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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


Job 1 for Day 1 — putting Iowa families first

Posted November 6th, 2014 to Blog

As election dust settles, priorities remain clear for Iowa families

Now that the votes are counted, the real work begins. Job 1? It could be any of a number of areas where solid research and analysis have shown better public policy could make a difference for a more prosperous, healthier Iowa. Take a step back from the TV ads and “gotcha” politics and these issues come clearly in focus.

In Iowa, research shows solid approaches to economic prosperity for working families include:

In Iowa, research shows a fiscally responsible approach to both find revenues and do better with what we have includes:

  • Stopping tax giveaways to companies that pay no income tax — which occurs at a cost of between $32 million and $45 million a year through one research subsidy program alone, even though there is nothing to show this spending boosts the Iowa economy or produces activity that would not occur anyway. http://www.iowafiscal.org/big-money-big-companies-whose-benefit/
  • Reining in unnecessary “tax expenditures” — tax breaks, tax credits and other spending done through the tax code — could bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for public services. A five-year sunset on all tax credits would force lawmakers to review and formally pass renewals of this kind of spending, now on autopilot. The last attempt at real reform fell woefully short. http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-credit-reform-glass-half-full-maybe-some-moisture/
  • Plugging tax loopholes — a $60 to $100 million problem — would pay for a 2 or 3 percent annual increase in state per-pupil funding of K-12 schools. Twenty-three states, including 4 of 6 Iowa neighbors, don’t permit multistate corporations to shift profits out of state to avoid Iowa income tax and contribute their fair share to local education and other state services. http://iowapolicypoints.org/2013/05/22/will-outrage-translate-into-policy/
  • Reforming TIF — tax-increment financing, which is overused and often abused by cities around the state, has caught lawmakers’ attention in the past and should again. Like many tools that provide subsidies to private companies and developers, it should be redesigned to assure subsidies only go to projects with a public benefit and only where the project could not otherwise occur. Further, it should be designed to assure that only the taxpayers who benefit are the ones footing the bill, which is a problem with current TIF practice. http://www.iowafiscal.org/category/research/taxes/tax-increment-financing-tif/

In Iowa, research shows a healthy environment and smart energy choices for Iowa’s future includes:

  • Putting teeth into pollution law — which means reforms in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to eliminate pollution in waterways. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140717-nutrient.html
  • Allowing local government to regulate frac sand mining — When it comes to cigarettes, guns and large hog facilities the Iowa Legislature took away the right of local government to listen to citizen desires. The General Assembly and the Governor should let democracy thrive and not take away local control of sand mining.
  • Encouraging more use of solar electricity in Iowa — Jobs are created while we confront climate change if we build better solar policy in Iowa. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/110325-solar-release.html
  • Promoting local food and good food choices with school gardens — and a pilot project to offer stipends to Iowa school districts could encourage both learning and better nutrition. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140514-school_gardens.html

None of these issues are new and it’s not an exhaustive list. But these were big issues for our state before the election and remain so, no matter who is in charge.

Together, we can build on the solid research cited above and lay the foundation for better public policy to support those priorities.

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


Issues in Waiting: Tax-Increment Financing Reform

Posted October 2nd, 2014 to Blog

Basic RGBThis is an excerpt from an interview with IPP’s Peter Fisher on “The Devine Intervention,” KVFD-AM 1400, Fort Dodge. Host Michael Devine discussed tax-increment financing, or TIF, with Fisher, whose reports on this issue have prompted many to call for reform. TIF is one of Iowa’s “Issues in Waiting” — issues discussed year after year, but not resolved. The quotes below are actual quotes from the interview; the questions are paraphrased.

What was the idea behind tax-increment financing, or TIF?

It was originally a tool to help cities redevelop blighted or declining areas and what it did was allowed a city to capture more of the tax revenue from redevelopment when the city undertook some project to try to turn around a declining neighborhood. If they were successful, businesses would come in, the tax base would go up.

And what TIF did was allow the city to use not just the city taxes on all that growth, but the county and school taxes as well for some period of time to pay the city back for their expenses for this project, for redevelopment. And in the long run the county and school districts were better off. The cities got their money back, they got more tax base. That was the idea.

How did the implementation of TIF look?

It worked that way for quite a while. And then about 20 years ago we opened the door to just about anything cities wanted to do by saying well it doesn’t have to be a blighted area, it doesn’t have to be a redevelopment. It just has to be “economic development.” And just about anything cities do it turns out they can call “economic development” and finance with TIF.

Is there a consequence if TIF is abused?

Not really — as long as they are doing something within the law. The county and the school district don’t have any say on whether the city is going to divert their taxes to the city’s TIF fund. And there’s no state regulation either, other than the court system.

To hear the full interview, click here.

For more resources from Peter Fisher and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership about TIF, click here.


Number of Poor Iowans Remains High, Income Growth Not Widely Shared

IOWA CITY, Iowa (September 18, 2014) — More Iowans remained in poverty four years after the recession than before, new data from the Census Bureau showed Thursday. 

The American Community Survey (ACS) indicated that 12.7 percent of Iowans — about 379,127 people — were in poverty in 2013, up from 11 percent in 2007, the year the last recession started.

“Nearly 1 in 8 Iowans were living in poverty in 2013, that’s less than $24,000 a year for a family of four and $12,000 a year for an individual. These new Census numbers highlight the fact that many people have not yet recovered from the recession and shows the need to do more to help struggling Iowans afford basics like decent housing, nutritious food, transportation and reliable child care,” said David Osterberg, founding director of the Iowa Policy Project, part of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. 

In the region, Minnesota had the lowest poverty rate of 11.2 percent, while Illinois had the highest at 14.7 percent. Wisconsin was at 13.5 percent and Nebraska at 13.2 percent. But Iowa is still below the national rate of 15.8 percent. 

Other Key points for Iowa from the release of the 2013 ACS data:

  • Iowa’s poverty rate of 12.7 percent compared with 11 percent in 2007 and 9.7 percent in 2001. There was no change from the 2012 poverty rate of 12.7 percent
  • Child poverty was 15.7 percent in 2013 (about 111,119 children), up from 13.1 percent in 2007 and 12 percent in 2001.
  • Median income was $52,229 in 2013, changing little from the 2001 inflation-adjusted dollars, but dropping from $53,132 in 2007.

The median annual income in Iowa adjusted for inflation increased slightly between 2012 and 2013 but is down about $900 in real dollars since the start of the recession. Yet, other sources show that incomes at the top have grown and the gap between the top and bottom and top and middle have widened. 

“In addition to successful public policies like SNAP (food aid) and the Earned Income Tax Credit, increasing the federal minimum wage would be a step in the right direction to bring more Iowans out of poverty, ” said Heather Gibney, research associate at the Iowa Policy Project. “Making it a little easier for people to move up the economic ladder not only helps struggling families but also makes our economy stronger for all of us.”

 

Iowa Uninsured at 8 Percent in 2013

One of nation’s best rates leading up to ACA and Medicaid expansion

A greater percentage of Iowans had health insurance than in most other states leading up to the implementation of the new health care law, Census data showed Tuesday.

Data from the Census’ American Community Survey showed 248,000 Iowans, or 8.1 percent, were uninsured in 2013, down from 254,000, or 8.4 percent, in 2012. The change was not statistically significant, as it was within the margin of error.

Only three other states and the District of Columbia had lower percentages of people who identified themselves as uninsured.

“As good as the Iowa numbers look in comparison to other states, we still had a quarter of a million people without insurance heading up to implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” noted Peter Fisher, research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, which is part of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

“The Census report demonstrates a need for policies that provide access to health insurance such as ACA, or Obamacare, and Iowa’s Medicaid expansion. Both can be expected to have reduced the number of uninsured. It will be interesting next year to see how these numbers have changed after more people have enrolled.”

Fisher noted one reason for optimism of better numbers in the future is that the state with the lowest uninsurance rate is Massachusetts, which has had a state plan for a number of years. The uninsurance rate in Massachusetts was 3.7 percent in 2013.

“As the ACA is implemented and we have a public policy response to the problem of uninsurance, you have to wonder if we’ll approach the Massachusetts number,” Fisher said.

Besides Massachusetts, only Hawaii and Washington, D.C., at 6.7 percent and Vermont at 7.2 percent had lower rates than Iowa. Minnesota at 8.2 percent was about the same as Iowa’s 8.1 percent, as both had a 0.3 percentage-point margin of error.

In the region, Iowa and Minnesota were well ahead of neighboring states, with uninsurance in Wisconsin at 9.1 percent and all others in double digits: Nebraska and South Dakota both at 11.3 percent, Kansas at 12.3 percent, Illinois at 12.7 percent, and Missouri 13 percent.

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

Ten years of balanced analysis

For 10 years, two organizations have stood together to help Iowans see the stakes for their families in good public policy.

110929-ifp-newlogo10Back then, these two nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations — the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center (CFPC) in Des Moines — merged their common state policy work under one banner, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP).

We focus on better informed and well-targeted state policies to provide adequate public services and better economic opportunity to more Iowans, particularly those at low incomes who have been pushed back, held down or shut out. IFP draws upon the expertise in various areas of policy work by IPP and CFPC. In short, it takes money — appropriately and equitably generated — to provide services necessary for the common good.

Success has many parents, but we can safely say that because of IFP:

  • Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit is twice as large as it was just a few short years ago, benefiting more families and boosting the economy.
  • There is new scrutiny on spending on tax subsidies for large corporations that pay little or no income tax in Iowa.
  • Iowa policymakers and advocates know more about who pays taxes in our state, and can identify exaggerated or false claims when they are made.
  • Work supports — such as child care assistance — are shown to make work pay for Iowa families, and to help the economy and family prosperity.

In our 10 years, a variety of circumstances shaped the political climate in which we work — governors of both parties, legislatures under divided leadership or full control of one political party. Serious attention to issues means not being distracted by who has or who does not have the reins of power. Our business is the arena of issues, not of party politics. In this, we are not alone.

Inside the state, good advocacy groups work tirelessly for Iowans’ best interests — on family budgets, on education, on health and nutrition, on child care, on clean air and water, and on safe neighborhoods. They want the independent analysis that sets our work apart, so they can make their case to their elected officials. Likewise, media quote our work for information and perspective — and the policymakers themselves use our reports in debate and decisionmaking.

sppartnershipIFP has been for these past 10 years a proud member of what has been known as the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative, which has grown to 41 states and this summer took on a new name: the State Priorities Partnership.

Our Iowa Fiscal Partnership is proud to be a part of this new national partnership of organizations focused on “the fight for a just and equitable America.” There is no better place to be.

Policy choices are about quality, not quantity

Posted May 28th, 2014 to Blog

The headline on my doorstep today says, “Legislature continues trend of passing fewer bills.” That lead story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette notes that for the fourth straight year, a divided Iowa Legislature has passed fewer than 150 pieces of legislation.

Ah, numbers. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em. But in this case, they don’t make a lot of difference.

What matters are the words and the policies embodied in those 150 or fewer bills. It’s about quality, not quantity.

What have those bills included in recent years? Here are some key points:

  • A commercial property tax overhaul that is tainted by big benefits to huge out-of-state retailers that need no help and pay too little in Iowa tax as it is.
  • An expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that improves tax fairness for low- and moderate-income working families across Iowa.
  • Funding to assure a tuition freeze remains for a second year in regents institutions.
  • A small boost in child care assistance for working students, making them eligible for the benefit so they can get skills for better paying jobs to sustain their families.

What have those bills not included in recent years? Here are some noteworthy omissions:

  • No overhaul of the personal income-tax system to better balance tax responsibilities for all taxpayers regardless of income, or to assure revenues are kept adequate to meet costs of critical services.
  • No greater accountability on spending that is done through the corporate tax code, outside the budget process.
  • No increase in the minimum wage, stagnant at $7.25 for over six years now.
  • No broad expansion of child care access for struggling families who don’t make enough to cover costs, but make too much to receive assistance.
  • No move to battle wage theft, which we have estimated to be a $600 million annual problem in Iowa’s economy — not including the $60 million lost in uncollected taxes and unemployment insurance.
  • No long-term answers for funding of education at all levels, violating the promise of law for K-12 schools, and leaving a legacy of debt for many college students and their families.

Those are not exhaustive lists, but a statement of priorities established by agreement, stalemate or inertia. We covered some of these points in our end of session statement. Some will like the overall product of recent years, some will not. Few will ask how many bills were passed.

At least one theme weaved by this record cannot be disputed: Iowa is on record that we will not ask the wealthy and well-connected to do more. We pretend more often than not that we can meet our obligations to the citizens of Iowa without investing in the public services they require, that if we just keep cutting taxes all will be well. Every now and then we’ll say something about opportunity for all and mean it, but we’re not ready to make that a long-term commitment.

Sometimes, not passing something says as much about legislative priorities as passing it.

Owen-2013-57   Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director