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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


Fisher: Commercial property taxes — reform first

Posted March 1st, 2013 to IFP in the News, Op-eds

Peter FisherBy Peter S. Fisher, Iowa Policy Project

The annual debate about commercial property taxes in Iowa is under way, and once again the discussion ignores the larger picture — that overall business taxes in Iowa are below average among states — and fails to consider reforms that should be addressed first.

It has become routine practice throughout Iowa, for example, to grant large property tax rebates to new commercial properties through Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Millions of dollars per year flow back to commercial projects, sometimes eliminating nearly all property taxes for 15 or 20 years — which can be to the disadvantage of an existing commercial project not in the TIF.

At the same time, some of Iowa’s largest and most profitable companies are paying no state corporate income tax due to the generosity of Iowa’s business tax credit programs. And many large multistate companies continue to exploit loopholes in Iowa’s corporate tax system to shift profits out of state and avoid paying their share of Iowa’s corporate tax, while instate business competitors cannot.

Rockwell-Collins has not paid any state corporate income tax for at least the last three years, and in fact, received state subsidy payments of as much as $13.8 million last year through the Research Activities Credit, yet it would benefit substantially from the property tax rollbacks and credits being discussed in the Legislature.

At the same time, local services could suffer from the loss of revenue, at least under some proposals. Similarly, Wal-Mart and its stores throughout Iowa, which exist because they are profitable, would receive a reduction on the $12 million in property taxes they currently pay to support state and local services.

Other national companies that use tax loopholes to escape Iowa income taxes would benefit as well. Nearly identical companies doing business in Iowa may have dramatically different property taxes based upon whether they are part of a TIF district, with TIFs often eroding local property taxes and playing one Iowa community off against another.

That violates a primary tax principle of fairness — that taxes should be based on ability to pay, and that those of similar standing and with similar ability to pay should have similar tax responsibilities.

Is Iowa really not competitive for new commercial investment, as some claim, given the ability of cities to reduce their property taxes to almost nothing? Should corporations not paying their share of the corporate income tax benefit from further state largesse in the form of property tax cuts?

TIF reform, caps on the refundability of tax credits, and measures to close the loopholes in Iowa’s corporate tax system (which could be corrected by combined reporting, as is done in the majority of states with corporate income taxes) should be undertaken before any further reduction in business taxes at a cost of cuts to local services.

Recent legislative proposals: In fiscal year 2009, property taxes levied amounted to $4,023 billion, with 31.2 percent, or $1.254 million, coming from commercial and industrial property. During the 2012 session, the Iowa House and Senate passed different versions of commercial and industrial property tax rollbacks — either of which could significantly affect the ability of both state and local governments to address health, education, and safety needs of Iowans (which make up 80 percent of the Iowa budget).

The House version, when fully phased in by FY2022, would have resulted in $486 million less in property tax collections and $237 million less in funding available to local governments, provided the state honored new commitments for $249 million in property tax replacement from state sources. The Senate version, when fully phased in by FY2022, would have resulted in $419 million less in property tax collections and $91 million less in funding available to local governments, provided the state honored new commitments of $328 million in property tax replacement funds from state sources. Since they did not reach agreement, neither version was enacted into law, but these issues are again before the General Assembly.

Iowa’s business taxes already are low. When one considers the whole range of state and local taxes that fall on businesses, Iowa is a low-tax state. In a report on overall taxes, including property taxes, paid by businesses, the nationally recognized accounting firm of Ernst and Young recently showed that only 15 states taxed businesses at a lower rate than Iowa as a percent of private-sector GDP.

Commercial property tax break will spur little or no growth. A state or local government’s tax rate — be it corporate income or commercial property or the combination of all taxes on business — is a tiny portion of a business’ overall costs. Taken together, state and local taxes on business are, on average, only about 1.8 percent of total business costs. The commercial property tax by itself would be an even tinier fraction of a business’ overall costs. The notion that cutting commercial property taxes further by reducing assessments will bring in new economic activity and new revenue is a pipe dream.

If Iowa is to make changes in its property tax treatment of commercial and industrial property, the first thing it should do is look to finance the cost of these changes through closing existing tax loopholes and subsidies. There are many provisions within Iowa’s tax code that are designed to stimulate economic activity but also substantially erode overall tax collections, often to the benefit of very narrow business interests. Because these credits are part of the tax code, they are not subject to annual appropriation or review. Before lawmakers consider changes to commercial and industrial property taxes or to corporate or individual income taxes, they need to review and consider reforms to and eliminations of special business tax exemptions and credits.

 

Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project, part of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint public policy research and analysis initiative of IPP in Iowa City and another nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines.

This guest opinion ran in the March 1, 2013, Iowa City Press Citizen.

Fisher: Heightened concern about business tax incentives

Posted February 24th, 2013 to Economic Development, IFP in the News, Op-eds

Peter FisherBy Peter Fisher, Iowa Policy Project

Headlines in last weekend’s editions of The Gazette say so much:
•  “State leaders didn’t do their homework” (Feb. 16 column by Jennifer Hemmingsen).
•  “State’s business lures don’t measure the net catch” (Feb. 17 Gazette Editorial Board editorial).
•  “Incentive cash down the drain?” (Feb. 17 front-page news story).

This trifecta is all the more disturbing when you realize the three stories focused on different issues with Iowa’s economic development programs.

The first was a glaring lack of “due diligence” by state officials in offering the biggest subsidy package in state history to the Egyptian company Orascom that, it turns out, has an affiliated firm under the cloud of fraud accusations by the U.S. government.

The others refer to the need to better establish what taxpayers are getting in return for their generosity to corporations, and to an investigation showing weaknesses in the state’s ability to recover subsidies from companies that don’t hold up their end of a development deal.

When you add in a fourth issue — the disclosure about more than $40 million in annual state giveaways to giant companies under the guise of stimulating research — you can see we have problems with accountability in Iowa.

The Research Activities Credit is an example of a business spending program crying out for reform. Designed in the 1980s to spark small startup operations, its primary beneficiaries are very large and profitable companies.

For each of the last three years, the Department of Revenue reports that Rockwell Collins, Deere & Co., Dupont, John Deere Construction and Monsanto have been the top recipients of the “credit.” In those three years, the state has sent more than $120 million to corporations in direct taxpayer subsidies, above the elimination of any corporate taxes the beneficiary corporations would have owed, at the expense of other taxpayers.

To this list could be added the film tax credit scandal in 2010 and the Iowa Fund of Funds debacle last fall.

Unfortunately, Iowans are left without much critical information needed to understand these tax provisions, who benefits from them and what Iowans receive as a result. If lawmakers are going to continue these tax provisions or enact new ones, they need to put in place much more transparency and accountability than we have currently.

We expect and receive that information from any public agency that spends state money. If we had that information on tax expenditures, we could make reasonable evaluations of whether the public was getting a return, whether dollars were spent with a public purpose, whether it was creating new economic activity.

Instead of calls for reform from the Branstad administration and the General Assembly, we see new proposals floated for fewer restrictions on corporate tax credits. Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed raising the cap that limits a select group of business tax credits from $120 million to $185 million a year.

Rather than finding more ways to give money away, the first order of business in the General Assembly should be to ensure that existing tax credits achieve the public goals for which they are intended. Lawmakers need to be stewards of the state treasury, and this includes tax expenditures every bit as much as appropriations of funds.

 

Peter S. Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project and co-director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. Reports on the Research Activities Credit and other corporate tax subsidy programs are available at www.iowafiscal.org. Comments: iowapolicy@gmail.com

 This guest opinion appeared in The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, on February 24, 2013.

ALEC’s ‘Tax Myths Debunked’ Misses the Mark

Posted February 11th, 2013 to Budget, Corporate Taxes, Taxes

3-page PDF of this report

By Peter Fisher

The American Legislative Exchange Council has for several years attempted to provide factual underpinnings for its right-wing policy agenda through an annual publication called Rich States, Poor States. This report and similar ALEC documents have come under increasing attack in recent years for their shoddy research methods and misleading conclusions. ALEC has now struck back at its critics in a report by Eric Fruits and Randall Pozdena called Tax Myths Debunked.[i] A portion of that document is devoted to research released last November by Good Jobs First and the Iowa Policy Project in the report Selling Snake Oil to the States: The American Legislative Exchange Council’s Flawed Prescriptions for Prosperity.[ii] Some of the key findings in that report were released in the summer of 2012 in a short piece called The Doctor is Out to Lunch.[iii] It is the latter piece that is referenced in Tax Myths Debunked rather than the full research report; we refer herein, however, to the full document and use its shorthand title, Selling Snake Oil. The full report was known to ALEC well before Tax Myths was released.[iv]

The first criticism leveled in Tax Myths is directed at an analysis in Selling Snake Oil of the factors leading to economic growth and rising incomes among the states between 2007 and 2012. In that analysis we argued that state economic structure — the composition of a state’s economy — is likely to play an important role in the short run in determining how well the economy fares; states more heavily invested in 2007 in sectors poised to grow in the succeeding five years would be expected to do better than states with a concentration of jobs in sectors that would be hit hard by the recession. Thus it was important to control for economic structure in a statistical analysis that attempts to identify whether the policy prescriptions of ALEC performed as advertised, leading to growth and prosperity. ALEC, in Tax Myths, appears to have completely misunderstood what was done in our analysis; their criticism seems to be based on the assumption that our model was predicting changes in the share of employment by sector. Instead we were simply using 2007 economic structure — measured by employment shares — to predict rates of growth in overall state GDP, employment, and personal income. Their criticisms make no sense and are completely off base; 2012 state GDP cannot be a cause of 2007 economic structure, which is the circularity they argue undermines our analysis.

Second, they argue that economists have found a strong relationship between tax policy and economic health, and cite two pieces of research in support. In Selling Snake Oil, we devote several paragraphs to a discussion of the many reviews of dozens of research articles over the past 30 years that have led to the conclusion that business taxes have, at best, a small effect on business location decisions. In our piece, we looked at the consensus among a large number of economists who have examined this question; in Tax Myths, they found two that supported their position and ignored the rest.

The third criticism is directed at several scatter plots and associated correlations that were presented in Selling Snake Oil.  In those charts we were illustrating how states that were ranked high or low by ALEC in the first edition of Rich States, Poor States in 2007 actually performed in the time since then. Did the states that ALEC ranked high on their Economic Outlook Ranking (EOR) actually perform better than others? Since all ALEC provided was the state rankings (not an index number showing their relative strength or weakness), we correlated those rankings with the measures of performance that ALEC emphasizes: growth in GDP, employment, and income. ALEC argues a technical point here: The formula used to calculate the correlation between two continuous variables (the Pearson coefficient) is different from the formula used to calculate the correlation between two rankings (the Spearman coefficient). We had one ranked variable (the EOR), and one continuous variable, and used the Pearson coefficient.

130211-table1To respond to this criticism, we converted all of the performance variables to ranks first, and then calculated the Spearman coefficient. The conclusions were the same (Table 1). Where there was no statistically significant relation using the Pearson formula (as was the case when we looked at the EOR as a predictor of growth in GDP or jobs), there was also no significant relation using the Spearman. Where there was a statistically significant and negative relation (high ranked states have lower per capita and median family incomes) using the Pearson measure, the same result occurred with the Spearman. In only one instance did results change: Our original analysis showed a negative but not statistically significant relation between EOR and the growth in state revenues. The analysis substituting the state rank in revenue growth and using the Spearman coefficient found a negative effect as well, but this time the effect was stronger and statistically significant.

Finally, Tax Myths presents an alternative to the analyses in Selling Snake Oil, correlating the state EOR each year with the June value of the “state coincident indices” published monthly by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia for each state. The coincident indices are based on four measures of the health of the state economy: non-farm employment, average hours worked in manufacturing, the unemployment rate, and wage and salary disbursements. ALEC found a strong correlation between a state’s EOR and the value of the coincident index.

The state coincident indices are designed for tracking the course of a state’s economy over time — whether it is sliding into recession or on a path to recovery — and are pegged to a value of 100 for every state as of 1992. They are used to compare states, but only in terms of the changes in the index over time. So the value of the index as of 2008 is a measure of that state’s growth rate from 1992 to 2008, since every state started at 100. However, a high value for state X in 2008 does not mean that state X has a healthier economy in some sense than state Y with a lower value in 2008, because state Y could have started out with a much higher level of prosperity in 1992 and still have higher incomes and wages than state X in 2008, despite growing more slowly. Furthermore, the correlations performed by Fruits and Pozdena are taken as evidence that ALEC policies, as represented by EOR, cause economic health, but they have done it backwards, in effect trying to demonstrate that conformance to ALEC policies in 2008 caused states to grow more rapidly from 1992 to 2008! So why didn’t they look at the policies in place as of 2008 and see if they predicted economic growth from 2008 to 2012? The answer is, because the correlations between the EOR in 2008 and changes in the state coincident index subsequent to that are near zero. This is not the result they were looking for.

In Selling Snake Oil, we argued that a more sophisticated approach to identifying the effects of a state’s EOR would entail a statistical analysis that controlled for economic structure, as described earlier.  In fact, a Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank economist in an article about the state coincident index explains how state economic structure is an important determinant of the path of the state economy, as measured by changes in that index over time.[v] We decided to see how the coincident index measure of economic performance fared in our regression model. So we used our 2007 economic structure variables, along with either the EOR or several key measures that are components of the EOR, to predict the rate of improvement in a state’s coincident index from 2007 to 2012. The results were much the same as our previous analysis, using growth in GDP, employment, or income as the performance measures. In other words, when state economic structure is controlled for, none of the ALEC policy variables, including the EOR, had a statistically significant effect on the rate of improvement in the state’s economy over this period.

In sum, nothing in Tax Myths actually undercuts any of the analyses or conclusions in Selling Snake Oil. In fact the authors’ misinterpretation of our use of economic structure variables and misuse of the state coincident indices serves only to further confirm the shoddiness of the research sponsored by ALEC.




[i] Eric Fruits and Randall J. Pozdena, “Tax Myths Debunked.” American Legislative Exchange Council, 2013. http://www.alec.org/publications/tax-myths-debunked/

[ii] Peter Fisher with Greg LeRoy and Philip Mattera, “Selling Snake Oil to the States: The American Legislative Exchange Council’s Flawed Prescriptions for Prosperity.” Good Jobs First and the Iowa Policy Project, November 2012. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2012docs/121128-snakeoiltothestates.pdf

[iii] Peter Fisher, “The Doctor is Out to Lunch: ALEC’s Recommendations Wrong Prescription for State Prosperity.” Iowa Policy Project, July 24, 2012. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2012Research/120724-rsps.html

[iv] The author of the ALEC report evaluated by the “Selling Snake Oil” report was quoted in a news story the day of its release, November 28, 2012, by Mike Wiser of the Quad-City Times, Davenport, Iowa. http://qctimes.com/news/local/report-iowa-tax-policy-might-hurt-state-economy/article_6f578494-39d5-11e2-9519-0019bb2963f4.html

[v] Theodore Crone, “What a New Set of Indexes Tells Us About State and National Business Cycles.” Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Business Review Q1 2006. http://www.philadelphiafed.org/research-and-data/publications/business-review/2006/q1/Q1_06_NewIndexes.pdf

 

Peter Fisher is Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project (IPP), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that engages the public in an informed discussion of policy alternatives by providing fact-based analysis of public policy issues.

Fisher holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is professor emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He is a national expert on public finance and has served as a consultant to the Iowa Department of Economic Development, the State of Ohio, and the Iowa Business Council. His reports are regularly published in State Tax Notes and refereed journals. His book Grading Places: What Do the Business Climate Rankings Really Tell Us? was published by the Economic Policy Institute in 2005.

 

Remaking ‘Blazing Saddles’

Posted December 13th, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

Some of the arguments against raising tax rates on the richest 2 percent of Americans back to the level that prevailed during the boom years of the 1990s bring to mind Mel Brooks’ classic, Blazing Saddles. In the film, new Sheriff Bart is surrounded by an angry mob. He draws his gun, points it at his own head and warns he’ll shoot if someone makes a move. The mob freezes and Bart escapes to safety.

In the current remake of the film, Bart is being played by the wealthy businessmen claiming they will have to lay off workers if we raise the tax rate on their profits by 3.6 percentage points.

We can reasonably assume those workers are currently productive, earning enough for the owner to cover their wages and add something to the bottom line. If not, they would have been laid off long ago. So these owners would have us believe that an increase in the tax on profits would lead them to lay off these productive workers. That, in turn, would mean the business is producing less, earning less profit before taxes.

So the owners are actually saying, “If you raise my taxes, I will show you a thing or two — I’ll deliberately sabotage my business so you have less profit to tax.”

A business owner whose objective is to maximize after-tax profits will always be better off producing more, with more workers, and earning more before-tax profit, no matter what percent of those profits end up going to pay income taxes. On the other hand, making a political point may be so important to these owners that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot, if not the head, to do it. If they are rich enough to afford that symbolic gesture, I guess we can’t stop them.

Fortunately, in the remake of Blazing Saddles, it appears that the angry mob is ready to call their bluff. They recognize that the “job-killing tax increase” is no such thing. It is simply an effort to reclaim for the average American a share of the increased wealth generated by workers in this economy in recent years that has been captured almost entirely by the richest among us.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


Remaking ‘Blazing Saddles’

Posted December 13th, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

Some of the arguments against raising tax rates on the richest 2 percent of Americans back to the level that prevailed during the boom years of the 1990s bring to mind Mel Brooks’ classic, Blazing Saddles. In the film, new Sheriff Bart is surrounded by an angry mob. He draws his gun, points it at his own head and warns he’ll shoot if someone makes a move. The mob freezes and Bart escapes to safety.

In the current remake of the film, Bart is being played by the wealthy businessmen claiming they will have to lay off workers if we raise the tax rate on their profits by 3.6 percentage points.

We can reasonably assume those workers are currently productive, earning enough for the owner to cover their wages and add something to the bottom line. If not, they would have been laid off long ago. So these owners would have us believe that an increase in the tax on profits would lead them to lay off these productive workers. That, in turn, would mean the business is producing less, earning less profit before taxes.

So the owners are actually saying, “If you raise my taxes, I will show you a thing or two — I’ll deliberately sabotage my business so you have less profit to tax.”

A business owner whose objective is to maximize after-tax profits will always be better off producing more, with more workers, and earning more before-tax profit, no matter what percent of those profits end up going to pay income taxes. On the other hand, making a political point may be so important to these owners that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot, if not the head, to do it. If they are rich enough to afford that symbolic gesture, I guess we can’t stop them.

Fortunately, in the remake of Blazing Saddles, it appears that the angry mob is ready to call their bluff. They recognize that the “job-killing tax increase” is no such thing. It is simply an effort to reclaim for the average American a share of the increased wealth generated by workers in this economy in recent years that has been captured almost entirely by the richest among us.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


States should beware ALEC-brand snake oil

Posted November 29th, 2012 to Blog

Peter Fisher

Legislative sessions will be starting across the country after the first of the year, and with them, some very bad ideas for public policy.

The purveyor of many poor prescriptions is a very influential right-wing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. The organization promotes policies to cut taxes and regulations in the disguise of promoting economic growth, but what they really do is reduce services, opportunity and accountability.

In short, the ALEC medicine show is a prescription for poor results, and states should beware.

Our new report, “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” examines ALEC’s proposals and the misinformed, primitive methodology behind the study that supports them. The new report, a joint project of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and Good Jobs First in Washington, D.C., illustrates how ALEC’s prescriptions really offer stagnation and wage suppression.

In fact, we find that since ALEC first published its annual “Rich States, Poor States” study with its Economic Outlook Ranking in 2007, states that were rated better have actually done worse economically.

Find “Selling Snake Oil to the States” at http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/snakeoiltothestates.

We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results. We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.

ALEC’s rankings are based on arguments and evidence that range from deeply flawed to nonexistent, consistently ignoring decades of peer-reviewed academic research.

What we know from research is that the composition of a state’s economy — whether it has disproportionate shares of high-growth or low-growth industries — is a far better predictor of a state’s relative success over the past five years. Public policy makers need to stick to the basics and recognize that public services that benefit all employers.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


IFP News: Selling Snake Oil to the States

IPP-Good Jobs First Study:

ALEC’s Advice to States on Jobs Is Actually a Recipe for Stagnation and Wage Suppression

View report (PDF) from Iowa Policy Project/Iowa Fiscal Partnership and Good Jobs First
Download this news release (2-page PDF)

snakeoiltothestates-3inWashington, D.C. (Nov. 28, 2012) — A new study finds that state tax and regulatory policies recommended by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) fail to promote stronger job creation or income growth, and actually predict a worse performance.

Since ALEC first published its annual Rich States, Poor States study with its Economic Outlook Ranking in 2007, states that were rated better have actually done worse economically.

Those are the key findings of “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” a study published today by Good Jobs First and the Iowa Policy Project and freely available online at http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/snakeoiltothestates. It was released at a press conference the same week ALEC holds its annual fall meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results,” said Dr. Peter Fisher, research director of the Iowa Policy Project and primary author of the study. “We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.”

The study dissects the methodology used by ALEC’s lead author Arthur Laffer and his co-authors. It finds that their arguments and evidence range from deeply flawed to nonexistent, consistently ignoring decades of peer-reviewed academic research. Instead, Laffer et al repeatedly engage in methodologically primitive approaches such as two-factor correlations and comparing arbitrary small numbers of states instead of all 50.

The study finds that the composition of a state’s economy — whether it has disproportionate shares of high-growth or low-growth industries — was a far better predictor of a state’s relative success over the past five years.

“State corporate income taxes average less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the average company’s costs,” said Fisher. “The ALEC/Laffer studies would have state leaders ignore site-location basics and disinvest public goods that benefit all employers.”

Good Jobs First is a nonprofit, nonpartisan resource promoting accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families. It was founded in 1998 and is based in Washington, D.C.

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization promoting public policy that fosters economic opportunity while safeguarding the health and well-being of Iowa’s people and environment. It was formed in 2001 and is based in Iowa City.

How about that timing of worker pay report?

Posted October 31st, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Timing is everything.

Consider the announcement Tuesday by the Branstad administration of a new report produced by an outside company to examine whether Iowa state workers are paid too much.

Paid too much?

As the Department of Administrative Services was releasing the report, emergency rescue workers across the Eastern seaboard were putting themselves in harm’s way to help their neighbors in the path of the deadly Hurricane Sandy. And right here in Iowa, within a couple hours of the DAS news conference, bank robbers shot two law enforcement officers — critically wounding the Sumner police chief and injuring a state trooper.

We count on public servants every day, sometimes when lives are at stake, sometimes in enriching life with education, sometimes in just keeping life orderly enough that we can enjoy it without worrying whether the water or food will poison us, or that our job will not put us in danger we did not sign up for.

Oh, and the report? It found that pay scales for Iowa state workers are generally competitive. Where the report cited potential problems, the information provided was too sketchy to delve in and really go through it. And, being produced by a private company that copyrighted the report, we might just never know what our tax dollars produced. This is what happens with privatization, folks. But if you want a quick look at the holes in the report, see the review Tuesday by IPP’s Peter Fisher.

So, for those less inclined toward knee-jerk appeals against public workers, the timing of this report, you might say, wasn’t too bad.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

 

Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Posted September 21st, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

The enormous package of state and local incentives provided to the Egyptian company Orascom to locate a fertilizer plant in Lee County has drawn considerable attention. The package includes $110 million in state tax credits and other incentives and $133 million in local tax abatements — a total of $243 million when all is said and done. All this to attract a plant that will employ just 165 workers.

At a cost per worker of nearly $1.5 million, the incentive is an astounding amount, well beyond the normal range of awards, in Iowa or anywhere else. (While the company claims a large number of ancillary jobs will follow, these claims are unverifiable, and it is not clear how many would even fall to Iowa residents; furthermore, there are always some spin-off jobs with any project, so the valid comparison with other awards is in terms of cost per direct job.)

Yet little attention has been paid to what is possibly the largest incentive provided: tax-exempt bonds, not even included in the above calculations.

Early on in the negotiations, in fact last April, the Iowa Finance Authority awarded Orascom up to $1.19 billion in Midwest Disaster Area (MDA) bonds. These bonds are exempt from federal income tax; Midwestern states affected by the 2008 flood were each given an allocation of these bonds to be awarded to projects in eligible counties — those declared disaster areas after the flood. The $1.19 billion loan would constitute 46 percent of the Iowa allocation.

Because the interest is exempt from federal income tax, the wealthy individuals and financial institutions that would purchase such bonds will accept a lower interest rate than they would require on taxable corporate bonds. The after-tax rate is what they focus on. This means that the company saves money. How much? That depends on the spread between corporate bond interest rates and tax-exempt rates.

Information from officials at the Iowa Finance Authority indicates that the spread would likely range from 1 percent to 2 percent. For a $1.19 billion bond issue to be repaid in equal annual installments over a 20-year period, the savings in interest would amount to between $153 million and $297 million, depending on what the interest rate differential turned out to be.

These tax-exempt bonds could have been used in Lee County or in Scott County; both were flood disaster areas and both, at one point, were under consideration as a location for the fertilizer plant. When the Scott County site was rejected, attention turned to Illinois, specifically the area near Peoria. But neither Peoria County nor any counties surrounding it were eligible for the Illinois allocation of MDA bonds.

This means that Lee County was starting with a huge advantage over the Illinois site: the availability of an incentive probably worth in the neighborhood of $200 million.

While the MDA bonds cost federal taxpayers, there is no loss of Iowa income-tax revenue. (The federal cost comes because the federal government forgoes income-tax revenue on the interest, which must then be made up by the rest of federal taxpayers.) But the point is that, whoever bears the cost, this was a very large incentive that Iowa could provide and Illinois could not.

Thus it raises the question: Given this advantage from the start, why was it necessary for the state of Iowa and Lee County to double down and provide another $200 plus million, especially when the Illinois tax incentives were not even a reality — they had passed the Illinois Senate, but not the House, and the Legislature had adjourned months ago?

Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director