Archive for March, 2012

Subsidies and Sunshine

March 14, 2012

This being Sunshine Week, there’s a lot of discussion going on about open government. One of the things government should be open about is the dubious practice of giving subsidies to companies in the name of economic development.

Each year, state and local governments in the United States award tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks, cash grants and other financial assistance to business, with the lion’s share going to large corporations ranging from Google and Facebook to Wal-Mart and Boeing. Much of the money goes to companies that don’t need it and often provide little return to taxpayers in terms of creating quality jobs.

The good news is that it is easier than ever to discover which companies are getting the giveaways. A decade ago, only a handful of states disclosed the names of subsidy recipients. That number is now up to 43 states and the District of Columbia. Data from those 44 jurisdictions—along with previously unpublished data from five other states—can be found on Subsidy Tracker, the database created by my colleagues and me at Good Jobs First. The only states with no data currently available are Mississippi and Nevada, but we’re seeking unpublished info from them as well.

A glance at the inventory of data sources that have been fed into Subsidy Tracker makes it clear that there is a great deal of variation in the depth of available information from state to state. We have entries for two dozen programs in Washington and Wisconsin, yet only one each for Alabama, California, Idaho, Massachusetts and Tennessee.

There are also significant differences in the types of subsidies for which recipient information is available. A major dividing line is between those states that have disclosure relating to corporate tax credits (or other business tax breaks) and those that keep that information secret even while revealing data on other categories such as grants. According to our latest tally, 31 states plus DC provide online disclosure of corporate tax break recipients. The ones with the most extensive tax subsidy reporting include Missouri, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

Among the states that are aggressive promoters of corporate tax breaks but which decline to reveal which companies are benefiting from that largesse are Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, New Mexico and Tennessee. A few states—including Maryland and South Carolina—disclose the names of companies but not the value of the credits they are receiving.

Subsidy disclosure is an issue addressed in Following the Money 2012, a new report by USPIRG, the third in its series of report-card studies on state spending transparency. USPIRG provides a thorough assessment of the Google-government portals that have proliferated in recent years. The report does a good job when it comes to general state spending, but we at Good Jobs First have a friendly disagreement about its treatment of subsidies. (I am graciously cited in the acknowledgements for having reviewed drafts of the report, but the disagreements I expressed to USPIRG are not mentioned).

Despite the fact that company-specific reporting on subsidies is missing from the core content of nearly all state transparency portals, USPIRG gives many of those portals high grades for subsidy transparency. Quite a few of the sites have links to other webpages with the subsidy data, and we have no objection if USPIRG wants to awards points for that practice.

The problem is that USPIRG’s scoring category on subsidies also covers grants, some of which are economic development subsidies but many of which are not. The distinction is not made clear, and in numerous cases it appears that the data treated by USPIRG as subsidy disclosure is actually information relating to other kinds of grants to non-governmental entities. For example, the Massachusetts transparency portal (which is given 8 of 10 points in the subsidy category) lists grants to non-profit organizations for providing social services, but it does not cover the state’s job creation programs. The latter include tax credits that will soon be disclosed, thanks to the efforts of groups such as PIRG’s Massachusetts affiliate.

It is understandable that USPIRG, in its effort to promote the march of government openness, would want to take a flexible position about what constitutes transparency. But the fact of the matter is that most online subsidy disclosure is still fragmented, occurring through far-flung webpages and obscure PDF reports. That’s precisely why we at Good Jobs First created Subsidy Tracker, which brings all those disparate sources (plus unpublished data) together in one national search engine.

Centralized state transparency portals are certainly a welcome development, and we salute USPIRG for promoting them, but they are not yet an effective means of educating the public on big giveaways of tax dollars.

Cross-posted from the Dirt Diggers Digest.

South Carolina Joins Subsidy Tracker

March 12, 2012

South Carolina has become the 48th state to be represented in Subsidy Tracker, the Good Jobs First database of company-specific economic development subsidy awards. That leaves only Mississippi and Nevada with no entries, but we are working to rectify that through requests for unpublished data (neither state has any online disclosure). Subsidy Tracker now contains more than 121,000 awards from 308 programs in those 48 states and the District of Columbia.

Until recently we thought that South Carolina was also a non-disclosure state, but my colleague Kasia Tarczynska discovered online postings of some obscure reports produced by the state’s commerce department for the state legislature. The reports—annual summaries of enterprise zone activity—list which companies have gotten approval for their “revitalization agreements” in connection with the Job Development Credit Program. They also list the same for the Job Retraining Credit Program. Unfortunately, the lists do not include the size of the credits each company is receiving, though in the case of the retraining credits they include the number of workers eligible for the retraining.

We have also continued our quest for both published and unpublished information for other programs. Here are the latest datasets we have obtained:

- Colorado: Colorado First Training Program (FY2010-FY2011)
- Colorado: Existing Industry Training Program (FY2010-FY2011)
- Delaware: Blue Collar Training Grant (1997 to Jan 2012)
- Kansas: Kansas Economic Opportunity Initiatives Fund (2007-2012)
- Minnesota: Minnesota Investment Fund (2007-2011)
- Missouri: Chapter 100 Industrial Revenue Bonds (2009-2011)
- South Carolina: Enterprise Zone Job Development Credit (2005-2007; 2009-2010)
- South Carolina: Enterprise Zone Job Retraining Credit (2005-2007; 2009-2010)
- Virginia: Virginia Jobs Investment Program (FY2009-FY2011)
- Washington: Job Skills Program (FY2009-FY2011)

new years
- Iowa: Research Activities Credit (now 2009-2011)
- Maine: Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement Program (now FY2009-FY2011)
- Missouri: Quality Jobs Program (now 2000-2011)

Taxing the Tax-Exempt

March 5, 2012

Tax Day is approaching, and we will soon hear a rising chorus of criticism of large corporations such as Verizon and General Electric that don’t pay their fair share.

That’s as it should be, but there is another group of big entities that also dodge taxes but receive a lot less scrutiny: major non-profit institutions such as universities and hospitals.

Strictly speaking, giant non-profits are not dodging taxes, since they are largely tax-exempt. But that’s precisely the problem. These rich and powerful institutions increasingly behave like for-profit corporations yet are given privileged status under the tax laws. At a time when governments at all levels are desperate for revenue, that privilege is no longer a given.

The latest battleground over non-profit tax exemption is Providence, Rhode Island, where Mayor Angel Taveras has been trying to get local institutions such as Brown University to do more to help the struggling city. The Ivy League college has been making voluntary payments to the city, but Mayor Taveras wants Brown, which has an endowment of about $2.5 billion, to play a greater role in averting the possibility that Providence could end up in bankruptcy. Brown’s facilities in Providence are reported to be worth more than $1 billion, which would mean $38 million in revenue for the city if they were taxed at the commercial rate. Brown is paying about one-tenth of that amount. The mayor’s effort has won support from students at Brown, who have recently held rallies calling on the university to pay its fair share (photo).

It probably comes as a surprise to many that Brown is paying anything at all to the city. Providence’s arrangement with Brown is part of a limited but growing trend among cash-strapped local governments to persuade big non-profits to make voluntary payments in lieu of property taxes, or PILOTs. These are cousins of the PILOT agreements that for-profit companies often negotiate with localities when they are receiving large property tax breaks but want to be sure (often for public relations purposes) they are contributing something to vital local services such as schools and fire departments.

A 2010 report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy found that localities in at least 18 states have negotiated PILOT deals with non-profits. This often occurs quietly, but Providence is not the only city that has gotten into a high-profile tug-of-war with large tax-exempt institutions. Perhaps the most contentious case is Boston, home to numerous universities and hospitals with deep pockets.

Boston, where more than 50 percent of the land is tax-exempt, has made limited use of voluntary PILOTs for several decades. Although the city’s program was said to be the largest in the country, it was generating modest amounts of revenue.  In FY2008 the total was about $30 million, but half of that came from the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan Airport and the Port of Boston; the rest came from about two dozen healthcare and educational institutions.

In 2009 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino decided to shake things up by forming a PILOT Task Force. The group issued a report in December 2010 recommending that the city seek to enlist all non-profits owning property worth at least $15 million into the PILOT system with payments equal to 25 percent of what their tax bills would be if they had no exemption. The city eagerly agreed, and last year it began sending letters to several dozen major non-profits asking them to pay up.

Boston inspired other Massachusetts cities such as Worcester, home of Clark University, to join the PILOT bandwagon. (Cambridge did not need inspiration; it has been collecting voluntary payments from Harvard, whose assets now exceed $40 billion, since 1929).

The Boston approach has also generated a lot of criticism from those who argue that sending out letters pressuring non-profits for specific sums is not exactly voluntary and may be tantamount to putting those institutions back on the tax rolls, albeit at a discounted rate.

As much as non-profits may grumble about PILOTs, these payments are quite benign compared to the fate that has befallen some hospitals: the complete loss of their tax-exempt status. For years, healthcare activists have charged that many non-profit hospitals were not functioning as true charitable institutions and should thus not enjoy the privilege of tax exemption.

In 2004 officials in Illinois sent shock waves across the hospital industry by revoking the tax-exempt status of Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana. Six years later the state supreme court upheld that determination. In the intervening period, some other Illinois hospitals lost their exempt status and the question of whether non-profit hospitals were doing enough to deserve tax exemption became an issue at the federal level, thanks to relentless efforts by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.

The issue flared up again recently in the wake of a front-page New York Times article reporting that major New York non-profit hospitals have been providing little in the way of charity care, even though on top of their tax exemption they are allowed to tack a 9 percent surcharge on their bills to pay for such care.

Whether as the result of PILOTs or loss of exempt status, increasing numbers of large non-profits will probably find themselves paying more of the cost of government. This is good news for revenue-starved public officials, but how long will it be before these non-profits decide to follow the lead of their counterparts in the for-profit world and begin seeking subsidies to offset those obligations?

Cross-posted from the Dirt Diggers Digest


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