Study: Colorado PERA pension obligations are 30 percent of Colorado's annual corporate welfare grants.
As readers of Coloradopols.com are fully aware, the State of Colorado is currently trying to break its contracts. Count me among a growing number of Coloradans who find this fact disturbing. Have Colorado state and corporate interests merged? Clearly, the Colorado Legislature should avoid adoption of public policies that give our state the character of a lawless banana republic.
Yet, while the Colorado Legislature attempts to escape its contractual obligations, a recent study has found the cost of meeting Colorado's (currently litigated) contractual pension obligations to be approximately 30 percent of Colorado's existing corporate tax loopholes and subsidies.
Here are a few comments on the study from the Executive Director and Counsel of the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems (Hank Kim):
"Enriching corporations by stealing from public pensions."
"Those of us in the public pension world know that the vast majority of plans are on solid financial ground – and that the few that aren’t are in jurisdictions whose legislatures have consistently failed to make some or all of the actuarially required contributions to those plans, even in boom economic times."
"The rhetoric has been as impressive as it is deceitful. There’s money there to fund public pensions. It just isn’t going to public pensions – it’s going to wealthy corporations."
" . . . a far more detailed – and damning – picture is painted in a recent report by the nonpartisan research group Good Jobs First. The report looks at 10 states where the controversy over pension costs has been intense. In each state, it compares public pension costs to the amount of revenue lost to corporate welfare – including economic development subsidies, tax preferences and accounting loopholes (even offshore tax havens)."
"Colorado’s annual pension costs are just 30 percent of its nearly $600 million in corporate subsidies."
(My comment, this $600 million figure is, as we shall see, a grossly understated amount.)
Excerpts from the recent report and a news release on the report:
“As a matter of honest accounting and fair budgeting, state leaders should examine all forms of spending before they single out pensions or any other expense,” said Mattera. “Corporate tax breaks and loopholes are often poorly understood and little-noticed because they do not get debated as appropriations, nor do they often get sunsetted or audited. But over time they add up to hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars per year.”
"Public pension costs have been a subject of controversy in Colorado during the past few years. In 2010, the legislature reduced cost-of-living adjustments for participants in the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) plans . . . "
"The state’s most expensive subsidy is the enterprise zone program. EZ tax credits cost about $103 million a year. Colorado also provides other lucrative tax breaks for business. The most expensive is the oil & gas ad valorem credit against the severance tax, which costs about $101 million per year. A policy exempting purchases of manufacturing equipment from the sales tax costs about $54 million annually."
"Colorado is one of the states that allow corporations to apportion their taxable income by methods other than the traditional three factor (payroll, property and sales) weighting. The state’s tax expenditure report does not include an estimate of the revenue loss relating to the use of the single sales factor apportionment formula."
"An archaic tax rule that allows retailers to keep a portion of the sales tax revenues they collect from customers costs about $24 million a year."
"Another major form of corporate tax avoidance that eats into state revenues is the use of offshore tax havens. In January 2013, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund published a report in which it calculated the impact on this practice on each state. For Colorado, the estimated annual cost is $310 million."
"The total of these corporate subsidies, official tax breaks and unofficial tax dodging amounts to more than $593 million year, as summarized in the table below."
"In other words, the annual taxpayer cost of funding the retirement benefits of current Colorado public employees belonging to the main state administered public pension systems is only 30 percent of the cost to the state of economic development subsidies and corporate tax breaks and loopholes."
"The New York Times reported recently that governments rarely track how many jobs are created by corporate welfare – and even those who do admit it’s impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created even if the subsidies hadn’t been granted."
Corporate lobbyists helped push the Colorado PERA pension contract breach bill (SB10-001) through the legislative process in 2010. These contracts, that the Colorado Legislature has set its sights on, are contracts to which Colorado public workers (retired and active) are a party. The idea that the Colorado Legislature would ever attempt to impair a state contract with a corporation is, of course, absurd. Far from ever entertaining the idea of breaking a state contract with a corporation, the Colorado Legislature (and Colorado local governments) have historically taken pains to actually give away public resources to corporations.
The New York Times has calculated Colorado's corporate welfare at $198 per capita each year and 13 percent of the state budget:
Why does Colorado, a state purportedly facing a "financial crisis" of such scale that the abrogation of state contracts is required, give away billions of dollars in public resources to corporations?
Recall that part of the rationale for the breach of Colorado PERA public pension contracts in 2010 was this alleged inability of the State of Colorado to meet its contractual obligations over the coming three to five decades.
Some (advocates of the Colorado PERA contract breach) have argued that it was "reasonable" for the State of Colorado to abandon its contractual obligations in 2010 since the state was confronted by a claimed financial "crisis." Senator Penry, co-prime sponsor of SB10-001 argued that this claimed "crisis" was just the ticket, just the "window of opportunity" (Penry's words) needed to escape contractual PERA pension obligations.
But, I don't follow. If Colorado PERA-affiliated employers (all located in the 10th wealthiest state in the nation) were actually in a financial "crisis" would they not seek to maximize their available financial resources? Why have these Colorado governments (PERA-affiliated employers) given away billions of dollars to businesses for decades? Why do these Colorado governments continue to give away billions of dollars in revenue? Why is the Colorado Legislature adding to this pile of billions of dollars of lost revenue at the current legislative session? A desire to please constituents who want to starve public service funding? A desire to direct tax subsidies to fund projects in legislative districts and thus please constituents? A desire to cut the tax bill of politically connected businesses in legislative districts? The hope for campaign contributions?
The Colorado Legislature foregoes the receipt of billions of dollars in revenue each year lost to corporate income tax exemptions, sales tax exemptions, oil and gas company property tax credits to offset severance taxes, enterprise zone corporate tax credits, etc. Further, Colorado has the lowest level of state service taxation in the nation, the highest vendor's sales tax discount in the nation, lacks a motor fuel sales tax, and grants endless agricultural tax breaks. (See Appendix.)
What is the true total of revenue lost each year by Colorado state and local governments in corporate credits, exemptions and business subsidies? Who can actually compile the real total? Certainly, the Colorado Legislature will not answer this question.
Whatever your position might be on the propriety of corporate welfare grants by the Colorado Legislature certainly there is agreement that this Colorado corporate welfare is, without question, a discretionary expenditure, a policy choice by the Colorado Legislature. Contractual public sector obligations on the other hand, such as public pension obligations, are manifestly not discretionary expenditures.
For your information, I provide below, a list of $2 billion in annual Colorado state sales tax exemptions. (Yes, Colorado currently gives away more than $2 billion a year in sales tax revenue, a substantial portion of the state's General Fund.)
Looking over the list of Colorado sales tax exemptions I find some that I agree have merit, but many that I deem to be the work of self-interested special interest and industry lobbyists. Have a look at the list. The Colorado sales tax exemptions represent taxpayer dollars lost on sales of everything from farm vehicles, dairy equipment, pesticides, sales of cattle, sheep, swine and goats, (a quarter billion subsidy right there,) not to mention bull semen sales and factory-built housing sales.
List of sales tax exemptions:
Condemnation of Colorado Corporate Welfare from the right, the Colorado Independence Institute:
"Gaylord Entertainment is offered $81 million in Colorado taxpayer money for its proposed 1,500-room Denver International Airport hotel and other projects. By what authority can the state government take tax money out of your pocket and give it away to a private corporation? The answer is that corporate welfare schemes, such as so-called 'public-private partnerships,' flagrantly violate the Colorado Constitution."
"Article V, section 34, of the Constitution states: 'No appropriation shall be made for charitable, industrial, educational or benevolent purposes to any person, corporation or community not under the absolute control of the state … .' Very easy to understand."
"Another provision of the Colorado Constitution requires that the government treat people equally. The government cannot pass laws giving a particular corporation special privileges: 'The general assembly shall not pass local or special laws in any of the following enumerated cases, that is to say; … granting to any corporation, association or individual any special or exclusive privilege, immunity or franchise whatever.' Article V, section 25."
"Simply giving taxpayer money to a corporation is also illegal: 'Neither the state, nor any county, city, town, township, or school district shall make any donation or grant to, or in aid of … any corporation or company … .' Article XI, section 2."
Colorado's $700 Million Gift to Local Government Lobbyists for Pension Obligations that Are Not the State's Contractual Obligation.
Let us not forget that the Colorado Legislature has also given away $700 million for purposes other than corporate welfare. Recently (at the 2013 legislative session) the Colorado Legislature found that $142 million in state revenue (now totaling approximately $700 million) was somehow available to meet local government pension obligations that (as I have amply demonstrated before) ARE NOT the contractual obligation of the State of Colorado.
How is it that Colorado state government (the government allegedly in "crisis") paid $142 million for public pensions (Old Hire Fire and Police local government legacy pension obligations) that ARE NOT the state's contractual obligation, while ignoring public pension debts (Colorado PERA) that ARE INDEED the state's contractual obligations?
Colorado's History of Sports Team Corporate Welfare.
Let us not forget that, historically, Colorado legislators have been quite eager to facilitate delivery of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to build a football stadium for a multi-millionaire. With, of course, the encouragement of a good number of hired lobbyists, legislators put this question before statewide voters. Non-metro state legislators were happy to have metro-area voters tax themselves to subsidize sports entertainment that is quite popular in Colorado's rural counties. This, remember, is public policy adopted by the same Legislature that feels compelled to break its own contracts. To wit, sufficient public resources to subsidize sports entertainment . . . but a currently claimed inability to meet the contractual obligations of Colorado governments.
From the Denver Post:
“The stadium came in at a cost of about $400 million — modest compared with today's apparent going rate of $1 billion .”
“The Metropolitan Football Stadium District, which includes all or part of the seven counties around Denver, was created to plan, acquire land and build the stadium. It collected a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent from Jan. 1, 2001, until Jan. 1, 2012, to finance it.”
Colorado House Speaker Ferrandino and Senate President Carroll on Colorado's most recent relinquishment of Colorado taxpayer dollars (quoted in the Gazette Telegraph):
"Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said she is keeping an eye on the legislation."
"'Any time we are giving out subsidies, incentives, the line between corporate welfare and incentives is a really tricky one,' Carroll said."
House Speaker Ferrandino: “That seems like a lot of good lobbying. Well spent money by the applicant and the developers, but bad spent money by the state of Colorado, probably.”
"City for Champions is a proposal to build an Olympic museum in southwest downtown Colorado Springs with an adjacent sports arena . . ."
"The proposal received the promise in December of an estimated $120.5 million over 30 years from the Economic Development Commission."
"A third-party analysis of the projects suggested City for Champions should only receive about $53 million in sales tax revenue incentives over 30 years."
"Ginsburg said at the time that the state was not in a position to be giving away that much revenue when funding levels hadn't been restored to education since the recent budget cuts."
Comments on Colorado's "Regional Tourism Act" corporate welfare, from coloradonewsagancy.com:
"Both parties were involved as well in getting the Regional Tourism Act passed in 2009. It authorizes the Economic Development Commission to grant state tax incentives to projects that might attract more tourists to the state."
"He described it as 'corporate welfare,' similar to the enterprise zones that were established many years ago in 'economically challenged' areas. Now they cover most of the state."
Boulder Weekly article on the public pension/corporate welfare nexus:
"When people in the general public hear about a PERA pension, many think that it’s an add-on to Social Security. But it is a substitute. PERA members do not earn Social Security. According to the Census Bureau, pension expenditures account for just 3 percent of all state and local government spending. If you want to find wasteful spending, look at corporate welfare."
"According to The New York Times, 'states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies in the form of subsidies and tax expenditures.' How about some austerity in that department?"
Time Magazine on corporate welfare:
"Sometimes called 'corporate welfare,' this pattern of legalized rip-offs has been widespread — yet little of the story seems to emerge in major news outlets."
"Meanwhile, 'a different kind of feeding frenzy is taking place' at the state and local level — where 'politicians stumble over one another in the rush to arrange special deals for select corporations.'”
"In theory, the giveaways create jobs. In practice, the theory is hogwash: 'Time’s investigation has established that almost without exception, local and state politicians have doled out tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to businesses that are in fact eliminating rather than creating jobs.'”
"Government should not be using tax dollars to help the rich get richer."
David Sirota on the public pension/corporate welfare nexus:
"This same fantastical story, portraying public employees as the primary cause of budget crises, is being told across the country. Yet, in many cases, we’re only being told half the tale. We aren’t told that the pension shortfalls in many locales were created because local governments did not make their required pension contributions over many years. And perhaps even more shocking, we aren’t told that while states and cities pretend they have no money to deal with public sector pensions, many are paying giant taxpayer subsidies to corporations — subsidies that are often far larger than the pension shortfalls."
"The wealthy corporate interests who bankroll politicians have for years convinced those politicians to not make required pension payments and to instead spend the cash on taxpayer subsidies — the kind that happen to go to those politicians’ donors." "Now that the bill for such irresponsibility is coming due, those bankrolled politicians are trying to protect the subsidies their donors so cherish by trying to balance budgets primarily through punitive measures against taxpayers and public employees."
Colorado's Enterprise Zone Corporate Welfare.
"A Denver Post review of the state's Enterprise Zone Program found that in 2010, companies filed documents stating they were owed more than $75 million in tax credits, chiefly for making a capital investment or hiring or training workers inside an enterprise zone. Those companies created a net 564 jobs, a cost of nearly $133,000 per job — a cost that has risen as the economy soured."
Denver Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, a Republican who co-sponsored the legislation that created the program when she was a state legislator, agreed:
"'I don't believe, at this point, that it's nearly as effective a tool as it was supposed to be,' Faatz said. 'It's just become corporate welfare.'"
Williams Field Services, Encana Oil and Gas Inc., and Pioneer Natural Resources — said the state owed them $65.4 million in tax credits."
"As a result, in two years, an estimated deferred tax credit bill of more than $45 million will hit a state still struggling with sluggish revenues, according to estimates by the Colorado Legislative Council. That amount, coupled with the normal, annual enterprise zone tax credit bill, could push the program's cost past $100 million for that year."
"That provision allowed accounting firm Deloitte & Touche to get $70,041 in tax credits for spending more than $2 million remodeling its downtown Denver office in 2007."
How is it that this situation does not even register with members of the Colorado Legislature? The Colorado Legislature is trying to escape contractual obligations of the State of Colorado, while squandering billions of taxpayer dollars on corporate welfare.
For decades, lobbyists at the Colorado Legislature have worked to put corporate welfare into Colorado statutes. This is a primary goal for scores of lobbyists in Colorado. They continue to hound Colorado legislators for more tax breaks. For evidence of this fact look no further than the current session of the Colorado General Assembly. (Perhaps the topic of a future article?)
Appendix – Excerpts from a University of Denver Analysis of Colorado Corporate Tax Breaks.
When one examines the extent of corporate tax breaks that benefit Colorado corporations it is not at all surprising that corporate lobbyists joined the effort to break Colorado PERA pension contracts in 2010.
From Colorado Tax Expenditures: A Compendium, University of Denver:
"Since 1987, the state has reduced the income tax rate twice and has adopted many new deductions and tax credits. The current income tax rate is 4.63 percent."
"The (Colorado) Department of Revenue does not track deductions on the corporate income tax return, so we do not have the ability to report on these tax expenditures."
"As with the individual income tax, the tax expenditures for corporations take the form of specific deductions and tax credits allowed by Colorado law."
"2009 Conservation Easement Corporate Tax Credit – $8.4 million – number of beneficiaries (96.)
2009 Enterprise Zone Corporate Tax Credit – $19.7 million – number of beneficiaries (1,534.)"
(Note that many Colorado sales tax exemptions were enacted in years during which the Colorado Legislature failed to meet its Colorado PERA actuarial required contribution [ARC.])
"The value of Colorado’s sales tax exemptions increased 42.6 percent between FY 2001-02 and FY 2007-08. Meanwhile, revenue from the sales and use tax grew just 24.1 percent."
"Exemptions totaling an estimated $43.2 million were enacted during this timeframe . . ."
"Colorado imposes a sales tax on relatively few services. The initial sales tax law included broad taxation of services, but these were eliminated from taxation in the early 1940s. This tax expenditure study does not consider the non-taxation of services as an exemption because they are not initially included in the tax base."
The Colorado Legislature has distinguished our state as the state with the least service taxation effort in the nation:
"The Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA) conducts periodic surveys of state policies on services taxation. (See http://www.taxadmin.org/fta/pub/services/btn/0708.html.) Colorado is listed as taxing only 14 services of the 168 included in the survey. Colorado’s number was the lowest of the states that impose a sales tax."
"The vendor’s discount is allowed to all businesses to compensate them for their costs of collecting the sales tax for the states."
"Colorado’s vendor discount percentage was the highest in the country in FY 2006."
"Several states do not allow retailers to retain any amount." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $66.1 million."
"Gasoline and other motor fuels are already subject to the state excise tax on these fuels. This does not preclude the state from imposing a sales tax. For example, sales taxes are imposed on alcoholic beverages which have an excise tax. At least eight other states impose a sales tax on top of the motor fuel excise tax. Estimated amount of expenditure: $179.2 million."
"Purchases of Machinery or Machine Tools Used in the Manufacturing." "This exemption was passed as an economic development and business cost reduction measure." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $77.4 million."
"Sales of Cattle, Sheep, Lambs, Poultry, Hogs, Goats, and Horse Breeding Stock." "The agricultural industry is also a favored industry that receives many tax breaks." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $61.5 million."
"Charges on Internet Access Service." "The 2000 legislation permanently extended the exemption." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $13.3 million."
"Sale of Food through Vending Machines." "The General Assembly in 1999 exempted all food and beverage purchases from vending machines from the state sales tax." "Normally, purchases of food intended for immediate consumption are taxable. Most vending purchases are for immediate consumption." "The vending machine industry is the prime beneficiary of the exemption." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $7.7 million."
"Sales of Newspapers, Preprinted Newspaper Supplements and Direct Advertising Materials." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $7.3 million for newspapers, $1.6 million for preprinted newspaper supplements, $1.5 million for direct advertising materials."
"Sales of Farm Equipment." "The exemption includes farm equipment sold for at least $1,000, as well as equipment with a value of at least $1,000 that is rented or leased." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $4.9 million."
"Special Fuel for Farm Vehicles." "The sale of special fuel (diesel fuel) for use in farm vehicles on a farm or ranch is exempt from the sales tax." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $2.9 million."
"Sales of Agricultural Compounds." "Agricultural compounds include insecticides, fungicides, growth compounds, and drugs and pharmaceuticals used in the care of livestock. The exemption also applies to sales of semen used for ranching purposes." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $2.8 million."
"Sales of Bags and Other Containers to Retailers and Food Vendors." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $2.3 million."
"Sales of Pesticides." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $1.7 million."
"Sales of Construction Materials to a Common Carrier by Rail and Sales of Railroad Capital Equipment." "These are separate exemptions for the railroad industry." "Estimated amount of expenditure: The Department of Revenue combined the amounts of these tax expenditures. The estimated amount of the combined expenditures is $1 million."
"Sales of Wireless Telecommunications Equipment." "The General Assembly stated that the imposition of sales and use tax on the sales of wireless telecommunications equipment would impede the development of the industry." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $0.9 million."
"Sales of Aircraft Component Parts." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $0.7 million."
"Sales of Biotechnology Equipment." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $0.6 million."
"Sales of Bingo and Raffle Equipment." "Estimated amount of expenditure: $0.1 million."
"Sales of Straw for Livestock and Poultry Bedding." "Estimated amount of expenditure: Less than $100,000."
"Sales of Dairy Equipment." "This exemption applies to the sales of dairy equipment for use at farm dairies." "Estimated amount of expenditure: Less than $100,000." "Number of beneficiaries: There are approximately 130 dairy farms in Colorado."
"The Department of Revenue could not disclose the value of two exemptions because only a few taxpayers were involved. The Department is prohibited from disclosing this information when the taxpayers could potentially be identified. These exemptions include: sales of aircraft used in interstate commerce by commercial airlines and sales of low-emitting vehicles."