State Film Tax Credits: Next on the Cutting Room Floor?

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If you’re a state legislator, chances are good that you’ve spent the better part of the last twelve to eighteen months struggling to find options for bringing your state’s budget into balance.  Chances are equally good that, while you’d like to stop thinking about the subject, circumstances won’t allow it.  After all, some thirty-six states are expected to face budget deficits in fiscal year 2011, even after forty-eight states closed budget gaps totaling $168 billion for the current fiscal year.

In this context, then, state legislators will be forced to evaluate even more stringently each program funded by the public, whether through the regular appropriations process or via foregone tax collections.  One good place to start would be to reconsider the wisdom of offering subsidies through the tax code for the purposes of film, television, and other media productions.  As the Los Angeles Times reports this week, more than 40 states now provide tax credits or other tax reductions for such purposes, often at a very high cost to the state’s budget and just as frequently with little to no understanding of whether they are producing any real benefits for the state’s economy. 

For instance, Michigan is home to one of the most generous such subsidies in the nation: a credit equal to 42 percent of filmmakers’ production expenses, which could cost the state as much as $150 million next year.  Yet, as one Michigan Senator admitted to the Times, “We are still not sure what exactly our tax dollars are being spent on with these films…If we don’t know that, how can we justify it?”

Those states that do examine the uses to which scarce tax dollars are being put may not like what they find.  In Iowa this past week, three state officials – the Director and Deputy Director of the Department of Economic Development, as well as the manager of the Iowa Film Office – either resigned or were fired in the wake of reports that the state’s tax credit program was subject to serious abuses, including the purchase of two luxury automobiles that were not actually used in making in a movie but instead went to film executives.  Governor Chet Culver has temporarily suspended the program, which, by some estimates, could pay out more than $300 million in tax subsidies if it resumes.  For more on Iowa’s film tax credit and the need for greater transparency, visit the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

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