Today’s virtual House graphic: Iowa’s growing spending on tax credits

Growth in tax-credit spending by the state of Iowa has erupted over the last decade.

Editor’s Note: The Iowa House of Representatives voted Monday to deny the ability of lawmakers to use visual aids in debate on the floor. To help Iowans visualize what kinds of graphics might be useful in these debates to illustrate facts, we will offer examples. Here is today’s graphic, to illustrate state trends in spending on business tax credits.

170207-taxcredits-2007-21As the Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Fiscal Partnership have pointed out before, Iowa’s perceived budget shortfalls are largely self-inflicted. Iowa Department of Revenue reports provide a lot of data about tax credits, particularly in reports that are prepared for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines what revenue lawmakers have available to spend. These reports show the cost of those credits, which are also known as “tax expenditures,” because they effectively spend money through the tax code — revenues that otherwise would be available for fund schools and other public services.

Growth in tax-credit spending has erupted in Iowa over the last decade, tripling from $75 million in FY2007 to $237 million last year. They are projected by the Department of Revenue to reach $279 million in the current fiscal year, and to nearly $300 million in just four years.

For more information about Iowa spending on tax credits, see this page on the Iowa Fiscal Partnership website.

Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly.

Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

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

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

Watch tax spending more closely

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Iowa is behind — not that we didn’t already know that.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines several aspects of what states do in budget planning. Particularly noteworthy in the report for Iowa is its poor attention to the impact of tax expenditures — spending through the tax code. When we have a tax break on the books, such as a credit or exemption, it has an impact on the budget bottom line the same as if the lost revenues were spent on the other side of the ledger.

Most of this spending, as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has shown over the years, is on autopilot. These breaks exist year to year, never requiring renewal — unlike the kind of spending we do through direct appropriations, where critical services are subjected to annual scrutiny to exist or not for another year.

Here’s why it matters, according to the executive summary of the CBPP report:

When recessions occur, states must scrutinize all forms of spending.  An important tool for this is oversight of various tax expenditures (tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that reduce state revenue), which in many ways function as spending through the tax code. This will enable states to make sound choices between the most essential tax expenditures and those the state can forgo. For example, states can regularly publish tax expenditure reports that list each tax break and its cost. And states can enact sunset provisions so that tax breaks expire in a specified number of years unless policymakers choose to extend them.

The problem in Iowa is not a lack of analysis or data. The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) has produced solid tax expenditure studies in 2000, 2005 and 2010. They are found here on the DOR website. And there is considerable information outside those formal studies that illustrate overall costs — primarily a so-called “tax credit contingent liabilities report” offered three-to-four times a year by DOR for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference. Furthermore, a number of important tax expenditures have been the subject of in-depth reports to the legislative committee charged with reviewing tax credits.

So in what way is Iowa behind the curve? The CBPP report lists 10 ways states can better budget for the future, including one on the tax-expenditure oversight issue:

Oversight of tax expenditures:  expiration dates for tax expenditures after a set number of years to subject them to regular scrutiny of their cost and effectiveness, in addition to tax expenditure reports that list the costs of individual tax breaks.

Such expiration dates are called “sunsets.” A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Culver in the wake of the 2009 film-credit scandal produced a set of strong recommendations for reform, among them a five-year sunset on all credits. This proposal was ignored.

Furthermore, a review of tax credits on a five-year rotation set up by lawmakers in response to that panel’s recommendations has produced no apparent policy change; this perhaps is not surprising since the committee that reviews the credits has not issued findings that the credits are meeting the intent of policy, or producing a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Hyperbole Alert: The drumbeat to cut corporate taxes in Iowa

Want to talk reform? Then recognize the real problems — we receive less in corporate tax than we used to, and don’t collect a lot because of the swiss-cheese nature of our tax code.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

TWELVE PERCENT!

The figure practically screams at you, even when it’s not in all caps, when the conversation comes to corporate tax rates in Iowa.

Here’s the thing: It’s not a real number. Not really.

That is what is known as Iowa’s “top marginal rate” on corporate income tax. And it’s not a real number because it simply does not — cannot — reflect what a business pays on all its profits. Yet that is the implication when people (especially politicians) or corporations complain about it.

A top Iowa columnist, Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, this week discussed the political battles over Iowa’s latest gigantic subsidies to Egyptian fertilizer company Orascom. In his piece he expressed a note of concern about the hyperbole in those battles. Then, he turned the discussion to Governor Branstad’s desire for cuts in corporate income taxes.

It is in that discussion where the hyperbole typically has been the strongest in Iowa. We are often told — as Dorman noted — that Iowa’s top corporate income tax rate is the nation’s highest. Note the emphasis added on “top.” More on that in a moment. Dorman also noted, accurately, that Iowa “has four brackets and a tangle of special interest credits.”

Because of the latter, any serious concern for our corporate friends should evaporate. Because they’re really being taken care of quite nicely, thank you, by their friends in the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office.

Now, about that “top rate.” It applies only to Iowa-taxable corporate profits above $250,000. Iowa doesn’t tax any profits from sales outside the state, so the rate doesn’t apply at all there, which for many businesses is a significant share of profits. For all taxable profits below $250,000, rates are lower — 6 percent on the first $25,000, 8 percent on the next $75,000 and 10 percent on the next $150,000.

Before these rates kick in, the business gets to deduct half its federal income tax from taxable income, and may have other deductions or ways to shelter income from state tax.

Then, after the rates are computed and the taxes determined, the tax credits enter the picture — and state revenues exit. The state just expanded the potential for those credits by $50 million, raising the cap on a select group of credits. In the case of the Research Activities Credit, these credits not only erase all tax liability, but offer state checks for the remaining amount of the credit. Through that program in 2012, Iowa paid out almost $33 million to 130 firms that paid no income tax, because those companies had more credits than tax liability.

And you can bet the corporate execs and their accountants fully understand all these nooks and crannies in our tax code. But if you want to give them a free million or so, they’ll take it. They are smart folks, and they have proven themselves to be more skilled negotiators than Iowa’s economic development moguls.

Want to talk reform? Then recognize the real problems — that we receive less in corporate tax than we used to, and that a lot of corporate tax is not collected because of the swiss-cheese nature of our tax code. That gives us all something to talk about.

Just be ready for the hyperbole from those who don’t want to change that part of our system.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


For more information about Iowa business taxes, see these Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports:
— “Reducing Iowa Commercial Property Taxes,” by Heather Milway and Peter Fisher, April 24, 2013.
— “Amid Plans to Relax Limits, Business Tax Credits Grow,” by Heather Gibney, April 16, 2013.
— “Corporate Taxes and State Economic Growth,” by Peter Fisher, revised April 2013.
— “A $40 Million Budget Hole: Persistent and Growing,” IFP backgrounder, February 25, 2013.
— “Tax Credit Reform Glass Half-Full? Maybe Some Moisture,” IFP backgrounder, revised March 23, 2010.
— “Single Factor to Consider,” IFP backgrounder, April 2, 2008.

The limits of transparency

Despite the PIRG grade, problems with Iowa’s tax spending transparency tell more about Iowa.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

You can’t fix problems you can’t find. That’s why transparency is so important in public policy and especially spending through the tax code.

You would never find some of this information just going to the Iowa Economic Development Authority website — you have to know where to look. And even then, there are limitations on what is available from the state for its citizens to see.

The Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Fiscal Partnership have long argued for greater transparency with regard to the state’s expenditures on economic development through the tax code. We are happy to see a new report from the Iowa Public Interest Research Group that brings attention to this issue, properly including business tax credits and other tax expenditures among the categories of state spending that citizens have a right to know about.

But it’s very important to look at the deficiencies that remain in Iowa. In our view, those problems tell far more about the state’s interest in transparency than the items that are given a favorable rating by PIRG.

While the PIRG report gives Iowa credit for having a website that allows a citizen to find economic development subsidies awarded by company name (including the amount, the jobs promised, the jobs created, and the location), two problems in particular should be addressed in the future.

  • First, only tax credits that must be awarded are listed; similar information should be available for all economic development tax credits, including those that are automatic.
  • Second, the database of subsidies is buried deep in the website of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (for those interested it is here: http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/annualrpt/?cmd=default&rptyear=2011). It’s hard for the public to find. A link to this database should be posted on the state’s DataShare website, where only aggregate information on tax credits is available.

The Legislature did pass a notable transparency improvement in 2009 that requires the state to identify by name the recipients of Research Activities Credits in excess of $500,000. The bill failed, however, to require identification of how much of a company’s credit was in the form of a refund check. Taxpayers have a right to know how much of their tax dollars are going to subsidize corporations that are paying no state income tax.

It should be clear by now that the disclosure of company-specific subsidy information does no harm to the company or to the state’s economic development efforts; there is no excuse not to make all of our business tax subsidies transparent.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director