Missing an opportunity for tax-credit reform?

Nothing is objectionable about proposed tax-credit reforms — but much more needs to be done.

Christine Ralston
Christine Ralston

Iowa is missing an opportunity to implement strong transparency measures and to recapture revenue that it has been allowing to slip away for years.

Legislation passed by the Senate and now before the House appears to make only small, cosmetic changes to a serious structural problem. Generous tax credits have been leaking revenue out of the state for many years. Considering the recent scandal in the film tax credit program and the fact that Iowa, like most other states, faces revenue shortfalls of historic proportions, the state very much needs meaningful reform.

The Governor’s Tax Credit Review Panel made promising recommendations, and the Governor supported those recommendations when he issued a call for action in his Condition of the State address. Yet, the legislative package falls far short of the panel’s recommendations. For example:

Table comparing tax-credit reform proposals

It is important to note that lowering a cap is not the same thing as “saving” money. When the sum of all business credit claims is not reaching that cap, then the state is only reducing its potential liability and not saving any actual dollars.

The proposal is also lacking in essential new transparency measures. No additional disclosures regarding tax credits and expenditures are proposed in the plan. Iowans should know who is getting their tax dollars.

And this bill is certainly not good news for the thousands of Iowans who are seeing important safety net programs and jobs disappear during this recession.

Does this bill do something? Yes. Does it do much? No. Nothing in this bill is objectionable when considering the principles of sound tax policy. That said, much more needs to be done to move Iowa forward and to solve Iowa’s budget problems using an approach that is truly balanced.

Posted by Christine Ralston, Research Associate

More transparency on biz handouts — eventually

Think opening the books on public business doesn’t bother corporations? Think again.

While transparency is good, and will result from a new law passed last year, lawmakers made a mistake in not having the new legislation take effect immediately.

Effect of transparency law
Research credit claims spike just ahead of disclosure law effective date

Lawmakers ordered annual public disclosure of recipients of the Research Activities Credit with claims exceeding $500,000.

Instead of an immediate effective date, the law carried a July 1 effective date. That gave companies two months to get their claims filed before the information gathering would begin — a temporary window to avoid disclosure. Some jumped through that loophole, to the tune of an estimated $25 million.

The Iowa Department of Revenue reported on this in its December Contingent Liabilities report for the Revenue Estimating Conference. After estimating RAC claims for FY2009 at $45.5 million and $46.1 million in August and October reports, that number spiked to $70.8 million in the December report.

The DOR report itself attributed the spike in the estimate to the new transparency law:

There was also a dramatic increase in the amount of Research Activities Tax Credit claims in FY 2009. The majority of the increase in FY 2009 claims is a result of corporations filing claims early, before the July 1, 2010, effective date for a new disclosure requirement for Research Activities Tax Credit claims exceeding $500,000. As a result the estimate for FY 2010 was lowered to account for those claims moving forward a fiscal year. (emphasis added)

The graph above shows where the steady upward trend in RAC claims broke sharply with passage of the disclosure law, claims spiking just ahead of the law taking effect, and the projected one-year reduction before the trend returns.

Think opening the books on public business doesn’t bother corporations? Think again. When public business is tied too closely to private business, as we see with the RAC, taxpayer accountability suffers.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

New peek at secret checks

The Iowa Department of Revenue has released its 2006 Tax Credit Claims Report.

According to the report, during tax year 2006, Research Activity Credit (RAC) claims were $30.5 million — with 70 percent of that in so-called “refunds.” Important to note: These “refunds” don’t “refund” anything. Rather, they are what the state pays companies that can’t use all of their tax credits because they don’t owe enough tax.

And, by the way, these payments are state secrets — secret checks to companies that don’t pay corporate income tax in Iowa. We only get to know the overall amount of them, but not who gets what. It would be different if these checks came from direct appropriations, through the regular budget process.

This is an example of spending through the tax code that is costing the state of Iowa many millions of dollars each year. By 2012, the RAC is expected to cost the state over $100 million – part of the growing problem of ballooning tax expenditures that have weakened Iowa’s revenue structure.

The new report from Revenue also notes that the supplemental RAC – separate awards provided by the Department of Economic Development – cost the state $13.4 million in 2006, with most of that ($13.1 million) in “refunds.” Governor Culver has proposed doing away with that spending to save the state $13 million in the FY2010 budget.

See the full Department of Revenue report.