Home » – Douglas Rooks: Business taxes gone with the wind – Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel

– Douglas Rooks: Business taxes gone with the wind – Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel

by Arifa Rana

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Over the last few decades, businesses have made off with the federal, state and local taxbase.
As we emerge from a pandemic that has scrambled supply chains, consumer habits and household budgets, we might devote some attention to creating better boundaries between business and public purposes, especially where taxation is concerned.
Deregulation has been the watchword since the Carter administration, and we’ve seen entire industries born and prosper without much, if any, public oversight.
Cellphones became the standard voice communication, with machinery that may (or may not) be the technological wonder of the 21st century. Ditto the World Wide Web, a government creation over which a few soon-to-be-gigantic corporations cornered the market almost before we knew what was happening.
On the other hand, unless you happen to stumble across it, you may not be able to call someone or communicate by text; all those numbers are private. For those under the age of 30: We used to have public phone directories.
As for your private information, gleaned from a billion web searches, it’s making a very few people very, very rich, even though you can’t say exactly what was taken, beyond a certain feeling of dread. Welcome to the Brave New World.
We’ve heard about deregulation, however. Rare is even the publicly spirited citizen who has the slightest inkling about how business interests absconded with the tax base — federal, state and local.
Sure, you know that the Trump-McConnell tax cut reduced corporate tax rates by more than 40%, which sounds like a lot of money, and is. Curiously, a Democratic Congress from a party pledged to oppose those cuts has been unable, thus far, to do anything to reverse them.
But what hardly anyone realizes is how far down it goes; much of the lost revenue has been extracted at the state, county and municipal levels.
It starts innocently enough. Maine’s brand-new independent governor, Angus King, in 1995 had the bright idea of forgiving new business equipment investment from property taxes, and landed a couple of computer chip plants as a result.
That seemed nice, and the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement (BETR) went on the books. But all the existing business equipment was taxable, which created a sense of unfairness and competitive imbalance.
Significant new investment had pretty much dried up anyway, so, after taking office in 2003, Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, had a decision to make: Phase out BETR, accurately described as a tax giveaway, or equalize the playing field.
Baldacci did something weirder. He kept BETR, which still costs a lot of state tax dollars, and added a new blanket exemption, with only partial reimbursement to towns and cities, which lost substantial revenue.
There are now three different forms of business equipment taxation, and nobody can say whether any of it actually improved outcomes.
No matter. There are many ways of feathering nests.
Take the big-box stores. Until the early 1990s, there were almost none in Maine. It was the last state among the lower 48 to have Walmarts, but then they arrived with a bang.
All got good tax deals, though some better than others. The capital, Augusta, then described as “under-retailed,” created tax incentive financing (TIF) to attract a new enclosed mall to rival South Portland’s expanse — an idea whose time had passed.
The Legislature even voted a state incentive, or STIF, though it was never used; there was no mall, and Walmart got the tax breaks instead.
Elsewhere, Cabela’s built a giant sporting good store in Scarborough, financing it almost entirely with tax breaks, as it had in many states elsewhere. (The details are in David Cay Johnston’s expose, the aptly titled “Free Lunch.”)
Now, with online shopping and the pandemic, many big-box stores are hurting and coming back for more tax breaks. These come packaged as abatement requests, and they’re inundating overmatched small town tax assessors.
According to a recent report, the state Board of Assessment Review is at least four years behind on appeals, so towns are between a rock and a hard place.
The basic theory is that if stores, even though built recently, aren’t producing the desired revenues, their assessed value should fall, and towns should take far less in taxes.
It’s a novel theory, but — in our day of coddling large taxpayers — hardly unusual.
Small businesses are, in large part, the losers in these tax-mining schemes. They lack the resources to exploit complicated programs or hire big law firms, and so end up paying more than many of their competitors.
“Shop local” has been a slogan for more years than I can remember. Putting it into practice might be one of the best things we can do for our communities, and ourselves.
Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comment at [email protected]
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