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Boston Capital

Call to audit tax breaks brings howls

Do the billions of dollars in tax breaks the state hands out to businesses always accomplish their intended objectives?

For that matter, is every business that gets a break really qualified for it in the first place? And do all of them follow through on whatever action was the point of handing out a credit or other tax benefit?

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Of course, you can check the “no” box for all of these questions. But just how good, bad, or fair many business tax incentives prove to be are very much open questions.

With that in mind, state Auditor Suzanne Bump is pushing legislation that would let her office see business tax returns in order to evaluate how the Department of Revenue oversees special benefits. She doesn’t have that power under existing laws.

Thanks to these efforts, Bump has attracted the unified scorn of business lobbies across the state. The heads of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation came together to write a letter to the chairmen of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Revenue, warning about the “chilling” implications of the auditor’s plans.

Business lobbies have a hard time agreeing on many things (see: minimum wage) but they all hate the idea of government bureaucrats sniffing around tax returns. In fact, they have some valid points. More on them shortly.

Oversight of business tax benefits and their effects is a good idea, broadly speaking. Bump was part of a special state Tax Expenditure Commission that published a report two years ago. Now she wants a much bigger role exclusively for her agency.

Bump describes that interest as a kind of auditing parallel to the work her office did reviewing the state Department of Transitional Assistance last year. At the time, that department was taking a lot of heat over the management of programs distributing things like welfare payments and food stamps.

In that case, beneficiaries were mostly poor people whose private information was shared with auditors to evaluate a state agency. Bump produced a report that identified $18 million in suspicious welfare payments.

Governor Deval Patrick gave it frosty treatment and, in the words of a Globe editorial, “treated her like a cabinet official gone rogue.” As is the case with the new business tax audit controversy, there were whispered complaints about grandstanding when it came to analyzing welfare payments.

Those comments were — and are — probably valid. But the auditor is supposed to be an independent voice representing all taxpayers, and Bump held her ground. That is what mattered most.

“I know the business community will bristle at this, but both of them are public policy issues to benefit select individuals and people in select circumstances and they are therefore both forms of assistance,” Bump says. “We single out the couple hundred dollars of food stamp abuse and want me to have the power to do that, while that same authority to scrutinize tax breaks that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars is denied me.”

This is where the details get a little messy. Bump says she would use the authority to review business tax returns to focus on the impact of incentives created with particular policy goals in mind — things like green energy and job creation. She says 36 states give their auditors powers like those she wants.

Some people question whether three dozen states — the vast majority of those that collect business tax returns — really give auditors powers like that. I can’t say for sure.

The combined business lobbies point out that there has been more disclosure about who gets what when it comes to tax advantages these days. True enough, but that information won’t tell you how well tax-break programs are overseen or whether they delivered expected value.

Those business groups opposing the proposed legislation say it would actually give the state auditor access to practically anyone’s tax return in its entirety.

“Providing any elected official with such broad access to private information sends a chilling signal to the business community,” they wrote to legislators.

It’s not clear to me exactly how far the proposed legislation — as written — would go when it comes to auditors and tax returns. Completely unfettered access to returns without some very clear public policy issue at hand is not something anyone should want.

But the objective Bump talks about — a real independent analysis of tax benefits that cost the state a lot of money — that's a job worth doing.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.
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