Archive for the ‘Tax Expenditure Budgets’ Category

GASB Finally Prepares to Step Up! And Who is GASB, You Ask?

October 7, 2014

For many years, we at Good Jobs First have criticized GASB—the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, or “GAZ-bee”— for failing to require state and local governments to disclose economic development subsidy spending in a uniform way.

It appears that’s finally about to change, and if it does, it will be hard to overstate the significance of the news.

As the group that has been successfully shaming states and cities to disclose on subsidies all these years, with our 50-state and 50-locality “report card” studies, and as the group that has been collecting all the public data—and also lots of previously unpublished data—in our Subsidy Tracker database, we are intimately familiar with the irregularities and gaps that exist in these vital public records. And we have long shown how to fix them in our model legislation.

First, a quick primer on GASB: it is the public-sector counterpart to the Financial Accounting Standards Board, or FASB, which issues private-sector accounting rules. Each body oversees its respective set of rules, which are constantly under review and improvement, known as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP.

Adhering to GASB, cities, counties, states (and other government bodies such as school boards and sewer districts) must account for their finances in conformity to GAAP if they want to receive ratings from the major credit ratings agencies (Moody’s, Standard & Poors, Fitch), which they must earn if they wish to sell bonds.

The same is true for corporations of all kinds if they wish to satisfy shareholders, sell debt, or even get foundation grants. Indeed, Good Jobs First’s auditors have to certify us as GAAP compliant in our annual financial statement. All of which is to say: the influence of GASB and FASB is enormous and ubiquitous; they are the arbiters of sound United States bookkeeping standards that protect investors, taxpayers, and consumers every day. (Both are part of the non-profit Financial Accounting Foundation.)

Now, GASB is preparing rules that say: to meet GAAP, governments will have to publish an annual accounting of the revenue lost to economic development subsidies. The proposed wording of these rules has not been issued; all we have are board-meeting minutes of a low-profile process spanning more than two years, as GASB gathers information and debates how best to achieve this new standard.

GASB is using the term “tax abatement” as an umbrella term (not just specific to local property tax exemptions) but “a reduction in taxes… in which (a) one or more governmental entities forgo tax revenues that [an individual] taxpayer otherwise would have been obligated to pay and (b) the taxpayer promises to take a specific action that contributes to economic development or otherwise benefits the government(s) or its citizens.” This would appear to also cover state corporate income tax credits and state or local sales tax exemptions, but apparently not tax increment financing.

As part of that process, GASB even commissioned a survey that included citizens groups, county board members and bond analysts. Tellingly, the bond analysts said they are most keen to see both current and future-year costs. For cities like Memphis, where we recently found that Payments in Lieu of Taxes (or PILOTs) cost the city almost one-seventh of its property tax revenue, such losses are apparently becoming bigger concerns for bond investors.

GASB will have a three-month comment period on its proposed rules starting next month (November).

For all the cost-benefit debates featuring inflated ripple-effect claims that beg the more fundamental issue of cause and effect, we have always said: the only thing that can be said for sure is that development subsidies are very expensive, so costly that they undermine funding for public goods that benefit all employers. Therefore, at the very least, taxpayers have the right to know the exact price of every deal and every program (and the outcome of every company-specific deal). GASB now appears to be moving to make some form of standardized disclosure of tax-break costs a reality for reporting periods after December 15, 2015 (and sooner on a voluntary basis).

Some important details remain to be clarified. Based on the board minutes, it appears that GASB will propose giving governments the option of disclosing individual deals or only programs costs in the aggregate (the latter option would be far inferior). We’ll know for sure when the draft standards are published sometime this month. Good Jobs First will publish a detailed analysis of the draft when it comes out.

But for now, the big picture is simply huge: the body that effectively controls how taxpayer dollars are accounted for is finally catching up to the Wild West of record-keeping known as economic development incentives.

Massachusetts Business Tax Breaks Evaluated in New Report

March 12, 2013

masspirg reportA new MASSPIRG study asks if Bay Staters are “Getting Our Money’s Worth?” from the Commonwealth’s corporate tax breaks.  The organization evaluates 25 different special business tax subsidies for fiscal safeguards and accountability and transparency practices.  Among other findings, MASSPIRG concludes that:

  • Less than one-third of the subsidies are subject to annual spending limits.
  • Few of the Commonwealth’s special business tax subsidies have well-articulated public policy goals.
  • Nearly half of all business tax subsidy programs fail to publicly disclose information important for transparency such as recipient names, program-wide cost to the state budget, or results generated by the program.

MASSPIRG  also finds that state spending on business tax subsidies has more than doubled since 1996; the Commonwealth spent an estimated $770 million in 2012 through programs such as the Economic Development Incentive Program and the Film Tax Credit.  MASSPIRG’s recommended policy options to help the state get the best results from its substantial spending on special business tax subsidies include:

  • Transitioning from business tax breaks to outright grants.
  • Adding mandatory public policy goals and expiration dates to new and existing subsidy programs.
  • Continuing to improve disclosure of subsidies awarded through these programs.

You can read the rest of the organization’s recommendations to help the state get the biggest bang for its buck in Getting Our Money’s Worth? here.

States Shine More Light on Tax Spending

May 19, 2011

The CBPP map shows states that do not have tax expenditure reporting (in red) and states that do not include important information in their reports (in orange).

States are doing a better job in letting the public know how much tax revenue is being lost through special credits, deductions, and exemptions, according to a new report on tax expenditure budgets released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

Over the last two years, CBPP notes, two more states–New Jersey and Georgia–passed legislation requiring tax expenditure reviews, decreasing the number of states that do not report on the issue to seven (Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming). At the same time, the Center finds, states such as Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont as well as Washington, DC have improved the quality of their reporting.

The news is not all positive. CBPP points out that the tax expenditure budgets of 18 states are still deficient. Out of 44 states that have some kind of reporting system (counting Washington, DC as a state), ten do not report on major categories of tax spending and six do not release reports at least every other year. Two states, Arkansas and New Hampshire, don’t bother to put their reports online.

CBPP offers a good list of best practices for tax expenditure budgets. These include putting the reports online; including all tax expenditures, even small ones or those that affect few taxpayers; describing the types of taxpayers that benefit from each tax expenditure; and explaining the purpose of the various categories.

The CBPP report comes at a time when the issue of tax expenditures is receiving growing attention at both the federal and state levels. The first step in addressing the issue is knowing how much these practices really cost, and that makes the need for thorough tax expenditure budgets all the more urgent.

Advances in Oregon’s Trailing Disclosure

March 1, 2011

A guest blog post by Jon Bartholomew of OSPIRG

As Oregon faces a $3.5 billion budget deficit, efforts are underway to give taxpayers a fuller picture of how much state revenue is being used for corporate subsidies.  While Oregon provides checkbook-level transparency of direct state spending, it does not provide any detail of spending through the tax code. We can get big picture about each tax subsidy program from our Tax Expenditure Report (TER), but it only tells part of the picture.

Based on what it says in the newest TER, there is likely to be about $600 million in the next biennium in tax breaks for businesses for the purpose of economic development. What you haven’t been able to see in the TER or anywhere online is who got these breaks, how much they got, how many jobs they promised to deliver, and what they actually did. If we are to ensure these programs actually create the jobs they said they would, and to ensure these breaks aren’t going to undeserving businesses, we need to be able to see that data.

One of the largest and most controversial of these tax expenditures that businesses benefit from is the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC). Just last month, the Oregon Department of Energy began posting who has received and been pre-certified for BETC credits on their website. This information should be mirrored on the state transparency site, but at least it’s available at ODoE’s site. Some improvements that still need to be made are to include the data in a downloadable spreadsheet (instead of a pdf) and to include pass-through partners (where the company that received the credit then sold the credit to another taxpayer). This is the first improvement to transparency of economic development programs in Oregon since Good Jobs First gave Oregon an “F” in their report Show us the Subsidies. The report noted that none of Oregon’s economic development tax subsidies posted data online about who received the benefit and what the taxpayers got for it.

But besides the BETC program, there are hundreds of millions of dollars that go to corporations in the name of economic development that we can’t see online. For the Enterprise Zones, the Strategic Investment Program, E-Commerce Zones, Oregon Investment Advantage and a half dozen other programs, we still need to be able to see who got the money and what they did for it. This is exactly what is behind HB 2825, a bipartisan effort to make economic development tax incentives more transparent to the public. As an editorial in the Eugene Register Guard noted, “Oregonians need a clear picture of what they’re getting from these programs, both because of their big price tag and because it’s essential that the expenditures yield actual results.” This bill had its first hearing on February 17th and has broad bipartisan support.

Transparency is certainly not the silver bullet to ensure the state spends money in the most effective ways, but it is a powerful tool for accountability.  Through transparency, active citizens can analyze how we spend, and make suggestions for improvement. The arguments about state spending shift from about rhetoric to about facts. And since sunlight is the best disinfectant, transparency will also prevent the misspending of tax dollars. While there has been a lot of improvement over the last two years, we still need to ensure ALL state spending is transparent, and we need to make it more understandable.

Jon Bartholomew is a Policy Advocate for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG). He is a member of the Transparency Oregon Advisory Commission, a board member of Open Oregon, and works on promoting government transparency in Oregon. In addition, he works on consumer protection and democracy issues for OSPIRG. Prior to working for OSPIRG, Jon worked for Common Cause as Associate Director of Media Reform.

New York City Industrial Development Agency Establishes Landmark Transparency Reforms

September 25, 2010

This week New York City leapt to the front of the transparency pack with reforms to its Industrial Development Agency (IDA) that will improve taxpayer awareness of and participation in proposed economic development deals.

New Yorkers have spent years advocating for a more inclusive and transparent process around high profile proposals like Yankee Stadium, Kingsbridge Armory, Albee Square, Reuters America, Recovery Zone Facility Bonds (via IDA’s sister entity the Capital Resource Corporation), and post 9/11 Liberty Bonds.

The reforms are key to helping New Yorkers engage in a process that has been difficult terrain for those wanting to offer suggests that would improve, support or opposed IDA proposals, which grants discretionary tax-breaks and tax-free financing to companies that pledge to remain in New York City. 

Of the more than 100 IDAs across the state, which have come under fire over the few years and most recently from the State Comptroller and New York Jobs with Justice, the NYC IDA is now clearly the most transparent.

These improvements, while certainly a step in the right direction, do not solve every problem. For example: The public should have online access to applications and cost/benefit materials of proposed deals 30 days in advance of public hearings, not 12 days. We also recommend that webcasts of hearings and meetings remain on the agency’s website longer than three days. That said there’s plenty of good news:

  • The value of other non-IDA discretionary and as-of-right benefits will be included in the project materials. This isn’t the same as a citywide unified economic development budget, but for the first time it creates a more comprehensive picture of the multiple subsidies going to a particular project;
  • Applications and the IDA’s cost/benefit application will be available 12 business days in advance of public hearings; and
  • Meetings between applicants and staff at the IDA’s compliance division will happen in advance of approval to ensure a firm understands what its commitments are in exchange for the subsidies.

The New York City Industrial Development Agency is becoming an example of how other economic development agencies around New York State – indeed the Nation – can and should engage the public.

Naming Tax Credit Names

June 15, 2010

Corporate lobbyists have long blown a fog of fear, disinformation and confusion about public disclosure of corporate income tax credits.

It’s time to clear the air.

First, a definition: corporate income tax credits are dollar-for-dollar reductions in the amount of income tax a company pays to a state (or federal) government. A company can earn such credits by performing activities deemed to constitute economic development, such as making capital investments in new capacity, performing research and development, hiring new employees, and/or producing movies or commercials.

These credits are very costly; among economic development tax breaks, they are likely the fastest-growing revenue drain on state budgets over the past decade. For example, one state gives a credit of 5 percent per year for 20 years for new capital investment. That is, if a company has enough taxable income, over time, the state will pay the entire cost of a new facility in foregone corporate income taxes.

Corporate lobbyists would have us believe that letting taxpayers see which company is getting these credits, and the dollar value of the credits, would somehow violate confidentiality or poison the “business climate.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. (Of course, we also need disclosure of outcomes: were the jobs created? How well do they pay? Do they have health care?)

I offer two kinds of evidence: 1) almost every other costly economic development subsidy has been disclosed for decades; and 2) many states have been disclosing corporate income tax credits for years, and there is no evidence they suffered any “business climate” harm.

First, regarding other costly subsidies: If a company gets a property tax abatement or reduction, there’s a public record at the county tax assessor’s office. If a company gets an Industrial Revenue Bond, that’s an open record at the county development authority. If a company gets a training grant, that is visible at the Workforce Investment Board. If a company benefits from being in a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, copious records enter the public domain. If a company gets a discretionary or competitive grant, those files are usually very public.

So what’s the big deal about income tax credits? Remember: this is not about disclosing tax returns; this is about disclosing tax breaks.

Second, regarding states that have been disclosing corporate income tax credits (naming the company, specifying the dollar value of the credit), just take a look at this quick sampling our staff threw together in an afternoon:

Connecticut – see pages 406-407 re: urban/industrial and job creation tax credits

Florida – Qualified Target Industry Refund

Illinois – numerous tax credits and exemptions, including EDGE

Maryland – film, biotech, job creation, and research and development credits

Missouri – 20 different economic development programs, including film credits

Montana – Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program

New Jersey’s BRRAG Program

North Carolina – William S. Lee tax credits

Pennsylvania — more than 200 programs, including film and enterprise zone credits

Wisconsin — 107 programs, including film investment, film services, and dairy credits

Other states, such as Maine (since 1999) have been collecting and disclosing tax credit data, but they just haven’t put them online yet (the 21st century progresses slowly…)

The list will soon get longer. Subsidy disclosure bills are getting introduced more frequently in state legislatures, and they often call for making public the names of corporate tax-credit recipients. This year, Massachusetts enacted a law that will do so, and several other states took a step in this direction by mandating the publication of tax-expenditure budgets that show the total cost of tax credit programs.

Bottom line: the amount of company-specific tax credit data online is exploding. Anyone who claims it will violate confidentiality or hurt the business climate, well, that’s just so 20th century!

Heads up to state commerce secretaries: in the same way we have twice graded the states’ Recovery Act websites, we are coming back at you to rate how well you disclose on major subsidy programs, revisiting our State of State Disclosure report of 2007.

No calls, please; that’s all the hints you get.

Tax Expenditure Reporting – An Essential Policy Tool

April 21, 2009

According to a new report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, nine states are leaving lawmakers in the dark by failing to publish any sort of tax expenditure report. This group includes: Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming. The report notes that even among those states that do publish tax expenditure reports, most have major gaps in information.

CBPP explains how a well designed and properly implemented tax expenditure report is an essential policy tool. It recommends that all state taxes are included, and stresses that reports should be published regularly, incorporated into the budget process, and available online. Armed with a better understanding of the true cost and effect of tax expenditures, lawmakers can make more informed spending decisions.

In Georgia, one of the nine states failing to publish a tax expenditure report, the House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would lead to greater transparency and accountability in state tax policy. Senate Bill 206, which passed the Senate in early March, would require tax expenditure review as part of state budget reports. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), a member of both the SFAI and EARN networks, supports this bill. According to GBPI Executive Director Alan Essig, “The bipartisan support for SB 206 shows that the principles of good government are held by both political parties…Although there may be honorable disagreements over policy, there is agreement that policy decisions should be made based on accurate and timely information. SB 206 gives policy makers such information.”

The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts and the Pew Center of the States (PCS) also support SB 206. PCS, a division of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has partnered with the state of Georgia for a year-long program to strengthen government policy and performance by building a system to analyze state spending data.

New York Advocates to “Drill Down” on Where Federal Stimulus Money Goes

February 26, 2009

cropped_workinggroup_presser_02_09-26A diverse coalition of two dozen advocates named the “NYS Stimulus Oversight Working Group” and led by Common Cause/New York have signed on to a set of common principles that would make the allocation of funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act fully transparent.

At a press conference this morning on the steps of City Hall in New York City, members of the Working Group and local Council Members agreed that it would take citizens, advocates and elected officials to create a truly transparent process.

Among the recommendations the working group is proposing in the principles is creating a website that has bi-monthly reports, copies of written agreements with contractors, impact on energy efficiency and the environment and details on job creation and wages.

Addressing the desire to learn more about projects in New York State that received stimulus funds, Susan Lerner the Executive Director of Common Cause/New York, said, “New York City must collect all of the information related to the stimulus spending including drilling down” to the subcontractor level.” Advocates on the national level have also expressed this concern.

Several Working Group members also attended: Citizens Union, Environmental Advocates of New York, Good Jobs New York, NYPIRG and the Urban Justice Center.

Also in attendance at today’s press conference were several Council Members: Eric Gioia Chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, who recently proposed a form of “Google government” for all city tax exemptions; Gale Brewer, Chair of the Technology in Government Committee; Daniel Garodnick, Chair of the Planning, Dispositions & Concessions Committee and Robert Jackson Chair of the Education Committee.

The transparency issue seems to be taking hold locally as Council Member Bill deBlasio and Council Member Brewer move forward to create a website called

Money for Nothing

February 24, 2009

Money for NothingThe West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy has just released a new report examining how state agencies can improve their bang for the buck on job-creation investments. The report, entitled “Money for Nothing: Do Business Subsides Create Jobs or Leave Workers in Dire Straits?,” focuses on the three of the most common subsidies with job-creation requirements: the Economic Opportunity Tax Credit, the Manufacturing Investment Tax Credit, and the West Virginia Economic Development Authority’s (WVEDA) low-interest direct loans.

Despite spending millions of dollars annually to encourage private businesses to create good-paying jobs, the report concludes West Virginia is getting little in return. The authors recommend better public disclosure on the details of each program, timely and company-specific information on the number and quality of jobs created, clear consequences for non-compliant subsidy recipients, and an annual unified development budget to keep state agencies better informed.

Starting Up Stalled State Economies: Experts Give Some Do’s and Don’ts

November 14, 2008

With the election of a new president, officials in many states are hoping a renewed federal/state partnership will jumpstart the troubled economy. Until the new president takes office, however, falling revenues have prompted some states to take actions that are counter-productive rather than counter-cyclical.

States are in a tough spot. For example, Illinois officials predict a revenue hole this fiscal year of $800 million or more. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) projects state budget shortfalls across the nation will total $100 billion in fiscal year 2010.

Since every state but one must balance its budget, without federal support lawmakers must raise taxes, cut services, or both. (Outright fiscal irresponsibility—e.g., failing to pay Medicaid bills, underfunding state employee pension funds—is another option: Illinois’ unpaid bills could top $5 billion by early 2009.)

New York Governor David Paterson has just proposed school and health care funding cuts of $3.2 billion over two years, similar to those that have already occured in other states. But CBPP economist Nicholas Johnson argues cutting services and income supports makes the economy contract even more as the purchasing power of struggling families falls.

Johnson cites the work of noted economists Joseph Stiglitz and Peter Orzag. They argue tax increases, by reducing savings and not just consumption, are less harmful to a depressed economy, especially when they fall mainly on wealthier taxpayers.

While some states have enacted such tax increases or closed loopholes, others have instead considered tax cuts. Yet tax cuts are the least effective way to stimulate state economies in a recession. They can lead to further spending cuts while reducing the buying power of public employees. Fortunately, voters in several states have recently rejected the tax cut mantra.

States would be better off strengthening consumer demand by extending unemployment insurance, preserving healthcare coverage, preventing foreclosures, and speeding up already scheduled public works projects. The federal government could help by providing grants, paying a larger share of Medicaid costs, and rescinding (or actually funding) burdensome, federally-imposed unfunded mandates that cost states nearly $34 billion in the last fiscal year.

States can help themselves by better tracking, targeting or terminating largely unmonitored business incentives and tax giveaways like Single Sales Factor. They could adopt comprehensive unified economic development budgets (UDB), like the excellent UDB proposed for Kentucky. While more federal support is needed, states can use the recession to make their own economic development spending less wasteful and more productive.