Paying Taxes to the Boss

From Howard Jarvis, father of California’s notorious Proposition 13, to Grover Norquist, the superlobbyist who pressures politicians to sign a Taxpayer Protection Pledge, conservative ideologues have spent the past few decades poisoning the attitude of Americans toward the payment of taxes. Norquist in particular has been blunt about his ultimate goal: radical reduction in the size of government.

That crusade assumes that taxes are actually going to government. Yet it turns out that a growing portion of state tax revenue is being diverted to corporations, in the name of job creation or job retention. Nearly $700 million a year in withholding taxes paid by workers is being turned over to their employers.

This startling fact comes from Paying Taxes to the Boss, a report my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just published.  We found 22 programs in 16 states under which companies are allowed to retain payroll taxes that they deduct from worker paychecks and would normally pass along to state revenue departments. Companies can keep up to 100 percent of the state withholding for designated workers for periods as long as 25 years. The most expensive program, New Jersey’s Business Employment Incentive Program (BEIP), disbursed $178 million in FY2011.

It should come as no surprise that the biggest windfalls are going to major corporations rather than small businesses. Among the largest recipients we found are: Nissan ($160 million in Mississippi), Sears ($150 million in Illinois), General Electric ($115 million in Ohio), Procter & Gamble ($85 million in Utah), Fidelity ($72 million in North Carolina) and Goldman Sachs ($60 million in New Jersey).

Apart from being unseemly, the whole practice is a threat to the fiscal stability of state governments. Payroll and other personal income taxes (PIT) represent a much bigger pot of money than corporate income taxes, so economic development officials can offer larger giveaways to companies and thus do escalating damage to state budgets.

To make matters worse, many of the PIT-based subsidy deals go to companies that don’t really create any new jobs. States frequently offer fat packages to firms that simply relocate existing jobs from a facility in another state. In fact, the diversion of withholding taxes was first adopted in Kentucky as a way to lure companies from neighboring states; the politician credited with originated the idea called it “the atomic bomb of economic development incentives.” Ohio and Indiana responded with their own withholding tax diversions, setting off a PIT-based subsidy arms race.

In recent years, withholding tax diversions have been used, for example, by South Carolina to get Continental Tire to move its North American headquarters from North Carolina; by Georgia to lure NCR from Ohio; and by Colorado to get Arrow Electronics to move its corporate headquarters from New York. In 2011 Kansas provided a reported $47 million in withholding-tax subsidies to AMC Entertainment to get the movie theater chain to move its headquarters from downtown Kansas City, Missouri about 10 miles across the state line to Leawood, a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas.

Along with this interstate job piracy, PIT awards are being given to firms that use the threat of an interstate move to extract big payments to simply stay put. This use of jobs blackmail has been most pronounced recently in Ohio and Illinois.

In 2011 Ohio forked over a $93 million subsidy package—including PIT-based tax credits worth $75 million—in response to a threat by greeting-card giant American Greetings to move its headquarters out of state. A few weeks later, the administration of Gov. John Kasich responded to a similar threat by security services provider Diebold Inc. with a $56 million package, including $30 million in PIT-based credits.

Meanwhile in Illinois, Sears got $150 million in PIT-based credits along with $125 million in local property breaks to keep its headquarters in the distant Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates. And Motorola Mobility, now part of Google, was given a $100 million withholding-tax deal to keep its headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville.

At Good Jobs First we normally frame our critique of subsidy programs in terms of the need for greater accountability. In the case of withholding-tax diversions, we decided that the negative impacts are so serious that the best policy recommendation is to call for their abolition.

I wonder if Grover Norquist would support the idea of getting state politicians to pledge that they will not support any increases in taxes going to employers?

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