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State Policy and Economic Growth

Public investments require public funding. And therein lies the rub. A continual diet of tax cuts deprives state and local governments of the ability to adequately fund public services.

IFP Backgrounder

State Policy and Economic Growth

Innovation, Education, Infrastructure: The Things that Matter

PDF (2 pages)

We’re all for building a strong state economy with good jobs. But we get a lot of different answers when we pose the question: “What kinds of state policies are going to get us there?” Increasingly over the past 20 years, the easy answer, and the one that prevails most often, has been “tax cuts.” But what really determines how a state economy grows or declines? Can we really expect state policy to change the course of economic growth?

In the short run, a state is largely at the mercy of national and global economic trends: Its economic structure and resource base will largely determine its economic fortunes. Over the past five years, for example, states with a strong base in oil and natural gas did well in spite of the recession. States heavily invested in industries severely impacted by the global recession suffered greatly. State policy was a minor actor compared to global economic trends.

But that doesn’t mean state policy doesn’t matter. In the longer term, substantial evidence shows that two factors are most important in explaining why some states experience greater growth in per capita income than others: the level of education of the workforce and the rate of innovation and new business formation (with the latter in large measure dependent upon the former).[i] Tax policies, and particularly tax incentives that are specifically geared to promoting business growth, play very small roles and can also distort the free market system by benefiting and subsidizing one activity over another. The quality of a state’s infrastructure also matters — businesses need good roads, reliable water and sewer systems, and public safety. To attract workers we need the kinds of things that make Iowa a place where people want to raise families, including good public services, schools, and recreation opportunities.

Public investments require public funding. And therein lies the rub. A continual diet of tax cuts deprives state and local governments of the ability to adequately fund public services. About three-fifths of the state budget goes to education alone, and education, health, infrastructure and public safety account for a majority of the budgets of local governments.

So what about taxes on business? How much do they matter? When deciding where to locate or expand, a firm will consider a wide range of factors that affect its costs, productivity or sales: access to markets and to suppliers; transportation costs; energy costs; access to a pool of labor with appropriate education and skills; wage rates; health care costs; the quality of schools, recreation opportunities, climate and other amenities important in attracting skilled labor; the quality of state and local government services, such as public safety and infrastructure; and state and local taxes.

State and local business taxes, it turns out, are just a small share of costs. In fact, for the average firm, all state and local taxes paid by businesses together amount to just 1.8 percent of total costs.[ii] The simple fact is this: Changes in tax policy provide very little leverage over the economic decisions of firms. Other cost factors predominate.

It should be no surprise then that scholarly research on the effect of taxes on location decisions of firms provides no consensus. Many find no effect, and those that do often come to contradictory conclusions about which taxes matter and which ones don’t. Among the studies finding some effect, the influence of taxes is generally very small.[iii]

The upshot is that tax cuts and incentives are expensive. They actually change business decisions for only a small share of the firms taking advantage of them; tax cuts and incentives mostly go to subsidize firms for doing what they would have done anyway. In some instances, tax incentives actually create unfair advantages to the recipient firms that compete with existing enterprises within the state  In general, tax cuts and incentives  are simply too expensive to ever pay for themselves. Furthermore, even the limited effectiveness found by some researchers is called into question when you consider that states must balance their budgets. The cuts in services required to finance tax breaks will reduce or even eliminate any gain from the small amount of new economic activity generated. Businesses won’t invest in Iowa if they can’t be sure that the school system will produce the workforce they need in the future, and if they can’t count on a quality infrastructure being maintained.

We should remember how Iowa became the place it is, the place so many love and where they want to raise a family. Generations before us made the right decisions to build schools and roads, to support a public university system that is an engine of research and innovation, and to create safe communities that support families. We cannot afford to weaken these commitments; no one wants to see the state slide toward mediocrity.

A smart approach to state economic policy must begin by recognizing the futility of pursuing a single-minded tax-cutting approach, and by recognizing the importance of a healthy public sector in supporting economic growth. State policy should focus on the fundamental responsibilities of state and local government to provide a quality education from early childhood through graduate school, to build and maintain the roads and other services that our citizens and businesses alike depend upon. We need to stop pretending that we can tax-cut our way to prosperity. To finance ever-expanding tax breaks to businesses by cutting support for education, forcing ever higher tuition and increasing class sizes, is a formula for long-term economic decline.


[i]   See Bauer, Paul W., Mark E. Schweitzer and Scott Shane, “State Growth Empirics: The Long-Run Determinants of State Income Growth,” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland Working Paper, May 2006; and Noah Berger and Peter Fisher, A Well-Educated Workforce is Key to State Prosperity, Economic Analysis and Research Network Report, August 22, 2013, at http://www.epi.org/publication/states-education-productivity-growth-foundations/.

[ii]   This is based on data averaged over three years 2005-2007 from two sources: U.S. Internal Revenue Service, Statistics of Income, Integrated Business Data for all U.S. Corporations, partnerships, and non-farm proprietorships, showing total deductions for business costs on tax returns, at http://www.irs.gov/taxstats/bustaxstats/article/0,,id=152029,00.html ; and a 2009 report by the Council on State Taxation, which estimates total state and local taxes paid by businesses, available at http://www.cost.org/Page.aspx?id=69654.

[iii]   See Peter Fisher, Corporate Taxes and State Economic Growth, the Iowa Policy Project, December 2010, revised April 2013, at: www.iowapolicyproject.org/2011docs/110209-IFP-corptaxes.pdf;‎ and Michael Mazerov, Academic Research Lacks Consensus on the Impact of State Tax Cuts on Economic Growth: A Reply to the Tax Foundation. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 2013, at www.cbpp.org/files/6-17-13sfp.pdf.