NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. John Kuehn

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38

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During the last legislative session I was clear with my concerns about spending levels in our state budget. In the face of lagging revenue receipts and decreased revenue forecasts, the Appropriations Committee and Nebraska Legislature balanced the state budget by transferring $173 million from the state Cash Reserve and sweeping almost $194 million from various Cash Funds to pay for ongoing expenses.

 

I did not vote for those transfers or to advance that budget from committee, nor did I vote for the budget on the floor. As I stated repeatedly, the next budget cycle would require $367 million in revenue growth just to cover ongoing expenses paid for with one time transfers. That is a pretty deep hole to “grow” out of in the midst of a struggling agricultural economy. At the conclusion of the legislative session in May, a group of my fellow senators and I continued to publicly state our concerns, predicting that a sluggish farm economy and its financial impact on our communities would continue to weigh down state tax receipts.

 

On October 27, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board (NEFAB) met to update the revenue forecast for the current fiscal year and the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Tax receipts, specifically personal income and sales taxes, have not met the forecast levels in any month since the board last met in April and lowered the revenue projections. Thus, it was no surprise that the NEFAB again reduced the projection for tax receipts to the state General Fund, this time by a total of $224 million over the current budget biennium.

 

A deeper examination of the details behind the declining numbers presents greater concern. For the current fiscal year, FY18, the NEFAB reduced revenue by $100.4 Million. In the second year of the budget cycle, FY19, the revenue level was reduced by $123.5 million. The revenue declines in sales and income taxes are greater in the second year than the first. The economic models used by the NEFAB to project revenue indicated the need for a steeper reduction with the passage of time. There is no objective evidence to support the claim we will “grow” out of the spending hole the Legislature has created any time soon. On a positive note, corporate income tax receipts were revised upward by $50 million over the biennium.

 

Here is the scorecard: the budget passed last session plugs a $367 million hole with one time money.  If spending restraint is not exercised to accommodate the $224 million revenue downgrade, it will need to be covered by the transfer of more one time money, primarily the Cash Reserve.  The next budget cycle would begin with a $591 million gap to fund ongoing expenses.

 

If the entire $224 million from the current revenue decrease is taken from the Cash Reserve rather than in spending reductions, it would leave $155 million in the state’s “rainy day” fund. Current revenue models have a greater negative impact with time, and the potential exists for an ongoing revenue deficit almost 4 times the size of the Cash Reserve.

 

The very fact that personal income tax revenues continue to come in below economic projections indicates Nebraska families and small businesses are not earning as much as expected. Lagging sales tax revenues reflect the decreased spending by Nebraska consumers that accompanies those reduced incomes. Any strategy that increases state revenue by taking it from already strapped Nebraska taxpayers, rather than reducing state spending, is illogical.

 

I believe in the resilience of Nebraskans. Inherent in that belief is the faith that we can strategically set priorities and responsibly address funding needs using evidence and cost/benefit analysis. A quick recovery of Nebraska’s fiscal health depends on it.

 

Financial decisions for yourself and your family are a personal choice. How you spend your money is unique to your situation, depending on your priorities and values. You decide your comfort level with risk, personal savings, and future goals. If you make a poor decision, it does not impact the livelihood of your friends and neighbors. Even when we try our best to be rational, it is a natural tendency to let emotion influence our personal decisions. When the consequences are our own, that is acceptable.  

 

Public policy decisions are very different. When legislators make decisions about spending tax dollars, making tax policy, or creating regulations, those choices impact everyone. Far too often policy decisions are “eminence based” rather than “evidence based”. The most coordinated media campaigns or most popular catch phrases become accepted as true, whether or not evidence to support the claim exists. Unfortunately, ideas can become popular and gain support even when evidence contradicts the premise.  

 

My recent columns on tax incentives exemplify the need for good evidence to support policy decisions. The original legislation that created the Nebraska Advantage Act did not require reporting of the many metrics that would allow evaluation of the intended impact of the programs. Supporters and opponents alike make claims about the value of the Nebraska’s tax incentives. In the absence of evidence, it is not credible to say the programs are successful economic tools, just as it is not credible to say they have not been.

 

Despite common political strategies that use fear, anecdote, and false dichotomies to promote a particular policy, sound governance should use evidence to support decisions that impact the daily lives of Nebraskans. Many popular policies sound reasonable, yet the evidence does not support the claims made. One of the most common arguments in support of expanding Medicaid eligibility is to reduce the use of expensive emergency room services for non-emergency care. The state of Oregon used a lottery system to expand Medicaid to a randomized group of working adults. Use of Emergency Room services increased in those newly covered, versus the same population without Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid had the opposite effect on costs. Nevertheless, the claim continues in spite of the evidence.

 

Studies examining the long term impact of early childhood education programs have provided evidence that contradicts the popular claims.  Research at Vanderbilt University examining Tennessee’s universal public early childhood program and data from Head Start have shown the impact of early childhood education programs, when applied broadly, vanishes in early elementary school. Nevertheless, data from boutique programs are used to advocate for additional investments, while ignoring the more comprehensive evidence.  

 

Cost and benefit analysis of government programs is essential for judicious use of tax dollars. All too often it is assumed that more money spent equates to equal or greater outcomes. There is a basic economic principle that states “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. There is a cost associated with every dollar spent, including trade-offs to other programs. When making decisions to spend taxpayer money, lawmakers have a responsibility to make decisions based on data that supports their decision.

 

There is no evidence that supports the claim that more dollars spent on education equates to better learning outcomes.  The rate of return diminishes with additional investment. Beyond a basic level of funding, there is not compelling evidence to support the claim that students perform better when more money is spent. However, education spending is frequently used as a metric to reflect educational quality.

 

Using evidence and data to make good policy decision does not mean they are devoid of compassion. Emotional stories and anecdotes are powerful, but they are not evidence. Public decision making is distinct from private choices. The careful balance between the individual needs and public good can be easily influenced by cognitive biases.  Good data and careful standards of evidence provide the foundation for sound public policy.

 

Central to all tax reform proposals are the changes required to compensate for decreased revenue created by a tax cut. The most simple and obvious solution is to reduce spending in direct proportion to the amount of any tax cuts. Another approach is to restrict the growth rate of spending, with the expectation that growth of the tax base will exceed the rate of spending, allowing for a reduction in the tax rate.

 

None of the current tax reform proposals currently being discussed publicly take either approach. Rather, they divert revenue from one form of tax to cover reductions in another tax. In order to fill the hole created by the diversion, the amount of diverted tax collected is increased. For example, one proposal would provide an income tax credit equal to 50 percent of the K-12 education portion of your property tax bill. No taxes are actually reduced. Rather, revenue collected by the state in the form of income and sales taxes would be credited to taxpayers in proportion to their property tax bill collected by local schools. The credit would be applied when taxpayers file their state income tax return. In order to cover over $1 Billion of credits that amount of additional sales or income taxes would be collected by the state.

 

Two revenue sources frequently targeted to increase state tax revenue to cover the cost of large scale tax shifts are tax incentives and tax expenditures. Tax incentives are specific reductions, credits, and exemptions paid to companies who enroll in programs intended to promote economic growth and development.  I have discussed them at length in previous columns this fall. (If you missed them, you can read them on my legislative website, http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist38/.)

 

Tax expenditures are reductions to the base tax rate. An exemption of an item from sales tax, such as food or agricultural seeds, are considered a tax expenditure. Some organizations are exempt from all taxes, such as certain nonprofit, religious, or charitable organizations. They pay no property, sales, or income taxes.  Any tax deduction, exclusion, tax deferral, or credit also falls under the category of a tax expenditure.

 

Put simply, “tax expenditures” represent income not collected by the government because a law has specifically identified that good, service, or property as exempt. Generally accepted tax policy recognizes that a product should be taxed only once. Thus, components used in production of a good should not be subject to sales or property tax, only the final product. Other exemptions are intended to promote growth in certain industries, such as the exemptions on agricultural machinery and parts.

 

In even numbered years the Department of Revenue prepares a comprehensive “Tax Expenditures Report” that uses economic data to estimate how much revenue was not collected, categorized by each exemption created by statute. Smaller, more focused reports are produced annually that provide a closer detail of specific exemptions on a four year rotation.

 

Tax exemptions vary in their size, importance to the Nebraska economy, and purpose. Some are textbook examples of political rent seeking, such as sales tax exemptions for purchases made by zoos. Others represent a broad policy goal, such as exemptions on machinery, which promote agriculture and manufacturing, Nebraska’s two largest industries. Exemptions for charitable activities reflect our collect belief in rewarding altruism.

 

Lawmakers have different perspectives on who is “first in right” to the money not collected by tax exemptions. I believe the money belongs to the taxpayer, and the government should take only what is necessary. Others refer to tax exemptions as revenue owed the state, operating from the perspective the government is entitled to your money. Taxpayers need to carefully study tax reform proposals to insure that while additional money may be left in one pocket, the proposal may take even more money out of another pocket. In the end, you may have less net dollars than you had before.

 

The discussion of property taxes commonly references the taxes paid on the assessed valuation of real estate, including your home, buildings, land, and other improvements physically fixed to your property. One advocacy group and some state senators have recently been advocating for reform of the personal property tax system in Nebraska. Of the $3.9 Billion of property taxes collected, almost 6% of the total is assessed on personal property. Personal property includes all items owned that are not physically associated with a piece of real estate.

Under Nebraska law, intangible personal property–financial wealth in the form of stocks, bonds, cash, bank accounts, and contracts–has been exempt from taxation since 1967. Tangible personal property includes all other “things” owned, such as equipment. Most Nebraska taxpayers are unaware a tax exists on tangible personal property, likely because they do not pay personal property taxes.

A simple way to know if your family is impacted the personal property taxes is whether or not you prepare a depreciation schedule with your annual tax return.  Household goods, motor vehicles, personal items, and non-depreciable property are exempt from taxation. Therefore, unless you have a business, you are not paying taxes on personal property you own.

Not all items owned by a business are subject to the personal property tax.  Inventory for resale or materials used in production are exempt. In agriculture, livestock and grain inventory are not taxed. In 2015, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill exempting the first $10,000 of taxable personal property from taxation for every business owner. All personal property owned by data centers, wind energy generators, and charities is also exempt from personal property tax.

Because the tax is assessed only on depreciable property, items are only taxed for the duration of their depreciated lifespan, which may or may not match the time of use or ownership. Unlike real estate which is valued at market rate, the value of personal property is determined by “net book value”. Items are depreciated over a period of three, five, seven, ten, fifteen, or twenty years, depending on the item. As each year passes, a depreciation factor is applied that reduces the value of the equipment over time. After the value of the item is fully depreciated, the tax no longer applies even if the property is still owned and used. Thus, the taxes paid over time always decrease for an item of personal property.

Because only property owned by business, and not even all property owned by all businesses, is subject to taxation, the distribution of personal property taxes across communities and different taxpayers is highly variable. To illustrate, neighboring farmers in the same county with similar sized operations may have very different property tax bills. A beginning farmer can qualify for an exemption of $100,000 per year for three years on their machinery. A farmer who regularly trades for new equipment will pay more property taxes than a farmer who owns similar equipment but of older age. A horse used by a ranching operation is not taxed, but an ATV is.

Similar variation is found among other businesses.  A restaurant that installs all new equipment will have a higher tax bill than a competitor who purchases used equipment. The same restaurant owner will pay less taxes over time on the same equipment as it depreciates in net book value, regardless of its functionality or potential for generating income.

As discussion about personal property tax reform continues, taxpayers must be careful to not confuse it with property taxes on their home, farmland, or improvements. Since not every taxpayer is subject to the tax, or even a majority of property tax payers, metrics based on population of a town or county such as “per capita” are of little value to the discussion.

All taxes deserve strict scrutiny and evaluation for the principles of simplicity, transparency, neutrality, and stability. Voters need to understand the nature of the personal property tax, including its application and exemptions, when deciding whether or not it is the top priority for reform among the mix of different taxes.

Advocacy groups and senators are exploring a number of different tax reform proposals for introduction during the next legislative session or possible ballot initiatives. Among the areas being discussed are changes to personal property, real estate, income, and sales taxes. Many of the proposals would involve changes to multiple taxes to balance the state budget and offset local property tax collections. As various groups begin promoting their favorite ideas, voters need to understand the full impact of each plan.

The principles of simplicity, transparency, neutrality, and stability can be applied to the various ideas to help taxpayers evaluate proposed changes to Nebraska’s current tax system. Two concepts currently being discussed involve providing refundable income tax credits for a portion of your property tax bill. One, known as the “50/50 plan”, proposes to refund 50% of the public school portion of your property tax bill, minus bonds, to your income tax liability. The other would refund 35% of your total property tax bill on your income taxes.

The use of state General Fund revenue to provide an income tax credit to offset property tax collections fails the simplicity standard. Schools collect $2.3 Billion in property taxes, including bonds. Under the “50/50” proposal, around $1 Billion of the General Fund would be refunded. Under the 35% proposal, $1.3 Billion of the $4.3 Billion currently collected by the General Fund would be refunded. Covering the refunds would require either a 25% reduction to existing General Fund programs or a 50% increase to the current total collections of either sales or individual income taxes. For a family to understand the net impact of the change to their own budgets requires calculating the increased taxes they will pay in either sales or income tax and compare it to their property tax liability. It is impossible for a family to know that impact with accuracy until after the policy has been passed and they have paid a year’s worth of taxes.

Using tax dollars collected and appropriated by the state to offset property taxes levied and spent by independent local boards fails the standard of transparency. Under both proposals, over $1 Billion of state General Fund spending would be dictated by local officials with no accountability to state lawmakers or residents in other communities. Local spending decisions made by board members in metro Omaha and Lincoln would be covered by taxpayers in District 38, while neither you nor your senator will have any influence or control over those spending choices. A clear line of sight between taxpayers and those who spend their money does not exist.

Neutrality is difficult to evaluate until full modeling of the tax shift proposed by the income tax refund proposals is completed by the Legislative Fiscal Office. It is assumed there will be a $1 Billion tax increase to fund the proposals. If applied to current sales and income tax policy, the increases will magnify any favoritism and carve outs that exist in the current system. If some existing exemptions are eliminated, the impact to any taxpayer will not be known until the specific exemptions are identified, further exacerbating the complexity of the proposals.

The long term stability of the income tax refund proposals is also an open question. The property tax crisis has been created by dramatic increases in local subdivision spending over recent years. Nothing in the proposals alters that pattern. In fact, past experience has demonstrated that increased state spending to cover local spending results in increased local spending. Both proposals set the impact on the state budget as a percentage of local property taxes levied, which state legislators have no control over. The long term stability of the state budget would be determined by the individual actions of all the local boards across the state, with no accountability at the state level. The level of the tax credit would need to be adjusted downward in a few years in order to balance the state budget if local budgets continue to grow at a rate greater than state revenues. Thus, the policy would not be stable in the long term.

Anyone who tells you a major tax change can be accurately explained in 30 seconds or less is being dishonest. In tax policy, “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. With so many tax proposals being discussed, voters will need to critically evaluate each and ask questions to understand the immediate and long term impact of the changes on their family and community.

 

As the legislative session approaches, the annual discussion about changes to Nebraska’s tax policy is again heating up. The traditional debate between reductions to income taxes, led primarily by corporate interests, and real estate property tax reform, led by agriculture interests, again takes center stage. This is not a new debate, as the same discussion dates back over 60 years. In 1966, two ballot initiatives were passed by Nebraska voters, one eliminating the state property tax and another authorizing state income tax. The result was the creation of Nebraska’s local property tax system, state sales tax, and the foundations of our state income tax system.

Promoting the tax discussion are a number of special interest and advocacy organizations lobbying for changes to current tax policy that support their objectives. The State Chamber of Commerce is currently on a multi-week, statewide tour of communities promoting their goal for income tax reform. Agriculture groups have been holding meetings in communities across the state proposing a number of tax shifts to reduce property taxes. Additionally, Nebraska’s two most active “think tanks”, funded by private donor dollars, have both held legislative symposiums with speakers that support their ideological views on tax policy. Marketing and media messaging from these various interest groups has dominated news and the public discussion.

Tax policy is a complex topic. A change to one tax has ripple effects that cascade through other taxes and programs. Every proposed change involves “winners” and “losers”.  That is, in absence of a reduction in taxes with a direct and equal reduction in the spending paid for by those taxes, reducing one tax means an increase in another. With every interest group lobbying for their particular constituency, it can be difficult for taxpayers to truly grasp what the impact of proposed changes will be. For that matter, it is difficult for me, as a state senator, to consistently cut through the clutter and have reliable data to get a clear picture of the total impact of proposed changes to tax policy.

As I approach tax policy proposals, there are a number of principles I use to evaluate them. Voters may find also them helpful for cutting through the political spin and assessing the merits of a tax change.  First, I look for simplicity. Many proposals involve complex transfers, calculations, and forecasts. Complexity creates opportunity for abuse of the tax code and makes it impossible for taxpayers to understand their tax liability. Second, I look for transparency. Policies that hide taxes or obscure how they are paid create a disconnect between taxpayers and how their dollars are spent. Third, I support tax policy that is neutral. Neutrality means that tax policy does not favor or punish one group or industry at the expense of another. Finally, I look at the stability of the tax policy. Wide swings in revenue create unpredictability in government services and programs.

You may notice one characteristic often mentioned in tax policy discussions is absent: fairness. The term “fair” is highly subjective and used so frequently for political spin it has no useful meaning in evaluating tax policy. A “fair” tax has become code for a tax somebody else has to pay. If the principles outlined are applied, the tax will not present an unethical burden on any single constituency.

Over the next several weeks, I will discuss the specific details of a number of tax proposals. Applying these four principles–simplicity, transparency, neutrality, and stability–we can cut through the rhetoric and politics and understand the true impact of various strategies for modernizing Nebraska’s tax system. Reasonable people can have different approaches and opinions to taxation. Nevertheless, it is important that all taxpayers have a clear understanding of how they are being taxed and why.

The need for strong quantitative, science reasoning and reading skills for high school graduates is greater today than ever before. Students who graduated in 2017 will have access to multiple forms of consumer credit, more options for healthcare, and a limitless quantity of information coming from multiple media platforms. Compared to when their parents entered college and the workforce, today’s graduates will need to understand increasingly complex financial instruments including retirement plans, insurance, and even credit cards. Improved medical technology comes with greater decision making for patients. With so much information and so many options available, the ability to carefully read and critically evaluate information is more important than ever before for making decisions for our families and communities.

Basic competency in math, reading, English, and science is not required only for high school graduates who intend to pursue a four-year college degree. Students entering vocational and skilled trades need a strong math and communication skills. All citizens, in order to be informed consumers, voters, and taxpayers, need to have competency in these skills.

Given this need, it is somewhat alarming to look at the recent results of ACT scores for 2017 high school graduates in Nebraska. It is a misconception to believe that the ACT is only valuable for students pursuing a four-year college degree. The modern ACT is far more than a memorization and recall standardized test. Today’s ACT is a sophisticated evaluation tool that assesses skill and competency in a wide variety of educational areas. Furthermore, the ACT has developed a series of metrics that effectively predict how prepared a student is for successful completion of an introductory college course using their ACT subtest scores.

College is not the best or only path for every high school graduate. However, every high school graduate in Nebraska should be prepared to have the option to pursue a two or four year degree if they so choose. While no single test or number can capture the full potential of a student, it is counterproductive to dismiss significant and well-researched data on student preparation and competency simply because it comes from a standardized test.

Of the 2017 graduating class, 84% of Nebraska students took the ACT. Of that population 99% indicated they would pursue some degree of education beyond high school, with 93% intending to pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher and 6% aspiring to an associate’s degree. Nebraskans should take pride in the high percentage of high school graduates who wish to pursue additional education and training beyond high school.

A challenge for many students in pursuing higher education is cost. Unfortunately, the 2017 Nebraska graduate performance on the ACT reveals that an overwhelming majority of them will be paying college tuition for coursework to gain competency in subjects they should have mastered in high school.

Using comprehensive data, the ACT has established baseline scores in four different areas of the ACT that predict a student will have a 75% chance of scoring a grade of C or better in an introductory college course. According to ACT data, only 28% of Nebraska’s graduates met that competency level in math, reading, science, and English. An almost equal number, 27%, failed to meet any of the readiness Benchmarks. Thus, over 1 in 4 Nebraska ACT test-taking graduates in 2017 are not prepared for college in any of the core areas.

This data is troubling for students and families concerned about the cost and affordability of higher education. Students who are not adequately prepared for their entry-level coursework will require remedial courses, for which they must pay tuition, to gain the necessary level of proficiency to be successful. If they do not catch up, success in further years of their education is less likely. Students who attempt but are not successful in college may incur student loan debt they must repay without the earnings advantage of a college degree.

“No fail” policies and grade inflation may boost high school graduation rates and improve students’ self-esteem, but they do not ensure all students will be adequately prepared to be successful citizens and have the opportunity to pursue the careers they choose. Nebraskans must expect more from their sizeable investment in public education.

In a fierce competition characterized as an “incentives arms race”, states aggressively compete against each other to recruit new companies. Companies considering expansion will pit states in a bidding war against each other, with larger and more attractive incentive packages offered to outbid other states. Among states in the Great Plains, both Iowa and Kansas are known for their aggressive recruiting offers, and South Dakota has been recognized internationally for its state support of biotechnology companies. The competition from border states ups the ante for Nebraska when attempting to attract new businesses.

I am opposed to government selectively favoring one business over another by creating inequitable tax policy. The state should not provide financial advantages to specific businesses that are not available to all. However, I also understand that Nebraska would be at a significant disadvantage compared to its neighboring states when recruiting new companies if state economic development incentives are abandoned altogether.

In my last two columns, I have discussed the complexity and challenges of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, the largest of which is the Nebraska Advantage Act. There are practical statutory changes that can be made to help taxpayers understand what benefits they are providing to companies and their impact. Revisions to Nebraska’s suite of tax incentive programs should include simplification of the number of different programs, clarification of the intended goals of each program, collection of data that specifically addresses the intended outcomes, and creation of enrollment limits for fiscal protection.

First, Nebraska’s complex system of “advantage acts” needs to be simplified. Trying to succinctly describe Nebraska’s tax incentive programs is impossible given the diverse series of tiers, subprograms, and variations of the Advantage Act. For businesses considering growth in Nebraska this complicated system can be a deterrent. For taxpayers it is nearly impossible to see where those foregone tax dollars are going and their impact on the local economy. Collapsing the tiers into a few basic programs that meet well defined goals will be more transparent for prospective businesses and taxpayers alike.

Second, the purpose and intended outcomes of economic development incentive programs need to be clearly delineated in statute. Differences of opinion in the actual objective of Nebraska’s current programs still remain over a decade later. Specifically detailing if the tax incentives are intended to create new jobs, attract new businesses to Nebraska, encourage capital investment, promote business expansion in rural or economically distressed areas is necessary. Each of these has been cited as an outcome, but are not specified in statute. All stakeholders must be on the same page regarding the purpose of the incentive programs for them to be successful.

Third, it is imperative that the reporting requirements for companies participating in the tax incentive programs include data that is useful in evaluating them against their stated goals. As was identified in the Legislative Performance Audit of the Nebraska Advantage Act, many of the questions of importance to lawmakers, taxpayers, and business interests were unable to be answered because of lack of available data. This is a common challenge for incentive programs across the nation. Nebraska has been nationally recognized for its efforts in quantitative evaluation of the costs and impacts of its tax incentive programs. The Pew Charitable Trusts have referred to Nebraska as a “leader” in evaluation of tax incentives. We can build upon that strong foundation, especially if clearly articulated objectives are provided by the Nebraska Legislature.

Finally, establishing upper limits on the annual growth of the total tax incentives program can provide important fiscal protections for the state of Nebraska. With better data collected about the costs and benefits of the incentives, state lawmakers can set manageable, predictable upper limits regarding the size of these programs while taking into account all of the other complexities of Nebraska’s revenue and budget picture. The fiscal protections would not be used to restrict economic development, but rather to provide regular and comprehensive oversight of the net value of Nebraska’s economic development efforts.

Economic development tax incentive programs elicit strong passions among supporters and opponents alike. Regardless of current opinions about the Nebraska Advantage Act and its spinoffs, the potential value of these economic development tools cannot be dismissed. Through straightforward and practical statutory changes, Nebraska’s tax incentives can work for taxpayers and new businesses alike.

Evaluating Nebraska’s complicated and diverse tax incentives programs is a challenge. Although an accounting of tax credits and refunds earned by participating companies is straightforward, determining the impact of those incentives on the total revenue of the state and economic growth is not. Central to the difficulty in assessment is a lack of meaningful data that can be used to measure progress toward specific development goals.

In 2015, the Legislature adopted a requirement that each tax incentive program undergo a legislative performance audit every three years. Unlike a financial audit, performance audits assess the outcomes of program using concrete metrics measured toward specific policy goals. In 2016, the first performance audit report was issued. The overarching theme of the audit was the difficulty in measuring many of the stated intentions of the Nebraska Advantage Act.

A central finding of  the audit was the fact the expected standards of performance were not clearly outlined when the incentive programs were adopted. As a result, the data participating companies are required to report does not necessarily prove useful in evaluating whether or not the incentive programs are having their intended effect.

To illustrate, the Nebraska Advantage Act was promoted during debate as a program for job creation. However, the job creation required for qualification are FTEs, or full-time equivalents, not new full-time employees. Thus, a basic metric like identifying the number of new jobs created by companies through the incentive programs is impossible to determine. Companies are only required to create and report the number of equivalent positions. For example, a company could convert two part-time positions at 20 hours per week into full-time positions and count that as one full-time equivalent–even though no new position was created for a new employee. Additionally, determining how many jobs were created because of the state incentives versus jobs the company would have created through normal growth is impossible to determine using the standards for reporting required by the Advantage Act.

In light of these obstacles, a frequently cited statistic by both opponents and supporters of tax incentives, the cost per new job, is essentially meaningless. Depending on how the data is interpreted, the cost per FTE found by the performance audit could range anywhere from $24,500 to $320,000. Such a wide range makes it almost impossible to judge the merit of the current programs.

Job creation metrics are only one of the many challenges when evaluating the outcomes of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs. Many of the policy goals, such as recruitment of businesses new to Nebraska, growth of jobs in distressed areas, and the creation of high-wage jobs were not specifically detailed in the original legislation. Without intentions and objectives clearly delineated in statute, the subsequent programs do not require reporting of data or qualification of projects specific to those goals.

Significant criticism has been aimed at the cost of the incentive programs compared to legislative intentions when the programs were adopted. The original fiscal note prepared in 2005 during passage of the Advantage Act only projects the foregone revenue for the first two years following adoption. Transcripts of floor debate indicate the expected costs long term would run between $50 and $60 Million annually. While 2013 was a unique outlier, the economic model projections produced by the Department of Revenue through 2020 track close to that range. Given the challenges Nebraska has experienced with economic forecasting for revenues in recent years, the net revenue costs are not far out of line. Unfortunately, whether or not those costs are achieving the job growth, investment, and economic stimulus intended is currently impossible to determine with confidence.  

As discussion continues about changes to the tax incentive programs, it will be critical to clearly state the intended outcomes and require reporting that enables accurate and reliable assessment of progress toward those goals. At minimum, statute should change to collect better data for existing programs going forward. Accurate information is vital to ensuring full accountability of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs.

 

Each year the Department of Revenue issues a report detailing the specifics of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs that target economic development and business growth. The annual release of these statistics renews discussion about the value and cost of Nebraska’s incentive programs by opponents and supporters alike. In addition to the revenue calculations and economic modelling provided annually by the Revenue Department, the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, which I chair, conducts detailed evaluations of the programs in light of the policy objectives established when they were passed into law.

Tax incentive programs elicit strong responses among proponents and opponents alike. Advocates argue for their necessity, and even expansion, to recruit new business and promote job growth in Nebraska. Opponents see the incentives as lost revenue that could be spent for other government programs. Discussion of both the pros and cons of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs is muddled by their complexity. Over the next several weeks, I will use this opportunity to provide constituents in District 38 with background on the various tax incentives, the evaluations of the programs, and the policy discussion around revisions or changes to Nebraska’s business incentives.

Although commonly referred to as an aggregate group, Nebraska has multiple economic development programs that provide tax incentives. The largest of these is the Nebraska Advantage Act, which became law in 2006. It replaced prior programs, including the Invest Nebraska Act, which stopped accepting new applicants. In addition to the main Nebraska Advantage Act, several smaller incentive programs focus on more specific economic targets. These include the Nebraska Advantage Rural Development Act, the Nebraska Advantage Microenterprise Tax Credit Act, and the Nebraska Advantage Research and Development Act.

Businesses are required to apply and qualify for the incentive programs. Each program has criteria for qualification of benefits, which vary between program and tier.  The Advantage Act alone has six separate tiers, with subdivisions of some tiers. The amount of capital investment, number of full time equivalent (FTE) jobs created, and wage levels all determine eligibility for an incentive program. Depending on the program, business have between 5-7 years to attain qualification for the program, can accumulate benefits over a 6-10 year period, and can carryover and collect earned benefits for a period of time after their entitlement period. A business can participate in an incentive program for a maximum life of 10-15 years, depending on tier and program.

The tax incentives provided are also quite variable, depending on the program. Qualified businesses can receive a direct refund of sales and use taxes that are paid for the purchase of personal property and aircraft. A portion of the total investment in the business, between 3 and 15%, can be earned as an investment credit.  These credits can be accumulated over years, and used to refund additional sales taxes, offset income taxes that are due, or reimburse for property taxes paid. Compensation credits can be earned, which are determined as a percentage of the total new full time equivalent jobs created each year, multiplied by the average wage of those new jobs. Thus, more new, higher paying jobs would earn the business more compensation credits. Those credits can be used of offset income tax withholding or income taxes due for those businesses. Credits earned do not have to be collected in a single year, can but can be applied over the span of the business’s participation in the program. Certain qualifying personal property can also receive an exemption from the business’s personal property tax liability.  

As you can see, these programs defy a simple explanation and evaluation. As of 2016, 114 projects had qualified under the Nebraska Advantage Act alone since 2006. Those businesses earned $842 million in tax credits and collected $362 million of those qualified reductions. $473 million remain as outstanding credits capable of being collected in future years.  

During that same 2006-2016 time span, the qualified projects of the Advantage Act made $7.4 Billion in new capital investment and created 13,993 new full time equivalent jobs in Nebraska. At the same time, $159 Million was provided in sales tax refunds, and $5.2 Billion of personal property value was given an exemption.  

Evaluating the merits and drawbacks of these programs requires a deeper dive into the details of each specific program. In the coming weeks I will provide insight into the attempts to objectively evaluate these programs and determine whether or not they are meeting their intended objectives.

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38
Room #2000
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2732
Email: jkuehn@leg.ne.gov
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