Kansas bonds downgraded; economic development programs imperiled


money-bag-struggleMoody’s Investor Service has downgraded the credit rating of a series of bonds that Kansas uses to fund an economic development program. The program is IMPACT (Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training), which provides financial benefits to companies locating to or expanding in Kansas.

The problem is that the state borrows money to give to companies, and uses the withholding taxes of these companies’ employees to repay the bonds. So what happens if the state reduces — or eliminates — the personal income tax? Moody’s explains:

Because IMPACT program bonds are backed by a statutory allocation of revenue from income tax withholding, efforts to eliminate the state income tax without defeasing the debt or substituting a new revenue source will expose bondholders to risks greater than previously anticipated. IMPACT debt has historically been supported by steadily growing revenues from a source that was broad-based and important to the state’s continued operations. Last year’s major income tax rate reductions, followed by additional cuts this year, constitute what we expect to be a trend of repeated cuts in the revenues pledged to these bonds. The final maturity on the IMPACT bonds is 2023, by which time Kansas may have fully removed the income tax. So far, there is no assurance the state will allocate revenue from a different source or take other steps protect bondholders. (Moody’s downgrades Kansas Department of Commerce IMPACT bonds to A3 from Aa3)

I don’t think there’s much likelihood that the state will fail to pay these bonds fully as payments become due. Even though the spending that produced this debt, in my opinion, is ill-considered, it’s still an obligation of the state.

But in a blog post, the Wichita Eagle editorial board could barely conceal its glee that a State of Kansas program might encounter difficulties during the Brownback regime. That’s because income tax rates have been reduced, and will fall farther. This threatens the government spending that the Eagle editorialists favor over private-sector spending.

Besides this one Kansas spending program, others will probably also be affected by lower income tax rates. Another economic development program Kansas uses is the Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program. Administered by the Kansas Department of Commerce, the program allows qualifying companies to retain 95 percent of the state income withholding taxes their employees pay.

It’s a roundabout method of distributing corporate welfare that allows companies — and gullible or self-serving politicians — to pretend as though this program has no cost, or that companies are in fact investing their own money.

What’s interesting is that the money paid to companies is based on the withholding of employee taxes, not actual taxes paid. Withholding is just an estimate. At the end of the year employees file tax returns to compute their actual tax liability. Based on the difference between withholdings and liability, the state may issue a refund (or maybe the employee owes more).

It’s common for people to receive tax refunds. For employees that work for companies participating in PEAK, their tax withholdings (less five percent) have already been spent by the state in the form of economic development incentives. Their refunds have to be funded in some other way.

Other government spending programs will be affected, too. Historic preservation tax credits are used to funnel millions to developers in downtown Wichita, for example. These credits have value only as long as someone owes income tax (or similar taxes paid by financial institutions) to the state. If there are no income taxes, these tax credits have no value.

This is all good. It’s great that tax rates are falling. It’s also good that the state loses some of its tools for dishing out business welfare. With programs like PEAK and tax credits, the legislature authorizes the program by passing a law. After that, the programs function on auto-pilot. Companies apply for the benefits, and then either automatically or at the discretion of the bureaucracy, applications are approved and benefits flow.

This leads to systems with little accountability. Expenditures are barely noticed. The normal basis for justifying taxation is threatened. Employees that work at PEAK companies might look at the Kansas tax withheld on the paychecks and rationalize “Well, at least it’s going for the kids’ schools or some other beneficial purpose.”

No. Their withholding taxes are being paid (less five percent) to their employer.

Without these tax expenditure programs, legislatures would have to pass specific bills to spend taxpayer money. Can you imagine if the State of Kansas passed a bill to give $3.5 million in taxpayer credits to developers of a luxury hotel in downtown Wichita? Citizens would look at things differently. They’d wonder why we’re spending this way. Using semi-mysterious mechanisms like PEAK and tax credits shrouds the true economic transactions taking place.


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