Every year, local governments across Virginia publish a voluminous document called a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) that describes their fiscal condition, detailing revenues, expenditures, debt, and growth in the tax base. This year, CAFRs should include a new data point: revenue foregone due to business tax incentives.
Few localities have bothered to compile and report this information before. But the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) issued a directive that requires state and local governments to disclose any taxes being abated, the dollar amount of the tax breaks, and any other commitments made by the government as part of a tax-abatement agreement. This “statement 77” goes into effect for financial statements beginning after Dec. 15, 2015. The data should begin surfacing in 2016 annual reports being submitted this year.
The accounting issue has become an issue because tax giveaways have become so ubiquitous. By one estimate, reports a Land Lines magazine article on GASB 77, state and local governments spent $45 billion in tax incentives in 2015, including $12 billion in property tax abatements. According to another estimate, total business incentives have tripled since 1990.
Many state and local governments have been addicted to tax incentives as a tool for recruiting businesses and capturing the tax revenue they generate. Here in Virginia, local governments reap real estate property taxes, machine & tool taxes, BPOL (business professional and occupational license) taxes, and a share of sales taxes paid by businesses in their borders. Many are willing to forego some of those tax revenues in order to capture a business and the balance of the revenue it will pay. While Virginia localities haven’t gone to the extremes of some regions — the Land Lines article highlights the Kansas City metropolitan area and Franklin County, Ohio — tax exemptions are widespread.
For purposes of calculating a jurisdiction’s fiscal health, it is critical to get a handle on its real estate property tax base, which accounts for about 30% of all local revenue nationally. Local governments typically track the impact of non-profit and tax-exempt hospitals, universities and state facilities within their borders. Excessive reliance upon exemptions for corporate citizens also can hollow out a locality’s tax base, but that information is not readily available to citizens.
Few observers would advocate abolishing all tax incentives. Attracting a cornerstone facility such as an automobile assembly plant can generate tax revenues even after abatements, draw suppliers to an area, boost worker productivity, spark the creation of new training programs at local colleges and universities, and recruit top technical and managerial talent in a positive feedback loop. But all too often, incentives are handed out to everyone as businesses learn to play the game. A huge challenge for economic developers is gauging whether a business prospect is seriously considering relocating to other localities and needs the incentive as a tie-breaker or if it is just seeking to extract a subsidy for a decision it has already made.
Tax exemptions also raise equity issues. Why should newcomer companies get better tax treatment than businesses that have demonstrated a commitment to a community and paid taxes all along? From a social justice perspective, how much money is being diverted from priorities such as schools and infrastructure for all? From a free market perspective, could localities use the money to reduce tax rates for everyone?
People are less likely to ask those questions if they have no idea how much money local governments are leaving on the table. Transparency is good. GASB’s reporting requirement will make the information available in localities’ annual reports. Now it’s up to citizens to ferret out that information and make something of it.There are currently no comments highlighted.