Reining in business tax breaks

Real reform of Iowa business tax subsidies is needed now more than ever.

It has become a familiar story: Tax breaks and tax expenditures growing at a pace that spending on traditional state priorities cannot match. This growth continues on autopilot, year after year, with little scrutiny and often with weak justification.

The cost of business tax credits under the income tax grew from $214 million in Fiscal Year 2015 to $244 million in FY19, and is projected to be $287 million for FY20.[1] The commercial and industrial property tax cuts enacted in 2013 have added significantly more to that estimate. The business property tax credit enacted in that legislation, which will remain at $125 million every year, will bring the overall state cost of business tax credits to more than $400 million by FY20. In other words, business tax credits in total will have about doubled in six years. (See graph.)

Related business breaks would drive total spending on subsidies to business much higher.

      • Iowa in recent years has spent $152 million annually to backfill local public revenues lost when commercial and industrial property assessments were rolled back to 90 percent of actual value, a tax break to business.[2]
      • Revenue losses from the state’s failure to enact combined reporting to plug loopholes in the corporate income tax amount to an estimated $200 million.[3]
      • The state also spends nearly $60 million annually backfilling the loss of tax base to school districts as a result of city and county use of tax increment financing, much of which reduces the costs of business development.[4]

The total cost of business subsidies, in other words, approaches $800 million, even without other so-called tax expenditures, such as the state’s use of single-factor apportionment.

Tax credits have the same impact on the state’s bottom line as any other spending. Such spending comes outside the normal budget process where agencies, advocates and constituents make proposals that lawmakers vote up or down, on the record. Tax credits, with few exceptions, cause spending outside that competition.

State spending on business subsidies necessarily comes at the expense of other budgetary priorities, including education, health, and public safety. Investments in education and infrastructure, the building blocks of a strong economy, suffer when the annual budget debates start out with a billion dollars already committed to business incentives.

Real reform is needed now more than ever.

See our Roadmap for Opportunity two-pager on this topic.

 

 

 

[1] The following tax credits listed in the Iowa Department of Revenue Contingent Liabilities Reports are included in our analysis as business tax credits: Enterprise Zone Programs, High Quality Jobs Program, Historic Preservation, Industrial New Job Training Program (260E), Research Activities, Targeted Jobs, Venture Capital, Accelerated Career Education, Redevelopment, Renewable Chemical Production, Renewable Energy, Wind Energy Production, Biodiesel Blended Fuel, E15 Gasoline Promotion, E85 Gasoline Promotion, Ethanol Blended Gasoline, Ethanol Promotion. With the exception of Historic Preservation, this list is in line with credits classified as “business incentives” by the Iowa Department of Revenue in their most recent tax expenditure study. https://tax.iowa.gov/reports/2010-iowa-general-fund-tax-expenditures-excel.

[2] Legislative Services Agency, Summary of the Governor’s Budget Recommendations FY2021. Jan. 16, 2020, page 212.

[3] Iowa Department of Revenue, 2017.

[4] Legislative Services Agency, FY 2018 Annual Urban Renewal Report, February 15, 2019, p. 24. About 15 percent of TIF erxpenditure in FY18 went directly for business projects; it is not known how much of the 63 percent that went to property acquisition, roads, bridges, utilities, and water or wastewater treatment plants was associated with business development.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Cities have development tools beyond TIF

The indefensible thing in the 2012 legislative session would be to make significant commercial property tax changes without fixing abuses of TIF.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

The Business Record’s Kent Darr has an interesting story about Des Moines City Manager Rick Clark’s reaction to the commercial property tax issue, debated Tuesday in the Iowa House.

Clark expressed caution about unintended consequences that can result from tinkering with the property tax laws, which is a legitimate concern. But one of his own remarks demands caution as well. That is his concern about potential changes to tax-increment financing, or TIF, which are being considered separately this year. From Darr’s story:

“For cities in Iowa, it’s the only game in town,” Clark said. “It’s the only thing we have to encourage and promote economic activity; the other tools really don’t work. If we take away TIF or make it less effective than it is today, we’re really in a world of hurt.”

This argument is often raised and it’s just not necessarily so. First, cities do have other tools available, such as abatements. TIF is a tool that simply provides an extra revenue stream to fund those tools; in some cases, it may make sense to pool funds of various local government entities for a given project, but in others, possibly not.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

IPP Research Director Peter Fisher addressed this in his recent report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership examining TIF use in Johnson County:

It is important to understand that TIF is not synonymous with economic development incentives. TIF is merely a financing mechanism. Cities can and do promote economic redevelopment and job creation in a variety of ways; cities can build facilities to accommodate private projects, they can provide tax abatements for both residential and non‐residential property, and they can issue bonds to finance infrastructure, all without TIF. But TIF has become the mechanism of choice to finance economic development incentives in part because TIF creates the illusion that such incentives are costless, and in part because TIF in actuality shifts costs to other taxpayers.

Second, it should not be assumed that subsidies are effective. Does the subsidy cause the economic activity, or does the activity cause the subsidy? Sometimes it’s hard to say.

Again, Fisher:

Furthermore, much (perhaps the majority) of TIF revenue is not used to incentivize development at all, but rather to finance routine city infrastructure spending that otherwise could be financed with city bonds, retired entirely by city taxpayers, or charged to developers.

Sensible reforms would not render TIF “less effective” for its intended purposes to the extent subsidies are effective now. Fisher’s recent op-ed in The Des Moines Register outlined five common-sense reforms that would improve TIF. They would stop what would have to be acknowledged as abuses — for example, stopping cities from using TIF to fund a project in one school district from the tax base of another.

The indefensible thing in the 2012 legislative session would be to make significant commercial property tax changes — big cuts for businesses at the expense of homeowners or critical public services — without fixing abuses of TIF. Politicians frequently ignore TIF and other preferences when they start ranting about property taxes on business.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

TIF public forum draws out facts, and people

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, hosted the Coralville forum about an issue growing in attention following the release of Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.


The room was packed, but now more people will be able to view the January 4 public forum in Coralville about tax-increment financing.

City Channel 4 — Iowa City Cable TV — will show the forum, which features a presentation by Iowa Policy Project Research Director Peter Fisher and comments by Iowa lawmakers and local officials. Fisher’s recent report, Tax-Increment Financing: A Case Study of Johnson County, was the focus of commentary throughout the hearing.

Hosted by State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and State Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, the forum has drawn much attention including media coverage by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and The Press-Citizen in Iowa City.

The Iowa City cable presentation of the forum will be shown six times in the coming week, beginning at midnight today. The program runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. Here is the full schedule, also found on the Channel 4 website:

Saturday, January 07, at 12:00 a.m.
Saturday, January 07, at 9:30 p.m.
Monday, January 09, at 8:00 a.m.
Tuesday, January 10, at 5:30 a.m.
Wednesday, January 11, at 4:00 p.m.
Thursday, January 12, at 1:30 p.m.

To view slides that Fisher used in his presentation, click here.