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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Time to comment on the GASB standards!

As I reported last month, the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) has proposed new rules that would require state and local governments to disclose subsidies in their financial reports. The proposal is now open for public comment from now until January 15, 2015.

Good Jobs First, which has long advocated for this change in accounting rules, has produced a detailed analysis and critique of the proposal. While any improvement in transparency is welcome, for governments' Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs, as they are called) to provide useful information to citizens and investors alike, they need to truly be comprehensive. The problem, as Good Jobs First points out, is that the way GASB has defined "tax abatements" (its rather odd choice for the broad category of economic development tax incentives -- odd because tax abatements per se make up only a subset of such incentives) leaves open the possibility that major categories of subsidies could be omitted altogether.

As Good Jobs First points out, GASB's specification that a "tax abatement" includes a government forgoing tax revenue means that tax increment financing (TIF) may not fall under the definition. The reason, as I have analyzed for the Sierra Club, is that a TIF recipient is legally deemed to have paid its property taxes in full, even though it individually benefits from the diversion of the incremental taxes. If someone has "paid" all her/his taxes, then how does one say that government has foregone the tax due? GASB has to make clear that it won't be blinded by the legalese here, but will instead be guided by what actually happens. One possibility would be to use phrasing seen in the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, that the government promises to abate taxes "in law or in fact." Using this phrase has the advantage that the Agreement has been adopted verbatim into U.S. law, that being the way that the United States "signed" the Uruguay Round agreements, rather than ratify them as a treaty.

Tax increment financing is a high value subsidy in the United States. TIF in California was generating $8 billion per year in tax increment by 2010. Even in Missouri, local governments adopt TIFs worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It would be very problematic if GASB allowed its revised Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) to ignore tax increment financing.

Other types of potentially excluded subsidies identified by Good Jobs First include diversion of employees' withheld income taxes (because the source for the subsidy is not the company's own taxes) and and sales tax diversions, such as Missouri's Transportation Development Districts (again because the source of the subsidy is not the company's own taxes). The latter total hundreds of millions of dollars in Missouri annually. Furthermore, Good Jobs First flags highly ambiguous provisions which could lead to excluding performance-based subsidies (because the subsidy occurs after the investment or hiring, not before) and Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILOTs (which in some state identify actual payments made by a recipient, but in Tennessee and perhaps others is simply the phrase used to describe property tax abatements).

I would suggest further that GASB require governments to cross-reference cash subsidies paid to companies in the "tax abatement" notes so the notes reflect all subsidies given to companies in one place. Cash subsidies already appear in CAFRs because they are on-budget, but grouping them with the more numerous off-budget tax-based subsidies will simplify research by bond analysts, academics, or anyone else, putting total subsidies in one convenient place within the CAFR.

In addition, Good Jobs First notes other deficiencies on the issue of transparency. There is no requirement for company-specific disclosure, which is especially important for large incentive packages but is best when universal. Furthermore, there is no requirement for governments to disclose their future commitments under multi-year tax agreements. This should be at least as troubling to bond analysts as it is to advocates for good subsidy policy, if not more so. It is impossible to tell the true fiscal position of a state or local government if it is allowed to hide large future liabilities.

Good Jobs First gives detailed instructions for commenting: The easiest way is to email your comments to Director of Research and Technical Activities, Project No. 19-20E, at What are you waiting for? It's time to comment!

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.