Tax Credit Sunsets: A Step Toward Reform
Over the last few months, we have worked hard to make the following point crystal clear: Tax credits that are narrowly tailored to benefit a powerful elite or fail to produce the return promised to taxpayers should be opposed when proposed, and mitigated or eliminated if enacted. The Aerotropolis tax credit was initially introduced as a nearly half-billion dollar behemoth. Today, the proposed tax credit program stands at $60 million, with the most problematic portion — the real estate credits — removed. The remaining $60 million poses concerns, as well, and legislators should take a hard look at whether the credit is going to be taxpayer money well-spent.
But there are other parts of the bill that includes Aerotropolis that deserve attention. Although the legislation is peppered with a grab-bag of new incentive programs of questionable value to the state, there is a fair chance that two enormous tax credits — the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and Historic Tax Credit (HTC) — may be phased out if the so-called “jobs bill” is going make it to the governor’s desk (emphasis mine).
Gov. Jay Nixon called the Legislature into special session on Sept. 6 to overhaul the state’s tax credits, which cost the general revenue fund more than $540 million a year. Nixon wanted legislators to scale back some programs while adding a few new ones, such as a tax break to spur development of a hub in St. Louis for freight flown between the Midwest and China.
But an agreement forged last summer by House and Senate Republican leaders fell apart, leaving the two chambers split over how much to cut and whether to set expiration dates or ‘sunsets” for programs that fund historic preservation and low-income housing development.
Senators remain committed to passage of seven-year sunset clauses, Mayer said Tuesday. An alternative review process proposed by Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, would not corral the programs’ growing costs, Mayer said.
The proposed “alternative review process” is underwhelming to say the least, and as a solitary legislative move, would force no substantive action on Missouri’s burgeoning tax credit system until at least 2016, if ever. The heart of the problem is that while the presumption in the House is that the tax credit system should exist largely (and for all intents and purposes, indefinitely) in its current form, in fact, many tax credits need to be extinguished, most sooner rather than later, and all need to be seriously investigated as to whether they’re achieving their objectives.
This is where the sunsets play a role. Sunset provisions like the one proposed turn the old tax credit presumption on its head, phasing out programs like LIHTC and HTC — which, in the state’s own analysis, do not even remotely pay for themselves — but nonetheless giving the legislature an opportunity to reduce and reform the programs in the interim. On an ideological spectrum, that is the conservative position: responsibly reducing the size and scope of government.
LIHTC and HTC combined have carved out billions of dollars from the state budget over the last decade, with disappointing economic results. If Missouri’s legislature can’t responsibly reform these two programs within a seven-year window, there’s no reason to believe the legislature will ever reform the programs.