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).

160216-RAC-chksVclmsVsupp2b-line

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

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:

 

Two numbers say so much

There is no point where we say, “Enough already. You know, Company X, you had $200 million in profits last year — we don’t really think your shareholders need Iowa taxpayers’ help when our schools can’t keep up with costs and our city water systems need updates and our roads have potholes.”

Two numbers say so much: 140 and $36 million.

Last year, 140 companies paid no income taxes in Iowa but — through the tax code — received $36 million in research checks.

Those two numbers alone tell us two things: We have a problem with transparency, and we have a problem setting priorities.

We know those two numbers because Iowa’s Department of Revenue is required every February to report on the use of the state’s Research Activities Credit.

We don’t know enough about what’s behind those two numbers — the problem of transparency. As it’s public money, the assumption should be that we are owed full information about where every dollar is spent (a case made well by The Des Moines Register in a recent editorial). Cities, schools and counties are required to disclose this routinely.

In fairness, some lawmakers worked hard in 2009 to assure the transparency that we do have, passing a good law that required the annual reports. Before that, we had even less information. Big business fought hard to stop the law, and failed. And because we have the law, we can make several noteworthy observations that are detailed in this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder, and get some insights on who benefits, as in the table below.

Table3-RACrecipients-w

But the annual reports do not tell us — or indicate with certainty — which companies receive the benefit as checks, how much each receives or how the money is used. There is no evidence of jobs created. There is no evidence of need or of public benefit, or return on the public investment.

There is no point where we say, “Enough already. You know, Company X, you had $200 million in profits last year — we don’t really think your shareholders need Iowa taxpayers’ help when our schools can’t keep up with costs and our city water systems need updates and our roads have potholes. And, by the way, your company and your employees are better off if we take care of those priorities before we give money to you.”

This exposes the problem with budget priorities: This spending is done outside the budget process. Spending on the RAC is decided before the Legislature even convenes. It’s automatic. The decision has already been made for 2015, and 2016, and so on, and we don’t even know for sure how much it will cost — though the Revenue Department projects it to grow precipitously.

State law provides that companies are entitled to that money regardless of any other pressures on state budget choices — including cuts to education. Example: In 2013, Iowa spent that $36 million to help companies that contributed no income tax, but for the current fiscal year that started in July 2013, the state reneged on its commitment to the school funding formula. The state fell more than $60 million short of its share, leaving property taxpayers to pay it — in the same year, by the way, that legislators boasted about property-tax reform.

I think I know where we could have found $36 million of that lost school funding.

A special state panel that reviewed all Iowa tax credits in 2009 singled out the so-called “refundability” of the RAC as a special problem. It recommended eliminating refundability for big companies, which have dominated the spending on this credit. And it also recommended putting a sunset — an automatic elimination — on all tax credits after five years. To keep them going, the Legislature would actually have to take a vote on them. That is accountability.

As it stands, our Legislature does not touch this issue. Meanwhile, big and immensely profitable companies are sucking dollars away from our local schools, state universities, community colleges, local police, county mental health services, environmental quality programs and enforcement, wage and hour enforcement … well, you get the idea.

That is the budget choice being made, because our state is happily spending on autopilot with no proof of a public benefit.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Job Creationism

Because he wanted to be a Job Creator, since he had heard that Job Creators get all kinds of public praise and respect, not to mention some significant perks, like being able to flash the Job Creator ID card whenever anyone threatens to raise your taxes.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

In the beginning, there was a CEO. And he said, “Let there be jobs.” Because he wanted to be a Job Creator, since he had heard that Job Creators get all kinds of public praise and respect, not to mention some significant perks, like being able to flash the Job Creator ID card whenever anyone threatens to raise your taxes. Others touted the ability of the Job Creator card to transfix governors and state legislators, who would then intone “We will grant you any incentives you ask for, oh wonderful Job Creator.” And amazingly, spending public money indiscriminately on Job Creators helps those public officials get re-elected. A win-win situation, at least if you leave ordinary working citizens out of the equation.

And his board of directors said, “Hey wait a minute; how about a new product first, and consumers who are willing and able to buy it.” So the CEO bought up an innovative start-up company, and conducted market studies. And it turned out that indeed there was a market for this product, and sales to be had, and profits to be made.

But the CEO discovered that his board of directors and his shareholders really wanted him to focus on that last point: profits. It turned out that maximizing profits required minimizing costs, which actually meant hiring as few people as possible. Workers, it seemed, could be a pain; they wanted to be paid, and to get benefits like health insurance, and work in safe and reasonable conditions, and maybe join a union. So the CEO set about creating as few jobs as he could, at the lowest wages that would get the skills he needed, with as little job security as he could get away with. He hired consultants to tell him how to keep them from joining unions. And he dreamed of a company that had no employees whatsoever.

As consumers spent more, the company produced more, and hired more workers. (Hmmm; seems like consumers are creating jobs. We can’t call everyone a Job Creator, though; sorry folks.) But then there was a recession, and consumers stopped buying and the CEO had to lay off half his work force. And when the economy recovered he found he could make more profits without hiring them all back, by mechanizing some operations and outsourcing others to low-paid workers overseas.

The CEO fretted for a moment. Would they repossess his Job Creator card, because he was actually destroying jobs? Well, not to worry. It turns out that you can destroy jobs right and left and that has no effect on your status. In fact, you can ship 1,000 jobs overseas and then get praised for opening a new U.S. branch that employs 50. Not just praised, but rewarded, with tax exemptions and credits and such. Things that really help that profit maximizing thing that your board is so worried about.  In fact, it seemed that the more Job Creators laid off workers, the more desperate people became for jobs, and the more lavishly they showered benefits on the Job Creators. How could you lose with a deal like this?

When he read the fine print on the back of the card the CEO understood how membership actually worked: Anyone in a position to hire (and fire) was a Job Creator. Your actual record didn’t matter. Nor did anyone seem to worry about the actual source of job gains being traced to innovation, and research, and public support of universities, and public investments in transportation and other infrastructure, and broadly shared income that allowed consumers to buy the products and services that workers were producing.

So the CEO quit worrying, and sipped his martinis on the beaches of various tax havens in the Caribbean, contemplating how well deserved was his status as a Job Creator, and how nice it was to be worshipped for who you were instead of what you did.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Budget balance can mix responsible tax reform with smart investments. A $750 tax credit for all is neither.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

This session of the Iowa Legislature offers a tremendous opportunity to move the state forward with a balanced approach — including responsible, fair tax reform and investments in critical needs that have gone unmet, in education at all levels, in environmental quality and public safety.

The proposal for a blanket $750 tax credit to couples, regardless of need and blind to the opportunity cost of even more lost investments, does not fit that approach. To compound a penchant to spend money on tax breaks is fiscally irresponsible to the needs of Iowa taxpayers, who will benefit from better services, and to the promise that we would return to proper investments when the economy turned up, as it has. Furthermore, to give away Iowa’s surplus when uncertainty remains about the impact of federal budget decisions on our state’s tax system and services is tremendously short-sighted.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has established, cutbacks in higher education funding have caused costs and debt to rise for students and their families, not only at the Regents institutions but community colleges as well. While Iowa voters, through a statewide referendum, have expressly called for new revenues to go toward better environmental stewardship, lawmakers have not taken action. The surplus we now see should be used responsibly for the future of Iowans, who patiently endured budget austerity for the day when we could once again see support for critical services. This is no time to be forgetting our responsibilities.

Iowa can do better by returning to the basics of good budgeting, crafting budget and tax choices that keep a long-term focus on the needs of young and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the foundations we leave them.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Accountability is good for tax breaks, too

What’s good for the goose of preschool is certainly good for the gander of tax breaks.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

The Des Moines Register has an interesting editorial today about the state’s voluntary preschool program. The Register is asking for accountability:

“Before lawmakers consider any new education reforms, they should ensure that the changes they made a few years ago are helping.”

Hard for anyone to argue with that. Advocates of preschool surely would not fear a legitimate review. And what better time to review and adjust a program than its early years?

Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the same concept applied to Iowa’s many tax breaks for corporations? Do they do any good? There is no evidence that they do for the most part, a fact ignored routinely by the Iowa General Assembly and our Governors past and present, but they just keep on going. The idea of a review of tax breaks only gets lip service from most lawmakers; there are no serious reviews and no teeth in state law to require them.

The Research Activities Credit alone is a program crying out for this kind of scrutiny, a point clear from the few details that are available (See http://www.iowafiscal.org/2012research/120221-IFP-RAC.html). Unlike the preschool program, in which 9 out of 10 Iowa school districts participate, the RAC is used by a relative handful of companies in Iowa, well under 200, and is dominated by less than 10.

The money is not all that different: $58 million in 2011-12 for preschool through the state formula vs. almost $48 million for the RAC in 2011 — with $45 million of that paid in “refund checks.” These are not refunds of taxes paid, and they don’t even reduce taxes. Instead, millions go to big corporations such as Rockwell Collins, Deere and DuPont that owe so little in income tax that their tax credits are far above the amount of taxes they owe.

What’s good for the goose of preschool is certainly good for the gander of tax breaks.

//EDITOR’S NOTE: The next annual report on the use of the Research Activities Credit is due Feb. 15 from the Iowa Department of Revenue. Stay tuned!//

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Does Iowa know when to walk away?

You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

There’s Texas Hold ’Em,” and then there’s “Iowa Fold ’Em.”

Wouldn’t you just love to play poker against the folks who run this state?

They never call a bluff. Companies come calling with demands for tax breaks and big checks, or they’ll build somewhere else. And Iowa just happily falls in line with the demands. You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The latest: Today the board of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is scheduled to consider sweetening its already generous offer to Orascom — $35 million to build a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County — to about $110 million with a slew of new tax credits. As The Des Moines Register points out today, that’s $110 million for 165 “permanent” jobs paying on average $48,000 a year, plus construction jobs that will be gone when the project is finished.

The state tax credits are in addition to the enormous benefit the state is providing by allocating federal tax-exempt flood recovery bonds to this project. If the interest rate difference — between taxable and tax-exempt bonds — were 1 percentage point, the company would save $320 million in interest payments over the life of the $1.2 billion bond. That would bring the firm’s total benefits to $2.7 million per permanent job, a truly astounding number. Even without considering the federal interest subsidy, the state tax credits would total $687,500 per job, many times the typical level of subsidy in deals such as this.

There are no estimates available about the potential environmental costs that will be caused by this plant. Since Iowa does a poor job of monitoring for pollution damage, those ongoing costs might be low, but if there is an accident, it could be costly.

The Register also quotes Debi Durham, head of IEDA, that incentives wouldn’t be needed if Iowa were to reduce corporate income tax rates. Nonsense. Research has shown repeatedly that this is a myth, and that in fact, Iowa’s income taxes paid by corporations are competitive with other states. In many cases, giant corporations are paying not a dime in income tax yet getting huge subsidy checks from the state to do things they would do without incentives.

This hand is the one we are dealt from years of unaccountable economic development strategies by Iowa state government.

Time for a fresh deck.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director