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More for Millionaires, Part II

Posted April 20th, 2015 to Budget, Equity and Fairness, Income Taxes, Taxes

Flat-Tax Option Grants Most of Benefit to Minority of Iowa Taxpayers — Plus Out-of-State Millionaires

PDF (2 pages)

Department of Revenue estimate — tax plan choices
Department of Revenue estimate — tax plan benefit differences

By Peter S. Fisher

The optional flat tax bill recently introduced in the Iowa House would give $26.5 million in tax cuts to people living outside the state, including almost 5,000 non-resident millionaires. The remaining $346.6 million in tax cuts for Tax Year 2015 would go to Iowa residents, but nearly two-thirds of that would go to the 1-in-8 taxpayers making $100,000 or more.

The bill does not cut income taxes for everyone. It provides an optional way of calculating tax, so that taxpayers would need to compute their taxes two different ways to determine which was better. The flat option is more likely to be advantageous for those over $100,000 per year. The Department of Revenue estimates about 54 percent of those taxpayers would choose the flat tax.

For the vast majority of taxpayers making less than $100,000, however, at most 35 percent would benefit from the flat tax option. Because the flat option does not allow any tax credits, lower income households using the Earned Income Tax Credit or other refundable credits would be unlikely to benefit from the flat tax, and certainly would not if they now receive a refund because of a credit.

Table 1 shows the number and percent of Iowa resident taxpayers choosing the flat option vs. the current system. For example, 61.5 percent of taxpayers earning $40,000 to $100,000 per year stick with the current system because the flat option would cost more; they would get no benefit. The remaining 38.5 percent of taxpayers in that income bracket would choose the flat tax and receive on average a $549 cut.

Table 1. Iowa Residents: Minority Benefit from Flat Tax Option

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Source: Tables 2A, 2B, 5A and 5B, for residents vs. non-residents, for tax year 2015, provided by the Iowa Department of Revenue upon request, March 31 and April 2, 2015.

While 858,000 Iowa resident taxpayers making under $200,000 a year (and representing 61 percent of all Iowa resident taxpayers) would see no tax reduction under this bill, a handful of Iowa millionaires would choose the flat option and gain an average of $26,798 each.

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Keeping Ahead of the Kansans

Posted April 9th, 2015 to Blog

As state legislators consider drastic cuts in Iowa’s income tax, they would do well to consider the experience of our neighbor Kansas, which enacted a huge income tax cut in 2012, and cut taxes again in 2013. These cuts have dramatically reduced state funding for schools, health care, and other services.

It is instructive to consider as well the experience in Wisconsin, where a large personal income tax cut took effect at the start of 2013, with similar results: subsequent job growth of 3.4 percent, farther below the norm than Kansas’ 3.5 percent from the implementation of its tax cuts.

None of this should come as a surprise. Most major academic research studies have concluded that individual income tax cuts do not boost state economic growth; in fact, states that cut income taxes the most in the 1990s or in the early 2000s had slower growth in jobs and income than other states.

Businesses need an educated workforce, and drastic cuts to education are likely to make it difficult to attract new workers, who care about their children’s schools at least as much as they care about taxes.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project

See Fisher’s Iowa Fiscal Partnership Policy Snapshot on this issue.

 


Keeping Ahead of the Kansans

Posted April 9th, 2015 to Blog

As state legislators consider drastic cuts in Iowa’s income tax, they would do well to consider the experience of our neighbor Kansas, which enacted a huge income tax cut in 2012, and cut taxes again in 2013. These cuts have dramatically reduced state funding for schools, health care, and other services.

It is instructive to consider as well the experience in Wisconsin, where a large personal income tax cut took effect at the start of 2013, with similar results: subsequent job growth of 3.4 percent, farther below the norm than Kansas’ 3.5 percent from the implementation of its tax cuts.

None of this should come as a surprise. Most major academic research studies have concluded that individual income tax cuts do not boost state economic growth; in fact, states that cut income taxes the most in the 1990s or in the early 2000s had slower growth in jobs and income than other states.

Businesses need an educated workforce, and drastic cuts to education are likely to make it difficult to attract new workers, who care about their children’s schools at least as much as they care about taxes.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project

See Fisher’s Iowa Fiscal Partnership Policy Snapshot on this issue.

 

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More Millions for Millionaires

IFP POLICY BRIEF /

Flat-Tax Option Showers Benefits at High Incomes — Services Face New Cuts

2-page PDF

 

By Peter S. Fisher

Tax legislation pending in the Iowa House would shower most benefits on higher income Iowans, while reducing revenues by over half a billion dollars.

Already for the coming fiscal year, $277 million — two-thirds of the increased revenue to the general fund — is going to be funneled to commercial and industrial property tax relief. This will leave the state short of funds to adequately finance education and other services, before the new legislation would strip the general fund of another $482 million.

House File 604 would give taxpayers a choice each year: File income taxes using current law, or a new flat rate option. Under the flat rate option, the tax is 5 percent of all “base income,” where that is defined more broadly than current taxable income (no deduction for federal taxes), but allows the deduction of all federal interest, all retirement income, and a larger standard deduction.

Higher income Iowans would benefit most — Iowa tax filers with adjusted gross income of $40,000 or less (representing over half of all taxpayers) get just 6 percent of the $373 million in tax cuts for tax year 2015 under this bill, for an average of just $30 savings per tax filer (see Table 1).[i] Nearly two-thirds of the $373 million goes to those with income of $100,000 or more, representing just 1 in 6 taxpayers. Of that group, Iowa’s millionaires — representing just four-tenths of 1 percent of taxpayers — get 10 percent of the total benefit, or $5,463 each.

Table 1. Tax Savings from HF604 Flow Mostly to High Income Iowans

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Source: Letter from the Iowa Department of Revenue to Jeff Robinson, Legislative Services Agency, March 26, 2015. Note: This table omits $11.5 million in tax benefits for 2,542 composite returns with unknown AGI. This amount is part of the $373 million total tax reduction.

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Iowa’s millionaires get 183 times the average benefit of those under $40,000 in income (Figure 1). Those with $1 million or more income get on average a 15 percent tax cut; other taxpayers average 11 percent.

None of this should be surprising given provisions in the bill. Key points:

  • The flat tax option cuts the top rate — which applies to income over $69,225 — by 44 percent.
  • The tax rate on taxable incomes below $13,851, now between 0.36 percent and 4.5 percent, would actually be higher under the flat tax.
  • While the flat tax option does eliminate the deductions for federal taxes, itemized deductions, and Iowa capital gains (features of the current tax that benefit primarily higher income taxpayers), it also eliminates all taxes on pension income.

Since current law already exempts all of Social Security benefits and the first $6,000 per person of pension income, eliminating the rest of the tax on pensions primarily benefits higher income seniors. The flat tax option also eliminates all tax credits, some of which (such as the Child and Dependent Care Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit) are worth more to lower income taxpayers.

Moving to a flat tax does nothing for tax simplification. Claims to the contrary are entirely disingenuous. The bill does not substitute a simpler tax for the current calculation; it offers taxpayers the option of filing under the current system or the alternative flat tax. Thus taxpayers will have to figure their tax both ways to determine which one works to their advantage. This additional complication also increases the cost of tax administration by an estimated $796,000.[ii]

The bill will almost certainly cost the state’s general fund more than the estimates provided in the Department of Revenue tables. As the DOR points out, giving taxpayers an option provides an opportunity for taxpayers to game the system by filing under the current law one year and the flat option the next. For example, a taxpayer could have extra federal tax withheld during 2015 and then file Iowa income tax for 2015 under current law, deducting all those extra federal taxes and reducing Iowa tax. In April 2016 the taxpayer receives a large federal refund because of overpaying for 2015. But the taxpayer files Iowa tax for 2016 using the flat rate option and so does not have to add the refund to Iowa taxable income as would be required under current law. The entire amount of the federal refund, deliberately inflated by the taxpayer, thus represents Iowa income that should be taxable but escapes Iowa income tax entirely. The DOR had no way of knowing the extent of such gaming and so could not include its effects in its revenue estimates.

In sum, the flat tax bill is a very expensive effort to sharply cut taxes, mostly for upper income Iowans, and especially for millionaires. It would put a large hole in state finances for years to come, undermining the state’s ability to maintain a quality education system.


[i] The $373 million is the amount for tax year 2015 — that is, the reduction in taxes owed for income received during calendar 2015 on tax returns filed by April 2016. The Department of Revenue has translated tax year losses into fiscal year losses. The reduction for FY2015 is estimated at $482 million, then settles down to around $400 million for each of the next three fiscal years.

[ii] Letter from the Iowa Department of Revenue to Jeff Robinson, Legislative Services Agency, March 26, 2015.

Note: This Policy Brief, originally circulated March 25, 2015, was revised March 26 with new estimates from the Department of Revenue, which previously had estimated a larger benefit than shown here to filers with adjusted gross income greater than $1 million.

2010-PFw5464Peter S. Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project, which together with the Child & Family Policy Center formed the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a nonpartisan initiative focused on helping Iowans to understand the impacts of budget choices and other public policy issues on Iowa families and services. IFP reports are at www.iowafiscal.org.

Iowa’s Problem of Priorities

IFP BACKGROUNDER / 
Costly Business Property Tax Cut Excessive — Hurts Family, Kids’ Services 

2-page PDF 

Tax cuts have consequences. In the case of the massive commercial property tax cut enacted two years ago, those consequences have become all too real.

Iowa’s economy continues to rebound and state revenues are projected to rise nearly 5 percent next year, yet we find ourselves struggling to finance our most important basic services, like education. Why? Because we are giving away most of the increased revenue to commercial property owners, with no public benefit to show for it.

The commercial property tax cut will result in an estimated $277 million hit to the state budget next fiscal year, more than double this year’s cost as provisions phase in.[1] This means that the property tax cuts will consume 68 percent of the estimated $408 million in increased state revenue.[2] The small amount remaining is far too little to cover even the normal increases in the cost of providing public services due to inflation.

While the legislation has been sold as a general property tax cut, only 11 percent of the property tax reductions will flow to residential and agricultural property owners next year.[3] The rest goes to owners of commercial property, apartment buildings, industrial facilities, railroads and utilities.

The legislation has two major provisions. A Business Property Tax Credit is entirely state funded and is of more benefit to owners of small properties, since the maximum value of the credit represents a larger share of their taxes. The most costly provision reduces the assessed value of commercial and industrial property to 90 percent of actual value, with the state reimbursing localities for the resulting revenue lost.[4] This provision lavishes the majority of its benefits on large property owners.

About $5 million will flow next year to the 11 largest big-box retailers, none of them Iowa companies.[5] While this is real money flowing out of the Iowa treasury, a few hundred thousand a year to the likes of Wal-Mart or Target is of little import to them, and will have no effect on their decisions to build in Iowa, which are driven by the size of the consumer market here. There was never a case for commercial tax reductions; overall business tax levels in Iowa for a long time have been below the national average — a point you rarely hear, and never from the business lobby.[6]

What exactly are the consequences?

The cost of running schools will keep rising faster than state aid, resulting in layoffs, increased class sizes, program reductions, and more years of outdated textbooks.

The Governor’s budget proposes sizable cuts to state health care programs and requires state agencies to finance salary increases by reducing staff, thus reducing state services.

Once again we will not expand the state’s preschool program for 4-year-olds, a measure that has been shown to be an effective economic development tool yet fails to help many low-wage workers needing full-time preschool.

Our child care assistance program, with one of the lowest income cutoffs in the country, will keep penalizing families for earning more. Bi-partisan support for funding to improve water quality and expand access to mental health care will likely be for naught.

We have a problem of priorities. We keep underfunding services for average Iowa families — education, health, work supports, natural resources — in order to finance massive tax reductions to businesses that don’t need it. And we spend in excess of $350 million each year on business tax credits that continue on autopilot, with no sunset, despite the state’s own analyses that fail to find evidence of appreciable benefit to the state from some of the largest of these subsidies.[7] 

It is time to admit that the tax cuts enacted in 2013 were excessive, and are causing long term damage to the state. At the very least, the $50 million increase in the business property tax credit portion of those tax cuts scheduled for next year should be delayed or eliminated.

But that is not enough. There should be a moratorium on any further tax cuts or tax credits. All business tax credits should be subject to effective caps and sunsets to force a serious evaluation.

Without such measures, we will continue down the road of tax-cutting our way to mediocrity and shortchanging our children’s future. 

                      

2010-PFw5464A shorter version of this piece appeared as a guest opinion by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project, in The Des Moines Register on March 6, 2015. This version has been updated to reflect March estimates by Iowa’s Revenue Estimating Conference. (See endnote 2)

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit Iowa-based organizations, the Iowa Policy Project and the Child & Family Policy Center. Reports are at www.iowafiscal.org.




[1] The Legislative Service Agency projects that general fund appropriations resulting from the property tax legislation will total $277.1 million for FY2016: $162 million to replace local revenue lost because the bill reduced commercial and industrial assessments to 90 percent of actual value, $14.9 million in state foundation aid to schools triggered by the reduction in assessed value, and $100 million for the business property tax credit. LSA, Fiscal Services Division, Summary of FY 2016 Budget andDepartment Requests, December 8, 2014, page 53. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/LADR/435197.pdf

[2] The $408 million represents the increase in state’s net receipts plus transfers, according to the Revenue Estimating Conference, March 19, 2015. The increased revenue was estimated at $338 million in December. However, the larger increase comes about not because the March revenue estimates for FY2016 are higher (they are actually a little lower) but because the revenue estimate for the current fiscal year dropped $90 million. Thus while the increase looks bigger it is a result of a worse fiscal situation for the state. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/BL/656455.pdf

[3] Legislative Services Agency, Fiscal Note on SF 295, May 22, 2013. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/DOCS/FiscalNotes/85_1464SVv2_FN.pdf

[4] The state promised to reimburse these losses fully only through FY 2017; after that, local governments will be on the hook for an increasing portion of the lost revenue. In addition, the state is not reimbursing localities for any of the revenue lost from a third provision that reduces the assessed value of residential rental property.

[5]Estimate based on January 2012 taxable values and the statewide average property tax rate on commercial property of 3.77 percent for FY2015.  The 11, in order by 2012 valuation statewide and with the location of the corporate headquarters, are Wal-Mart (AR), Target (MN), Menard’s (WI), Lowe’s (NC), Walgreen’s (IL), Kohl’s (WI), Younkers (PA), Home Depot (GA), K-Mart (IL), Best Buy (MN), and Sears (IL). The 11 had $1.33 billion in taxable valuation, so that the reduction to 90 percent for January 2014 values amounts to $133 million, assuming valuations before the reduction remained about the same.

[6] Iowa: Where Business Taxes are Low. Iowa Fiscal Partnership, March 5, 2014.  http://www.iowafiscal.org/iowa-where-business-taxes-are-low/

[7] Iowa Department of Revenue, Contingent Liabilities Report, December 2014 https://tax.iowa.gov/sites/files/idr/Contingent%20Liabilities%20Report%201214.pdf. For evaluations of tax credits by the Iowa Department of Revenue see https://tax.iowa.gov/report/Evaluations?combine=Study; also of note is the State of Iowa Tax Credit Review Report, prepared by the Governor’s Tax Credit Review Committee, January, 2010. http://www.dom.state.ia.us/tax_credit_review/files/TaxCreditStudyReviewReportFINAL1_8_2010.pdf

Start with ‘zero’ on credits

Posted March 11th, 2015 to Blog

It was​ fascinating Tuesday to see Iowa lawmakers talking about zero-based budgeting — starting every budget from scratch — when they have refused to do the same with tax credits.

Spending on tax credits — including millions to companies that don’t pay any state income tax — just keeps going on and on.

And on.

And on.

Companies basically get to appropriate state money to themselves. Quite a deal if you can get it.

If the state were to sunset business tax credits, as recommended in 2010 by a special governor-appointed Tax Credit Review Panel, lawmakers could review each one and decide which are actually producing a public benefit, whether any of them are money well spent. If so, they could renew the credit. If not, we could put our resources where they make more sense for all Iowans.

Maybe a part-time legislature could start with a zero base on tax credits before we talk about it for an entire state budget.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

No income taxes, big checks from state

IFP NEWS /
Lucrative program lets big companies erase taxes, and get extra in checks

IOWA CITY, Iowa (Feb. 11, 2015) — More companies are benefiting from a lucrative tax subsidy that permits large, profitable corporations to get checks from the state without paying any Iowa income tax.

The latest annual report from the Department of Revenue on the use of the Research Activities Credit (RAC) shows that 248 companies claimed $51 million from the program in 2014, one-third more than the highest number of companies in the last five years.

Most of the credit claims — $34.8 million, or 68 percent — were paid out as checks, not as tax reductions.

“Most notable is that Iowa continues to give a lot of money to companies that aren’t paying income tax. There were 181 companies that received RAC checks from the state because their tax credits exceeded their income tax liability,” said Mike Owen, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, part of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

“The $35 million that went to those 181 companies could have provided 1 percent supplemental state aid for public schools, or it could have gone to other public services, if it had been part of budget discussions. But the state does this kind of spending outside the budget process.”

The report, released Wednesday, also shows:
— Only 16 companies — or 6.5 percent — claimed 83 percent of the benefits and at least 75 percent of the checks.
— Those 16 companies each had at least $500,000 in claims, totaling over $42 million in 2014.
— The top five companies benefiting from the credit have been the largest beneficiaries over the last five years: Rockwell Collins, Deere & Co., Dupont, John Deere Construction and Monsanto.

“Those are highly profitable companies. We need to be asking whether it makes sense, when school budgets are tight and enforcement of environmental and workplace laws are weak, to be subsidizing these businesses to do research that they already would have to do, and can afford to do on their own,” Owen said.

Owen noted a special tax credit review panel appointed in 2009 came back in 2010 with many recommendations to curtail spending on business tax credits — including elimination of the so-called “refunds” of the research credit.

Rockwell Collins was the biggest corporate beneficiary in 2014, with $11.7 million in claims, followed by Deere at $9.4 million and Dupont at almost $6.9 million.

“Careful analysis of the report shows that at least two of the top three companies received at least some of their benefits without paying any income tax,” Owen said.

“Unfortunately, the good information in this report doesn’t go far enough to provide detail for Iowa taxpayers on how their money is being spent on this credit. If it did, we would know exactly how much was paid to these big companies as checks, and how much was used to erase taxes they owe.”

The report is available on the Iowa Department of Revenue website at https://tax.iowa.gov/report/Reports?combine=Research%20Activities.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. Reports are at www.iowafiscal.org.

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Editor’s Note: This release was revised on Thursday, Feb. 12, to clarify that the top 16 claimants received 83 percent of the total benefits and at least 75 percent of the benefits that were paid as checks. The original Feb. 11 release stated that those firms had 75 percent of the benefits.

Beyond Battelle: Let’s broaden the dialogue of Iowa economic health

As Iowa legislators this week start work on a course to a more robust and diversified economy, discussion already has focused on a new privately funded report, Iowa’s Re-Envisioned Economic Development Roadmap.[1]

Produced by Battelle Technology Partnership Practice and commissioned by the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress,[2] the $400,000 report makes some important points and deserves a careful look.

It focuses heavily on the importance of business to promote economic activity, but its core message acknowledges the significant role of public investments in providing the foundations for Iowa’s economy. This includes the education system needed to develop the skills, talents and capacity of the current and future workforce, including those who will become the future entrepreneurs and leaders for the 21st century.

While the report acknowledges the centrality of an educated and skilled workforce and a high quality of life to making Iowa an environment for business to flourish, it places very little focus upon how government can deliver on that role. It falls to government to educate that future workforce — at the early childhood, primary and secondary, and higher education levels.

The report does not adequately address the challenges Iowa faces in creating that higher skill level among its emerging workforce — in particular, the need to address lagging and stagnant educational achievement. To do so takes resources, and the report’s emphasis is to leave in place a business subsidy structure that has increasingly reduced the state’s ability to meet those needs.

The report itself was overseen largely by business leaders and economic development agency staff. However, these are not the only stakeholders in Iowa’s economic future; many others need to engage in the dialogue about Iowa government’s role in economic development.

The Battelle Report raises one perspective on economic development. Lawmakers, the media and the public need to insist that other perspectives and expertise also are fully considered and vetted.

More Iowans need an invitation to the table.

08-Bruner-5464Charles Bruner is executive director of the Child & Family Policy Center, www.cfpciowa.org, part of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, www.iowafiscal.org.

Note: This piece also ran as an “Iowa View” in The Des Moines Register, Jan. 14, 2015.

[1] Technology Partnership Practice, Battelle Memorial Institute, December 2014, “Iowa’s Re-Envisioned Economic Development Roadmap.” http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/battelle
[2] Iowa Economic Development Authority, News release, Dec. 18, 2014, “Governor, IPEP Release Findings of 2014 Battelle Report, a New Economic Development Roadmap for Iowa,” http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/newsdetails/6051

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