The Missouri Legislature has embarrassed itself once again on the tax credit issue, and this year’s failure to protect taxpayers from out-of-control tax credit spending was particularly excruciating. After the House and Senate conferenced and produced a suboptimal, but passable, tax credit compromise last Thursday, the legislation fell to a filibuster in the Senate on Friday — the last day of the session. The bill had both good and bad elements to it, capping and eliminating some credits (the good) while creating and extending others (the bad). In the net, it would have been an important first round of tax credit reform, albeit a small step.
But even that couldn’t get through the legislature. Like a college sophomore starting an essay the night before it’s due, the legislature produced tax credit legislation at the latest possible moment with the smallest margin for error available. In school, you don’t get a passing grade for “I started late and my computer crashed!” or “My dog ate my homework!” You don’t get an “A” for “effort.” You get an “F” for “failure.”
Missouri’s heavy use of tax credits encourages government to pick winners and losers in our economy, leading to rampant abuse, distorted economic priorities, and tightening budgetary realities. It’s maddening that practically nothing has gotten done on tax credits that have sapped the state’s coffers in recent years — and whose consequences led to more than $400 million in economic development tax credit issuances in fiscal year 2012 alone. Let’s be blunt here: the legislative dysfunction on the tax credit issue is an unmitigated state disgrace. This year I was hopeful that the legislature had finally gotten past its dark tax credit days, whose depths were deeply plumbed with 2011’s Aerotropolis boondoggle.
But apparently not. As someone who takes notes on the floor debates in the state House and Senate, I cannot tell you how many times I heard a legislator say “I don’t agree with tax credits, but . . .,” and then go on to explain why their pet tax credit needed to be extended or created. (This is especially common in the House.) Bona fide tax credit reform supporters and opponents can disagree civilly, but I have little tolerance or patience for policymakers who are all hat and no cattle on this issue — happy to carve out special tax credits for their special groups as they blithely gore other credits. That’s the worst kind of hypocrisy. Sen. Jolie Justus, a tax credit supporter, was right on Friday to criticize such behavior from the floor of the Senate, and I’ve independently noted the same sort of behavior Justus observed.
The legislative intransigence on tax credits is stomach churning. Coupled with the governor’s leadership void on basically every issue, the legislature’s inaction on tax credit reform is a shameful low note of the session. Taxpayers deserve better than this shabby treatment.