Pew Finds States Barely Evaluate Tax Incentive Programs

Today The Pew Center on the States published an eye opening report entitled Evidence Counts: Evaluating State Tax Incentives for Jobs and Growth. First, kudos to Pew for conducting this report and asking important questions about state tax policy. The report starts with a refrain commonly seen here on Reason Foundation’s Out of Control policy blog, which is that state governments are strapped for cash and need to both get their fiscal houses in order and foster economic growth.

Many policymakers feel the way to foster economic growth is by supporting politically favored businesses—as opposed to promoting economic freedom—so they pass lavish tax incentive programs totaling billions of dollars across the country in hopes of turning things around. Today’s Pew report addresses a critical follow up question: Do states measure to see if their tax incentives are having an impact? Their answer? Barely.

No state was spared in this analysis because every state has at least one tax incentive program, and most have several. Tax incentives come in the form of tax credits, exemptions and deductions; financial assistance for relocation or workforce expansion; and a variety of other mechanisms. Pew reviewed almost 600 documents and interviewed over 175 government officials and policy experts to evaluate whether or not states gauge the effectiveness of their tax incentives, and if they do, Pew examined how well they do it.

Ultimately, the report finds:

… (N)o state regularly and rigorously tests whether (its tax incentives) are working and ensures lawmakers considers this information when deciding whether to use them, how much to spend, and who should get them. Often, states that have conducted rigorous evaluations of some incentives virtually ignore others or assess them infrequently. Other states regularly examine these investments, but not thoroughly enough.

Since no state met Pew’s expectations for the study, it became a battle to avoid last place. States are evaluated under two criteria, scope and/or quality of evaluation, and are split into three categories listed below.

  • 13 states are “leading the way,” which means they’re “meeting both criteria for scope of evaluation and/or both criteria for quality of evaluation.”
  • 12 states are achieving “mixed results,” which means they’re “meeting only one of the criteria for scope and/or quality of evaluation.”
  • 26 states (including the District of Columbia) are “trailing behind,” which means they’re “not meeting any of the criteria for scope or quality of evaluation.”

Below is an infographic provided with the report detailing where states rank and highlighting four recommended steps for state policymakers:

Evidence Counts Infographic, Pew Center on the States

For a detailed evaluation of state performance, see page 32 of the report available online here. For more, check out Reason Foundation’s Government Reform Tax and Budget Policy Research Archive and State Government Privatization Research Archive for ideas on ways that policymakers can turn things around in their states.