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Secrecy in tax breaks is harming state

Credit: Photo: John Stang

With political pressure from industries to “match” Boeing’s state tax preference package rippling through the 2014 Legislature, many on the left and right are asking larger structural and systemic questions: How much do Washington state taxpayers spend on tax preferences, how much financial value in tax preferences does a company receive and how much do these companies actually pay in state taxes?

The uncomfortable reality is that we do not know how many tax dollars are being spent or not collected — because that information is, even if assembled by the state Department of Revenue, almost completely inaccessible and hidden from legislators and the public.

The inside story gets worse: Under state law, for the vast majority of tax preferences, the basic information about what companies, organizations and industries receive under most tax preferences — how much money — is considered confidential and proprietary information. And, despite how much information was provided for the Boeing discussion, the financial details are usually expressly hidden from legislators, media and the public. 

As chair of the House's tax-writing Finance Committee, I am granted confidential access to the limited corporate tax information that is collected by the state.

This year, it has reached a point where the weight and moral hazard of this information burdens me, on a deep philosophical level, because I believe it is unethical for my colleagues to make fiduciary decisions about tax preferences — to draft bills, debate legislation and vote on behalf of the people — without knowing the true financial value or tax context of those preferences.

If I speak publicly about financial or technical details of who is claiming tax exemptions and how much they pay as a context to those dollars, I would face 90 days in jail, get ejected from the Washington State Legislature and be banned from holding public office for two years.

I’m not making this up. Telling the truth about this basic but vital tax data, even to other legislators, could cost me my elected position and land me in jail.

That’s because the strict interpretation of state law is that the chairs of the respective tax committees in the House and Senate are entitled to this important contextual tax data, but rank-and-file legislators are not. This means two of 147 legislators know the truth of how the money flows.

The old-fashioned idea that the value of a tax preference must remain confidential is out of date and philosophically out of step with our state.

Since 1972 our state has been a national leader in public disclosure about who funds campaigns, how state budgets are written and how tax dollars are spent. Disclosuure applies to the spending of tax dollars, whether it’s the salary of a local elementary school teacher or how much a vendor is being paid to build a tunnel along the Seattle waterfront. A 2012 investigation by the widely respected Center for Public Integrity ranked Washington No. 3 of 50 states in its “Integrity Index” based on the strength of the disclosure laws when it comes to campaign financing, lobbying reporting, state budget process and public access to information.

However, in contrast to campaign data and budget expenditures, which can be searched online down to the individual check on www.fiscal.wa.gov, the actual beneficiaries of tax preferences are public for just 32 of the state’s 650+ tax preferences, less than 5 percent of the recipients. And the financial value of the value of the tax preferences claimed is public for only 19 categories — less than 3 percent of the total.

Last year, I partnered with Senate Majority Leader Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, to shine a light on tax preference transparency through a new law so the public can more effectively understand the scale and scope of the value of a tax preference created by the Legislature.

Under the measure, all new tax preferences must disclose the basic financial value of a tax preference at the individual firm level, so we can together assess whether there is a return on investment and better study whether a new tax preference achieves the policy goals established — or is simply evaporating into the mist.

While this is true for new tax preferences, there are more than 650+ existing tax exemptions, credits and preferential rates on the books that cannot be easily analyzed in depth because the information is confidential or not reported at all.

Transparency and disclosure is a policy foundation that often unites limited-government and progressive think tanks, left and right, Democrats and Republicans. From the Sunlight Foundation to OpenSecrets.org examples, Washington has long embraced the right of the people to know how the money flows in and out of government.

This year, I have introduced a modest step forward in tax transparency legislation — House Bill 2201 —that would:

  1. Consolidate and streamline the multiple annual reports and surveys from businesses into a single, easy to understand “Tax Accountability Report.”
  2. Increase the availability, quality and consistency of tax preference data reported internally to the state Department of Revenue, including the value of the tax preferences.
  3. Authorize the the public disclosure of certain tax information for publicly traded companies annually claiming one or more tax preferences in excess of $10,000, with a two-year lag to avoid any real-time competitive concerns. Publicly traded companies already provide much of this information at the national level through the Security and Exchange Commission.

How can a legislator realistically be expected to vote on a tax preference bill for a company or industry if she or he does not know the context of whether a tax proposal is small, massive or in-between relative to the overall tax obligation of that firm?

For example, under the state’s extracted fuel tax preference for the oil companies with refineries in Washington, the aggregate public value of this preference is $59 million between 2015-2017. There is no public disclosure, however, of how much British Petrolium, Shell, Tesoro and the other beneficiaries pay in taxes so it is literally impossible for legislators to know whether that $59 million is small, medium or large relative to their overall tax obligations. Given that, I have introduced House Bill 2465 to close this tax preference, you can assume I feel strongly there is a painfully obvious answer to this question.

If a tax preference is working — and you can make the business case to the public with solid data, facts and evidence as well as political support —we should keep it working to build our economy and quality job growth.

I am not opposed to tax preferences that work and add measurable value, but I struggle with the lack of intellectual, financial, political and analytical rigor applied to our state tax preferences. Specifically, I have stood firmly and publicly in support of tax preferences that can clearly prove with hard data — such as the Boeing package — that they achieve a compelling return on investment for taxpayers and our quality of life.

If a tax preference cannot justify its continued existence with data, metrics and facts and must retreat into brute lobbying force, then we should probably close the tax preference and instead invest those precious dollars into public education, from early learning through K-12 and higher education.

The responsible next step is to pass HB 2201 and open the books in a careful, measured way and let citizens — and 147 legislators —know the truth of how the money flows.

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