Amgen jolted the Seattle community with a stunning, unexpected announcement last month that they are pulling out of Washington State and terminating employment for the remaining 660 employees as part of a downsizing of 2,900 employees nationally.
My first reaction to the news was pure sympathy for the employees and their families. During a recent bike ride in my Queen Anne neighborhood, I quietly looked over Amgen’s stunning research and development facility — a beacon of global biomedical quality — and reflected upon the social contract between the company and taxpayers of our city, state and country and my role as chair of the state House's Finance Committee. And my disappointment, as USA Today noted, turned to frustration.
Immunex, an anchor of Seattle’s biotechnology and biomedical community from its founding in 1981, was acquired by a main industry rival, Amgen, in 2001. At the time of the deal worth approximately $16 billion in stock, Immunex had 1,500 employees, a number that was pared down to approximately 750 for the past decade. In addition to the direct employees, Immunex and Amgen generated substantial economic, social, financial and community value as an important part of our state’s civic life — and much good will. Amgen’s political relationships have been stellar and successful, the support for innovative community programs such as AmeriCorp’s City Year have been impressive, and its employees have made our city a better place to live. (Disclosure: I have received multiple campaign contributions from Amgen, served as a citizen co-founder of City Year, and am a shareholder in the company.)
Despite a well-established trend in Big Pharma (Pfizer, Sanofi, Novartis, etc.) that shows companies pulling back from R&D and retreating to primary research hubs, social and traditional media soon raised the question of whether state tax policy played a role in the company’s decision to leave Washington, casually alluding to an operating assumption that the state didn’t do enough to lower the tax burden on the company.
My personal and professional mission as Finance chair is to institutionalize a more rigorous level of analytical, financial and intellectual analysis of our state tax policy to match what we expect of state spending policies.
So let’s go beyond the headlines into the Amgen story and examine its relationship with state tax policy.
It’s not public information how much Amgen pays in various Washington taxes, although I seem to recall the company says in its federal Securities and Exchang Commission filing that it pays approximately 9 percent effective tax rate in total state taxes. What is public, however, is that the company has since 2004 been the third largest recipient of the high technology sales tax deferral program, a tax credit I have argued should be targeted primarily at small and early stage companies. For early stage and small companies, a modest tax reduction can have a major impact given that we tax on gross receipts, not net profits, and the dollars are usually directly invested in more engineers, scientists and researchers.
The company’s average benefit from the state tax break is $3.6 million per year, for a total of $28.5 million between 2004 and 2011. In 2013 the global earnings for Amgen were $18.7 billion, an 8 percent increase from 2012. The stock has recently been trading at all-time highs.
Did the $3.6 million annual tax benefit play a role in the company’s business decision to leave Washington?
Don’t kid yourself.
The company told me that Washington state tax policy in no way played any measurable role in this sweeping national business decision, which involved an overal 15 percent reduction in its work force.
And, of course, on the surface it’s patently ridiculous to consider that $3.6 million state tax benefit against revenues of $18.7 billion means anything substantial when you consider that: 1) Washington is strictly a R&D facility, so revenues are likely assigned, as with virtually all pharmaceutical companies, out of state or even the country, meaning that our tax rates are largely irrelevant to the firm. And, 2) Colorado has a generous high technology tax credit and yet the company closed its entire operations in that state, too.
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