Virginia has one of the least transparent systems in the country for reporting tax carve-outs for special interests, reports the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in a report on tax cronyism, “The Unseen Costs of Tax Cronyism: Favoritism and Foregone Growth.” While five states report nothing at all, Virginia is one of eight that ALEC classified as “infrequent or incomplete” in its reporting.
The most recent report was in FY 2009. Individual and corporate tax breaks in Virginia amount to $791 million, or more than two percent of the budget, ALEC reports.
ALEC also cites a New York Times study of targeted business incentives, which typically entail tax breaks, that identified 1,125 Virginia grants to companies. While Virginia’s tax carve-outs pale in comparison to, say New York’s (more than 50,000 grants to companies), it is massive compared to Wyoming (only 8) or even neighboring Maryland (260).
“Cronyism,” writes ALEC, “refers to the use of public policy to benefit a specific industry, firm, or individual, as opposed to setting broad and generally applicable rules and polices that apply to society as a whole.” While tax preferences can be used to induce corporations to invest in a state, the cumulative result is to shift the tax burden to existing companies with less political clout, thereby, inhibiting their growth of those firms — and the state economy as a whole.
Government does not know which firms will provide innovation, employment growth and tax revenue growth for the state. Empowering government to cater to a few high-profile firms while not fixing underlying problems in the state tax code is poor policy, as policy makers and bureaucrats are unlikely to outperform diversified market performance relative to their narrow picks.
ALEC advocates eliminating special tax carve-outs in a tax-neutral fashion by decreasing general corporate tax rates. If cronyism cannot be eliminated entirely, inducements should be restructured from the tax breaks (which tend to be permanent and rarely subject to review) to budgetary outlays (where the spending is subject to annual review). At the very least, tax cronyism should be subject to rigorous reporting standards to ensure transparency.
Bacon’s bottom line: Yeah, yeah, I know, ALEC is a tool of the evil oil-guzzling Koch Brothers and, therefore, everything it says and does is ipso facto tainted and illegitimate. But can we, for once, focus on the merits of ALEC’s arguments instead of the provenance of its funding? I think ALEC’s tax principles are sound, and the evidence suggests that Virginia’s practices fall far short of openness and transparency.