State Spending Done Through the Tax Code Needs to Be Reviewed


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A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice makes the case for a “performance review” system designed to evaluate the effectiveness of special tax breaks in achieving their stated goals. While CTJ's report primarily focuses on the importance of such a system at the federal level, most of its findings are equally applicable to the states.

The special breaks littered throughout state tax codes — or “tax expenditures,” as they are frequently called — are an enormous and often overlooked part of government’s operations.  Although the primary purpose of a tax system is to raise the revenue needed to pay for public services, every state, as well as the federal government, also uses its tax system to accomplish a variety of other policy goals. Encouraging job creation, subsidizing private industry research, and promoting homeownership are just a few of the countless ends pursued via special subsidies contained in state tax codes. Rather than having anything to do with fair or efficient tax policy, these tax credits, exemptions, and other provisions are actually much more akin to government spending programs — hence the term, “tax expenditures.”

A performance review system takes the commonsense step of asking whether these provisions are doing what policymakers intended of them. Under such a system, tax credits designed to encourage research and experimentation, for example, would be regularly examined to determine the amount of new research undertaken as a result of the credits. Shockingly, the vast majority of states, and the federal government, do not currently attempt to answer fundamental questions of this sort with any type of rigorous evaluation.

Among CTJ’s findings are:

— “Procedural biases,” such as the omission of tax expenditures from the authorization and appropriations processes, allow tax expenditures to slip by with a fraction of the scrutiny given to direct spending programs. State legislative systems requiring supermajority consent to “raise taxes” (or eliminate tax expenditures) are particularly biased in this regard.

— “Political biases,” such as the erroneous belief that government can take a “hands off” approach, or reduce its overall size by offering special tax breaks, also contribute to the current lack of oversight.

— A number of states have made strides in recent years to counteract these biases through performance reviews and other, similar means. Washington State’s efforts represent the most complete attempt at tax expenditure performance review yet to be undertaken in the United States. California, Delaware, Nevada, Oregon, and Rhode Island have also made attempts — with varying degrees of success — to enhance the level of scrutiny applied to their tax expenditures.

— The bleak state budgetary outlook makes the implementation of tax expenditure review all the more urgent. States, like the federal government, can no longer afford to deplete their resources with ill-advised and ineffective tax expenditures. By implementing a tax expenditure performance review system, states can pave the way for a reduction in tax expenditures by identifying those expenditures that are ineffective.

— A formal review system could also help to reconceptualize these provisions in the minds of policymakers, the media, and the public as spending-substitutes, rather than simply as tax cuts. This would further help reduce the rampant biases in favor of tax expenditure policy.

— The precise design of a tax expenditure review system is very important. States should be sure to include all taxes, and all tax expenditures within the scope of the review. Additionally, states should exercise care in selecting the criteria to be used in the reviews — Washington State’s criteria represent a good starting point from which to build. Other key design issues include choosing the appropriate body to conduct the reviews, timing the reviews to coincide with the budgeting process, allowing similar tax expenditures to be reviewed simultaneously, and attaching some type of “action-forcing” mechanism to the reviews so that policymakers must explicitly consider the reviews’ results.

— Tax expenditure reviews are necessary, though they may not be sufficient to correct for the biases in favor of tax expenditure policy. A tax expenditure performance review system can play a vital informational role either on its own, or alongside other, more aggressive tax expenditure control techniques such as sunset provisions or caps on tax expenditures’ total value.

Read the full report.

Read the 2-page summary.

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