Illinois could save $108 million with simple, proven method to curb offshore tax dodging, new study finds

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Dev Gowda

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Illinois taxpayers could save $108.3 million from a simple reform to crack down on offshore tax dodging, according to a new report entitled “Closing The Billion-Dollar Loophole: How States Are Reclaiming Revenue Lost to Offshore Tax Havens” released today by Illinois PIRG Education Fund. The reform, which has already been proven effective in Montana and passed in Oregon, would require companies to treat profits booked to notorious tax havens as domestic taxable income. 

“We know that two-third of the corporations registered in Illinois have zero income tax liability,” said Illinois State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, Majority Leader (D-25).  “Shouldn’t we make sure that companies pay their fair share?  Closing loopholes in the tax code will reduce tax bills for millions of Illinois families.”

“I support closing loopholes that allow corporations to avoid paying their fair share toward education, healthcare and public safety,” said Illinois State Rep. Greg Harris (D-13).  “All those who profit from a better educated and healthier workforce, safer communities and public infrastructure investments need to do their part in paying their taxes.”

“As I travel around our city and our state, I see firsthand the economic suffering,” said Illinois State Senator Mattie Hunter, Majority Caucus Whip (D-3).  “Over the years, numerous loopholes have been added to protect this business or that special interest. What we need is a fair tax system. In a time in which we have had to cut education funding and reduce basic services to the needy because of the state’s financial problems it would seem appropriate that we revisit these loopholes and ask why they still exist.”

“Last year, in the midst of a budget crunch, Illinois lost $1.538 billion as a result of the abuse of offshore tax loopholes,” said Dev Gowda, Advocate with Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “By modernizing our state’s tax code with this simple reform, we can keep millions of dollars in Illinois every year, while eliminating incentives for moving business offshore, leveling the playing field for Illinois businesses that compete with multinational corporations, and protecting regular taxpayers from picking up the tab for tax dodgers.”

For years, some corporations that do business here in Illinois have dodged taxes by booking profits made in America to tax havens like the Cayman Islands, that levy little to no tax. For example, Abbott Laboratories of Illinois maintains 107 subsidiaries in known tax havens.

This simple loophole closing uses information that multinational companies already report to states. Montana and Oregon simply treat profits that companies book to notorious tax havens as if it were domestic taxable income. The reform could be introduced anywhere, but is readily available to the 24 states and District of Columbia that have already modernized their tax codes by enacting “combined reporting,” which requires companies to report on how profits are distributed among jurisdictions so that they are taxed based on how much business activity they do in those places. All told, closing this tax haven loophole could save the remaining 22 states and District of Columbia over a billion dollars annually. 

Here in Illinois, the $108.3 million saved would be enough to cover the salaries for 3,000 Illinois teachers  or could also be used to eliminate hunting and fishing license fees and cut amusement licenses by over 90 percent without any loss of revenue.

“Tax dodging is not a victimless offense. When corporations skirt taxes, the public has to make up the difference. That means higher taxes for average taxpayers or cuts to public programs,” added Dev Gowda.

To ultimately put an end to offshore tax dodging – which costs the federal Treasury $90 billion annually and state governments $20 billion annually – federal action is required. But Montana and Oregon have shown that states can do more than sit on their hands waiting for Congress to act. The Montana experience (Oregon’s law, which passed last year with strong bipartisan support, will first take effect this year) has shown that this reform is simple to implement, and can play a real role in closing the state budget gap.

As of 2012, at least 82 of the top 100 publicly traded corporations in the U.S. used tax havens, according to an earlier U.S. PIRG study. American multinational companies collectively hold a staggering $1.9 trillion offshore. 

Here are some increasingly notorious ways that some of America’s largest corporations drastically shrink their tax bill:

Pfizer, the world’s largest drug maker, made 40 percent of its sales in the U.S. over the past five years, but thanks to their use of offshore tax loopholes they reported no taxable income in the U.S. during that time. The company operates 172 subsidiaries in tax havens and has $73 billion parked offshore which remains untaxed by the U.S., according to its own SEC filing. That is the second highest amount of money sitting offshore for a U.S. multinational corporation.

Google used accounting techniques nicknamed the “double Irish” and the “Dutch sandwich,” according to Bloomberg News. Using two Irish subsidiaries and one in Bermuda, Google helped shrink its tax bill by $3.1 billion from 2008 to 2010. 

Citigroup – a bank that was bailed out by taxpayers during the financial meltdown of 2008 – maintains 20 subsidiaries in tax havens and has $42.6 billion sitting offshore, on which it would otherwise owe $11.5 billion in taxes, according to its own SEC filing. Citigroup currently ranks eighth among U.S. multinationals for having the most money stashed offshore.

According to Dan Bucks, the former chief of Montana Director of Revenue who administered the law for the state from 2005 to 2013, “Montana’s tax haven law brings a measure of tax justice to small businesses, farmers and ranchers, retirees and wage earners who already pay taxes on income they earn in Montana.  Without the law, these Montanans would pay more to make up for taxes wrongly avoided by large corporations shifting their Montana income to tax havens.” 

You can download the report “Closing The Billion-Dollar Loophole: How States Are Reclaiming Revenue Lost to Offshore Tax Havens” here.

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Illinois PIRG Education Fund works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation.