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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Will outrage translate into policy?

Posted May 22nd, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Oh, the outrage.

Apple Inc., is (gasp!) working the federal tax code to its advantage, exploiting loopholes in the code to legally avoid paying taxes. OK, but we’ve heard it all before.

Many are expressing outrage — not an unreasonable reaction. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan is leading hearings in Washington about the issue, noting, “Our purpose with these hearings is to shine a light on practices that have allowed U.S.-based multinational corporations to amass an estimated $1.9 trillion in profits in offshore tax havens, shielded from U.S. taxes.” He went on:

A recent study found that 30 of the largest U.S. multinationals, with more than $160 billion in profits, paid nothing in federal income taxes over a recent three year period. Zero. These corporations use multiple offshore loopholes that give them significant control over how much U.S. income they will report and how much tax, if any, they will pay.

Senator Levin is indeed shining a light on a serious issue, but you can already see the excuses coming.

As a New York Times story notes:

While Apple’s strategy is unusual in its scope and effectiveness, it underscores how riddled with loopholes the American corporate tax code has become, critics say. At the same time, it shows how difficult it will be for Washington to overhaul the tax system.

In Iowa alone, as we showed many years ago, this also happens with some big, multistate companies, which use gimmicks to get out of paying state corporate income tax. Instead of shifting profits to phantom companies in Ireland to avoid U.S. tax, these companies shift Iowa profits to shell companies in Delaware, where they go untaxed by either Delaware or Iowa. And it could be fixed, but Iowa lawmakers simply have chosen not to. Not acting, after all, is the easiest course.

Tell lawmakers privately about what’s happening and if it’s new to them, they express outrage. Wait a few weeks, and for many the outrage is gone. Frequently, the view changes to either (1) it’s something we need to accept so companies won’t move away, or (2) the issue is just too big to address.

Of course both arguments are what big business lobbyists want everyone to believe. And both are wrong.

The business lobby has obscured the fact that there would be no reason under Iowa tax law for these companies to move away if the state were to pass legislation to plug loopholes — and lawmakers certainly can do so, with a device called “combined reporting.” Read about it here.

The long and short of it: Iowa does not have to sit by while big companies drain the state’s coffers and push the bill to other taxpayers, both smaller business competitors and working families. And neither does the United States.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Some bad ideas never die

Posted April 24th, 2013 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

The Iowa House today proved that bipartisanship is no guarantor of good policy. On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities. So we will be taking money that should be supporting state investments in education, health, the environment, public safety, and other services, and using it to subsidize hotel developers and retail strip malls. All in the name of “economic development.”

Cities already have more than enough ability to divert taxes to development projects through property tax TIFs and abatements. There is no need for additional diversions of revenue from other jurisdictions.

The House bill would authorize any city or county to establish “Reinvestment Districts.” From the date of establishment onward for the next 25 years, 4 cents of the 6-cent statewide sales tax, and all 5 cents of the state hotel-motel tax, from all “new” sales or room rentals would be diverted from the state general fund to the city for use in the district. What uses? Pretty much anything; any building, public or private, could qualify for a subsidy, and there is no limit on how much of the cost of a project can be subsidized.

“New sales” are sales from a business that first got a state sales-tax permit (or hotel-motel tax permit) after the date the district was established. Given the high rate of turnover among retail businesses, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which most of the sales taxes in a district are diverted from the state general fund even though there has been little additional economic activity, or even decline. All that is needed is that old businesses are replaced by new ones, even if that means replacing an Applebees with a pawn shop.

Why will a city ever again be content to finance commercial redevelopment on their own, or with property tax TIFs alone? Why will a developer ever again finance a project entirely from private sources – try to remember, if you can, when that was the norm – when he or she can just ask the city to get the money from the state?

More importantly, what will become of market standards? While every legislator who voted for the bill surely believes in free markets and private enterprise, this measure undermines markets. There was a time, before the incentive wars got out of hand, when a project had to stand on its own – there had to be a sufficient market to support it, and banks had to be convinced that revenues would be sufficient to repay the loans. No more. Now local government officials are determined to force development to happen when it can’t stand on its own, creating oversupply that hurts existing businesses. Or the private sector happily rakes in all the new incentive cash to do something it would have done anyway. Those are really the only two alternatives for a local market activity: either market conditions support it and it can be financed privately, or the market can’t support it, and the city uses taxpayer money to force overbuilding.

We can hope that this bill gets careful scrutiny before it goes any further.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


Iowa’s decline in job-based health insurance

Posted April 11th, 2013 to Blog

The Cedar Rapids Gazette today offered an interesting look at the question of where Iowans get their insurance. It’s less and less something that comes through employment. And when the costs of insurance keep rising, that makes it tougher on the household budget — or results in people not having insurance.

This is a trend we’ve been watching and reporting on at the Iowa Policy Project for many years, as have several good research organizations such as the Economic Policy Institute.

The Affordable Care Act offers at least a partial remedy. As health insurance exchanges are developed, affordable insurance should be more readily available. Tax credits for employers providing insurance will provide a targeted incentive to offer employees a better option than what employees might find on the individual insurance market.

Colin Gordon

Colin Gordon

Our State of Working Iowa report for 2012 offers another good look at this issue. As author Colin Gordon observes, wage stagnation, erosion of good jobs and recession have combined to batter workers, at the same time non-wage forms of compensation, health and pension benefits, also have declined. This has eroded both job quality and family financial security, and increased the need for public insurance. In Chapter 3, “The Bigger Picture,” Gordon writes that Iowa is one of 15 states, including five in the Midwest, to lose more than 10 percent of job-based coverage in a decade. He continues:

These losses reflect two overlapping trends. The first of these is costs. Health spending has slowed in recent years, but still runs well ahead of general inflation. Both premium costs … and the employee’s share of premiums have risen sharply — especially for family coverage — while wages have stagnated.

In 1999, a full-time median-wage worker in Iowa needed to work for about 10 weeks in order to pay an annual family premium; by 2011, this had swollen to nearly 25 weeks. Steep cost increases have pressed employers to drop or cut back coverage, or employees to decline it when offered. High costs may also encourage more employees to elect single coverage — counting on spousal coverage from another source and kids’ coverage through public programs. The second factor here is the shift in sectoral employment outlined above: Job losses are heaviest in sectors that have historically offered group health coverage; and job gains (or projected job gains) are strongest in sectors that don’t offer coverage.

This graph looks at the rate of employer-sponsored coverage, by industry sector, from 2002 to 2012.

job-based coverage comparison, Iowa 2002-2012

An interactive version of that graph in the online report allows the reader to toggle between those two years; the colored balloons sink on the graph in moving from 2002 to 2012, as if they all are losing air — the result of declining rates of coverage.

Good public policy could help to fill them again.

2010-mo-blogthumbPosted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

 


The limits of transparency

Posted April 3rd, 2013 to Blog
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


Flat tax plan legalizes cheating on Iowa taxes

Posted March 11th, 2013 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

The Iowa House of Representatives will soon take up a bill that would legalize cheating on your Iowa income taxes. While that isn’t the intent, it will certainly be the effect, at least for anyone who has an accountant or who can figure out how to do it on their own.

Officially, the bill is HF3, which would create an alternative flat tax of 4.5 percent. The taxpayer could choose between the current system and the flat rate. If you choose the flat rate, you get a standard deduction but cannot deduct federal income taxes, itemize deductions, or take any credits. But if you currently pay a higher rate than 4.5 percent, and don’t have a lot of deductions or federal income taxes, you might come out ahead picking the alternative flat rate.

To see how this opens the door to massive tax avoidance, you need to understand one important feature of Iowa’s income tax: federal deductibility.

Let’s say you earn $75,000 in Iowa adjusted gross income (AGI) for 2013 and you had $5,000 in federal income taxes deducted from your paycheck during the year. You can deduct the $5,000 from your AGI, leaving you with that much less income to pay tax on. But if you also got a refund check from the federal government in 2013 (because you had too much withheld during 2012, and deducted too much federal tax on your 2012 Iowa return), you have to add that back to your taxable income. This ensures that, over the years, you always end up deducting exactly what you actually paid in federal taxes.

HF3 changes the rules — and here’s how any taxpayer could game the system under HF3. Let’s call it, “Follow the 20,000.”

•  First stop, your W-4. During 2013 you file a W-4 to have five times as much federal income taxes withheld from your paycheck as you really need to. (Or, if you are self-employed, pay quarterly estimated taxes five times what is required.) So when you go to file your 2013 Iowa tax in April 2014, you can deduct $25,000 from your income instead of $5,000. This lowers your Iowa tax bill considerably. If you were in the top 8.98 percent bracket, the extra $20,000 deduction would save you $1,796 on your state income tax. So you choose to file under the current system instead of using the flat rate.

•  Why that’s a bad idea now. Under the current system, your strategy would bite you in the back the next year, because now the $20,000 excess withheld in 2013 comes back as a refund check in 2014. The $20,000 refund check from the feds in 2014 would have to be added back to your 2014 income. You have to pay state tax on it.

•  Flat tax changes the game. If you can take the alternative flat tax for 2014, you will see a huge break. While you would not be able to deduct federal taxes withheld during 2014 under that scheme, you don’t have to add back the $20,000 refund check either.

So for 2014, you pick the flat tax alternative, and pay 4.5 percent on “all” your income — but in the state’s eyes, it’s like that $20,000 never existed.

•  An endless payoff. By doing this, you magically avoid ever paying Iowa income taxes on that $20,000. You didn’t pay tax on it the year it was withheld, because that year you filed the old way and took federal deductibility. And you didn’t pay tax on it the next year, either, because that year you chose the flat tax alternative and didn’t have to add in the $20,000 refund check.

You could argue that if the Legislature makes it legal, it can’t be called cheating. But it sure smells like it. That’s a “tax avoidance” strategy useful only to those in the higher tax brackets.

And that strategy can be avoided if HF3 gets no further in the Iowa House.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


How to make Iowa’s tax system more unfair

Posted February 5th, 2013 to Blog
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

How odd that a new proposal to make Iowa’s tax system more regressive and unfair comes out just when new evidence shows it already is unfair. HF3 would make the Iowa income tax rate flat where it needs to reflect ability to pay. Since higher income people pay more in income tax, and because they are expected to pay a greater percentage as their income rises, moving to a flat or flatter income tax is a reward to them. It does not help low- and moderate-income people.

As shown in the recent “Who Pays?” report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), the poorest pay the highest portion of their income in taxes. (See graph.) The sales tax is much steeper as a share of income from low-income Iowans than it is from high-income Iowans, and the property tax is marginally more expensive to low-income people as a share of income than it is to those with high incomes. The income tax is the only progressive element of Iowa’s state and local tax system.

graph of Who Pays Iowa taxesTo flatten the only progressive feature of Iowa’s tax system would make the overall tax system more regressive. That would be the inevitable effect of HF3.

The problem with Iowa’s tax system is not that it’s too progressive. In fact, it is regressive — taking a larger share of the income of people at low incomes and middle incomes than of people at the top. HF3 would compound this.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director


Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Posted January 28th, 2013 to Blog
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


EITC boost would help families who need it — and economy

Posted January 17th, 2013 to Blog
Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Heather Gibney

If you imagine a packed Kinnick Stadium on game day you have an idea of how many Iowans were kept out of poverty from 2009 to 2011 thanks to two refundable tax credits.

A new state-by-state analysis from the Brookings Institution finds that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 71,123 Iowans out of poverty, over half of them children.

The Governor’s Condition of the State speech Tuesday missed an opportunity to discuss the value of Iowa’s own Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to Iowa families and prospects for an expansion — something he has twice vetoed on grounds that he wanted more comprehensive tax reforms.

The Brookings analysis uses a new way of looking at poverty: the Supplemental Poverty Measure, an updated approach to the calculation of whether an Americans household is in poverty. So it’s a valuable look that we haven’t seen for state-level figures.

The EITC is designed to encourage work when low-income jobs don’t provide enough for a family to make ends meet. So, as a family earns more income, they become eligible for a larger credit; as their income approaches self-sufficiency the EITC gradually phases out.[1]

At the state level, Iowa families who are eligible for the federal EITC also qualify for the state EITC, which is set at 7 percent of the federal credit. Proposals in the past would take that higher, to 10 percent or even 20 percent. It can be an important break for lower-income working families because Iowa already taxes the income of many who don’t earn enough to pay federal income tax. Currently, a married couple with two incomes and two children who qualifies for the federal EITC doesn’t have to start paying federal income taxes until their incomes reach $45,400. That same family would have to pay Iowa income taxes when their incomes reached $22,600.[2]

The EITC is the the nation’s largest and most successful anti-poverty program, largely because it encourages and rewards working families. With Iowa’s 85th General Assembly under way, discussions about raising Iowa’s EITC above 7 percent may once again emerge after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last year.

An EITC increase would raise the threshold at which Iowa families start to owe income taxes — putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most and encouraging them to spend that money in their local communities.

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate


EITC boost would help families who need it — and economy

Posted January 17th, 2013 to Blog
Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Heather Gibney

If you imagine a packed Kinnick Stadium on game day you have an idea of how many Iowans were kept out of poverty from 2009 to 2011 thanks to two refundable tax credits.

A new state-by-state analysis from the Brookings Institution finds that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 71,123 Iowans out of poverty, over half of them children.

The Governor’s Condition of the State speech Tuesday missed an opportunity to discuss the value of Iowa’s own Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to Iowa families and prospects for an expansion — something he has twice vetoed on grounds that he wanted more comprehensive tax reforms.

The Brookings analysis uses a new way of looking at poverty: the Supplemental Poverty Measure, an updated approach to the calculation of whether an Americans household is in poverty. So it’s a valuable look that we haven’t seen for state-level figures.

The EITC is designed to encourage work when low-income jobs don’t provide enough for a family to make ends meet. So, as a family earns more income, they become eligible for a larger credit; as their income approaches self-sufficiency the EITC gradually phases out.[1]

At the state level, Iowa families who are eligible for the federal EITC also qualify for the state EITC, which is set at 7 percent of the federal credit. Proposals in the past would take that higher, to 10 percent or even 20 percent. It can be an important break for lower-income working families because Iowa already taxes the income of many who don’t earn enough to pay federal income tax. Currently, a married couple with two incomes and two children who qualifies for the federal EITC doesn’t have to start paying federal income taxes until their incomes reach $45,400. That same family would have to pay Iowa income taxes when their incomes reached $22,600.[2]

The EITC is the the nation’s largest and most successful anti-poverty program, largely because it encourages and rewards working families. With Iowa’s 85th General Assembly under way, discussions about raising Iowa’s EITC above 7 percent may once again emerge after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last year.

An EITC increase would raise the threshold at which Iowa families start to owe income taxes — putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most and encouraging them to spend that money in their local communities.

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate


Accountability is good for tax breaks, too

Posted January 4th, 2013 to Blog
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