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Nationwide Study Finds TN Among Economic Development Subsidy Top-Spenders

Press release from Tennesseans for Fair Taxation; June 19, 2013:

Washington, DC, June 19, 2013 — In recent years, state and local governments have been awarding giant economic development subsidy packages to corporations more frequently than ever before. The packages frequently reach nine and even ten figures, and the cost per job averages $456,000 and often exceeds $1 million. Tennessee is tied for fifth-most megadeals—with 11—and ranks eighth in total megadeal spending at $2.5 billion.

These are the findings of Megadeals, a report released today by Good Jobs First, a non-profit resource center based in Washington, DC. The report can be found online at www.goodjobsfirst.org/megadeals.

“These subsidy awards are getting out of control,” said Philip Mattera, research director of Good Jobs First and principal author of the report. “Huge packages that used to be reserved for ‘trophy’ projects creating large numbers of jobs are now being given away more routinely.”

Naomi Goodin of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation (TFT) noted, “Tennessee is fifth in the number of megadeals, yet tied for last in measures of personal income growth. This sounds like a ‘reverse Robin Hood’ mentality. We already penalize our middle and lower-income citizens with proportionally higher taxes. Let’s at least make sure their tax dollars will benefit the people.”

“Further,” Goodin adds, “Recent media attention to the privatization of state government functions and preferential bias in the contracting process illustrates why transparency and accountability to taxpayers must be a mandate; not an option.”

In a painstaking review using hundreds of sources, Good Jobs First identifies 240 “megadeals,” or subsidy awards with a total state and local cost of $75 million or more each. The cumulative cost of these deals is more than $64 billion.

The number of such deals and their costs are rising: since 2008, the average frequency of megadeals per year has doubled (compared to the previous decade) and their aggregate annual cost has roughly doubled as well, averaging around $5 billion. For those deals where job projections were available, the average cost per job is $456,000.

Michigan has the most megadeals, with 29, followed by New York with 23; Ohio and Texas with a dozen each; Louisiana and Tennessee with 11 each; and Alabama, Kentucky and New Jersey with 10 each. Forty states plus the District of Columbia have done at least one megadeal.

In dollar terms, New York is spending the most, with megadeals totaling $11.4 billion. Next is Michigan with $7.1 billion, followed by five states in the $3 billion range: Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Louisiana, and Texas.

“Despite their high costs, some of the deals involve little if any new-job creation,” said Good Jobs First executive director Greg LeRoy. “Some are instances of job blackmail, in which a company threatens to move and gets paid to stay put. Others involve interstate job piracy, in which a company gets subsidies to move existing jobs across a state border, sometimes within the same metropolitan area.”

Megadeals have been awarded to many of the largest and best known companies based in the United States as well as foreign ones doing business here, including: every large domestic automaker and all of the foreign auto producers with appreciable U.S. sales; oil giants such as Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell; aerospace leaders Boeing and Airbus; banks such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs; media companies such as Walt Disney and its subsidiary ESPN; retailers such as Sears and Cabela’s; old-line industrials such as General Electric and Dow Chemical; and tech leaders such as Amazon.com, Apple, Intel and Samsung.

The most expensive single listing is a 30-year discounted-electricity deal worth an estimated $5.6 billion given to aluminum producer Alcoa by the New York Power Authority. Taking all of a company’s megadeals into account, Alcoa is at the top with its single $5.6 billion deal, followed by Boeing (four deals worth a total of $4.4 billion), Intel (six deals worth $3.6 billion), General Motors (11 deals worth $2.7 billion), Ford Motor (9 deals worth $2.1 billion), Nike (1 deal worth $2 billion) and Nissan (four deals worth $1.8 billion).

Fifty-six megadeals went to corporations with parents based outside the United States and seven more went to joint ventures of domestic and foreign companies.

The megadeals list is a new enhancement of Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker database, the first online compilation of company-specific data on economic development deals from around the country.

Until now, the content of Subsidy Tracker has consisted exclusively of official disclosure data provided by state and local governments. However, many large deals pre-dated disclosure and many recent ones are missing from the official lists because of gaps in state and local transparency practices. To overcome those constraints, Good Jobs First went back and assembled information on large deals using a wider variety of sources. The resulting list of megadeals has been incorporated into Subsidy Tracker (www.subsidytracker.org).

In a policy sidebar, the study points out that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) has been long-negligent in failing to promulgate regulations for how state and local governments should account for tax-based economic development expenditures. If GASB were to finally promulgate such regulations—covering both programs and deals—taxpayers would have standardized, comparable statistics about megadeals and could better weigh their costs and benefits.

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Business and Economy Tax and Budget

TFT Sees Tipping Point in Battle Over Income Tax Amendment

Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, the folks known for advocating an income tax despite long odds, face a bigger fight as lawmakers move toward a constitutional ban on a tax on personal income.

About 40 TFT members from across the state gathered at the Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville on Saturday for their annual meeting to discuss their agenda and ways to better communicate their message of “tax justice.”

While the group is known primarily for the income tax stance, that proposal tends to overshadow other elements of their efforts, which involve lowering taxes elsewhere and looking for allies in the business community where they see unfairness on taxes in the private sector.

Erica Thomas of Memphis, who was in a carpool that left for Nashville at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, said the income tax ban is the most immediate challenge TFT faces.

“Stopping it in its tracks I think is going to be the biggest thing we have to focus our energies on,” Thomas said. “What you’re doing is cutting off your nose in spite of your face, cutting off any other possible revenue sources that we could have that invest in the state.

“It has already been shown that a sales tax is not going to get us out of this problem. Tennessee is surrounded by so many other states that have lowered taxes on basic necessities, so people are going across state lines. I just don’t understand the disconnect there by legislators.”

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, is sponsoring a resolution (SJR221) that would explicitly prohibit the General Assembly from enacting or permitting an income tax. It passed the Senate on May 18, 26-4, and has been placed on the House calendar for Jan. 10, 2012.

The resolution is co-sponsored in the Senate by, among 19 Republicans, two Democrats: Andy Berke of Chattanooga and Eric Stewart of Belvidere.

Berke, the Senate Democratic Caucus vice chairman, told TNReport last spring that “Tennessee has a strong tradition of being against the income tax — it’s one of the reasons why we are a business-friendly state.” He added, “Most Tennesseans understand that (not having an income tax) is important to our way of life and our quality of life.”

Regarding the issue of whether the income tax is already unconstitutional, it’s time to “get that settled,” said Berke, “so we won’t really have to have that debate anymore.”

For the constitutional amendment to be approved, it would next have to pass the House by a majority vote in 2012, then pass the next Legislature by two-thirds votes in each chamber, then go before the people in a referendum in 2014. Supporters of the referendum say it is the best way to close the door on an income tax in the state for good.

In addition to advocating for an income tax, Tennesseans for Fair Taxation emphasizes its goal of cutting the sales tax on food and reducing the sales tax in general, which the group sees as regressive, even “immoral.”

Samantha Wallace of Knoxville, an organizer for TFT in East Tennessee, says the group’s mission is about justice. The organization wants to see an adequate revenue stream to support government services it says are vital.

“The main purpose is to generate enough revenue to support our state, and we want to do that in as just a way as possible,” Wallace said. “What I mean by ‘justice’ is right now the way we generate revenue in the state is immoral.

“We tax things like clothing and food. These are predominantly focused on the sales tax. It doesn’t raise enough revenue for the state. It’s immoral because we’re forcing people who can’t afford it to pay additional taxes on their food. We have a regressive tax. We need to fix that.”

Elizabeth Wright, executive director of TFT, says the primary goal is to “modernize” the state’s tax structure. She said the sales tax hits low- and middle-income families hardest because it is regressive in nature.

“We want to make sure that our economy thrives, that Tennessee thrives,” Wright said.

To that end, in a roundtable discussion in one of the breakout groups for the day-long meeting, members of the group discussed ways to partner with the business community.

Nell Levin said it is important for the group to bring the business community on board as allies in TFT’s efforts.

“I really believe we’re never going to win unless we get them on board and there’s a lot of things about the business taxation that is really unfair,” Levin said. “We have one of the highest franchise taxes in the Southeast. This is something we could go to business people and talk to them about.”

It was clear that TFT members like some of the tax legislation the General Assembly passed this year, like an adjustment that increases the exemption on the Hall income tax, which derives revenue from interest and dividends on investments. The Legislature raised the exemption on the Hall tax on those 65 and older to $26,000 for single taxpayers and $37,000 for joint filers. Those are increases from $16,200 for single filers and $27,000 for joint filers.

“They actually made the Hall income tax more progressive,” Tony Garr said. “There does appear to be a willingness on the part of some Republican legislators to reduce the tax on food. Those are two things I think we need to keep in mind.”

Thomas was asked if she had 30 seconds with Gov. Bill Haslam what she would say to him. She responded it would be more about what she would ask him.

“If not an income tax, tell me how with the sales tax going up are we going to generate revenues we need across the state?” she replied. “I need you point blank to tell me: What is your plan for us getting there? So maybe we can collaborate on that, but I haven’t heard what your plan is.”

Haslam has repeatedly said there is no chance of an income tax being implemented in Tennessee.

Anne Barnett of Knoxville said she first got involved with TFT as a student at the University of Tennessee. Her concerns were raised by rising tuition, budget cuts and the school letting professors go.

“The tax structure in Tennessee is regressive,” Barnett said. “We’re always going to be fighting for more funding for public services.”

She was asked, being from Knoxville, if she had ever met Haslam, the former Knoxville mayor. She hesitated before answering.

“Not personally, but my husband used to deliver pizza to him,” she said. “And he would never leave a tip.”

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Business and Economy Featured News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

GOP Showing Little Taste for Lower Food Tax

Now that Tennessee Republicans are “large and in charge” of state government, as minority Democrats like to snidely put it, they seem to have lost their appetite for cutting the state’s sales tax on food.

Even though Tennessee is looking at $62.3 million in excess revenues over the last 11 months, lowering the tax isn’t likely to happen any time soon, say powerful majority-party politicians.

Nevertheless, Tennessee Democrats are floating a plan to give part of the overage back to taxpayers — by reducing the 5.5 percent tax on food and making additional funds available for “needs-based” college scholarships.

The Volunteer State now charges a 7 percent sales tax on items other than food and is one of seven that offers a reduced rate on groceries, although 31 states exempt most non-restaurant food purchases from sales taxes.

Republicans, who consolidated their political power in the 2010 election promising a more fiscally disciplined, taxpayer-friendly state government, last month scoffed at Democrats for offering up a plan to reduce the tax on food.

“It’s just irresponsible,” House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick told TNReport. His preference is the state keep any extra tax collections safely locked up in the government’s savings account for spending later in leaner times, like when Washington starts ladling out smaller helpings of federal largess.

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey claims he’d “love to eliminate the food tax.”

Not now, though.

“I hope and pray that Tennessee will soon be in a position to do just that,” the Blountville Republican said in an e-mailed statement shortly after the Democrats served up their tax-cut idea. “But a revenue blip does not a surplus make.

“While the new revenue numbers are encouraging, the last few years have taught us that we cannot afford to be cavalier with the contents of our treasury,” he said.

Ramsey, who recently proclaimed that “a basic philosophical difference between Democrats and Republicans” is that the latter favor taxpayers keeping their own money in times of revenue surplus, accused Democrats of “craven political posturing” for proposing a tax cut on groceries in the current fiscal climate.

Requests through Ramsey’s spokesman for further comment and explanation from the lieutenant governor went unanswered.

Republicans didn’t used to be so hostile to the idea of a tax cut for Tennesseans who purchase food. Indeed, some, like Kingsport Rep. Tony Shipley, once upon a time got elected promising to push for food-tax relief.

In 2007, Sen. Mae Beavers was at the forefront of the legislative effort to reduce the food tax, ultimately by half a cent. At the time, she complained that wasn’t enough. But now she’s just irritated the matter has popped up again.

“I really take offense to (Democrats) making a political issue out of it this time when they had a chance to take it all off a few years ago,” said Beavers.

Gov. Bill Haslam was more conciliatory towards the proposal, saying he “100 percent” agrees with Democrats’ desire to reduce taxes on groceries when the state collects excess money from taxpayers.

In principle, anyway. He questions though whether tens of millions of dollars in over-collections truly represents a “surplus” at this time.

“If we had a surplus, we should not be keeping the money. I couldn’t agree more,” the governor told TNReport. “It’s just way too early to say that because I have a feeling we’re going to have to make some hard calls.”

The catch, Haslam says, is state government would need to consider cutting millions of dollars in services now covered with $160 million in one-time money, address rising education costs and weather instability from the economy and federal government in order to reduce the tax.

“There’s a whole lot of stuff in there I can guarantee the Democrats and most of the Republicans don’t want to cut,” Haslam said. “My first word would be to the Democrats, how do you feel about that $160 million in services? Are you ready for all of those to go away, because our overage is not enough to do both.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the leading Democrat in the House, says he sees nothing particularly ludicrous about proposing to cut “one of the highest sales taxes on food in the entire country.”

“If that’s absurd, well, we need more absurdity in government, because I think that’s an excellent option that we may have,” said the Ripley Democrat.

Lawmakers this year considered a plan to raise the tax on soda in exchange for lower food taxes, but that issue went nowhere. Lawmakers did manage to lower taxes on investments for some senior citizens by raising the income benchmark by $10,000 to exempt more individuals and couples from paying the Hall income tax.

While legislators play political ping-pong over the excess taxpayer dollars, state government observers of various ideological stripes agree the partisan bickering ought to be set aside in favor of a serious policy-driven conversation.

“It’s not enough to rely on the whims of either political party to return excess revenue to taxpayers,” said Justin Owen, executive director of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free-market think tank which has advocated a reduction in the grocery tax.

What the state should do is automatically kick any excess revenues back to the public at the end of each fiscal year, he said.

Ben Cunningham of Tennessee Tax Revolt said it seems obvious to him “any surplus ought to be returned to the taxpayer.”

“The time to give tax revenue back to the families to put back in the family budget is in the good years, this way you even out the ups and downs of tax revenues and you better control the size of government,” said Cunningham, a prominent voice in Tennessee’s tea-party movement.

Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a coalition of liberal activists, unionized workers and progressive advocacy groups, has long pushed for reducing Tennessee’s reliance on a sales tax. TFT argues Tennessee’s tax on food is perniciously high — that it, in essence, constitutes a “tax on life.”

“Groceries represent a much bigger portion of low-income families’ budgets while it only represents a small fraction of most high-income families’ budgets,” argues TFT. “By eliminating the tax on food, the average family would save enough annually to buy a whole month’s worth of groceries.”

TFT’s preference for instituting a state income-tax to offset reduced revenues from a lower or eliminated grocery-tax doesn’t seem likely to gain much traction in the GOP-dominated Legislature, where the wheels are in motion to constitutionally ban an income tax.

TNReport.com is an independent, nonprofit news organization supported by generous donors like you!

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Press Releases

Amazon Sales-Tax Waiver ‘a Sell-Out of TN Businesses’: TFT

Press Release from Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, May 7, 2011:

Legislators move to reverse Administration’s Amazon exemption from sales tax collection.

Senate Finance Committee chair Randy McNally and House Finance Committee chair Charles Sargent will amend their bills SB 529 / HB 136 to clarify that sales tax be collected by businesses that have any physical presence in the State. These bills will be heard in Senate Finance Committee at 8:30 AM on May 10, 2011 and in House Finance Subcommittee at 10:00 AM the same day.

Gov. Haslam’s administration has secretly ruled that Amazon, the giant Internet retailer, need not collect Tennessee sales tax from sales through its “drop shipping” warehouse operations being built in Hamilton and Bradley Counties. McNally’s amendment explicitly requires that “drop shippers” and other dealers who operate physically in Tennessee must collect sales tax on Tennessee sales.

At a time of deep budget cuts, the special exemption would forego several million dollars annually in state revenue. The amended bills would raise at least $11.6 million according to a preliminary fiscal note.

“The Administration waiver of sales tax collection by Amazon is especially outrageous, as well as unfair, because it was made in secret behind closed doors without any public comment or action by the State legislature,” said John G. Stewart, former chair of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation. “This is a sell-out of Tennessee businesses, as well as a denial of legitimate tax revenue at a time of serious budget shortfalls and program cuts. In our democracy the Governor should propose but the Legislature should decide and that is what is proposed here.”

Amazon has agreed to locate two distribution centers in Bradley County and Chattanooga, and has already received more than $30 million in tax incentives from the State of Tennessee as part of the deal. But Amazon.com also demanded an exemption on collecting the Tennessee sales tax and remitting these tax revenues to the state, as is required of all Tennessee businesses. This exemption is in addition to the significant subsidies and incentives it received from the Bredesen administration.

Gov. Haslam acknowledged last week that Amazon’s demands for an exemption had been accepted. An article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press stated: ‘Asked directly whether Amazon would not be required to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Tennessee customers, Haslam said, “That’s exactly right.”’

The sales tax exemption was initially proposed by the out-going Bredesen Administration in a public notice posted in the last days of December 2010. The notice scheduled a public hearing in February to consider a change to the Department of Revenue rule governing the taxation of drop shipments.

At the last minute, after Tennesseans for Fair Taxation had requested an opportunity to comment, the hearing was cancelled. Governor Haslam’s 45-day moratorium on rule-makings was cited as the reason for the cancellation. Rather than reschedule the hearing and receive public testimony, the Haslam Administration secretly granted the exemption without any public notice or involvement.

If the Administration’s decision is not reversed it will hurt local businesses that must follow the law and already struggle to compete with the online giant.

Attorney Brian Paddock, a TFT volunteer noted: “When I asked a Retail industry representative about the Amazon exemption he wrote me a note saying:

The retail community in Tennessee believes that any deal to exempt Amazon.com or any other online-only retailer from collecting state sales taxes is a bad deal.  We are working with the Governor and the state Legislature to convince them that all retailers deserve equal tax treatment.  We support new jobs in Tennessee but not at the expense of the existing businesses.

All Tennessee retailers want is a level playing field.  We want competition to be fair.  Tennessee’s consideration of a plan to exempt Amazon from collecting state sales tax does the exact opposite and retailers across the state are justifiably upset.

Why should Amazon be exempt from collecting state sales tax?  Why should the state government, which in Tennessee operates primarily off sales taxes collected by existing merchants, put those same merchants at a disadvantage?  Why does a Tennessean running a business in these challenging economic times have to include state sales tax on each purchase, collect it, track it and pay it to the state when the state says a competitor selling the same product does not?

Amazon.com wants to open distribution centers here and avoid collecting state sales taxes.  It’s wrong and it’s a bad deal. Tennessee’s retailers, big and small, deserve fair treatment and a level playing field.

“TennCare, higher education, and pre-K funding, among many other programs, are slashed in Gov. Haslam’s proposed budget, but revenue that could soften those cuts is not being collected by Amazon,” says Lorri Mabry of Antioch, Tenn. “It’s blatantly unfair and unwise. We need to collect all the revenue that is owed to the state – Tennesseans are hurting.”

Last week Gov. Haslam released his Jobs4TN plan with a focus on “assisting existing Tennessee businesses in expansions and remaining competitive.”

“The Amazon exemption flies in the face of the Administration’s professed objective of assisting Tennessee businesses,” said Katie Findley, a University of Tennessee (Knoxville) student. “All Tennessee businesses want is a level playing field and this decision gives a huge price advantage to Amazon.” Because of Tennessee’s high sales tax, small businesses already lose out to online and out-of-state competitors, and many retailers struggle to compete with Amazon, in particular.

Mabry and Findley also are members of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a statewide coalition of people and groups that support revenue with justice for all Tennesseans. TFT also supports the Out-of-State Sales Tax Act, sponsored by Sen. Beverly Marrero and Rep. Mike Stewart, which would require any out-of-state vendor selling more than $4,800 of goods annually to Tennesseans and using in-state affiliates to solicit those sales to collect the sales tax due on items sold.

The bill would override the administration’s backroom deal for Amazon, and would raise more than $100 million in additional revenue by requiring Amazon and any online or out-of-state vendor doing significant business with affiliate presence in Tennessee to collect sales tax.

Sen. Bo Watson has introduced a bill that would require “letter rulings” and “revenue rulings” like the one apparently made in the Amazon case to be open to the public. “Amazon can afford to collect the sales tax from its customers,” said Elizabeth Wright, executive director of TFT. “Tennessee can’t afford to exempt them from doing so. Any time one business doesn’t collect the taxes that are legitimately owed, other taxpayers must take up the slack, either in higher taxes or reduced government services.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey spoke out last week against the exemption, telling the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “It’s the one where you make an outright gift or do a sales tax exemption that no other business in the state has, those are the type of things that bother me,” Ramsey said. “This whole Amazon tax issue, that they’re not paying sales tax, I just don’t think that’s something that should ever have been agreed to.”