Tax Credit Trade-offs
It’s long past time to rethink Missouri’s approach to economic development. Year after year, our state forgoes hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives for private businesses, with little to show for it. Despite countless academic studies showing the folly of governments picking winners and losers in the marketplace, economic development tax credit reform has thus far proven elusive. Why is this the case? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the lack of transparency regarding trade-offs.
When a new tax credit program is approved, it provides a real tax incentive for some favored business (e.g.. film, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.), while also promising future benefits to the state. For those approving the credits (lawmakers), one perk is that the cost of doling out the incentive doesn’t have to be included in the state’s yearly spending plan (because they aren’t technically expenditures). Even better, since the promised return from the state’s investment is in the future, there’s no real way to measure whether the credits fulfill their end of the bargain. In other words, there’s basically no transparency on the cost or benefit side of the tax credit equation.
Are there good reasons why our government should treat spending tax dollars today as fundamentally different from agreeing not to collect them? Economically, they’re the same. For taxpayers, there’s little difference except that spending is subject to Missouri’s balanced budget requirement, which means that that our government can’t agree to spend more than will be brought in via tax revenues. Economic development tax credits have no such limitation.
While there may be some practical reasons for keeping tax credits out of the state’s budget, I can’t imagine that including them would be too difficult, because it’s already how a few agricultural tax credits are treated. Ultimately, it seems to me that when economic times are tough, it would be a good idea for lawmakers to have as many options as possible. Being able to weigh the benefits of subsidizing, for example, movie production via tax credit, against other spending priorities such as education and health care would be a positive move for our state.
Going into 2024, if lawmakers are serious about reining in the state’s out of control spending, shining a brighter light on where each state tax dollar is going (whether spent or foregone) would be a great place to start. Real transparency would mean that Missouri’s economic development tax credits can no longer hide their true trade-offs in the dark.