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Back in 2004, as the presidential contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry heated up, so-called NASCAR dads were identified as a potential key constituency in swinging the election results—and the NASCAR dad vote was courted accordingly by both sides. Entirely coincidentally, Congress chose to codify a four-year “NASCAR tax break” into law in 2004 as part of the American Jobs Creation Action of 2004, a corporate-gift-laden package pushed through just before the election. The idea was that corporations building race tracks and related facilities should be able to write off costs of these investments over seven years, a much shorter period than the likely lifespan of the tracks.
Although some members of Congress have attempted to make this tax break permanent since then (most notably former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s Fairness and Permanency Act of 2005) none have succeeded. But Congress has done what, in the eyes of the racing industry, is the next best thing: they’ve made the NASCAR break part of the “tax extenders,” the growing array of temporary, primarily corporate tax breaks that are routinely authorized by Congress for one or two years to obscure their long-term cost.
The International Speedway Corporation, which owns tracks in Daytona, Darlington and Watkins Glen, has benefitted handsomely from Congress’s largesse. In 2013, the company reported $73 million in U.S. profits, didn’t pay a dime in federal income tax but received a rebate of $8 million. In fact, over the past five years, ISC has enjoyed a federal tax rate of just 11 percent on $400 million in US profits.
ISC’s competitor Speedway Motorsports has been even more blessed: the company reports a 6.9 percent federal tax rate over the past five years on $287 million in U.S. profits, and reports zeroing out its federal income tax entirely in two of those years.
To be clear, if the federal corporate income tax is on the skids, the NASCAR tax break plays only a small direct part in this decline. The temporary extension of the tax break envisioned by Sen. Ron Wyden’s “Expiring Provisions Improvement Reform and Efficiency Act of 2014” would never cost more than $18 million a year. But the NASCAR giveaway is perfectly emblematic of the “death by a thousand cuts” that plagues the corporate tax: as long as the racetrack industry continues to enjoy this special privilege, it will be difficult for Congress to repeal tax breaks for other favored businesses. Any movement toward true corporate tax reform needs to start by rooting out even the smallest targeted corporate giveaway. Wyden’s extenders bill fails utterly to achieve this.