When Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act — aka the stimulus bill — last week, it included a last-minute addition by the Biden administration that could significantly impact the world of tax subsidies: In exchange for $194 billion in cash grants to states to help pay for pandemic-related costs, states will have to agree not to use the money to pay for tax cuts through 2024:
(A) IN GENERAL.—A State or territory shall not use the funds provided under this section or transferred pursuant to section 603(c)(4) to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue of such State or territory resulting from a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.
The logic behind the rule, which was inserted at the behest of the right wing of Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin, is obvious: They didn’t want states to go, Hey, cool, federal windfall, and then turn around and cut taxes, leaving themselves in the same budget hole they were in in the first place. The implications, though, could be huge. Since states will now have to refund the federal government an equal amount to what it doles out in new tax cuts, that makes tax cuts effectively twice as expensive: If you decide to dole out $1 billion to residents or companies in your state through lower taxes, the feds will send you a bill for $1 billion on top of it.
Regardless of what you think about tax rates, this might seem like great news for those opposed to sports stadium subsidies, since — assuming the provision is upheld by the courts, which is as yet uncertain — it will make it nigh-on impossible for the next four years to offer a team owner a pile of state tax breaks to juice their construction plans. Unfortunately, there are several major loopholes:
- Since stadium deals are generally for 30 years or more, a state can simply defer its tax breaks until they’re legal again: Instead of $10 million a year in tax credits from 2021-2050, how about $12 million a year in tax credits from 2025-2050? It would make financing stadium bonds slightly more tricky, but no billionaire worth their salt ever let a little short-term debt stand between them and a subsidy.
- There are tons of other ways states can subsidize sports projects (or non-sports projects) with resorting to tax breaks. They can just straight-up hand over cash to pay off construction bonds. They can turn over free or discounted land — or better yet, buy it and then turn it over for sports use, which will save the team owner on property taxes. (Since exempting publicly owned but privately used land from property taxes is standard just about everywhere in the U.S., this wouldn’t seem to be a “tax cut” so much as continuation of existing tax policy.) They can create a TIF district, collect at the same tax rates as always, then scrape off whatever’s considered “new” tax revenue and hand it over to the team owner. They can reduce rent or revenue-sharing payments, if the team is making any; or if not, they can institute negative rent and pay the team to play in its stadium. The possibilities really are endless.
- The new law says nothing at all about city or county tax breaks, which make up a large portion of sports tax subsidies. So not only can a municipal government agree to cut its own taxes on behalf of a sports project, there wouldn’t appear to be anything stopping a state from sending the city a check to cover its tax breaks and passing along the cost to the state treasury, a la the Detroit Red Wings Rube Goldberg device of a few years back.
That’s all off the top of my head, and I am not a tax lawyer, and the actual tax lawyers haven’t had time to delve into the new law’s inner workings yet, so it’s possible some of the above could change. But at first glance, it certainly appears that the tax-cut clawback law will be less of an obstacle to stadium (and other) special subsidies and more of a minor speed bump. If you want somewhere to be optimistic, it at least probably means four years before states can institute, say, new tax credits to try to lure film and TV shoots — though if all the existing tax credits can remain in place, that’s not much of a silver lining. Sorry, I tried to be optimistic for a whole sentence, but it’s hard, man.