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

Transparency: Corporations see; we don’t

The transparency on tax breaks that we get in Iowa is merely a tease for the taxpayer, and for the folks who lobby the Legislature each year for their causes.

It’s not enough to really let Iowans compare the choices being made on the spending of public dollars.

Advocates for public-focused priorities push lawmakers to apply an adequate share of the state budget to real responsibilities: to educate children and young adults, care for those without the means to do so on their own, and to keep their natural environment clean and their streets safe.

They have to make a case, that a public investment is not only needed, but a responsible use of funds that benefits the greater good in Iowa.

Some in the lobby can afford to advocate differently. In the “We Got Ours” huddles of big-business advocates in the lobby, the high stakes business of protecting their special breaks, and expanding them, is often only evident in the results.

A Cedar Rapids Gazette story shows we can expect more of this for an expensive and unaccountable program long on the books, the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC, unlike most tax credits, often does not affect taxes at all, but is a straight and automatic subsidy provided to huge companies that pay little — and often nothing — in Iowa corporate income taxes. (Remember that next time you hear their  complaints about Iowa’s corporate tax rates.)

Much of the story offered weak defenses of this program by the state’s economic development director, Debi Durham, and a spokesperson for the biggest recipient of these subsidies. Neither of those two people offered a shred of evidence of a public return on the $60-plus million annual cost.

You see, we know the cost, because there is an annual report that lawmakers required for this program. (The lobby fought that requirement hard when it passed in 2009.) But what the report cannot show is how much of the subsidized research would have happened anyway.

RAC table ... large claims
The Research Activities Credit was set up to help small, entrepreneurial businesses get going. Instead, as official state reports have shown, very large companies with RAC claims above $500,000 account for between 80 and 90 percent of the cost every year.

In a deliberative budget process, everything is on the table — funds available, a clear and understandable process to apportion them, and the public benefit evident. But when $300 million in business credits are on autopilot, a large chunk of those funds is taken off the table before the rest of us even get to sit down.

Peter Fisher, IPP’s research director, notes in The Gazette story that the system gives all the advantages to the corporations.

“The corporations hold all the cards, which is why I think states and localities routinely spend way more than they need to,” Fisher told The Gazette. “It’s like playing poker where the other players know your hand but you don’t know theirs.”

To learn more about the RAC, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership piece.

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Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

mikeowen@iowapoicyproject.org

A spotlight, not a floodlight, on business breaks

Iowa’s business tax credits will have grown by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

A bill in the Iowa House, HSB187, would cut a range of Iowa tax credits, eliminating refundability and capping overall spending on credits. There is significant opposition, because people like their tax breaks. But the issue is suddenly in the spotlight because these and other giveaways are responsible for Iowa’s serious revenue challenge.

There are solutions to the state’s rampant and often unaccountable spending on tax credits and other tax breaks. It is interesting that an interim committee that meets every year to examine a rotating set of tax credits has not produced any reforms. It’s not because reforms are not necessary. Rather, it’s a lack of resolve.

One of several strong recommendations in January 2010 by a Special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Gov. Culver in the wake of the film credit scandal was for a five-year sunset on all tax credits. This would require the Legislature to re-approve every tax credit.

That would be a start. Another option: Instead of eliminating refundability for all credits, which affects even credits where refundability makes sense (Earned Income Tax Credit), limit it where it does not. The Special Tax Credit Review Panel recommended eliminating refundability for big recipients of the Research Activities Credit (companies with gross receipts over $20 million). Another option would be to cap refundability for all credits at $250,000, which would not harm small players, either businesses or individuals, and would reduce the excessive checks to big businesses.

The scrutiny and demand for a return on investment on these credits would be too much for many of these special arrangements to withstand. Eliminating or capping wasteful credits would free up revenues for other priorities; some would invest more here or there — education, or public safety, or the environment — and some would simply use it to reduce overall spending. But either way, we would have the opportunity for a debate.

There is a danger in putting everything on the table at once. It presents a false equivalency of tax credits — that they are somehow all the same. It ignores the fact that some are for private gain and some for the common good, and some are a mixture. Some work, and some do not.

Some meet the purpose for which they were advertised (the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, which benefits low-income working families), and some miss the mark with tens of millions of dollars every year (the Research Activities Credit, where most of the money goes to huge, profitable corporations that pay little or no income tax instead of to small start-ups as envisioned).

Iowa’s business tax credits will have risen by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

Challenging all credits at the same time gets everyone’s backs up. That is a recipe to assure continued unwillingness to take on any of it. And that will not serve Iowa very well.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Oversight on the overseers of tax credits

These interim legislative meetings put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

You might have heard about a big meeting at the State Capitol today.

No, not that one, about whose portrait will hang in the Iowa House and Senate behind the presiding officer.

The meetings where there’s always some mystery are the annual reviews of selected tax credits. Only a few credits are reviewed each year by a panel of legislators. One meeting was in November; the other is today.

One tax giveaway — er, tax credit — on the agenda for today is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC.
No such review since these sessions started has produced meaningful reform, but the exercise does put information on the table and does put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

What we already know from previous evaluations and annual reports about the RAC is that it is costly — over $50 million a year — and that routinely at least two-thirds of the cost (and usually over four-fifths) goes to companies as so-called “refunds.” These are not refunds of taxes owed, but of tax credits the companies didn’t need because they owe so little, or no, corporate income tax.

Remember that when you hear the Iowa Taxpayers Association and others bleating about Iowa’s corporate taxes, which are actually low.
For perspective on the RAC, the $42 million given away in tax credit refunds under this program in 2015 would have paid for about 1 percent more in school aid, at the same time schools were told we didn’t have the money for it. Of course we did. Our legislators just chose to give it away, mainly to huge, profitable corporations.
In Room 103 of the State Capitol, 1:15 p.m., the public and legislators can hear from the Department of Revenue about the Research Activities Credit. And the session that follows at 2:15 on the Earned Income Tax Credit may be worth listening to as well, for contrast, as the EITC is a demonstrated boost to the economy while the RAC has never been demonstrated to be more than a drain on revenue.

You never know what legislators at the table will have to say about these issues, but we may get some insights.
As for that other meeting, we all now how it will come out.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen
Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Project Director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A good deal if you can get it

This is perfectly legal. In fiscal policy terms it’s a scandal, because it is legal.

But research credit refund checks are poor fiscal stewardship

The millions Iowa gives to companies that do not pay state income tax is about the same amount of 1 percent in state school aid.

That’s one takeaway from the latest annual report from the state on Iowa’s Research Activities Credit (RAC). That tax credit is used far less to ease taxes than to shovel subsidies to big corporations outside the budget process, whether they pay taxes or not.

The report shows that in 2015, 248 companies had $50.1 in claims from this tax credit. Because the credit is refundable, companies get the full benefit no matter how much they owe (or don’t owe) in taxes. And the report shows that of those claims, 75 percent, or $42.1 million, were paid as checks to 186 companies that paid no corporate income tax to the state.

As we note in a summary by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, each percentage-point increase in Supplemental State Aid for schools costs about $41 million to $43 million (Iowa Association of School Boards estimate).

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What’s more, the largest claimants — 20 corporations receiving over $500,000 from this credit — took the lion’s share of the benefit with $43.9 million overall (about 88 percent).

Many millions are spent this way every year, outside the budget process. These companies don’t have to compete for what are supposedly scarce public dollars needed for critical public services such as education, health care, environmental protection and public safety. The latter types of spending must compete in the budget process.

The Research Activities Credit is only an entitlement. And except for the occasional lawmaker willing to stand up to restore some accountability, there is silence from the General Assembly.

This is perfectly legal. In fiscal policy terms, however, it’s a scandal, because it is legal. Lawmakers refuse to even consider whether to take this spending off autopilot.

When they claim the state is too strapped for money to provide more for school aid or human services, lawmakers should admit they let corporations take what they want first.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
For more information about the Research Activities Credit, visit www.iowafiscal.org

State aid up 13 percent — for business breaks

The early scorecard gives business tax breaks the big edge, a 13 percent increase to between 2 and 4 percent for schools.

What do you expect would be the outcry if Iowa’s public schools asked for 13 percent growth in state aid?

Yet few bat an eye when this happens with business tax breaks, as we can expect for FY2017.*

The early scorecard gives business tax breaks the big edge, a 13 percent increase, vs. between 2 and 4 percent for schools.

The Senate approved 4 percent for FY2017 (covering next school year), but the Iowa House on Monday approved 2 percent — even though schools have averaged less than 2 percent for six years, from FY2011-16.

In fact, the Iowa Association of School Boards this year did not even ask for a specific growth number, but rather, that it be set in a timely manner (it’s almost a year late already), and “at a rate that adequately supports local districts’ efforts to plan, create and sustain world-class schools.”

That hasn’t happened for some time. Over the last six budgets, per-pupil growth has been held to 2 percent or below in all but one year. Depending on enrollment trends, some districts even see less.

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Business tax breaks do not face the same budget constraints — ironic, since the cost of those breaks limits what lawmakers permit themselves to spend on services that their constituents demand, not the least of which is education. Other areas — environmental quality, child care, health care and public safety — also are constrained.

A much greater percentage increase in business tax breaks is set in place, as shown below. The total increase of $71 million from this budget year to the one lawmakers are working on now actually may be understated. The $35 million for a new sales-tax exemption for manufacturers is considered a conservative estimate. Even at $71 million overall, however, it represents a 13 percent increase.

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Spending on business tax breaks is rarely burdened by the public scrutiny and debate that comes with spending on schools and water programs, which must be approved annually.

Most business tax breaks, once passed, are never touched again unless they are expanded. And as shown by the sales-tax break for manufacturers scheduled to begin this summer, a break may never receive legislative approval but still become law. The Governor is implementing this one on his own, with a split legislature unable to stop him.

Budget choices? Instead of that $35 million in FY2017 for the new sales-tax break, the Legislature could provide about 1 percent growth in per-pupil school funding. We can expect to find another 1 percent in what we’ll spend in checks to companies that do not pay any state income tax, but have more research tax credits than they owe in taxes.

Perhaps one day we will treat all spending the same, whether the spending comes before or after revenues reach the state treasury. Then the wealthy corporations can compete directly for their tax breaks against education for the skilled people they want to work for them.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Mike Owen is a member of the school board in the West Branch Community School District, first elected in 2006.
* For more about Iowa tax breaks for business, see Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, “Here a tax break, there a tax break, everywhere a tax break.” http://www.iowafiscal.org/here-a-tax-break-there-a-tax-break-everywhere-a-tax-break/

Start with ‘zero’ on credits

Maybe a part-time legislature could start with a zero base on tax credits before we talk about it for an entire state budget.

It was​ fascinating Tuesday to see Iowa lawmakers talking about zero-based budgeting — starting every budget from scratch — when they have refused to do the same with tax credits.

Spending on tax credits — including millions to companies that don’t pay any state income tax — just keeps going on and on.

And on.

And on.

Companies basically get to appropriate state money to themselves. Quite a deal if you can get it.

If the state were to sunset business tax credits, as recommended in 2010 by a special governor-appointed Tax Credit Review Panel, lawmakers could review each one and decide which are actually producing a public benefit, whether any of them are money well spent. If so, they could renew the credit. If not, we could put our resources where they make more sense for all Iowans.

Maybe a part-time legislature could start with a zero base on tax credits before we talk about it for an entire state budget.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project