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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Chet Culver

A brief, shining moment

Posted January 8th, 2015 to Blog

It was a brief, shining moment for Iowa, and it came five years ago today.

A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Chet Culver, after an in-depth examination of all Iowa tax-credit programs, offered a 10-page review with some tough recommendations.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership* stated the day of the report’s release, Jan. 8, 2010, the panel “took an important step to make Iowa business subsidies more accountable and transparent.”

Major recommendations of the Tax Credit Review Panel were to:

•   Provide a five-year sunset on all tax credits;
•   Eliminate the refundability of the Research Activities Credit for large companies;
•   Eliminate the film tax credit;
•   Eliminate of the transferability of other credits;
•   Place all business credits under a $185 million cap;
•   Reduce the rate for the School Tuition Organization (STO) Tax Credit and lower the cap; and
•   Impose an income test for the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit.

Action in the Legislature, unfortunately, fell well short of those bold proposals, as we noted in a report that spring. In their biggest moves, lawmakers set up a periodic review of tax credits but required no action to affirm the value of any credits, and they put light restrictions on some credits. Some of those limits already have been raised; the proposal to restrict the STO subsidy for private school tuition not only was ignored but the credit has been expanded.

In short, five years later, Iowa is as lax as ever in its treatment of these subsidies. Under the sunset clause recommended back then, we would in 2015 be preparing for a round of debate and action to keep, expand, limit or eliminate certain tax credits. Instead, we have no expectation of any debate, let alone any action. If the credits are working, we don’t know because beneficiaries are not forced to show it.

It is not too late for Iowa lawmakers to address these issues and include some water in the tax credit reform glass. We said that in 2010, and we can say it again in 2015.

The seven members of the Tax Credit Review Panel, by the way, were Richard Oshlo, then interim director of the Department of Management; Fred Hubbell, interim director of the Department of Economic Development; Rob Berntsen, chair of the Iowa Utilities Board; Bret Mills, executive director of the Iowa Finance Authority; Cyndi Pederson, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs; Mark Schuling, director of the Iowa Department of Revenue; and Jeff Ward, executive director of the Iowa Agricultural Development Authority.

Their work was good and important, and with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, we should not forget it.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

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


Leveling the playing field

Posted December 11th, 2014 to Blog

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


IFP Statement: Tax Credit Review Panel ‘Did Its Job’

1-page PDF of this statement
Tax Credit Review Panel Report (11 page PDF)

“The Governor’s Tax Credit Review Committee did its job. The committee took an important step to make Iowa business subsidies more accountable and transparent.

“Most notable is the committee’s rejection of the ‘refundability’ of the research activities credit, or RAC, for large companies. As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has often pointed out, this has cost Iowa’s treasury many millions. RAC refunds are estimated to have cost the state treasury almost $42 million last budget year, most of that ($36 million) to only 10 companies. This proposal would end the practice of the state cutting secret checks to companies, not as ‘refunds’ of taxes paid, but simply unbudgeted payments shielded from public view.

“We also note other important reforms proposed by the panel: a five-year sunset on all tax credits, and including all business-related tax credits under the $185 million cap passed last year. Both moves would contribute to a much more accountable budget process.

“We need more information about the proposed ‘five-year carryforward’ that large companies would be allowed for the RAC. Any change should not undo the good start on RAC transparency reforms adopted in 2009.

“The Iowa Fiscal Partnership and the state Department of Revenue have illustrated for some time that Iowa has a growing problem in the area of spending through the tax code. This has shortchanged critical services at a time they are most needed. Iowa taxpayers deserve to know they are getting the best bang for the buck, and the lack of attention to this kind of spending has prevented this.

“Today’s recommendations from the review panel can help put Iowa on the right track.”

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For more information about Iowa’s state fiscal situation, see the Iowa Fiscal Partnership website www.iowafiscal.org. The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint budget and tax policy initiative of two nonpartisan, Iowa-based organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines.