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Last year we wrote about an unwelcome mini-trend in state corporate tax policy: the creation of “neo-vouchers,” tax breaks for businesses that donate money to private-school scholarship funds. At the time, advocates for these neo-vouchers were making the (not very convincing) case that these programs shouldn’t be counted as government spending since the programs were quite specifically designed such that “the money would never go into public accounts, making it less susceptible to court challenges.” (The legal challenges are often based on the argument that most private schools are religious in nature and the First Amendment prohibits public funds from supporting religion.) In other words, the argument went, if a company gets a million dollar tax break for donating money to private school scholarship funds, those million dollars never got collected by the state, so they remain somehow private dollars, outside the grasp of the state government.
At the time, a number of states were contemplating enacting tax breaks of this kind, (available to individuals, corporations or both), and New Hampshire subsequently did enact neo-vouchers in June of 2012, overriding a veto by Governor John Lynch, and took effect in January 2013. The law gives New Hampshire corporations a tax credit equal to 85 percent of any contributions they make to private school foundations. The law’s authors also attempts to codify the “private dollars” argument and inoculate it against constitutional challenges by asserting (PDF), “[c]redits provided under this chapter shall not be deemed taxes paid.” If the money was never handed over to the public treasury, it was never the public’s money, right?
“The phrases ‘public funds,’ or ‘money raised by taxation,’ focuses the Court’s inquiry not on when the government’s technical ‘ownership’ of funds or monies arises, but on when, or at what point, the public’s interest fairly arises in how funds or monies are spent. The Court concludes that the interest of New Hampshire taxpayers in regard to challenging the legality of legislation such as the program at bar does not arise only after money is deposited in the New Hampshire treasury….”
The Court sensibly notes that if “money that would otherwise be flowing to the government is diverted” for private ends, that is essentially the same as direct government spending. This shouldn’t be news to anyone familiar with the “tax expenditure” concept—the notion that a $1 million tax break for a specific business is not meaningfully different from government writing a $1 million check to the same business.
Of course, it’s not hard to see that the neo-voucher idea is bad policy whether it’s constitutional or not. It erodes corporate tax revenues, takes money away from already-strapped public schools, and (in the case of the New Hampshire laws) sharply limits state policymakers’ oversight of the private schools receiving these state-funded scholarships. But the New Hampshire court’s finding underscores the absurdity of the fiction that neo-vouchers subsidized by corporate tax credits can be thought of as “private dollars” outside the purview of state governments—and offers a helpful precedent for advocates seeking to repeal neo-vouchers in other states.