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

How real Iowa tax reform would look

Don’t believe the anti-tax spinners driving Iowa to the low road with discredited “analysis” of our tax climate.

See IPP’s Roadmap for Opportunity piece on tax reform

Iowa is an average-tax state. Even before expensive tax cuts passed in 2018 to benefit the wealthiest, Iowans paid about 2.5 percent of their income toward income taxes, 2.4 percent for sales taxes, which earns us a rank of 20th and 21st, respectively, among the 50 states.[1] Business taxes in Iowa are actually below average according to recent studies by two accounting firms: one placed Iowa 31st, the other 36th.[2]

Basic RGBBut our tax system already failed the fairness test before those new tax cuts. The highest income Iowans pay a smaller share of their income to state and local taxes than lower and middle-income Iowans — our tax system is regressive. Those in the bottom fifth of Iowa households by income pay 12.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while those with incomes in the top 1 percent pay just 7.7 percent.[3] And hundreds of millions in tax revenue are lost every year to corporate loopholes and business tax credits that produce little or no public benefit. At the same time, the state struggles every year to adequately fund education, public safety, health care and other priorities.

Real tax reform, then, would mean three things: (1) ensuring adequate revenue, (2) reducing the regressivity of our tax system, and (3) reining in corporate tax credits and loopholes.

Iowa’s 2018 tax law fails the test, cutting back on both fairness and revenues

The legislation signed into law in 2018 does none of these things. It cuts revenue, makes the tax system more regressive by concentrating tax cuts on the rich, and fails to reform credits or loopholes.[4] The package had one true benefit: modernizing the sales tax to include online purchases and level the playing field for local and state-based businesses.

Under this legislation, however, the income tax savings to a middle-class family by 2021 amount to just $5 to $10 a week and much of that will be taken back by the sales-tax increase. Millionaires, on the other hand, will see on average a $24,636 cut for the year. Almost half of the tax cuts will go to the richest 2.5 percent of Iowa taxpayers, those making $250,000 or more.

The 2018 tax bill also piles $40 million in corporate tax cuts on top of commercial property tax cuts enacted several years ago that have cost local governments millions of dollars. A new special tax break for business owners who receive “pass-through” income will cost in excess of $65 million a year, with 60 percent of the benefit going to the top 2 percent of taxpayers.

Overall, the bill will take $300 to $400 million a year out of the budget that could have gone to adequately fund education or public safety or mental health care. Those revenue cuts will happen regardless of the state of the Iowa economy or the budget; no safeguards will prevent it, despite the bill’s much touted “triggers.”[5]

To add insult to injury, the tax bill is far more likely to hurt the Iowa economy than to help it. The tax cutting experiment in Kansas was a failure, harming the state economy rather than helping it.[6] And Iowa’s own experience with massive tax cutting, in the late 1990s, not only failed to stimulate growth, but likely contributed to the subsequent slowing of the state’s economy.[7] 

Policy Alternatives: The elements of real reform 

    • Ensure adequate funding for our schools, which have been underfunded for years, revenue failing to keep pace with costs. End cuts to state funding of Iowa’s public universities and community colleges, forcing higher tuition, and leaving students and families with rising debt.
    • Plug corporate tax loopholes that cost Iowa an estimated $200 million a year,[8] and rein in business tax credits that grew from $200 million to $423 million in six years.[9]
    • Make our tax system fairer, and better based on ability to pay. This should be done by providing enhanced recognition of the cost of raising a family by expanding the child tax credit and the child and dependent care credit, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Less reliance on the sales tax, which has doubled since 1983 and is poised for another potential increase, or offsets to these increases can enhance opportunities for low- and moderate-income families now put at a disadvantage.

Rebalancing the tax code would reduce its current regressive nature, which imposes higher taxes as a share of income on lower- and middle-income Iowans than on the wealthy.

[1] Taxes as a percent of state personal income for the most recent five years available, 2013-2017, from the U.S. Census, Census of Government Finances.

[2] Iowa ranks 31st in business taxes as a percent of GSP according to Ernst & Young LLP, Total state and local business taxes, October 2019. Table 4, page 12. https://www.cost.org/globalassets/cost/stri/studies-and-reports/FY16-State-And-Local-Business-Tax-Burden-Study.pdf.pdf; Iowa ranks 36th (with #1 being the highest tax rate) in business taxes as a share of business pre-tax operating surplus by Anderson Economic Group LLC, June 2018. 2018 State Business Tax Burden Rankings, Exhibit I, page 17. https://www.andersoneconomicgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/AEGBusinessTaxBurdenStudy_2018_FINAL.pdf

[3] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Who Pays? Sixth Edition. https://itep.org/whopays-map/

[4] See Charles Bruner and Peter Fisher, “Tax plan facts vs. spin.” Iowa Fiscal Partnership, May 5, 2018. http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-plan-facts-vs-spin/

[5] All the triggers would do is save us from an even larger budget disaster in 2023 and beyond. The triggers are revenue targets; if the targets are not achieved, the last round of cuts will not take place as scheduled for tax year 2023.

[6] Michael Mazerov. “Kansas Provides Compelling Evidence of Failure of ‘Supply-Side’ Tax Cuts.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 22, 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/kansas-provides-compelling-evidence-of-failure-of-supply-side-tax-cuts

[7] Peter Fisher. “Tax cuts: Already tried, failed.” Iowa Policy Points, April 23, 2018. https://iowapolicypoints.org/2018/04/23/tax-cuts-already-tried-failed/

[8] Iowa Policy Project analysis of Iowa Department of Revenue estimates.

[9] “Growing cost, lax oversight of Iowa business tax credits.” Iowa Fiscal Partnership, March 16, 2018. http://www.iowafiscal.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/180319-IFP-taxcredit-bgd.pdf

For starters, issues to watch in 2019

There are many issues to watch in the new Iowa legislative session. Here is a non-exhaustive list, identifying where policy changes could affect opportunity for many thousands of Iowans.

With the 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature officially underway, the Iowa Policy Project is a dependable source for quality information and analysis on Iowa’s most pressing policy challenges. IPP’s Roadmap for Opportunity project will highlight and clarify many of these challenges as they emerge. Among issues to watch:

Public funds for private schools

Vouchers or “education savings grants” stand to take more money away from public schools and add to the $66 million Iowa taxpayers pay every year to support private education. Funding for Iowa’s public schools has failed to keep up with rising costs. Underfunded schools impact student development and workforce potential. Read more in our Roadmap piece, “Strengthening public education, no new subsidies to private schools” and the accompanying backgrounder, “Taxpayer support of private education in Iowa.”

Unemployment compensation

Unemployment insurance is an important program that supports workers experiencing temporary unemployment and acts as a macroeconomic stabilizer during economic downturn.[1] Because states are granted flexibility in shaping the program, there lies potential to undermine it, as other states have recently. More to come on this issue.

Attacks on public pensions

Maintaining a strong public pension system in Iowa ensures that we are able to attract and retain quality state employees who teach our children and protect our communities. It is important that Iowa wards off attempts to restructure the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) in ways that erode retirement security. For more, read our Roadmap piece, “IPERS works to boost retirees, economy.”

Further tax cuts

During the 2018 session, legislators passed a package of tax changes that largely benefit wealthy Iowans, with 2.5 percent of Iowa earners taking nearly half of tax cuts. The current administration has signaled support for further cuts that would endanger services that promote thriving communities such as education and healthcare. Read more on “What real Iowa tax reform would look like.”

Protecting Iowans’ health

Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system continues to cut off patient care and miss payments to providers. With little hope of returning the program to state control anytime soon, we must ensure that cost savings are achieved by increasing innovation and efficiency, not by undercutting health care providers or denying services to the sick and disabled. We should also stay away from Medicaid work requirements, which lead to disenrollment and additional barriers for elderly and disabled Iowans without meaningfully improving employment.[2] For more, read out Roadmap piece, “Restoring success of Iowa Medicaid.”

As noted above, this is not an exhaustive list — only a start. Stay up to date on our analysis through Facebook, Twitter, and our email newsletter.

[1] Chad Stone and William Chen, “Introduction to Unemployment Insurance.” July 2014. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/12-19-02ui.pdf

[2] Center for Law and Social Policy, “Medicaid Works: No Work Requirement Necessary.” December 2018. https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/medicaid-works-no-work-requirement-necessary

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

A Roadmap for Opportunity: It’s Time to Put Iowa on the Right Path

At this critical juncture, Iowa can take the high road to shared prosperity, or go down a dead end.

181009-roadmap-logoIowa can unlock the potential of each individual and allow all workers to share in the fruits of their labor by making public investments in the foundations of a strong economy. Well-resourced schools, access to higher education, decent wages and protections, economic supports, clean water and renewable energy, and a cleaned-up tax system, all can pave the way to opportunities and broadly shared prosperity that Iowans want.

Unfortunately, policy choices have put us on a road that prioritizes corporate profits over worker wages and corporate tax cuts over the public investments that allow for a strong, sustainable economy. We are at a crossroads and our policy choices today and in the near future can either pave the path to economic opportunity in every corner of our state, or create roadblocks to prosperity for everyday Iowans.

Our people-first roadmap offers the way forward. It lays out the evidence-based, responsible solutions to our state’s most pressing issues, pinpointing several stops along the way that would mark progress for our state, such as:

pinCreating the workforce of our future and ensuring our children reach their potential. Iowa can and should ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need for every child to succeed, no matter where they live. We also must restore our commitment to higher education with more state support, lower tuition, and aid to reduce student debt.

pinBoosting economic security and supports for working Iowans. Giving Iowans’ lowest wage workers a long overdue raise, ensuring workers get paid what they’re legally owed, shoring up our system of compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, and restoring worker rights to collective bargaining can ensure that all Iowa workers are getting a fair deal. Iowans also need a boost in child care assistance, which can make or break the ability of a family to work.

pinRestoring a public commitment to the health and well-being of every Iowan, particularly seniors and people living with disabilities. Reversing the privatization of Medicaid and pursuing cost savings through innovation and efficiency rather than reduced services and worker wages are critical steps to ensuring access to health care for all Iowans — now and in the future.

pinEnsuring clean water and renewable energy for a healthy, sustainable Iowa. We can and must balance the state’s need for clean and abundant water with our agricultural economy by reducing water pollution. Likewise, Iowa should restore its legacy of leadership in renewable and efficient energy in order to create a cleaner, greener state for future generations.

pinCleaning up and restoring balance to the tax code. Right now, Iowa asks the lowest income Iowans to pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than those with the highest incomes. We can fix this by cleaning up corporate tax loopholes that squander precious public dollars that could otherwise be invested in shared opportunity for Iowans.

Iowa is at a critical juncture. We can take the high road that leads to progress and shared prosperity, or go down a dead end. The policies in this roadmap provide a clear route to a stronger Iowa. For more detail on each stop on the roadmap, please click here.