SHARE:
Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged tax credits

Real tax reform: What elements?

Not the same list they’re using at the State Capitol

IFP POLICY BRIEF

Basic RGB

 

By Peter Fisher

We should all welcome a serious discussion of tax reform in the Iowa Legislature, with one huge caveat: It should focus on real issues, not made-up ones. There are real issues: Business tax credits continue to grow much faster than other state spending, and contribute significantly to the budget shortfalls that have become an annual problem. The effectiveness of many of these credits has been questioned by studies from the Iowa Department of Revenue, by academic research, and by the Iowa Tax Credit Review Panel of 2010.[1]

170411-biz_creditsReining in the credits going to businesses will not be easy. A bill was recently introduced (HSB187) to end the refundability of these credits — provisions that allow companies to receive a check from the state whenever the credit exceeds their total state income tax. The business lobby was out in full force to defend their perks.

These income tax credits total over $285 million this year.[2] More tax credits — $125 million for both this year and next — are part of the massive commercial property tax cuts of 2013. (In various ways, the 2013 cuts now cost the state treasury another $300 million annually.[3]) Just a portion of these breaks would go a long way to solving the state’s perennial budget problem. The graph at right shows existing business income tax credits and new property tax credits together cost the state twice as much as the credits cost in 2013, leaving less to spend on critical public services.

However, there is a real danger that any savings from capping or reducing business tax credits would not be directed at improving education, reducing student debt, cleaning our water, or restoring cuts to public safety and the courts. Instead, some legislators apparently would rather spend it on a made-up problem — that Iowa’s taxes are supposedly driving corporations and individuals out of the state. This is a faulty notion for three reasons.

170325-statetaxesFirst, Iowa taxes are consistently found to be average among the 50 states, or below average. There have been several recent studies of Iowa’s business taxes by accounting firms. One found that Iowa state and local taxes falling on business are about average; three others found Iowa taxes to be below average (depending on the type of business) — including one report that ranked Iowa business taxes the fourth lowest in the country.[4] State and local taxes overall represent about 5.9 percent of personal income in Iowa, just under the U.S. average of 6.0 percent.[5]

Second, taxes have little or nothing to do with people’s decisions to move from one state to another. ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), AFP (the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity), and other right-wing groups continue to push the notion that taxes drive migration patterns in an effort to validate their tax cutting approach to state economic policy. But this assertion is contradicted by research on the issue.

Over their lifetimes, the majority of Americans do not move far, with most remaining in the state they grew up in or moving to a neighboring state. Those who move farther away do so for many reasons: job availability, climate, marriage, proximity to family, housing costs, the quality of schools, and other factors, according to years of research on this issue. This research consistently finds that taxes have a negligible effect on people’s decisions to move.[6]

170411-box-migration

Finally, decades of research have shown that state and local taxes on business are too small to have a significant effect on business investment and location decisions. All state and local taxes on businesses combined represent only about 1.8 percent of total business costs on average for all states.[7]

Businesses weigh most heavily the basics that comprise the other 98 percent of their cost structure: proximity to markets and to suppliers; transportation infrastructure; supply of labor with appropriate education and skills; wage and salary rates; energy costs; occupancy costs (to buy or lease space); access to supporting business services; the quality of local schools, recreation amenities, climate and other amenities important in attracting and retaining skilled labor; and proximity to university research facilities.

Instead of relying on credible academic research, or the reports by accounting firms that show business taxes are below average in Iowa, proponents of business tax cuts cite Iowa’s supposedly low “business tax climate” ranking by the Tax Foundation.  Yet this ranking has been thoroughly discredited.[8]

The drumbeat from the right has been the same for years — we need to lower Iowa’s taxes because they are making us uncompetitive; tax cuts will drive economic growth and prosperity. It is astounding that this argument is still being made after the fiasco in Kansas. Those same national groups pushing for regressive tax changes in Iowa (ALEC, AFP) convinced the Kansas governor and legislature in 2012 that individual and business tax cuts would act like a shot of adrenaline to the state economy. Instead, tax cuts have left Kansas mired in drastic budget shortfalls, credit downgrades, and school cutbacks.[9] And the predicted economic miracle turned out to be a disaster: the state changed from above average to below average growth after the tax cuts went into effect.[10]

We should hope for real tax reform, the kind that eliminates wasteful spending on tax breaks that provide little or no economic benefit, and that ensures a stable revenue stream to fund education and other public services important to ordinary Iowans. We should resist the use of bogus “research” to justify further tax breaks for those who need it least.


2010-PFw5464Peter Fisher is Research Director for the Iowa Policy Project. He 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. A national expert on public finance, Fisher is frequently quoted in the Iowa and national media on issues involving tax policy and economic development strategies. Following publication of two published critiques of various state business climate rankings, Fisher has produced a website to track issues with such rankings and better perspective on state policies to promote growth, Grading the States, at www.gradingstates.org.


[1] The Department of Revenue’s evaluation studies can be found here. Reviews of academic research include those by this author on his website Grading the States, and by Wiliam Gale, Aaron Krupkin, and Kim Rueben. “The Relationship between Taxes and Growth at the State Level: New Evidence.” National Tax Journal, vol. 68, no. 4, December 2015, pp. 919-941. The Iowa Tax Credit Review Panel report can be found here.

[3] This includes $152 million estimated for FY 2017 for the Commercial and Industrial Property Tax Replacement; $125 million for the Business Property Tax Credit; and an additional $25 million in state School Foundation Aid necessitated by the reduced assessment of commercial and industrial property. See Summary of FY 2018 and FY2019 Budget and Governor’s Recommendations, LSA – Fiscal Services, January 12, 2017, p. 218; Summary of FY 2017 Budget and Governor’s Recommendations, LSA – Fiscal Services, January 14, 2016, p. 63.

[4] Ernst and Young, LLP and the Council on State Taxation, Total State and Local Business Taxes: State-By-State Estimates for Fiscal Year 2015, December 2016 . Anderson Economic Group, 2016 State Business Tax Burden Rankings, 7th Edition, May 2016. KPMG and the Tax Foundation, Location Matters: The State Tax Costs of Doing Business, 2015. Ernst and Young, LLP and the Council on State Taxation, Competitiveness of State and Local Business Taxes on New Investment, April 2011.

[6] See Taxes Have Little to do with People’s Decisions to Move to or From a State. On this author’s website, Grading the States.

[7] See State and Local Business Taxes are Not Significant Determinants of Growth. On this author’s website, Grading the States.

[8] See The Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index. On this author’s website, Grading the States.

[9] See numerous blog posts from the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.

[10] See The Lessons of Kansas. On this author’s website, Grading the States.

Millions more of the same

Posted February 16th, 2017 to Budget, Corporate Taxes, Economic Security, Education

Big companies erase taxes — take millions in state subsidy checks 
Latest Research Activities Credit annual report shows big, profitable companies keep gaining

IOWA CITY, Iowa (Feb. 15, 2017) — Iowa’s lucrative research subsidy provided as much in 2016 to very large companies that do not pay Iowa state income tax as legislators recently approved as an increase in state school aid.

The Department of Revenue’s annual report on the Research Activities Credit (RAC), released Wednesday, showed that in 2016 the corporate share of the subsidy cost Iowa taxpayers a total of $49.1 million — with 82 percent, or $40.4 million, in 207 checks to companies that paid no state income tax.

Most of those so-called “refunds” — not of taxes paid but of tax credits not needed to erase tax liability — went to very large companies that had over $500,000 in research credit claims. Of every $10 in RAC checks, $9 went to those large companies.

“Put another way, less than 6 percent of the corporate claimants for this credit took 90 percent of the benefit,” said Mike Owen, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. “It is really time to examine whether this is a wise use of what legislators tell us are scarce resources.

“The number of companies taking advantage of this program is sharply rising — up 11 percent in one year. There were 160 companies using the RAC in 2010; in 2016, the number of claims reached a high of 305.”

The report shows that in 2016:

  • Companies made 305 claims totaling $49.1 million for the RAC and the related supplemental RAC for which some claimants are eligible, down $1 million from the previous year.
  • Of those claims, 207 (68 percent) were paid in whole or in part as checks to companies that paid no state corporate income tax.
  • Eighty-two percent of the value of those tax credits were paid as checks to companies.
  • Very large claimants — companies with over $500,000 in RAC claims — had at least 88 percent of those corporate checks ($35.6 million) while paying no income tax.
  • The large claimants accounted for 90 percent of the corporate claims.
  • Rockwell Collins, Dupont, Deere & Co. and John Deere Construction — the largest four corporate beneficiaries over the previous six years — were joined in the top five for 2016 by Golden Grain Energy LLC, which had $5.2 million in claims. Rockwell Collins led with $12.1 million, followed by Deere at $8 million, Golden Grain at $5.2 million, Dupont at $5.1 million and John Deere Construction at $2.6 million. (See table below and attached)

“This report illustrates a budget choice,” Owen said. “Legislators this month approved about $40 million in additional state aid to local schools for next budget year. This report suggests they could have doubled that if they were willing to cut back this tax break to simply excusing taxes owed.

“This is spending outside the budget process. Advocates of schools, clean water, human services and public safety do not have that luxury. They have to work for appropriations every year.”

Overall, the credit program cost $58.4 million in calendar year 2016, with $49.1 million of that in claims by corporations and the rest by individuals. The credit is refundable, which means that if a company has more tax credits available than it owes in taxes, the state makes a payment for the difference.

The report is available on the Department of Revenue website at https://tax.iowa.gov/sites/files/idr/RAC Annual Report 2016.pdf.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP), a joint initiative of the Iowa Policy Project and another nonpartisan organization, the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines, has reported on the RAC for many years.

Owen noted that Iowans have access to more information about this credit than they did years ago because of the annual report, which was ordered by the Legislature in 2009.

All of the state annual reports on the RAC are available on the Iowa Department of Revenue website at https://tax.iowa.gov/report/Reports?combine=Research%20Activities.

Those reports show that the number of corporate claimants has grown from 160 in 2010, the first full year covered by the annual reports, to 248 in both 2014 and 2015. The number of claimants receiving the credit as checks, rather than to only erase tax liability, rose from 133 in 2010 to 181 in 2014 and 186 in 2015.

A special tax credit review panel recommended in 2010 that the state curtail some spending on business tax credits. Among its proposals were to scale back “refunds” of the research credit, and to impose a five-year sunset on all tax credits to assure that the Legislature would have to vote to continue them.

For more information about the Research Activities Credit and other Iowa tax credit issues, see the Iowa Fiscal Partnership website at www.iowafiscal.org.

Basic RGB

Today’s virtual House graphic: Iowa’s growing spending on tax credits

Posted February 7th, 2017 to Blog

Editor’s Note: The Iowa House of Representatives voted Monday to deny the ability of lawmakers to use visual aids in debate on the floor. To help Iowans visualize what kinds of graphics might be useful in these debates to illustrate facts, we will offer examples. Here is today’s graphic, to illustrate state trends in spending on business tax credits.

170207-taxcredits-2007-21As the Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Fiscal Partnership have pointed out before, Iowa’s perceived budget shortfalls are largely self-inflicted. Iowa Department of Revenue reports provide a lot of data about tax credits, particularly in reports that are prepared for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines what revenue lawmakers have available to spend. These reports show the cost of those credits, which are also known as “tax expenditures,” because they effectively spend money through the tax code — revenues that otherwise would be available for fund schools and other public services.

Growth in tax-credit spending has erupted in Iowa over the last decade, tripling from $75 million in FY2007 to $237 million last year. They are projected by the Department of Revenue to reach $279 million in the current fiscal year, and to nearly $300 million in just four years.

For more information about Iowa spending on tax credits, see this page on the Iowa Fiscal Partnership website.


Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

Posted January 10th, 2017 to Blog
Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Connecting the dots: Tax breaks and school funding

Iowa’s revenue shortfall largely self-inflicted — education, other priorities suffer

A penchant for tax cuts over the past 20 years has left the state with a long-term revenue shortfall

Basic RGB

 

By Peter Fisher and Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

Iowa legislators frequently use projections of scant revenue growth to defend what has become chronic underfunding of education and other priorities. What they seldom acknowledge is that their dilemma is largely self-inflicted. A penchant for tax cuts over the past 20 years has left the state with a long-term revenue shortfall.

Indeed, the Revenue Estimating Conference in October projected that the state would take in $72 million less in FY2017 than it had projected in March. Adding $33 million to the cost of Medicaid privatization announced last month leaves the state with $100 million less for current obligations than lawmakers expected when they approved a budget offering schools only a 2.25 percent increase in per-pupil spending (Supplemental State Aid, or SSA). Over the last seven years, SSA has averaged below 2 percent. These trends are unlikely to improve for schools without large cuts elsewhere in the budget — or addressing the elephant in the room: rampant spending on business subsidies.

Iowa's growing spending on business tax credits, FY07-FY21, actual and projected

Business tax credits create part of the problemBasic RGB

Why is revenue growth a problem when Iowa has recovered better than most states from the Great Recession? Answers can be found in the growth in business tax breaks.

Business tax credits drained $200 million from the state treasury in fiscal year 2015, grew to $232 million in FY16, and are expected to cost $275 million this year. The six largest credits (or groups of credits) account for 87 percent of the total (see table).

Spending on business tax credits has grown 267 percent since 2007. Caps on individual credits and groups of credits have done little to slow growth. The cost of credits has far outstripped growth in general fund spending overall.

New tax breaks have worsened the problem

Recent measures have added greatly to the problem. The massive commercial and industrial property tax bill passed in 2013 was responsible for a $268 million cut in funds that otherwise would have been available to adequately fund education, natural resource programs, and other priorities in FY16. The impact in the current year was projected at $304 million.[1] The property tax breaks are larger than the sum of all business tax credits.

Assuming the property tax estimate holds, the combined cost of those business tax breaks identified above will drain about $579 million in revenue from the state general fund this fiscal year. At a time when the state is struggling to fund education at all levels, those business tax breaks take on added importance. And they tell us something about the state’s priorities.

Iowa business taxes are already quite competitive

Iowa has been right in the middle of the pack in how it taxes business for a long time. The most recent study of state and local taxes on business as a percent of state GDP by Ernst and Young and the Council on State Taxation shows that Iowa taxes business at 4.5 percent of GDP, just below the national average.[2]  A study by Anderson Economic Group in 2015 found Iowa’s effective tax rate on businesses to be 8.7 percent of profits, which placed it 32nd among the states, and again below the national average.[3]

State and local taxes have little effect on business location decisions

State and local taxes are less than 2 percent of total costs for the average corporation.  As a result, even large cuts in state taxes are unlikely to have an effect on the investment and location decisions of businesses, which are driven by more significant factors such as labor, transportation, and energy costs, and access to markets and suppliers. 

Tax breaks erode support for public investments in our future

The proliferation of tax incentives and business tax cuts over the past two decades has resulted in several hundred million dollars each year cut from the state budget. This has undermined the state’s ability to support quality education, from preschool through public colleges and universities. This poses serious consequences for state economic growth and prosperity.




[1] Legislative Services Agency, Fiscal Services Division. Summary of FY2017 Budget and Department Requests. December 2015, pp. 17 and 55. Includes the effect of SF 295 on state school aid as originally estimated.
[2] Ernst and Young and the Council on State Taxation, Total state and local business taxes: State-by-state estimates for fiscal year 2014. http://www.cost.org/Page.aspx?id=69654

[3] Anderson Economic Group, 2015 State Business Tax Burden Rankingshttp://www.andersoneconomicgroup.com/Portals/0/AEG%20Tax%20Burden%20Study_2015.pdf

 

Peter Fisher is research director and Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City. IPP and another nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Des Moines, the Child & Family Policy Center, provide reports and analysis as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. Find reports on state budget and tax issues at www.iowafiscal.org. Contacts: pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org and mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org.

Big Money, Big Companies — But Whose Benefit?

IFP BACKGROUNDER

Official Report Exposes Continuing Issues with Iowa Research Activities Credit  

Basic RGB

160224-RAC-boxIowa’s most lucrative business tax credit program is the Research Activities Credit (RAC). Through the RAC, some big companies receive big dollars from the state of Iowa, some as credits — effectively, discounts — on their taxes. But some as well (186 in 2015) either owe no income tax or reduce it to zero with the RAC, and have tax credits left over. In those cases they can receive state checks as a “refund” — $42.1 million in state spending last year.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has noted, Iowa’s RAC is far different from what was envisioned when it originally passed, in 1985. Designed to support start-up companies to do research, this program primarily benefits very large companies, with little scrutiny. More information has been available about the RAC since 2009, when state legislators ordered the Iowa Department of Revenue to provide an annual report by February 15 on both individual and corporate claims against income tax for the previous calendar year.[1]

As illustrated in Table 1 below, little of this tax credit is used to reduce taxes for its recipients. Rather, the credit is used mostly to provide subsidies, in state checks worth sometimes millions of dollars, to corporations that pay little or no income tax.

160217-RAC-Table1

The amount of the corporate claims under the RAC has ranged from about $45.2 million to $53.3 million over the six years covered by the full-year annual reports, from 2010 through 2015. The 2015 report showed 246 corporations claimed a total of $50.1 million from the RAC — covering both the regular RAC and the supplemental credit.

160224-RAC-Fig1The share of those claims provided as “refund” checks to corporations — meaning they had no corporate income tax in Iowa — has ranged from about two-thirds of the benefit to as much as 95 percent. After dipping below 70 percent in the previous two years, the share of research credits paid out as checks rose to 84 percent in 2015, with a cost to the treasury of $42.1 million. (Table 1.)

The number of companies claiming the credit has risen sharply — by 55 percent to 248 claims in each of the last two years compared to the 160 corporate claims in 2010. (Figure 1) Likewise, the share of claimants receiving checks has risen over that time from 133 to 186 — a 40 percent increase.

Another trend that has remained strong is that large claimants have taken $8 or $9 out of every $10 from the corporate credit. This is illustrated in Table 2 below. These are companies that have over $500,000 in corporate claims. Recalling that the credit represents 6.5 percent of the increase in Iowa research spending above an established base level (box, page 1) this effectively means a company with $500,000 in claims has Iowa research expenses of at least $7.7 million —not a small company. It is reasonable to ask whether the subsidy is necessary for a company already devoting such sizable resources to research.

Basic RGB

The annual reports by law must identify the largest corporate claimants, those with claims of more than $500,000. The largest claimants have looked similar at the top year to year, but the number of large corporate claimants has grown, from nine in 2010 to more than twice that — 20 — last year. Table 3 provides information from the six full-year annual reports disclosing big claimants and amounts claimed. A stronger law would disclose how much of each of those large claims was paid as a “refund,” or check, illustrating which companies received state assistance but did not pay Iowa income tax. It also would require corporations to report on their economic activities and investments in the state.

A Special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by Governor Chet Culver in 2009 examined all Iowa tax credits in the wake of a scandal in the Film Tax Credit Program. That committee came back in January 2010 with a report making several recommendations, including a five-year sunset for all tax credits so that lawmakers would have to review them and affirmatively vote to continue them, and specific recommendations on the Research Activities Credit. Among those recommendations: eliminate refundability of the RAC for companies with gross receipts in excess of $20 million yearly, but permit a five-year carry-forward. “It seems unreasonable for the State to be providing successful, larger corporations refund checks for amounts of the Research Activities Tax Credit over its tax due to the State.”[2]

160222-RAC-TopClaimants2

 

These large claimants are highly profitable companies. The biggest recipient of the Iowa credit in 2015, Rockwell Collins, reported $686 million in profits in fiscal 2015.[3] Deere & Co., had $7.5 million in research costs offset —yet reported over $1.9 billion in 2015 profits.[4] DuPont reported almost $2 billion in profits in 2015, but claimed $7.5 million from Iowa taxpayers for research.[5] As Table 3 indicates, Rockwell Collins and Deere have both benefited from more than $67 million in RAC claims over the last six years, and Dupont from more than $45 million. These figures raise serious questions about the need for state help to cover what may be considered normal expenses. After all, what keeps these companies competitive in their fields is their research and development work. Where there might be a benefit to company stockholders, there is no demonstration to Iowa taxpayers about a return on their investment in these companies’ operations.

Basic RGB

State fiscal experts predict will be a growing subsidy outside the budget process (Figure 2). The Department of Revenue projects the cost of this program to rise from about $54.9 million for individual and corporate claims in FY2013 to $64.4 million this year and more than $75 million by FY2020.[6]


[1] All annual reports filed as a result of the 2009 law are on the Department of  website, at https://tax.iowa.gov/report/Reports?combine=Research Activities. Reports for calendar year 2010 and after offer full-year information; the 2009 report was for a partial year. Our tables summarize the corporate claims in those full-year reports.
[2] State of Iowa Tax Credit Review Report, Jan. 8, 2010, p. 8, http://iowapolicyproject.org/2010docs/1001-TaxCreditReview.pdf
[3] Rockwell Collins Annual Report 2015, http://s1.q4cdn.com/532426485/files/doc_financials/annual/2015/COL-ANNUAL-REPORT-FINAL.pdf
[4] Deere & Co. news release, https://s2.q4cdn.com/329009547/files/doc_financials/quarterly_earnings/2015/Q4-2015/Q4_2015_Media-Release-and-Financials.pdf
[5] DuPont news release http://investors.dupont.com/investor-relations/investor-news/investor-news-details/2016/DuPont-Reports-4Q-and-Full-Year-Operating-EPS-of-027-and-277/default.aspx
[6] Iowa Department of Revenue,Tax Credits Contingent Liabilities Report, December 2015, https://tax.iowa.gov/sites/files/idr/Contingent Liabilities Report 1215.pdf; Table 9. Note: These figures are fiscal-year costs and projections in reports provided by the Department for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference, as opposed to the calendar year reports provided by the Department as required by the Research Activities Credit disclosure law passed in 2009. They also include individual claims as well as corporate claims, while the Tables 1-3 in this report only show corporate claims. (Corporate claims have represented 90 percent of the amount of all claims in the six years covered by the full-year RAC reports under the 2009 disclosure law.)

News Release (Feb. 15, 2016)
Special Tax Credit Review Panel Report (Jan. 8, 2010)

Iowa Fiscal Partnership

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) is a joint budget and tax policy initiative of two nonpartisan, Iowa-based organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. IFP is part of the State Priorities Partnership, a network of nonpartisan organizations in 41 states and the District of Columbia that share a commitment to rigorous policy analysis, responsible budget and tax policies, and a particular focus on the needs of low- and moderate-income families. IFP research is supported by the Stoneman Family Foundation and by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Policy conclusions are the responsibility of the Iowa Policy Project and the Child & Family Policy Center and not necessarily the view of either the Stoneman Family Foundation or the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports are available to the public at http://www.iowafiscal.org.

Start with ‘zero’ on credits

Posted March 11th, 2015 to Blog

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

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

And on.

And on.

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

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

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

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

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


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.

PDF (2 pages)

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.

Watch tax spending more closely

Posted February 4th, 2014 to Blog

Iowa is behind — not that we didn’t already know that.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines several aspects of what states do in budget planning. Particularly noteworthy in the report for Iowa is its poor attention to the impact of tax expenditures — spending through the tax code. When we have a tax break on the books, such as a credit or exemption, it has an impact on the budget bottom line the same as if the lost revenues were spent on the other side of the ledger.

Most of this spending, as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has shown over the years, is on autopilot. These breaks exist year to year, never requiring renewal — unlike the kind of spending we do through direct appropriations, where critical services are subjected to annual scrutiny to exist or not for another year.

Here’s why it matters, according to the executive summary of the CBPP report:

When recessions occur, states must scrutinize all forms of spending.  An important tool for this is oversight of various tax expenditures (tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that reduce state revenue), which in many ways function as spending through the tax code. This will enable states to make sound choices between the most essential tax expenditures and those the state can forgo. For example, states can regularly publish tax expenditure reports that list each tax break and its cost. And states can enact sunset provisions so that tax breaks expire in a specified number of years unless policymakers choose to extend them.

The problem in Iowa is not a lack of analysis or data. The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) has produced solid tax expenditure studies in 2000, 2005 and 2010. They are found here on the DOR website. And there is considerable information outside those formal studies that illustrate overall costs — primarily a so-called “tax credit contingent liabilities report” offered three-to-four times a year by DOR for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference. Furthermore, a number of important tax expenditures have been the subject of in-depth reports to the legislative committee charged with reviewing tax credits.

So in what way is Iowa behind the curve? The CBPP report lists 10 ways states can better budget for the future, including one on the tax-expenditure oversight issue:

Oversight of tax expenditures:  expiration dates for tax expenditures after a set number of years to subject them to regular scrutiny of their cost and effectiveness, in addition to tax expenditure reports that list the costs of individual tax breaks.

Such expiration dates are called “sunsets.” A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Culver in the wake of the 2009 film-credit scandal produced a set of strong recommendations for reform, among them a five-year sunset on all credits. This proposal was ignored.

Furthermore, a review of tax credits on a five-year rotation set up by lawmakers in response to that panel’s recommendations has produced no apparent policy change; this perhaps is not surprising since the committee that reviews the credits has not issued findings that the credits are meeting the intent of policy, or producing a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director