Red and Blue States' Commissions Agree on Need to Get Real About Costs of Tax Breaks


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In a span of less than two weeks, commissions in two very different states – Massachusetts and Oklahoma – have issued remarkably similar recommendations on how to deal with the slews of special tax breaks that evade scrutiny and accountability year after year, budget after budget. As CTJ has pointed out, state budget processes are essentially rigged in favor of tax breaks (loopholes, subsidies) and as a result it’s become far too easy for lawmakers to enact (and extend) tax giveaways for virtually any purpose imaginable.

In Massachusetts, the Tax Expenditure Commission just released eight recommendations designed to deal with this very problem.  According to the Commission, lawmakers should clearly specify the purpose of all tax breaks (or “tax expenditures”) so that analysts can begin evaluating their effectiveness on an ongoing basis and providing realistic policy recommendations to lawmakers.  The Commission further urged that those evaluations be carefully timed to coincide with the state’s normal budget process, and even suggested that some tax expenditures be scheduled to sunset (or expire) so that lawmakers are forced to debate those breaks after the evaluations are complete and the facts are out.

In Oklahoma, the Incentive Review Committee recently released its set of recommendations dealing with one category of tax expenditures in particular: those ostensibly aimed at spurring economic development.  As in Massachusetts, the Oklahoma Committee said that lawmakers need to more clearly articulate the purpose of tax breaks, and that evaluations of those breaks should be done in a rigorous and ongoing fashion. One of the Oklahoma Committee’s more important recommendations might sound obvious at first, but it’s actually often overlooked: good evaluations take time and resources, and the state should adequately fund whichever department is charged with completing the evaluations.

Jon Stewart hilariously skewered the phrase “spending reductions in the tax code” as another way of saying taxes need to be raised. These tax commissions (as well those in Minnesota, Missouri, and Virginia), tasked with realistically assessing state budgets, are forcing Americans to recognize that spending through the tax code exists and that it requires the same level of scrutiny as spending through government programs, as previously outlined by CTJ.

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