Some of the country’s most influential state tax-writers heard this week from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), about why they should reject the conventional wisdom about special business tax breaks being economy-boosters. Best known for its work promoting the collection of sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet, the NCSL Task Force on State and Local Taxation asked ITEP to speak at its meeting in Atlanta on the effectiveness of so-called “tax incentives.”
Among the reasons ITEP urged lawmakers to be skeptical of these special breaks:
- Tax incentives often reward companies for hiring decisions or investments they would have made anyway. These “windfall” benefits significantly reduce the cost-effectiveness of every tax incentive.
- State economies are closely interconnected, so the taxpayer dollars given to companies through incentive programs never remain in-state for very long.
- Tax incentives require picking winners and losers. Incentive-fueled growth at one business usually comes at the expense of losses at other businesses – including businesses located in the same state.
- Tax incentives must be paid for somehow, and state economies are likely to suffer if that means skimping on public services like education and infrastructure that are fundamental to a strong economy.
To address these problems, ITEP recommended a three-pronged approach to the Task Force: cut back on tax incentives (both unilaterally and through cooperation with other states); reform tax incentives to limit their most obvious flaws; and closely scrutinize incentives on an ongoing basis to weed out the least effective programs.
ITEP staff also participated in a follow-up panel on best practices for “tax expenditure reporting”—the main tool states use to keep tabs on the slew of special tax breaks they offer to businesses and individuals. For that panel, ITEP recommended expanding state tax expenditure reports to include more tax breaks, and to include more information, like the purpose of each tax break and a description of its beneficiaries. ITEP also explained why lawmakers shouldn’t gut state tax expenditure reports by excluding large tax breaks from their scope; every tax break has supporters and a constituency who insist it’s justified, but every tax expenditure requires equal scrutiny.
Read ITEP’s written remarks on the folly of business tax incentives.
Read ITEP’s written remarks on best practices for tax expenditure reporting.