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Tax increment financing in Iowa

Writing from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Readers of The Voice For Liberty in Wichita are well aware that I believe that when the government provides subsidies to businesses — either in the form of cash payments or preferential tax treatment — we create a corrosive business environment. Government picks winners and losers for political reasons, rather than letting the market decide which companies are doing a good job. Government also spends money inefficiently. Instead of letting the market decide where to best allocate capital, government chooses who receives capital taken from the people through taxation according to the whims of politicians spending other peoples’ money.

It is no wonder that government-favored enterprises rarely do well. Capital markets are quite efficient, and if there is an unmet need, capital usually flows to fill the need. The fact that capital is not flowing to fill a need strongly suggests that the need is not real. Yet, governments may feel that a need is not being met, and they will allocate taxpayers’ capital to fill it, even though taxpayers on their own do not select to invest in the subject project.

This practice is not limited to the State of Kansas. There is a paper titled “Do Tax Increment Finance Districts in Iowa Spur Regional Economic and Demographic Growth?” written by two economics professors at Iowa State University. (The paper may be read at http://www.econ.iastate.edu/research/webpapers/paper_4094_N0138.pdf.) This paper shows that despite the claims of politicians and the very obvious benefit to the companies that receive the TIF financing, there is no benefit to the state as a whole.

Following are some quotes from the paper’s conclusion:

“There are several issues to consider about TIF ordinances and TIF outcomes in Iowa. From our research here and from our larger study of the topic, it seems apparent that the ease with which TIF district designation can be done in Iowa, along with the multiplicity of uses that TIF districts can be put, that the law now has become a de facto entitlement for new industry and housing development in much of the state with little to no evidence of overall public benefit or meaningful discussion of the mean costs of the practice. It also seems apparent that given the ease with which these districts can be developed that many cities may be preemptively capturing new valuation and tax revenues in the name of economic development, but that in the main, this preemption is likely yielding much more collective fiscal harm across taxing districts in the long run than good.”

“City officials believe that the TIF action was instrumental in job growth in their town and in their region. How could it not be? We have an investment, and we have a firm with jobs. On net, however, except for the increment to manufacturing jobs, there is no evidence of economy wide benefits (trade, all nonfarm jobs), fiscal benefits, or population gains. There is indirect statistical evidence that this profligate practice is resulting in a direct transfer of resources from existing tax payers to new firms without yielding region-wide economic and social gains to justify the public’s investment.”

“This analysis suggests that the enabling legislation for tax based incentives deserves revisiting. Though the TIF programs is highly popular among city government officials, and why wouldn’t it be given the growth in property tax yield over the years, there is virtually no evidence of broad economic or social benefits in light of the costs.”

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