, and don’t collect a lot because of the swiss-cheese nature of our tax code.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

TWELVE PERCENT!

The figure practically screams at you, even when it’s not in all caps, when the conversation comes to corporate tax rates in Iowa.

Here’s the thing: It’s not a real number. Not really.

That is what is known as Iowa’s “top marginal rate” on corporate income tax. And it’s not a real number because it simply does not — cannot — reflect what a business pays on all its profits. Yet that is the implication when people (especially politicians) or corporations complain about it.

A top Iowa columnist, Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, this week discussed the political battles over Iowa’s latest gigantic subsidies to Egyptian fertilizer company Orascom. In his piece he expressed a note of concern about the hyperbole in those battles. Then, he turned the discussion to Governor Branstad’s desire for cuts in corporate income taxes.

It is in that discussion where the hyperbole typically has been the strongest in Iowa. We are often told — as Dorman noted — that Iowa’s top corporate income tax rate is the nation’s highest. Note the emphasis added on “top.” More on that in a moment. Dorman also noted, accurately, that Iowa “has four brackets and a tangle of special interest credits.”

Because of the latter, any serious concern for our corporate friends should evaporate. Because they’re really being taken care of quite nicely, thank you, by their friends in the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office.

Now, about that “top rate.” It applies only to Iowa-taxable corporate profits above $250,000. Iowa doesn’t tax any profits from sales outside the state, so the rate doesn’t apply at all there, which for many businesses is a significant share of profits. For all taxable profits below $250,000, rates are lower — 6 percent on the first $25,000, 8 percent on the next $75,000 and 10 percent on the next $150,000.

Before these rates kick in, the business gets to deduct half its federal income tax from taxable income, and may have other deductions or ways to shelter income from state tax.

Then, after the rates are computed and the taxes determined, the tax credits enter the picture — and state revenues exit. The state just expanded the potential for those credits by $50 million, raising the cap on a select group of credits. In the case of the Research Activities Credit, these credits not only erase all tax liability, but offer state checks for the remaining amount of the credit. Through that program in 2012, Iowa paid out almost $33 million to 130 firms that paid no income tax, because those companies had more credits than tax liability.

And you can bet the corporate execs and their accountants fully understand all these nooks and crannies in our tax code. But if you want to give them a free million or so, they’ll take it. They are smart folks, and they have proven themselves to be more skilled negotiators than Iowa’s economic development moguls.

Want to talk reform? Then recognize the real problems — that we receive less in corporate tax than we used to, and that a lot of corporate tax is not collected because of the swiss-cheese nature of our tax code. That gives us all something to talk about.

Just be ready for the hyperbole from those who don’t want to change that part of our system.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


For more information about Iowa business taxes, see these Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports:
— “Reducing Iowa Commercial Property Taxes,” by Heather Milway and Peter Fisher, April 24, 2013.
— “Amid Plans to Relax Limits, Business Tax Credits Grow,” by Heather Gibney, April 16, 2013.
— “Corporate Taxes and State Economic Growth,” by Peter Fisher, revised April 2013.
— “A $40 Million Budget Hole: Persistent and Growing,” IFP backgrounder, February 25, 2013.
— “Tax Credit Reform Glass Half-Full? Maybe Some Moisture,” IFP backgrounder, revised March 23, 2010.
— “Single Factor to Consider,” IFP backgrounder, April 2, 2008.

Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Iowa could provide an incentive that Illinois could not — and doubled down on it anyway, at a cost of $1.5 million per job.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The enormous package of state and local incentives provided to the Egyptian company Orascom to locate a fertilizer plant in Lee County has drawn considerable attention. The package includes $110 million in state tax credits and other incentives and $133 million in local tax abatements — a total of $243 million when all is said and done. All this to attract a plant that will employ just 165 workers.

At a cost per worker of nearly $1.5 million, the incentive is an astounding amount, well beyond the normal range of awards, in Iowa or anywhere else. (While the company claims a large number of ancillary jobs will follow, these claims are unverifiable, and it is not clear how many would even fall to Iowa residents; furthermore, there are always some spin-off jobs with any project, so the valid comparison with other awards is in terms of cost per direct job.)

Yet little attention has been paid to what is possibly the largest incentive provided: tax-exempt bonds, not even included in the above calculations.

Early on in the negotiations, in fact last April, the Iowa Finance Authority awarded Orascom up to $1.19 billion in Midwest Disaster Area (MDA) bonds. These bonds are exempt from federal income tax; Midwestern states affected by the 2008 flood were each given an allocation of these bonds to be awarded to projects in eligible counties — those declared disaster areas after the flood. The $1.19 billion loan would constitute 46 percent of the Iowa allocation.

Because the interest is exempt from federal income tax, the wealthy individuals and financial institutions that would purchase such bonds will accept a lower interest rate than they would require on taxable corporate bonds. The after-tax rate is what they focus on. This means that the company saves money. How much? That depends on the spread between corporate bond interest rates and tax-exempt rates.

Information from officials at the Iowa Finance Authority indicates that the spread would likely range from 1 percent to 2 percent. For a $1.19 billion bond issue to be repaid in equal annual installments over a 20-year period, the savings in interest would amount to between $153 million and $297 million, depending on what the interest rate differential turned out to be.

These tax-exempt bonds could have been used in Lee County or in Scott County; both were flood disaster areas and both, at one point, were under consideration as a location for the fertilizer plant. When the Scott County site was rejected, attention turned to Illinois, specifically the area near Peoria. But neither Peoria County nor any counties surrounding it were eligible for the Illinois allocation of MDA bonds.

This means that Lee County was starting with a huge advantage over the Illinois site: the availability of an incentive probably worth in the neighborhood of $200 million.

While the MDA bonds cost federal taxpayers, there is no loss of Iowa income-tax revenue. (The federal cost comes because the federal government forgoes income-tax revenue on the interest, which must then be made up by the rest of federal taxpayers.) But the point is that, whoever bears the cost, this was a very large incentive that Iowa could provide and Illinois could not.

Thus it raises the question: Given this advantage from the start, why was it necessary for the state of Iowa and Lee County to double down and provide another $200 plus million, especially when the Illinois tax incentives were not even a reality — they had passed the Illinois Senate, but not the House, and the Legislature had adjourned months ago?

Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Does Iowa know when to walk away?

You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

There’s Texas Hold ’Em,” and then there’s “Iowa Fold ’Em.”

Wouldn’t you just love to play poker against the folks who run this state?

They never call a bluff. Companies come calling with demands for tax breaks and big checks, or they’ll build somewhere else. And Iowa just happily falls in line with the demands. You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The latest: Today the board of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is scheduled to consider sweetening its already generous offer to Orascom — $35 million to build a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County — to about $110 million with a slew of new tax credits. As The Des Moines Register points out today, that’s $110 million for 165 “permanent” jobs paying on average $48,000 a year, plus construction jobs that will be gone when the project is finished.

The state tax credits are in addition to the enormous benefit the state is providing by allocating federal tax-exempt flood recovery bonds to this project. If the interest rate difference — between taxable and tax-exempt bonds — were 1 percentage point, the company would save $320 million in interest payments over the life of the $1.2 billion bond. That would bring the firm’s total benefits to $2.7 million per permanent job, a truly astounding number. Even without considering the federal interest subsidy, the state tax credits would total $687,500 per job, many times the typical level of subsidy in deals such as this.

There are no estimates available about the potential environmental costs that will be caused by this plant. Since Iowa does a poor job of monitoring for pollution damage, those ongoing costs might be low, but if there is an accident, it could be costly.

The Register also quotes Debi Durham, head of IEDA, that incentives wouldn’t be needed if Iowa were to reduce corporate income tax rates. Nonsense. Research has shown repeatedly that this is a myth, and that in fact, Iowa’s income taxes paid by corporations are competitive with other states. In many cases, giant corporations are paying not a dime in income tax yet getting huge subsidy checks from the state to do things they would do without incentives.

This hand is the one we are dealt from years of unaccountable economic development strategies by Iowa state government.

Time for a fresh deck.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director