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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Across the United States more than 2,700 companies are collecting state income taxes from hundreds of thousands of workers – and are keeping the money with the states’ approval, says an eye-opening report published on Thursday.

The report from Good Jobs First, a nonprofit taxpayer watchdog organization funded by Ford, Surdna and other major foundations, identifies 16 states that let companies divert some or all of the state income taxes deducted from workers’ paychecks. None of the states requires notifying the workers, whose withholdings are treated as taxes they paid.

General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and AMC Theatres enjoy deals to keep state taxes deducted from their workers’ paychecks, the report shows. Foreign companies also enjoy such arrangements, including Electrolux, Nissan, Toyota and a host of Canadian, Japanese and European banks, Good Jobs First says.

Why do state governments do this? Public records show that large companies often pay little or no state income tax in states where they have large operations, as this column has documented. Some companies get discounts on property, sales and other taxes. So how to provide even more subsidies without writing a check? Simple. Let corporations keep the state income taxes deducted from their workers’ paychecks for up to 25 years.

It was not always this way. Letting companies keep their workers’ state taxes apparently began in Kentucky two decades ago as a way to retain jobs.

Last July when I wrote about six big companies that pocket Illinois state taxes I knew there was more to this. But I had no idea how pervasive these diversions were until I read an advance copy of the 39-page report by Good Jobs First.

Deals cut with the states over the past two decades diverted $5.5 billion from public purposes to private gain, the report says. Close to $700 million more was diverted last year, Good Jobs First estimates.

New Jersey approved $73.2 million in new deals in 2011 on top of $178 million diverted that year alone under previous deals. I calculate that at nearly $80 per household in corporate welfare based on New Jersey’s 3.1 million households.

These deals typify corporate socialism, in which business gains are privatized and costs socialized. They also mean government picks winners and losers, interfering with competitive markets. Leaders in both parties embrace these giveaways because they draw campaign donations from corporate interests and votes from people who do not understand that they are subsidizing huge companies.

Michael Press, a Connecticut consultant on tax incentives, says such deals, however troubling, are an inevitable result of the U.S. Constitution setting up competition between the states.

“In an ideal world we would not provide any corporate subsidies,” Press told me. “It looks like corruption. But if you do it right, if you only target those companies whose behavior you change to create jobs or keep jobs in your state then these targeted temporary arrangements are cheaper – much cheaper – and can be more effective than an overall reduction in tax rates.”

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