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).


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.

Basic RGB

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.


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

A brief, shining moment

It is not too late for Iowa lawmakers to address these issues and include some water in the tax credit reform glass. We said that in 2010, and we can say it again in 2015.

It was a brief, shining moment for Iowa, and it came five years ago today.

A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Chet Culver, after an in-depth examination of all Iowa tax-credit programs, offered a 10-page review with some tough recommendations.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership* stated the day of the report’s release, Jan. 8, 2010, the panel “took an important step to make Iowa business subsidies more accountable and transparent.”

Major recommendations of the Tax Credit Review Panel were to:

•   Provide a five-year sunset on all tax credits;
•   Eliminate the refundability of the Research Activities Credit for large companies;
•   Eliminate the film tax credit;
•   Eliminate of the transferability of other credits;
•   Place all business credits under a $185 million cap;
•   Reduce the rate for the School Tuition Organization (STO) Tax Credit and lower the cap; and
•   Impose an income test for the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit.

Action in the Legislature, unfortunately, fell well short of those bold proposals, as we noted in a report that spring. In their biggest moves, lawmakers set up a periodic review of tax credits but required no action to affirm the value of any credits, and they put light restrictions on some credits. Some of those limits already have been raised; the proposal to restrict the STO subsidy for private school tuition not only was ignored but the credit has been expanded.

In short, five years later, Iowa is as lax as ever in its treatment of these subsidies. Under the sunset clause recommended back then, we would in 2015 be preparing for a round of debate and action to keep, expand, limit or eliminate certain tax credits. Instead, we have no expectation of any debate, let alone any action. If the credits are working, we don’t know because beneficiaries are not forced to show it.

It is not too late for Iowa lawmakers to address these issues and include some water in the tax credit reform glass. We said that in 2010, and we can say it again in 2015.

The seven members of the Tax Credit Review Panel, by the way, were Richard Oshlo, then interim director of the Department of Management; Fred Hubbell, interim director of the Department of Economic Development; Rob Berntsen, chair of the Iowa Utilities Board; Bret Mills, executive director of the Iowa Finance Authority; Cyndi Pederson, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs; Mark Schuling, director of the Iowa Department of Revenue; and Jeff Ward, executive director of the Iowa Agricultural Development Authority.

Their work was good and important, and with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, we should not forget it.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

*The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit Iowa-based organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines.

Leveling the playing field

The more small-business owners understand how big businesses compete unfairly and do not contribute their fair share of state taxes, the more pressure can build for real reform.

Small business owners get it: They follow the rules, but preferential treatment for giant companies puts them at a disadvantage.

Case in point: Lora Fraracci, who had an excellent guest opinion in today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette about practices big companies use to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The problem is not exclusively an issue with the lax U.S. tax code. It is a big problem at the state level as well.

Ms. Fraracci runs a residential and commercial cleaning business. As she noted:

“As a small-business owner in Des Moines, I play by the rules and pay my taxes to support our American economy. I create jobs that will continue to support our local economy. When the playing field is so uneven it makes it hard to realize this dream.”

The issue has been receiving some national attention, but many may not realize the prevalence of this problem and its extension to state taxes. While Ms. Fraracci and other small businesses, or Iowa focused businesses, follow the rules, large companies they may serve can find a way to either (1) avoid the rules, or (2) block stronger rules.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has written about these issues for some time, and the reports are on our website.

The biggest Iowa breaks come in two ways: tax loopholes and tax credits.

Tax loopholes have been estimated to cost the state between $60 million and $100 million a year. Loosely written law is an invitation to big companies’ lawyers and accountants to find ways to lower their firms’ taxes. Multistate firms can shift profits to tax-haven states and avoid taxes they otherwise would be paying in Iowa. That creates the uneven playing field Ms. Fraracci sees.

Iowa could fix this by adopting something called “combined reporting,” which the business lobby has fought tooth and nail when proposed in the past by Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver. Many states — including almost all our neighbors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska) — already do this. See our 2007 report, which remains relevant because Iowa has refused to act.

Tax credits are particularly costly, rarely reviewed with any sense that they will be reformed. This is illustrated best with the Research Activities Credit, which provides a refundable credit to big companies to do something they are likely to anyway: research to keep their businesses relevant and competitive.

In 2013, that credit cost $53 million, with $36 million of that going to companies that paid no state income tax in Iowa. The default position must be that this is wasted money, because it is never reviewed in the regular budget process the way other spending is examined every year — on schools, law enforcement, worker protection and environmental quality. In Iowa, spending on tax credits is spending on autopilot.

Read here about Iowa’s accountability gap on tax-credit spending.

Looking ahead, as a new legislative session approaches and we hear repeatedly that things are tight, keep these points in mind to better understand the real fiscal picture facing Iowa. The more small-business owners understand this, the more likely pressure can build for real reform.

Owen-2013-57  Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project

Job 1 for Day 1 — putting Iowa families first

Issues that were big for our state before the election remain big issues.

As election dust settles, priorities remain clear for Iowa families

Now that the votes are counted, the real work begins. Job 1? It could be any of a number of areas where solid research and analysis have shown better public policy could make a difference for a more prosperous, healthier Iowa. Take a step back from the TV ads and “gotcha” politics and these issues come clearly in focus.

In Iowa, research shows solid approaches to economic prosperity for working families include:

In Iowa, research shows a fiscally responsible approach to both find revenues and do better with what we have includes:

  • Stopping tax giveaways to companies that pay no income tax — which occurs at a cost of between $32 million and $45 million a year through one research subsidy program alone, even though there is nothing to show this spending boosts the Iowa economy or produces activity that would not occur anyway. http://www.iowafiscal.org/big-money-big-companies-whose-benefit/
  • Reining in unnecessary “tax expenditures” — tax breaks, tax credits and other spending done through the tax code — could bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for public services. A five-year sunset on all tax credits would force lawmakers to review and formally pass renewals of this kind of spending, now on autopilot. The last attempt at real reform fell woefully short. http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-credit-reform-glass-half-full-maybe-some-moisture/
  • Plugging tax loopholes — a $60 to $100 million problem — would pay for a 2 or 3 percent annual increase in state per-pupil funding of K-12 schools. Twenty-three states, including 4 of 6 Iowa neighbors, don’t permit multistate corporations to shift profits out of state to avoid Iowa income tax and contribute their fair share to local education and other state services. https://iowapolicypoints.org/2013/05/22/will-outrage-translate-into-policy/
  • Reforming TIF — tax-increment financing, which is overused and often abused by cities around the state, has caught lawmakers’ attention in the past and should again. Like many tools that provide subsidies to private companies and developers, it should be redesigned to assure subsidies only go to projects with a public benefit and only where the project could not otherwise occur. Further, it should be designed to assure that only the taxpayers who benefit are the ones footing the bill, which is a problem with current TIF practice. http://www.iowafiscal.org/category/research/taxes/tax-increment-financing-tif/

In Iowa, research shows a healthy environment and smart energy choices for Iowa’s future includes:

  • Putting teeth into pollution law — which means reforms in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to eliminate pollution in waterways. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140717-nutrient.html
  • Allowing local government to regulate frac sand mining — When it comes to cigarettes, guns and large hog facilities the Iowa Legislature took away the right of local government to listen to citizen desires. The General Assembly and the Governor should let democracy thrive and not take away local control of sand mining.
  • Encouraging more use of solar electricity in Iowa — Jobs are created while we confront climate change if we build better solar policy in Iowa. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/110325-solar-release.html
  • Promoting local food and good food choices with school gardens — and a pilot project to offer stipends to Iowa school districts could encourage both learning and better nutrition. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140514-school_gardens.html

None of these issues are new and it’s not an exhaustive list. But these were big issues for our state before the election and remain so, no matter who is in charge.

Together, we can build on the solid research cited above and lay the foundation for better public policy to support those priorities.

Owen-2013-57   Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Beware the “business climateers”

Only if Iowa policy makers and the public ignore the reality on Iowa business taxes will these special interests get their way again.

Fisher-GradingPlacesIowa’s business lobby appears to be preparing a new assault on the ability of our state to provide public services.

It would be the latest in a long campaign, in which lobbyists target one tax at a time under a general — and inaccurate — message about taxes that we will not repeat here.

Suffice to say, Iowa taxes on business are low already. Many breaks provided to businesses are rarely reviewed in any meaningful way to make sure that taxpayers are getting value for those dollars spent, ostensibly, to encourage economic growth. Rarely can success be demonstrated.

The Iowa Taxpayers Association is holding a “policy summit” this week and promoting a new report by the Tax Foundation to recycle old arguments that are no better now than they have been for the last decade.

Fortunately in Iowa, we know where to turn to understand claims from the Tax Foundation, and that resource is Peter Fisher, our research director at the Iowa Policy Project. Fisher has written two books on the so-called “business climate” rankings by the Tax Foundation and others, and is a widely acknowledged authority on the faults in various measures of supposed “business climates” in the states.

Fisher, in this guest opinion in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, noted weaknesses in the Tax Foundation’s claims, not the least of which is that the anti-tax messages are not supported by the foundation’s own report. Fisher notes this about the Tax Foundation’s “State Business Tax Climate Index”:

It is a mish-mash of 118 tax features … weighted arbitrarily and combined into a single number for the index.

This number has no real meaning. It produces wacky results because it gives great weight to some minor tax features (such as the number of tax brackets) while leaving out completely two things that have a huge impact on corporate income taxes in Iowa: single sales factor, and federal deductibility.

This past spring, this Iowa Fiscal Partnership two-pager noted:

A variety of factors influence the decisions businesses make about whether they want to locate or expand within a given state. These factors include available infrastructure, the proximity to materials and customers, the skill of its workforce, and whether the state has good schools, roads, hospitals, and public safety. As we have shown elsewhere, state taxes play at best a minor role.

In Iowa, we constantly hear the same old argument … used to enact large tax cuts for commercial and industrial property this past year and continues to be an excuse used to justify giving away large tax credits to businesses throughout the state.

But this argument just isn’t true…

Whether we are looking at the entire range of taxes that fall on businesses or just the corporate income tax, the fact is that business taxes in Iowa are low.

Only if Iowa policy makers and the public ignore the reality on Iowa business taxes will these special interests get their way again.

Owen-2013-57 Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

*View Peter Fisher’s reports for Good Jobs First on business climate rankings: