State Budget Deficits Drive Greater Interest in Examining Tax Breaks



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State budget woes appear to be spurring an increasing amount of interest in re-examining state tax breaks.  The Governors of both Michigan and Idaho have taken steps to ramp up the scrutiny directed at their state’s tax breaks, while a new report out of Oklahoma and an editorial highlighting legislation in Georgia this week have urged similar actions.

In Michigan, the Detroit Free Press urged the adoption of Governor Granholm’s proposal to thoroughly analyze the merits of every tax break, and to saddle most breaks with sunset provisions that would force lawmakers to either debate and renew these breaks, or to let them expire.  This proposal would help to remedy the lack of scrutiny given to tax breaks because of their exclusion from the appropriations process.  Notably, the proposal’s use of sunsets as a mechanism for forcing review seems to resemble a law enacted in Oregon just last year.

In Georgia, the need for additional scrutiny of tax breaks is even more desperate.  Because the state lacks a tax expenditure report, Georgia lawmakers are not even aware of the full range and cost of special breaks that their tax system provides.  SB 206, which was endorsed by a Macon Telegraph editorial this week, would remedy this problem by finally requiring the creation of such a report.  The editorial rightly points out that the bill could be strengthened by requiring an analysis of each tax break’s effectiveness, but at this point, even simply producing a list of tax breaks and their costs would be a major step forward.  The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute has been pushing for the creation of such a report for many years.

Idaho governor Butch Otter has also shown some tentative interest in figuring out whether his state’s tax breaks are worth their cost.  While Governor Otter continues to hold out hope that the state’s revenues will rebound soon, he also recently directed the state’s Tax Commission to study sales tax exemptions in the event that closing some of those exemptions becomes necessary to fill the state’s budget gap next year.  If done carefully, the studies produced by the Tax Commission could provide a wealth of information on breaks that have so far received a relatively small amount of scrutiny.
    
The Oklahoma Policy Institute has also added to the progress being made on this issue with a new report outlining what should be done to scrutinize tax breaks in a systematic fashion.  Their report, titled “Let There Be Light: Making Oklahoma’s Tax Expenditures More Transparent and Accountable,” provides twelve specific recommendations for realizing this vision.  Among those recommendations are: improving the state’s existing tax expenditure report, sunsetting all tax incentives, requiring the extension of a sunsetting incentive to undergo a “performance review,” and developing a unified economic development budget.

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