Out of Control Tax Credits Demonstrate Need for Greater Oversight


| | Bookmark and Share

Recent developments in Oregon and Massachusetts demonstrate how relying too heavily on tax breaks to accomplish policy goals can quickly cause things to get out of hand.  Policymakers in Maryland should heed these warnings when considering the Governor’s recent proposal to create new tax incentives for businesses, despite the state’s dire budgetary outlook.

In Oregon, the controversy involves the state’s Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC, or “Betsy”).  The BETC program is purportedly designed to encourage the growth of “green” energy companies in Oregon.  Under pressure from the Governor’s office, the Oregon Department of Energy is reported to have deliberately (and drastically) low-balled the cost-estimate attached to the BETC program.  This lower cost estimate allowed the program to be enacted with much less scrutiny than would otherwise have been the case.  Of course, if the program had instead been operated as a traditional spending program, its overall size would have been limited to whatever dollar amount the legislature decided it deserved during the appropriations process.

The Oregon credit has also taken heat in recent weeks for its lack of accountability – specifically, by providing benefits to businesses that have done little or anything to create jobs or improve the environment.  And moreover, because of the “transferability” of these credits, the program has also resulted in huge windfall benefits to businesses, including Walmart, that have made absolutely no attempt to promote the credit’s environmental goals.

In order to quell the outrange expressed by Oregonians at this blatant misuse of state resources, the Governor has since proposed, among other things, to cap the overall size of the BETC program and force the government to prioritize potential projects in order to bring the cost of the program beneath that cap.  It remains to be seen whether the Governor’s recommendations will be enough to salvage this so far disastrous program.

While Oregon’s recent experience with BETC provides anecdotal evidence of the danger of relying upon the tax code as a tool of economic development, evidence from Massachusetts provides an even more comprehensive picture of this problem.  The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s (MBPC) recent analysis of economic development tax incentives shows that while traditional government “spending” has been forced downward by the economic recession, spending on business tax incentives has continued to rise sharply.  The 2.8% drop in FY10 appropriations, for example, contrasts sharply with a 4.2% increase in FY10 economic development tax breaks.  MBPC explains the cause of this asymmetry as follows:

“Tax expenditures are in many ways similar to direct appropriations. Both seek to achieve certain policy goals through the use of the state’s economic resources, and both have an effect on the state’s bottom line. A primary difference is that budget appropriations must be reauthorized by the Legislature each year, while tax expenditures remain in effect without the Legislature having to take action.  The effectiveness of these tax expenditures is rarely examined in any detail and very little data is available to analyze.”

In order to correct this bias in favor of special tax breaks, the MBPC proposes six reforms designed to shine a brighter light on these programs.  The first such reform, “provide information on the purpose and effectiveness of each tax expenditures,” mirrors a proposal made by CTJ just last month.

On the heels of this disappointing news from Oregon and Massachusetts comes a proposal from Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to provide businesses with a $3,000 tax credit for each employee they hire.  While the Governor has thankfully proposed to cap the overall credit at $20 million, one can’t help but wonder whether another economic development tax break is really the best use of the state’s very scarce resources.

Thank you for visiting Tax Justice Blog. CTJ and ITEP staff will soon retire this domain. But ITEP staff are still blogging! You can find the same level of insight and analysis and select Tax Justice Blog archives at our new blog, http://www.justtaxesblog.org/

Sign Up for Email Digest

CTJ Social Media


ITEP Social Media


Categories