Tax credits: Just review them!

Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be.

Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today.

The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018.

It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010.

Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024.

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While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.

  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.

As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before.

Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk.

The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits.

As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms.

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DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it.

In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need.

Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities.

Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel.

These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them?

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org