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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged subsidies

Steps forward in ’14 — more ahead?

IFP News: Statement on 2014 Legislative Session

Iowa families took a couple of important steps forward in the 2014 legislative session, but those steps paled in comparison to lawmakers’ refusal to address long-term funding challenges for critical services.

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (May 7, 2014) — The Iowa Fiscal Partnership released the following statement today about the 2014 session of the Iowa Legislature:

Iowa families took a couple of important steps forward during the just-completed legislative session, while more — and more significant — advancements will have to wait as the General Assembly and Governor continue to focus excessive attention on giveaways to business.

Steps forward paled in comparison to lawmakers’ refusal to address long-term funding challenges for critical services including K-12 and early childhood education, and Child Care Assistance, among others.

And, inexplicably, lawmakers left Iowa’s minimum wage at a paltry $7.25 — stagnant now for over six years. Failure to improve the livelihoods of Iowa’s low-wage workers puts greater demands on families because public supports are not sufficiently funded. Eligibility for Child Care Assistance in particular has been held too low to help many low-income working families — one of the lowest eligibility ceilings in the country — and lawmakers passed up an opportunity to improve that.

One bright note from the session was that lawmakers approved increased eligibility for child care assistance to working parents who also go to school part time. They also passed a small improvement in the child and dependent care credit. Iowa Fiscal Partnership research has shown child care is expensive for low-income families, and is a major barrier for parents seeking to improve their education.

Another bright spot is that the state will provide 4 percent increases to Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa to meet a commitment by the Board of Regents to freeze tuition for a second straight year. Likewise, community colleges received a 4.1 percent funding boost to restrain tuition. It is important to note, however, that many more years of increased funding will be needed to reverse the long-term trends that have turned tuition into the majority source of support for the Regents institutions and the community colleges. This causes rising debt for families, reduces access to higher education and lessens Iowa’s commitment to opportunity for all.

On the other end of the education spectrum — 4-year-old preschool — only the Senate passed legislation to help eliminate waiting lists and expand access to more families, so it will be at least next year before that can be considered.

Funding is critical to improvements in many areas. For the environment, the Resource Enhancement and Protection Act (REAP) has been around for a quarter century but only once funded at its authorized $20 million. If the Governor signs improvements passed by the Legislature, conservation and environmental advocates will see it at $25 million.

No noteworthy gains were made or seriously attempted to reform corporate tax credits and other tax breaks that have become a significant and chronic drain on Iowa’s treasury with little apparent return.

While poorly targeted “incentives” to business remain a serious problem for Iowa, one limited credit for solar power improvements was expanded and should be able to stand the kind of return-on-investment review that needs to be applied to all business tax credits.

It remains a contradiction that lawmakers can give away tens of millions of dollars to profitable businesses that pay no state income tax — without a vote and without concern about the impact on the budget — yet leave town claiming they cannot set school aid as required by law because they don’t know how much money will be coming in. If education is a priority, the money can be found from the pool now being given away before it hits the treasury.

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

State Policy and Economic Growth

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

IFP Backgrounder

State Policy and Economic Growth

Innovation, Education, Infrastructure: The Things that Matter

PDF (2 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Fisher: With economic development, some bad ideas never die

Peter FisherBy Peter Fisher, Iowa Policy Project

On Wednesday, the Iowa House proved that bipartisanship is no guarantor of good policy.

On a vote of 87-9, the House approved House File 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities. So we will be taking money that should be supporting state investments in education, health, the environment, public safety and other services and using it to subsidize hotel developers and retail strip malls. All in the name of “economic development.”

Cities already have more than enough ability to divert taxes to development projects through property tax TIFs and abatements. There is no need for additional diversions of revenue from other jurisdictions.

The House bill would authorize any city or county to establish “Reinvestment Districts.” From the date of establishment onward for the next 25 years, 4 cents of the 6-cent statewide sales tax, and all 5 cents of the state hotel-motel tax, from all “new” sales or room rentals would be diverted from the state general fund to the city for use in the district.

What uses? Pretty much anything; any building, public or private, could qualify for a subsidy, and there is no limit on how much of the cost of a project can be subsidized.

“New sales” are sales from a business that first got a state sales-tax permit (or hotel-motel tax permit) after the date the district was established. Given the high rate of turnover among retail businesses, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which most of the sales taxes in a district are diverted from the state general fund even though there has been little additional economic activity, or even decline. All that is needed is that old businesses are replaced by new ones, even if that means replacing an Applebees with a pawn shop.

Why will a city ever again be content to finance commercial redevelopment on its own, or with property tax TIFs alone? Why will a developer ever again finance a project entirely from private sources — try to remember, if you can, when that was the norm — when he or she can just ask the city to get the money from the state?

More importantly, what will become of market standards? While every legislator who voted for the bill surely believes in free markets and private enterprise, this measure undermines markets.

There was a time, before the incentive wars got out of hand, when a project had to stand on its own — there had to be a sufficient market to support it, and banks had to be convinced that revenues would be sufficient to repay the loans.

No more. Now local government officials are determined to force development to happen when it can’t stand on its own, creating oversupply that hurts existing businesses. Or the private sector happily rakes in all the new incentive cash to do something it would have done anyway.

Those are really the only two alternatives for a local market activity: either market conditions support it and it can be financed privately, or the market can’t support it, and the city uses taxpayer money to force overbuilding.

We can hope that this bill gets careful scrutiny before it goes any further.

 

Peter S. Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. He is professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa.

This guest opinion ran in the April 29, 2013, Iowa City Press-Citizen, and also appeared on the Iowa Policy Points blog, www.iowapolicypoints.org.

Owen: State approaches incentives in upside-down fashion

Mike OwenBy Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

The world is upside down when state subsidies of business are presumed to be essential, and when a leading newspaper criticizes those who dare to question it.

In that world, the Sioux City Journal’s March 24 editorial (“Iowa must be a player in the economic incentive game”) might not be surprising, but is no less misdirected.

The Journal’s editorial brushes off critics of the state’s Orascom scheme — a $200 million subsidy to an Egyptian company to build a fertilizer plant in Iowa. It reluctantly concedes that “legislators not only have the right, but in some cases the obligation to ask questions about economic development deals involving state money for incentives.”

Yet in that sentence the Journal lays bare the weakening of fundamental checks and balances in our state on the question of corporate subsidies.

Lawmakers should ask questions “in some cases,” the Journal believes? How very wrong. State legislators have the obligation in every single case to ask questions about economic development deals involving state money, or at least to hold state agencies accountable on all Iowans’ behalf. Among those questions just for starters: First, is it a good project? Second, is there a public benefit? And third, is a subsidy even necessary?

Iowans must be assured that tough questions are being asked and the answers evaluated before the checkbook is opened in surrender to the mindset of a “need to offer state incentives, sometimes big incentives, to attract large capital projects to Iowa within the intensely competitive arena of economic development.”

The proper default position when a corporation comes hat in hand for a subsidy is at best, “maybe.” And if the answer becomes “yes,” it must be defended and defensible, especially for big deals such as Orascom.

If we cannot always count on development officials to be so careful, we should be able to count on a newspaper, which has as great an obligation as legislators to ask questions about development deals.

Orascom offers one of those poster-child examples of poor practices, where the state very simply offered more than was necessary, even if you believe “big incentives” are sometimes necessary. Iowa had Illinois beat: The state offered more than Illinois could do because of a $1.2 billion low-interest loan available to Iowa and not Illinois through a federal flood-relief program. That was enough to bring the firm to our state. Then Iowa sweetened its offer and roped local property taxpayers into it, as well.

If you believe in a market-oriented economic system, as many claim to do, a subsidy is a last resort — not the starting place — for public-sector involvement in a private-sector project. All such deals demand questioning. Some deals will pass as sensible, and some may even be optimal approaches as targeted, careful investments that will produce a return on the public dollar.

Orascom already has failed the test.

 

Mike Owen is assistant director of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 2001 to produce research and analysis on state policy decisions. IPP focuses on tax and budget issues, economic opportunity and family prosperity, and energy and environmental policy.

This guest opinion ran in the April 3, 2013, edition of the Sioux City Journal.

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


Does Iowa know when to walk away?

Posted September 5th, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

There’s Texas Hold ’Em,” and then there’s “Iowa Fold ’Em.”

Wouldn’t you just love to play poker against the folks who run this state?

They never call a bluff. Companies come calling with demands for tax breaks and big checks, or they’ll build somewhere else. And Iowa just happily falls in line with the demands. You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The latest: Today the board of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is scheduled to consider sweetening its already generous offer to Orascom — $35 million to build a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County — to about $110 million with a slew of new tax credits. As The Des Moines Register points out today, that’s $110 million for 165 “permanent” jobs paying on average $48,000 a year, plus construction jobs that will be gone when the project is finished.

The state tax credits are in addition to the enormous benefit the state is providing by allocating federal tax-exempt flood recovery bonds to this project. If the interest rate difference — between taxable and tax-exempt bonds — were 1 percentage point, the company would save $320 million in interest payments over the life of the $1.2 billion bond. That would bring the firm’s total benefits to $2.7 million per permanent job, a truly astounding number. Even without considering the federal interest subsidy, the state tax credits would total $687,500 per job, many times the typical level of subsidy in deals such as this.

There are no estimates available about the potential environmental costs that will be caused by this plant. Since Iowa does a poor job of monitoring for pollution damage, those ongoing costs might be low, but if there is an accident, it could be costly.

The Register also quotes Debi Durham, head of IEDA, that incentives wouldn’t be needed if Iowa were to reduce corporate income tax rates. Nonsense. Research has shown repeatedly that this is a myth, and that in fact, Iowa’s income taxes paid by corporations are competitive with other states. In many cases, giant corporations are paying not a dime in income tax yet getting huge subsidy checks from the state to do things they would do without incentives.

This hand is the one we are dealt from years of unaccountable economic development strategies by Iowa state government.

Time for a fresh deck.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director