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

Watching your quarters — transparent state finances

Companies receive secret checks. That’s business as usual in Iowa, where corporate giveaways are out of control.

Getting a handle on where corporate subsidies go can be slippery business.

When you put your money in, do you see where it goes?

It’s an important question for taxpayers, and it’s one the Iowa General Assembly may address further this spring.

The so-called “Research Activities Credit,” or RAC, has become an annual drain on the state Treasury of $30-40 million and is projected to reach past $60 million in a few years. But the biggest cost is not simply tax revenues lost to a credit against taxes owed. The biggest cost of the RAC is in its poorly named “refund” program. If a company can claim a credit larger than its taxes owed, it gets what’s called a “refund” — for taxes it never had to pay.

These “refunds” averaged about 92 percent of claims from 2000-05, and in 2005 averaged $3 million per recipient. That is money that never has to go through the regular budget process, scrutinized by legislative committees and weighed against the state’s priorities. If it were a grant, or a regular budget item, you would see where that money goes. But since it’s rewarded through the tax system, you don’t. The companies receive secret checks.

That’s business as usual in Iowa, where corporate giveaways are literally out of control.

Maybe this will start to change. A new law passed last year could be a critical first step toward transparency of subsidies to private corporations. Recipients of RAC claims above $500,000 will be named, with amounts received, in an upcoming report from the Department of Revenue.

You’ll be able to see where at least some of the money is going, and count your quarters — a half-million dollars at a time!

Posted 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.

Focus on Facts: Reform Lowers Rates

There’s a lot of confusion being promoted by some about the tax-reform plan before the Iowa Legislature.

There are three main points to it:

  • • It lowers Iowa’s tax rates, taking the top rate down by 2 percentage points.
  • • To enable the lower rates, it does away with federal deductibility.
  • • There are additional boosts in tax credits targeted to low- and moderate-income working families.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysts have — like others — been going through the figures provided by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) about the effects of the total package. Those effects have been portrayed many ways. IFP considers the following to be the most important points to be understood from that LSA analysis:

  • • For both 2009 and 2010, 73 percent of households with incomes below $50,000 a year would see their taxes either stay the same or decrease under the reform proposal.
  • • During 2009, households earning below $50,000 would, on average, see a tax change of no more than $70 in either direction, as a cut or an increase.
  • • Overall, Iowans earning below $125,000 would, on average, see a tax cut or no change.

That last number is an important one. We’ve been hearing a lot in recent days about effects on small business. Many of the claims don’t hold water.

As our researchers have found, more than 70 percent of small business owners in the U.S. earn less than $125,000. Because many small-business owners report and pay their state income tax on individual returns, this plan obviously helps them, too.

This plan makes a small but positive change in the tax code.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

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.