Government intervention may produce unwanted incentives

A Kansas economic development incentive program has the potential to alter hiring practices for reasons not related to applicants’ job qualifications.

An economic development incentive program used in Kansas is PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. According to the Kansas Depart of Commerce, “PEAK is intended to encourage economic development in Kansas by incenting companies to relocate, locate or expand business operations and jobs in Kansas. The Secretary of Commerce has discretion to approve applications of qualified companies and determine the benefit period.” Many states have similar programs.

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.

There’s the catch. The more tax exemptions a person claims, the lower their taxes, and the lower their payroll withholding. Since PEAK is based directly on the amount of withholding taxes, if less is withheld from employee paychecks, the company receives fewer incentive dollars. In the example above, the single worker generates incentives payments 108 percent greater than does the married worker with two children.

The question is: Does this provide incentives for companies in the PEAK program to adjust their hiring preferences? Is there an incentive for companies in the PEAK program to hire single workers with no dependents, rather than married workers with children?

In theory, yes, the incentive exists. Whether it produces an effect in practice is probably impossible to tell. It does illustrate some of the perverse incentives that can arise from government intervention in the economy.

If government simply paid cash to companies in a fixed amount per worker, the bias in favor of single workers would not exist. But if government paid cash directly to companies, many people would object. When accomplished through the tax system, however, the transactions are less obvious, but the benefits and costs are just as real.

Either way, cronyism exists, especially because the Secretary of Commerce has discretion in the approval of applications to participate in PEAK.

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