Why Does Pfizer Want to Renounce Its Citizenship?

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After years of being a bad corporate citizen, Pfizer is now seeking to renounce its U.S. citizenship entirely by reincorporating in Britain as part of its hoped-for purchase of British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. While the deal would allow Pfizer to claim on paper that it’s a British company, it would not require the company to move its headquarters abroad.  In fact, the main effect would be to allow Pfizer to reduce its taxes to an even lower level than they already are.

While the audacity of this newest maneuver by Pfizer is striking, it’s not shocking. The company has a history of engaging in offshore income-shifting games. Over the past five years for example, the company has reported that it lost about $14.5 billion in the United States, while at the same time it earned about $75.5 billion abroad. Is the United States just a really bad market for Pfizer? It’s unlikely given that Pfizer also reports that around 40 percent of its revenues are generated in the United States. The more realistic explanation is that Pfizer is aggressively using transfer pricing and other tax schemes to shift its profits into offshore tax havens.

Despite its already low U.S. taxes, Pfizer has been aggressive in pushing Congress to preserve and expand loopholes in the corporate tax code. Over the past five years, Pfizer spent more than $72 million lobbying Congress. It reports that “taxes” are second only to “health” among issues it lobbies on. In addition to its own efforts, Pfizer has helped sponsor four different business groups (Alliance for Competitive Taxation, Campaign for Home Court Advantage, LIFT America and the WIN American Campaign) pushing for lower corporate taxes.

Over the years, Pfizer’s aggressive lobbying efforts have taken billions of dollars out of the U.S. Treasury, at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. Its biggest coup was the passage of a repatriation holiday (PDF) in 2004, for which it was the largest single beneficiary and ultimately saved the company a whopping $10 billion. On the state and local level Pfizer has also done very well for itself, receiving over $200 million in subsidies and tax breaks over the past couple decades.

What makes Pfizer’s tax avoidance efforts particularly galling is how it’s also happy to take full advantage of U.S. taxpayer assistance via government spending. From 2010 to 2013 for instance, Pfizer sought and received $4.4 billion in contracts to perform work for the federal government. On top of this, Pfizer has directly benefited from taxpayer funded research to develop drugs like Xelijanz, which was first discovered by government scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Finally, it’s worth remembering that without Medicaid and Medicare, Pfizer would lose out on billions from customers who would be unable to afford to purchase their drugs.

All this begs the questions of why Pfizer thinks it is worthy of profiting from taxpayer-funded research, corporate tax subsidies, and federal health care spending,  but feels no corporate responsibility to pay its fair share of U.S. income taxes.

Congress, should it decide to do so, can easily put a stop to Pfizer’s offshore shenanigans. To prevent Pfizer, as well as companies like Walgreens, from relocating to another country to avoid taxes, Congress could pass a proposal by the Obama administration that would limit the ability of domestic companies to expatriate. It would nix any repatriation if a company continues to be controlled and managed in the United States or if at least 50 percent of the shareholders stay the same after the merger. To address Pfizer’s broader tax dodging, Congress should also require that companies pay the same tax rate on both their offshore and domestic profits, by ending deferral of taxes on foreign profits.

Photo of Pfizer Pill via Waleed Alzuhair Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Plan to Make Illinois Tax System More Progressive Stalls

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At a time when many states have toyed with the idea of paring back their progressive income taxes, Illinois policymakers this year showed real interest in a progressive change.

The state currently has one of the nation’s most regressive tax systems, applying the same income tax rate to minimum wage workers and millionaires. A proposal (The Fair Tax) would have authorized lawmakers to devise a progressive, graduated income tax structure with higher rates applied to higher income levels. (Note: this Fair Tax proposal is very different from the so-called “fair tax” proposals in other states designed to dismantle state tax systems by eliminating income taxes and replacing their revenue with increased sales taxes.)

Unfortunately, the Senate adjourned Tuesday without voting on this transformative proposal. Lawmakers had appeared poised to take up legislation that, if passed by a supermajority in both the House and Senate, would have allowed voters to amend the state’s constitution to permit a more progressive tax structure.

This battle led by Sen. Don Harmon was especially timely because the state’s temporary 5 percent income tax rate is set to fall to 3.75 percent in 2015. In fact, Sen. Harmon went one step beyond just urging lawmakers to cast their vote in favor of a graduated income tax and actually developed his own proposal whereby taxpayers would see their first $12,500 of taxable income taxed at 2.9 percent. Taxable income between $12,500 and $180,000 would be taxed at 4.9 percent, as opposed to the current 5 percent rate. And taxable income over $180,000 would be taxed at 6.9 percent. 94 percent of Illinoisans would not see their taxes go up under his plan, and no Illinoisan with income under $200,000 would see a tax increase.

In the wake of this setback, progressive policymakers and advocates are now setting their sights on 2016 as the next opportunity to put the Fair Tax proposal before voters. The campaign for the Fair Tax was spearheaded by a A Better Illinois Coalition . The Coalition released a statement saying that despite their obvious disappointment, “the fight for a Fair Tax – which enjoys the support of 77% of Illinois voters – is far from over.  Our statewide grassroots campaign, including more than 250,000 petition signatures and the support of more than 750 small businesses, faith leaders, labor and education groups, and civic and community organizations from every corner of the state brought us closer to implementing a Fair Tax in Illinois than ever before.”

Despite this setback there is, in fact, plenty Illinois lawmakers can do right now to raise needed revenues in a fair way. Preserving temporary income tax increases, possibly with low-income offsets, can achieve the same goals as the stalled effort at constitutional reform.

Tax justice advocates should take these words of Abraham Lincoln to heart: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.” The Illinois tax reform debate is hardly over and this week’s activities should only act to encourage and shore up the resolve of advocates in Illinois and elsewhere.

Rep. Dave Camp’s Latest Tax Gambit Is “Fiscally Irresponsible and Fundamentally Hypocritical”

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Fresh off a two-week spring recess, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp today shepherded through six bills that would provide corporate tax breaks at a whopping cost of more than $300 billion over the next decade.

The tax breaks are a subset of the temporary business tax breaks or “tax extenders.” Given the nation’s many other pressing priorities, its nothing short of outrageous that the committee, on a party-line vote, approved this package of corporate giveaways.

Rep. Sander Levin, the committee’s ranking Democrat, called this approach “fiscally irresponsible and fundamentally hypocritical” given House leaders’ refusal to extend emergency unemployment assistance or make permanent tax breaks that will help working people with children, including recent EITC and child tax credit expansions.

“To say Republican action today is hypocritical is a serious understatement,” Levin said. He and his Democratic colleagues voted against each of the measures, while Camp’s Republican colleagues voted in favor of each.

The party-line vote was not a certainty given many of the committee’s Democrats are sponsors of the bills. Ultimately, many Ways and Means Democrats said although they support making certain business tax breaks permanent, they oppose doing so in a way that provides hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit-financed tax breaks for businesses while the House refuses to address the needs of the unemployed and working people with children. The unified opposition may mean the full House and Senate may think twice before following Camp’s approach.

Citizens for Tax Justice has explained that the tax breaks made permanent by this legislation demonstrate fealty to corporations over ordinary people and are simply bad policy.

A recent CTJ report describes significant problems in the research credit that should be addressed before it is extended or made permanent. CTJ and other organizations have also called upon Congress to allow the expiration of two breaks that encourage offshore tax avoidance: the so-called “active financing exception” and “look-through rule” for offshore subsidiaries of American corporations.

The Senate Finance Committee has taken a different approach. Instead of choosing certain temporary tax breaks to make permanent, it voted earlier this month to extend the entire package of 50-plus expiring provisions (often called the “tax extenders”) for two years, without offsetting the cost. CTJ has explained that this approach is also deeply problematic.

Some of the tax extenders should be dramatically reformed, and some should be allowed to expire altogether. None should be enacted unless Congress offsets the costs by repealing other tax breaks or loopholes that benefit businesses.

State News Quick Hits: Potential Fracking Tax in Pennsylvania, and Va. Says No to House of Cards

The natural gas extraction industry’s free ride in Pennsylvania may finally be coming to an end. Five years after natural gas companies entered the state to take advantage of the Marcellus Shale, legislators are considering an extraction tax (aka, a severance tax) to make up for lower than expected revenues and an otherwise tight budget. Drillers currently face what’s called an “impact fee,” but it raises little revenue, especially when compared with other energy-producing states. While a severance tax is still far from becoming law (the Governor still needs to be convinced, for example), some savvy observers are convinced the coming debate will not just be idle talk.

For years, state lawmakers have been falling all over themselves trying to get Hollywood to come to their states to make movies.  But even Virginia, which has a film tax credit, recognizes that not every potential tax credit deal is a good investment for their economy.  When Maryland decided not to expand its film tax credit, Netflix’s “House of Cards” began looking into whether it should film somewhere else.  But Virginia’s Film Office thinks the show is asking for too many incentives without offering enough in return.

John Archibald of the Birmingham News had a great column last week on Alabama’s tragic policy of taxing the poor deeper into poverty. As he explains, “We like to imagine Alabama a low-tax state…. But it’s not a low tax state if you’re broke.” This is because Alabama relies heavily on the regressive sales tax, making the state’s tax system one of the most upside-down in the country. Archibald’s column comes a few weeks after a similarly powerful editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser, arguing that while state taxes may be low, public investments are suffering as a result.

Starting Thursday May 1, Amazon.com will finally begin collecting sales taxes on purchases made by Florida residents.  As a result, the percentage of Americans living in a state where Amazon must collect sales tax will increase from 60 to 65 percent.  Until the U.S. House of Representatives acts on the Marketplace Fairness Act, however, enforcement of state sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet will not be possible on a comprehensive basis.

Lawmakers Will Move Tuesday to Approve Hundreds of Billions in Business Tax Breaks — and Still No Help for the Unemployed

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Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, will take the first step to make permanent certain business tax breaks on Tuesday, when his committee marks up legislation that would increase the deficit by $300 billion over the coming decade.

The provisions are among the “tax extenders,” the package of tax breaks that mostly benefit businesses and that Congress extends every couple of years. We have pointed out that even if Congress simply continues its practice of extending these tax breaks for another two years, it would signal that these corporate tax breaks will likely be with us forever — which the Congressional Budget Office projects would increase the deficit by $700 billion over the coming decade. Camp’s move to make certain of the tax extenders permanent would make that unfortunate outcome even more likely.

These bills should be rejected for several reasons.

1. It is plainly hypocritical for Congress to provide hundreds of billions in deficit-financed tax breaks for corporations while refusing to help the long-term unemployed, ostensibly because of the impact it would have on the federal budget.

2. One of the provisions Camp would make permanent is the research tax credit, which needs major reform before it can come close to carrying out its goal of encouraging businesses to conduct research.

3. Two other provisions Camp would make permanent are tax breaks that facilitate offshore tax avoidance by corporations —the “active finance exception” and “CFC look-through rule.”

Each of these three reasons to reject the legislation is discussed below.

1. Congressional Hypocrites Would Provide Deficit-Financed Tax Breaks for Businesses, Nothing for the Unemployed

It is plainly hypocritical for Congress to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit-financed tax breaks for corporations while refusing to extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) to the long-term unemployed, which expired in December, ostensibly because of the impact it would have on the federal budget. Since the 1950s, Congress has always continued such help until the long-term unemployment rate fell lower than it is today. As the Coalition on Human Needs explains

EUC has long been considered an emergency program that does not have to be paid for by other spending reductions or revenue increases. Five times under President George W. Bush, when the unemployment rate was above 6 percent, unemployment insurance was extended without paying for it and with the support of the majority of Republicans.

Now many lawmakers are establishing a new norm: All direct spending must be paid for, even if it’s temporary emergency legislation to help families of unemployed workers, but spending in the form of tax cuts for businesses does not have to be paid for. The bill approved by the Senate before the April recess to extend EUC includes provisions that offset the cost. (House Speaker John Boehner has nonetheless refused to bring the bill to a vote in the House.)

2. Congress Should Not Make Permanent the Research Credit before Reforming It

The most costly of the bills that will be marked up Tuesday would make permanent the research credit, which is supposed to encourage research but actually subsidizes activities no one would call research, and activities that companies would do in the absence of any subsidy.

A report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains that the research credit needs to be reformed dramatically or allowed to expire. One aspect of the credit that needs reform is the definition of research. As it stands now, accounting firms are helping companies obtain the credit to subsidize redesigning food packaging and other activities that most Americans would see no reason to subsidize. The uncertainty about what qualifies as eligible research also results in substantial litigation and seems to encourage companies to push the boundaries of the law and often cross them.

Another aspect of the credit that needs reform is the rules governing how and when firms obtain the credit. For example, Congress should bar taxpayers from claiming the credit on amended returns, because the credit cannot possibly encourage research if the claimant did not even know about the credit until after the research was conducted.

As it stands now, some major accounting firms approach businesses and tell them that they can identify activities the companies carried out in the past that qualify for the research credit, and then help the companies claim the credit on amended tax returns. When used this way, the credit obviously does not accomplish the goal of increasing the amount of research conducted by businesses.

3. Congress Would Make Permanent Two Tax Provisions that Facilitate Offshore Tax Avoidance

The general rule is that American corporations are allowed to “defer” (indefinitely delay) paying U.S. taxes on offshore profits that take the form of “active” income (what most of us think of as payment for selling a good or service) as long as those profits are officially offshore. The general rule also is that American corporations cannot defer paying U.S. taxes on “passive” income like dividends or interest on loans, because passive income is extremely easy to shift from one country to another for the purpose of tax avoidance.

Two of the provisions that would be made permanent on Tuesday poke holes in this general rule.

One of these provisions is the “active financing exception” but ought to be remembered as the “G.E. loophole.” In a famous story reported in the New York Times in 2011, the director of General Electric’s 1,000-person tax department literally got on his knees in the office of the House Ways and Means Committee as he begged for an extension of the “active finance exception,” which allows G.E. to defer paying any U.S. taxes on offshore profits from financing loans.

G.E. publicly acknowledges (in the information it provides to shareholders by filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission) that the company relies on the active finance exception to reduce its taxes. 

The other provision is the “look-through rule” for “controlled foreign corporations,” (for the offshore subsidiaries of American corporations). The look-through rule allows a U.S. multinational corporation to defer paying U.S. taxes on passive income, such as royalties, earned by an offshore subsidiary if that income is paid by another related subsidiary and can be traced to the active income of the paying subsidiary.

The closely watched Apple investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations a year ago resulted in a report — signed by the subcommittee’s chairman and ranking member, Carl Levin and John McCain — that listed the CFC look-through rule as one of the loopholes used by Apple to shift profits abroad and avoid U.S. taxes.


Walgreens May Become a “Foreign” Company to Avoid Taxes — But an Obama Proposal Could Stop Them

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If a group of Walgreens shareholders get their way, the drug retailer will restructure itself to become — on paper — a foreign company for tax purposes. It’s likely that nothing would actually change in terms of Walgreen’s business or management. The scheme is a simply a gimmick to avoid taxes. The bad news is that the laws that are supposed to to prevent this kind of tax avoidance are weak, and Congress, particularly its Grover Norquist-directed contingent, has shown no inclination to address this sort of problem. The good news is that the Obama administration has at least proposed a reform that probably would prevent this sort of corporate tax avoidance.

In some parts of the United States, there is a Walgreens every few miles or even every few
blocks, and it’s difficult to think of a company that seems more American. But tax rules don’t always conform with common sense.

Walgreens recently acquired nearly half of the Swiss-based pharmacy chain Alliance Boots, and could acquire a majority of the company. A group of hedge funds that own almost 5 percent of Walgreens’s stock demand that it use the merger to officially become a “foreign” corporation for tax purposes. This type of maneuver is often referred to as a corporate “inversion.”

When a corporation renounces its Americanism, little or nothing about the way the company does business or is managed changes, and yet the company can claim to be a brand new entity incorporated in another country. For example, a U.S. corporation can merge with a foreign corporation resulting in a new company that is 80 percent owned by shareholders of the original U.S. corporation and still be treated as a foreign corporation for tax purposes. This is true even if the new company is managed and controlled in the United States.

Some anti-tax types argue that the problem facing Walgreens and other American corporations is that the United States taxes both domestic and offshore profits, and that this is unfair. But that’s neither true nor the real motivation behind corporate inversions.

U.S. taxes levied on American corporations’ offshore profits are extremely minimal or non-existent in practice. One reason for this is that American corporations get a tax credit equal to any taxes they pay to foreign governments. Another reason is that companies are allowed to “defer” U.S. taxes until they officially bring their offshore profits to the U.S.

The real reason American corporations sometimes invert is that it makes it easier to avoid U.S. taxes on their U.S. profits. Corporate inversions are often followed by “earnings-stripping,” which makes U.S. profits appear, on paper, to be earned offshore. The American part of the company is loaded up with debt that is owed to the foreign part of the company, so that interest payments officially reduce the American profits, which are effectively shifted to the foreign part of the company.

Congress can tighten up rules to prevent all this from happening. As CTJ has explained, under a reform included in President Obama’s most recent budget plan, a company that results from the merger of a U.S. corporation and a foreign corporation will be taxed as an American company if more than half its voting stock is owned by shareholders of the original U.S. corporation. That’s far more reasonable than the current rule, which would allow the resulting company to pretend that it’s a “foreign” corporation for tax purposes even if 80 percent of its voting stock is still owned by the shareholders of the original U.S. corporation.

Under another part of the Obama proposal, the resulting company would be taxed as an American corporation (regardless of how much the ownership has or has not changed) if it has substantial business in the U.S. and is managed and controlled in the U.S.

The President’s budget also includes a proposal to make it more difficult for all U.S. corporations (not just those involved in inversions) to engage in earnings stripping.

It’s impossible to know what Walgreens will do. Maybe it will be too ashamed to renounce its ties to the U.S., or fear customer blow back. But Congress should enact common sense reforms to ensure that it and other American corporations don’t avoid U.S. taxes simply by pretending to be foreign companies.

Photo via Kai Morgener Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Trend Toward Higher Gas Taxes Continues in the States

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New Hampshire’s gas tax will be increasing for the first time in nearly 23 years under a bill that will soon be signed into law by Gov. Maggie Hassan.  This increase comes on the heels of gas tax increases or reforms enacted in six states and the District of Columbia last year.

The 4.2 cent increase won’t be enough to offset the loss in purchasing power that the state’s 18 cent tax has seen over these last two decades, but it will help generate some long-overdue revenue for transportation infrastructure.  Unfortunately, New Hampshire lawmakers chose not to allow the tax rate to rise alongside inflation in future years, as is the case in 18 states today.  But proposals for this kind of reform are still alive this year in at least three states:

Delaware: Governor Jack Markell continues to make the case for raising his state’s gas tax by 10 cents and linking the tax rate to inflation in future years.  The plan has received a lukewarm reception in the legislature where lawmakers are up for reelection this year, but Markell is right when he describes the basic problem with not adjusting the tax for inflation: “It’s not political. It’s not philosophical. It’s math.”

Iowa: It seems that a gas tax increase is always just out of reach in the Hawkeye State, but some lawmakers were recently encouraged to hear that Governor Terry Branstad thinks reforming the tax so that it grows alongside gas prices is a good idea.  While a gas tax increase or reform in Iowa is unlikely this year, it’s not impossible.

Michigan: The Republican majority in Michigan’s House recently unveiled a plan that would increase the state’s diesel tax and allow for future gas and diesel tax increases tied to the price of fuel.  The plan’s proposal to redirect millions in revenue away from the general fund and toward roads and bridges is troubling, but the fact that Michigan has an all-year legislative session means that lawmakers have plenty of time to work out these kinds of problems before voting on gas tax reform.

Missouri Lawmakers Relentless in Quest to Cut Taxes for the Wealthy

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The anti-taxers are at it again in Missouri. The House and Senate for the second time in as many years passed a bill that would lower taxes on the wealthiest Missourians and reduce taxes on business income.

Fully aware Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon doesn’t support these irresponsible cuts, the Republican lawmakers behind this plan aren’t resting on their laurels; they’re working to drum up enough support to override an anticipated veto.

This tax cut package (Senate Bill 509) would eliminate the state’s top income tax bracket and introduce a 25 percent deduction for business income; It also includes a token exemption for low-income Missourians. A Missouri Budget Project report, using data from our partners at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), found that the poorest 20 percent of Missourians would see a tax cut of just $6 while the top one percent of families would see an average tax cut of $7,792.

Interestingly, at least one legal expert notes the bill’s language may be fatally flawed by not just eliminating the top tax bracket (which starts at $9,000), but actually doing away with taxes on income over $9,000. Such a drafting error would effectively end the state’s income tax. It would also balloon the bill’s price tag from $620 million to $4.8 billion.

The Governor hasn’t yet vetoed the bill and is instead allowing time for more administrative review. But his feelings on the bill are pretty clear. In a statement released Tuesday he said, “With the simple stroke of my pen, this bill would separate Missouri from every state in the nation – as the only one unable to meet even the most basic obligations to its people.”

This isn’t the first time Missouri legislators have tried to give the wealthy a tax break at the expense of everyone else.  In 2013, Gov. Nixon vetoed a regressive tax cut package passed by Republican lawmakers that would have cost the state $700 million annually. In his veto message the Governor called the legislation an “ill-conceived, fiscally irresponsible experiment that would inject far-reaching uncertainty into our economy, undermine our state’s fiscal health and jeopardize basic funding for education and vital public services.”

Last year, in a victory for tax justice advocates, his veto withstood an attempted override by the legislature.  Stay tuned as this debate over bill language, state funding, and fairness play out once again.

State News Quick Hits: Tax Breaks for Expensive Artwork and Apple Inc.

Have you recently purchased a multimillion dollar piece of artwork (say, a $142 million Francis Bacon)? If the answer is yes, we have a great tax loophole for you. Rather than immediately bringing the piece of art home with you — in which case you would be expected to pay use or sales tax on the purchase — first loan it for a few months to a museum in a state that doesn’t have a use or sales tax. Museums in these states aren’t complaining about this “first use” exemption, which is found in many state tax codes, but taxpayers across the country should be. The buyer of the aforementioned Bacon painting will likely save $11 million in Nevada use tax by loaning it for 15 weeks to a museum in Oregon.

The most recent development in the income tax fight in Illinois comes from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who ruled out a city income tax last week. Emanuel faces serious pension gaps in his municipal budget, which is why he is pushing for a $250 million increase in property taxes. But some, including Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and Center for Tax and Budget Accountability Executive Director Ralph Martire, think the mayor’s position is misguided and that a city income tax is worth considering. Regular Quick Hit readers will find Zorn’s and Martire’s arguments familiar: unlike property taxes, income taxes can be easily targeted at those most able to pay. ITEP’s own Matt Gardner was quoted in Zorn’s column, rebuffing arguments on the other side that a city income tax will drive people out of the city and kill jobs.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a pair of business tax cuts into law last week. In addition to a sales tax exemption for electricity used by manufacturers, she also signed a $5 million tax break that many expect will only benefit Apple, Inc. Regular readers may recall that Apple currently has billions of dollars stashed in foreign tax havens.

Oklahoma lawmakers have gone over a quarter century without approving an increase in their state’s gasoline tax, and have instead opted to fund transportation by redirecting money away from other areas of the budget. But that redirection of funds may have gone too far, as the Oklahoma Policy Institute explains that “Oklahoma’s transportation spending has grown considerably at a time when almost every other area of public services has seen cuts or flat funding.” Now lawmakers, at the urging of 25,000 Oklahomans who recently rallied at the state capitol, are considering legislation that would boost funding for schools by scaling back the amount of general fund money being spent on transportation.

Property Tax Loans Another Frontier for Predatory Lenders

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Unscrupulous lenders in Texas are takingadvantage of homeowners struggling to pay their property taxes–a practice Texas lawmakers could halt by providing relief to homeowners once property taxes reach a certain percentage of income.

This form of predatory lending has nothing to do with more common payday advances, tax refund anticipation loans, or auto title loans. Instead, property tax lenders pay off homeowners’ delinquent taxes and allow them to repay the loan over a set period. These lenders take advantage of consumers much in the same way as other predatory companies by offering loans at usurious rates and entangling customers in a web of debt that most can ill afford.

The industry, not surprisingly, claims it provides a service to homeowners facing financial pressure from rising property taxes, but as Robert Doggett, an attorney for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, explained, these borrowers are “jump[ing] from a frying pan into a fire.” Property tax loans, which totaled $224 million in 2011, give the lender first priority at recouping its money at foreclosure.

“Low” Taxes Cost

Texas prides itself on being a low-tax state. But in truth its regressive tax structurerequires fairly high tax payments from poorer residents. The poorest 20 percent of Texans pay more of their income in taxes than the rest of the state’s population, and they pay more than low-income residents in all but five states. This is in part due to high sales and property taxes.

Just as payday loans are not the solution to persistent poverty and the plethora of low-wage jobs, property-tax loans are not a solution for homeowners struggling to pay property taxes.

Property-tax lenders are a business foremost concerned with profitability. They don’t have consumers’ best interest in mind. While a local government may be willing to put a resident on an installment plan to prevent foreclosure — and all the negativeeconomic and social costs that come with it — private property tax lenders are all too happy to scare consumers into predatory loans and push homes into foreclosure.

State authorities are trying to regulate the industry, and state lawmakers have recently passed legislation that would give homeowners better options for paying off delinquent property taxes. But one simple way to prevent the root cause of the problem has been overlooked: a property tax circuit breaker.

Policy Solution

Property tax circuit breakers provide a tax credit to homeowners (or, in some cases, renters) once property taxes reach a certain percentage of their income. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have some form of the credit in their tax code, but not Texas. In fact, Texas Gov. Rick Perry vetoed legislation in 2009 that would have required the state comptroller merely to study the feasibility of a circuit breaker. Circuit breakers protect low- and moderate-income taxpayers from unaffordable property tax increases, which helps avoid tax delinquency and the subsequent need for property tax loans. Texas would be wise to consider such a policy.