When corporations write their own tax laws

As an IFP report noted, Iowa could put up signs: “Welcome, Multistate Corporations: Cheat on Your Taxes Here.”

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Sunday’s New York Times asks a poignant question: What’s the record for shutting a loophole?

What caught the Times’ attention was about as brazen a move as we could expect from the shady-deal wings of corporate America: The tobacco industry, facing a 20-fold tax increase on roll-your-own cigarettes to help support the Children’s Health Insurance Program, just changed the label of a product to avoid the tax. Noted the Times:

Companies simply remarketed roll-your-own as “pipe tobacco,” which is taxed at one-tenth the rate and is not subject to any definitive distinction under the law. The result is that roll-your-own companies, while a small part of the cigarette industry, quintupled their output of pipe tobacco in just five months to 1.7 million pounds — enough to roll 42 million packs of cigarettes.

The evasion could cost the government more than $30 million a month in revenues, according to the Associated Press. But the potential cost to the public is far greater, since studies show higher cigarette taxes have proved to be an effective way to discourage children from smoking.

The new fear is that the gimmickry of rolling your own and using flavored (“pipe”) tobacco — now banned in packaged cigarettes — could prove irresistible for youngsters experimenting with life. And with death.

So, in one fell swoop, the industry effectively rewrote tax law on its own, without the help of Congress or the President, and not only defied the intent of Congress in finding a way to pay for better health for kids but found its own way to worsen kids’ health and drive up costs of health care.

There are lessons here for Iowa, not in terms of health policy so much as tax policy. Not that the Hawkeye State has ever been in any danger of setting records in the closing of tax loopholes. At this point, just shutting loopholes on the books for a generation would be nice, and beneficial to Iowa residents and small businesses.

For years, Iowa has allowed multistate corporations that do business here to effectively set their own tax rates. At the same time businesses complain about their income tax rate, most don’t pay it — because of legal but excessive tax breaks on the one hand and apparently legal shenanigans on the other, many businesses find ways to avoid taxes the law was designed to collect. As the cuts we’re seeing to critical public services attest, there is a cost to our generosity to big corporations.

As IPP’s Peter Fisher noted in the 2007 Iowa Fiscal Partnership report “Leveling the Playing Field,” we could just as easily put up signs at the borders: “Welcome, Multistate Corporations: Cheat on Your Taxes Here.”

By Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Iowa Fiscal Partnership supports suspension, investigation of film credit program

A critical problem with Iowa tax credits is a lack of transparency.

Governor Culver acted responsibly Friday by ordering a suspension of the state’s film tax-credit program pending further investigation of irregularities in the management of the program.

A critical problem with the film credit and many other economic development tax advantages offered to industry by the state of Iowa is a lack of transparency. State lawmakers and the public for the most part have no idea whether current tax breaks — which are typically granted as corporate entitlements — are actually performing as intended.

The initial investigation has exposed the film credits, as currently in place, as a boondoggle that is draining our state treasury. Further, this is coming at a time when our state leaders are anticipating budget cuts. All spending — including spending through the tax code — needs to be on the table when considering cuts to the budget.

Those taking advantage of apparent lax management of the film-credits program may indeed be ruining it for other filmmakers who have not done so. Nevertheless, there is no justification for continuing this program while all the problems with it are being sorted out, and while education and fundamental human services are threatened with budget cuts.

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

Federal deductibility: the reality

The word of the month in Iowa tax discussions is “federal deductibility.” It means you can deduct your federal income tax from your state income at filing time. Only a handful of states let their residents do it.

Iowa is one of only three states that permit taxpayers to deduct the full amount of federal income taxes paid.

Make no mistake: Federal deductibility is a benefit targeted for Iowa’s highest-income families. Some others benefit, but mostly, it is those at higher incomes.

The last, best analysis of this we have shows that the wealthiest 20 percent of Iowa taxpayers receive 80 percent of the tax benefit from federal deductibility (2002 figures). For the other 80 percent of Iowans, the tax cut amounted less than half of 1 percent of their income. Using those 2002 numbers, by the way, the dollar amount of the average tax cut for the top 1 percent of taxpayers was about $13,900 — more than the income of people in the bottom 20 percent.

To understand why wealthier people get the greatest benefits under federal deductibility, consider this: You have to pay federal income tax to get the Iowa deduction. Many Iowans at moderate and low incomes simply do not make enough money to pay income tax to the federal government — but Iowa law still makes them pay income tax. some provisions in the tax-reform bill in the Iowa Legislature make that situation better for low-income families.

Remember these perspectives when someone defends “federal deductibility” as something to help low- or middle-income working families. For most of them, it’s just not so.

Common sense, stability in tax reform

Statement of Beth Pearson, Iowa Policy Project
Public Hearing on Income-Tax Reform • Iowa House Chamber • March 31, 2009

Beth Pearson
Beth Pearson

Thank you, and good evening. In my capacity as a researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, I evaluate potential budget and tax policies according to whether they make our overall fiscal system more sound and help support our shared public priorities.

In general, good changes to our tax system are ones that make it fairer, more competitive, more stable and secure, and easier to understand. We want a system that provides sufficient revenue to fund essential public services, but we want it to generate that revenue in a way that respects a taxpayer’s ability to pay a tax and doesn’t distort an individual’s private economic decisions.

The income tax reform proposal now before you goes a long way in moving Iowa’s overall tax system — comprised of income, sales, and property taxes — in the direction of these basic principles. Let me talk about just two of those principles: competitiveness and fairness.

First, competitiveness. When profits dip for a small business owner during a recession, their income tax bill goes down automatically. Even those small business owners lucky enough to have steady profits in these tough economic times will likely see a tax decrease as a result of this proposal. The Tax Policy Center, a project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, found that, nationwide, seventy percent of taxpayers with small business income earned less than $100,000 in 2009. Assuming the same distribution holds true for Iowa, that would mean that more than 70 percent of taxpayers with small business income in Iowa would see an average tax decrease under this proposal. I think that makes it a more competitive system.

Second, fairness. There’s no question that there are particular types of households who benefit the most under this package: low-income working families with children. In addition to seeing lower income tax rates, these families also stand to benefit from expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps make work pay by targeting tax assistance to income earners with children, as well as expansions in the child and dependent care credit. So, yes, this package does offer a disproportionate share of its benefits to low-income families who are sending their kids to child care every day so that they can hold down a job in a tough economy. I think that makes it a fairer system.

Most tax changes made during the past 20 years in Iowa haven’t held up when scrutinized according to good budget and tax principles. But this proposal offers us an opportunity to take a step in the direction of common sense and fiscal stability, and I urge the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign this bill.

See the Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis (3-page PDF) of the legislation, Iowa Income Tax Reform: An Emphasis Upon Sound Principles.