It's hard to believe, but there may actually be a trend in state tax policy more prominent than increasing cigarette taxes. Business tax credits aimed at spurring economic development have been among the most popular ideas in statehouses scrambling for ways to reduce unemployment. Just last week, we described a plan in Minnesota to boost investment tax credits and a budget in California containing a few credits of its own. This week, proposals to do the same in Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri are under discussion.
In Iowa, Republican lawmakers have suggested paying (via tax credit) half the salary of each new job created by private businesses. Oddly, because this payment would be administered through the tax code rather than as a direct grant, the debate has become confused to the extent that this policy has been labeled as a way to return to a "market-based, capitalistic system".
An excellent op-ed out of Kentucky helps clear things up a bit, noting that Gov. Beshear's proposed expansion of business tax incentives would be a costly, nontransparent, and likely ineffective way of encouraging job growth. The op-ed goes on to argue that a "broader" approach, including better targeted and more closely scrutinized spending programs, could do far more good than creating more tax credits.
Finally, as an expansion in economic development tax credits works its way through Missouri's legislature, the admission of at least one legislator that he is a "recovering tax credit addict" helped to shine some light on the unfortunate politics behind these types of tax credits. These programs can cost a state enormously, and are rarely defensible on principled tax policy grounds. Instead, they constitute a type of spending done through the tax code -- commonly referred to as "tax expenditures" -- which add complexity, shrink the tax base, require higher marginal rates, and offer little if anything in terms of making the system more responsive to individuals' and businesses' ability to pay.