In Kansas, PEAK has a leak

A Kansas economic development incentive program is pitched as being self-funded, but is probably a drain on the state treasure nonetheless.

An economic development incentive program in Kansas is PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees.

Flow of tax dollars under normal circumstances, and under PEAK.
Flow of tax dollars under normal circumstances, and under PEAK.
PEAK incentive payments can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions who earns $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week (for weekly payroll), or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children earning the same salary, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.

Legislators and public officials like programs like PEAK partly because they can promote these programs as self-financing. That is, the state isn’t subsidizing a company. Instead, the company is paying its own way with its own taxes. The state is not sending money to the company, it’s just holding on to 95 percent of its employees’ withholding taxes instead of sending the funds to the state. Something like that.

Illustration of a shortfall under PEAK
Illustration of a shortfall under PEAK
But here’s a consideration. The amount of money withheld from a worker’s paycheck is not the same as the amount of tax the worker actually owes the state. Withholding is only an approximation, and one that is biased in favor of the state. Many Kansas workers receive an income tax refund from the state. This is in recognition that the sum of the withholding taxes paid by a worker is larger than the actual tax liability. Therefore, the state is returning money that the state was not entitled to.

Now, what about workers who are employed at a company that is in the PEAK program and who receive a state income tax refund? Their withholding taxes — 95 percent, anyway — have already been given back to their employer.

So: What is the source of the money used to pay these refunds? How much money is paid in refunds to employees working at PEAK-participating companies?

We should note that the funds don’t come from the PEAK company’s employees, as the employees receive credit for all their withholding taxes, even though 95 percent never contributed to the state treasury.

Inquiry to the Department of Revenue revealed that there are no statistics on actual income tax liability of PEAK employees vs. the amount of withholding tax credited to that employee that was retained or refunded to the PEAK employer. The Department of Commerce referred inquiries to the Department of Revenue.

If we wanted to know how much money was paid in refunds to PEAK-company employees, I believe we would need to examine the account of each affected employee. I’m sure it’s not possible to come up with an answer by making assumptions, because the circumstances of each taxpayer vary widely.

Whatever the amount, it represents state tax revenue being used to fund an economic development incentive program that is pitched as being self-funded.

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