How corporate tax loopholes compromise our future

by Don Simonson
April 15, 2015

The notion of “paying it forward” is a popular one, and while we may not think about our income taxes as a form of paying it forward, that’s exactly what we’re doing. The public works that we all depend upon today—roads and highways, schools and parks, telecommunications and electrical grids, even courts and prisons—were made possible in part by taxes paid by past generations. And the taxes we pay today won’t just go toward keeping these systems and infrastructure in good repair, they will also be needed to plan for our future and address unexpected issues and opportunities. This kind of long-term vision is the foundation upon which the United States was built.

Our public works and infrastructure don’t just improve our quality of life, they also make our modern economy possible. Savvy American corporations understand that they depend on this infrastructure and that they bear responsibility for helping to pay for it. As the new report Burning Our Bridges (Center for Effective Government) shows, much of our nation’s infrastructure needs could be covered simply by collecting income tax on the profits that several corporations have retained overseas.

Over the last several decades, U.S. corporations have been paying a much smaller share of the nation’s taxes. In the 1950s, corporate income taxes made up more than 25 percent of the tax money collected by the federal government. It has now shriveled to just over 10 percent. Here in New Mexico, corporate income tax revenue is expected to decline by 60 percent.

While their tax bills are down, corporate profits are at record highs. Tax breaks, loopholes, and creative accounting practices are at record highs, as well. The Burning Our Bridges report looks at the loophole that allows U.S. corporations to transfer their profits to other countries that have low tax rates (or no taxes at all). The report juxtaposes the rapid rise of the offshoring of American corporate profits with the plunge in federal funding for infrastructure.

Among some of the report’s disturbing findings:

  • Corporate offshoring tax abuse costs the U.S. Treasury an estimated $90 billion annually.
  • Bringing our nation’s aging infrastructure up to 21st century standards will cost $3.6 trillion over the next five years.
  • Our failure to make these investments will cost us $1.8 trillion a year in travel delays, water leaks and power outages.

Individuals and American businesses must bear the $1.8 trillion cost of inaction together if we allow our infrastructure to continue crumbling and failing. No business wants to lose money because of failing transportation or undependable power, but that is what will happen. Businesses understand it takes investment to ensure future profits and that includes investment in infrastructure. Infrastructure projects are appreciated by economists on the left as well as the right. The question remains: how do we pay for infrastructure, particularly when we’re collecting fewer dollars in income taxes?

New Mexico is facing this same conundrum. Despite the fact that New Mexico has granted hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax cuts over the last few years, special interests continue to lobby for more. In fact, in the just-concluded legislative session, a bill that would have cut business taxes passed the House, but not the Senate. The special interests want the Governor to call the Legislature back into a special session to pass those tax cuts. But that’s not all. They also want a capital outlay bill to fund public works projects passed as well.

We can’t have it both ways. If business groups want a state with reliable public works and infrastructure, they must be willing to make investments in it. We all have a duty to pay it forward for future generations. Forward thinking, profit-seeking businesses know they must pay their fair share to help keep our state’s and nation’s infrastructure sound.

Don Simonson, Ph.D., is treasurer for the Board of Directors of New Mexico Voices for Children and an emeritus professor of finance at UNM.