If there’s a chance for Maine to recover $6 million-$7 million each year that belongs in state coffers but regularly goes uncollected, state policymakers should jump at it.
Lawmakers could have that opportunity in the coming weeks as the Legislature’s Taxation Committee refines a bill aimed at recovering tax revenue from corporations that operate in Maine and claim profits overseas in known tax havens as a way to cut back on their tax obligations.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Adam Goode of Bangor, would add a list of more than 30 known tax havens — from Andorra to the Bahamas and Liberia to Samoa — to state tax law. Businesses filing Maine corporate income tax returns would have to report income from those jurisdictions, and they would have to pay Maine corporate income tax on a proportional share of their offshore income — the portion that can reasonably be attributed to sales and operations in Maine.
In 2012, Maine could have recovered $7.2 million in tax revenue with this law change, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Based on U.S. PIRG’s formula, the state would have taken in $5.3 million as a result of the change in 2013. U.S. PIRG estimated that the more than 20 states with corporate income reporting requirements similar to Maine’s could have recouped more than $1 billion in 2012.
It’s unlikely this new requirement would hurt the ability of Maine’s small businesses to grow and expand to overseas markets. The tax havens identified in Goode’s bill, LD 1120, are widely recognized as tax shelters — nations with no or low taxes where corporations commonly set up subsidiaries that claim profits but conduct little to no actual business activity. These aren’t Maine’s top international trading partners.
The collection requirements are most likely to affect those businesses that already do business in a large numbers of states and have the accounting sophistication and incentive to — legally — make it appear as if they’re raking in profits in low-tax island nations such as Barbados and Bermuda.
Maine has two model states to emulate in setting up these collection requirements: Montana has collected corporate income tax on tax haven income since 2003, and Oregon last year passed a law similar to Montana’s. Other states are weighing action in the absence of action at the federal level.
Montana’s former revenue director, Dan Bucks, told Minnesota lawmakers last year that the requirements didn’t impose an administrative burden on his department and didn’t generate complaints from corporate taxpayers. The only complaints came from nations identified in Montana law as tax havens, Bucks said.
The law didn’t drive corporate activity away from Montana. Between 2006 and 2010, based on tax filings, the number of multinational corporations doing business in Montana actually rose nearly 31 percent, according to Bucks. Montana saw a $7.2 million revenue benefit in 2010.
Oregon’s law will take effect this year. The bill there passed with near unanimous legislative support.
To be sure, the bill pending in Maine’s Legislature is far from the cure-all that will put an end to tax avoidance by large corporations and help the state realize all the tax revenues it’s due. But it’s a step toward helping the state institute some fairness in its tax collections. It could benefit from a mechanism that allows policymakers to regularly revisit the list of statutory tax havens.
In addition to attempting to patch a $40 million revenue sharing hole, lawmakers this winter are grappling with a nearly $80 million Medicaid-related budget shortfall and facing a need to make $34 million in additional cuts required to balance the current state budget.
When budgets are as tight as Maine’s, lawmakers should know that every dollar in forgone revenue has an impact in the form of cuts that need to be made or tax revenue that has to be raised from elsewhere.