State policymakers often look for ways to attract investment, companies, talent, and residents to their states. Sometimes they do it with sensible and broad-based reforms, such as reducing business regulations, increasing school quality, or lowering and simplifying making taxes. Unfortunately, another way they try to do it is to provide narrow tax benefits and subsidies to particular businesses and industries.
Every state does it. Illinois provides a tax credit for the film industry. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has frequently provided tax credits to resident companies that agree not to relocate to other states. Florida Governor Rick Scott has provided benefits to companies that agree to move to Florida. Many other states have similar policies.
These types of tax provisions are called “tax expenditures” or “tax incentives.” They include narrow breaks to income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and other taxes. Federally, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) defines a tax expenditure as “any reduction in income tax liabilities that results from special tax provisions or regulations that provide tax benefits to particularly taxpayers.” The JCT estimates that the federal government provided approximately $1.3 trillion in tax expenditures in 2013.
Tallying state tax expenditures is much more difficult because state tax systems are different and there is no official national scorekeeper. A new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sought to accomplish that task. In the report, the authors totaled the tax expenditures within every state based on state-published reports. According to their research, state tax expenditures total about $228 billion for personal and business taxes and $260 billion for sales taxes.
ALEC’s report is an excellent first stab at calculating state tax expenditures. However, five states—Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, and Wyoming—do not report on the value of their tax expenditures. Other states, such as Arkansas and Missouri, publish “infrequent or incomplete” data. There are also varying levels of reporting data: California only publishes information on tax expenditures valued at greater than $5 million, while Arizona only includes ones valued at greater than $703.
The ALEC authors note that not all of these tax expenditures represent cronyism on the part of state policymakers. For one thing, there is disagreement over what tax items are distortionary or unjustified. Some provisions on official tax expenditure lists move a state’s tax system closer to a low, broad, and neutral tax base and are justified, such as allowing capital expensing. Lower rates on capital gains help offset the double taxation of capital under the income tax system. Also, exempting business-to-business transactions prevents tax pyramiding.
A large portion of the provisions tallied by ALEC are narrow and distort the economy, such as Hollywood film tax credits. To make matters worse, some tax expenditures are “refundable,” meaning that recipients receive money from the government if they do not have a tax liability. Policymakers use this trick to hide part of the cost of spending on the tax side of the budget.
The large-scale provision of tax credits, deductions, and exclusions to specific industries or companies is an acknowledgement by state policymakers that taxes matter in business decision-making. But a much better way to grow state economies is to simplify tax codes and cut marginal tax rates.