Tax Breaks for Tax Avoiders

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Anyone compiling a list of similarities between Hawai'i and the Cayman islands can now add "aspiring tax haven" to "sparkling beaches" and "mild climate." Late last month, Hawai'i Governor Linda Lingle signed into law a measure that will cap the premiums tax paid by so-called captive insurance companies in the hope of luring more of those companies to the Aloha State. (A captive insurance company is a subsidiary of a larger company that insures that larger company's property or employee benefits.)

Using tax policy to try to influence business location decisions is questionable enough on its own, but it's especially troubling in this case, since captive insurers can enable major corporations to avoid millions of dollars in federal taxes annually.

As reported earlier this year, Wells Fargo, by establishing a captive insurer in Vermont, will receive "tax breaks totaling at least hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 30 to 40 years"; ADM, Heinz, Alcoa, and Sun Microsystems may already be following suit. So, policymakers in Hawai'i may think that they're bringing more jobs to their shores, but what they're really doing is using scarce tax dollars to make federal taxes scarcer still.

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