Tax Incentives: How Much Money Do Governments Give Away?
This summer the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is set to release new guidance to state and local governments on how to report the tax incentives they distribute every year. The nonprofit board largely determines financial reporting standards for state and local governments. So although GASB may itself seem like an obscure organization, its guidance is closely watched and widely accepted by governments across the United States.
. . . state and local governments for the first time would have to report, among other things, in their annual financial statements:
- General description of their tax abatement programs;
- The total number of tax abatement agreements entered into during the reporting period, and the total number of agreements in effect at the end of the period;
- The dollar amount by which the reporting government’s tax revenues were reduced during the reporting period because of tax abatement agreements; and
- A description of the types of commitments other than to reduce taxes—for example, tax dollars spent on purchasing land and installing utility lines—and the most “significant individual commitments other than to reduce taxes, if any, made by the reporting government in tax abatement agreements.”
Translation? Governments would have to disclose, in a standardized format, exactly how much money they give away. That’s a huge paradigm shift, both from the standpoints of government transparency and public research. Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that looks at tax incentives, called the development “tectonic.” “These things (incentives) have gotten so out of control, so overgrown, so arcane—it’s been off the radar.”
LeRoy is right, of course. If local and state governments have to divulge all of the relevant details about the incentives they’re giving away, it could have a huge impact on how governments interact with tax incentive beneficiaries—and how taxpayers view the tax incentive programs themselves. As explained in the blog Next City,
Cold, hard numbers could soon settle the heated debates about whether tax incentives encourage regional growth and competitiveness or simply deplete public resources. LeRoy argues that any site location consultant for a corporation could tell you that tax breaks often don’t affect the bottom line: State and local taxes comprise less than two percent of a company’s total cost structure. Other environmental factors like labor, logistics and materials matter much more. But companies would never admit that to the governments offering them free money.
Like other places around the country, Missouri’s tax incentive programs are a mess. If GASB institutes robust accounting standards for these incentives—and it appears it might—it may go a long way to draining the cronyism swamp in this state. Cross your fingers.