Every year, New Jersey gives away millions, perhaps billions, of dollars through tax credits, deductions, and exemptions collectively known as tax expenditures.
The tax breaks include everything from exempting employee-retirement-fund contributions from income taxes to special tax credits for certain corporations.
While many - and perhaps even all - might advance worthy goals, no one knows how much New Jersey is spending through these tax expenditures.
That is because the state is one of nine that offer no public accounting of such spending.
Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, wants that to change.
Buono introduced a bill earlier this month to require that the governor's annual budget message include a state tax-expenditure report, including a list of the state's tax credits, deductions, and exemptions, and how much each costs the state. She said the measure was especially crucial now, in light of the state's dire fiscal situation.
"It's another form of spending, and it's revenue forgone," Buono said. "It doesn't receive the level of scrutiny that direct expenditures do. The danger is most of these are written into the tax code where they are continued indefinitely, unlike annual appropriations, which usually last one year."
Buono said she planned to post the bill, which she said was based on the best practices identified in a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on tax-expenditure reports, for discussion when the budget committee meets on Jan. 4.
Most other states and the federal government produce tax-expenditure reports, though they vary widely in quality.
The reports help lawmakers and the public keep track of forgone revenues that otherwise might get lost in the shuffle of the tax code.
The tax breaks can amount to big money: Washington state has reported a loss of nearly $99 billion a year in state and local tax expenditures and Oregon nearly $29 billion, according to Mary Forsberg, interim president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, which has argued for years that New Jersey should require a tax-expenditure report. Pennsylvania's most recent tax-expenditure report runs more than 100 pages.
As states throughout the country try to replace dramatically fallen revenue, lawmakers in at least one, Oklahoma, have targeted tax breaks as a potential source of new funding. Among the legislators already in support of Buono's bill is Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer).
Turner sponsored a bill, signed by Gov. Corzine in November 2007, to require the state treasurer to produce an annual report with information on development subsidies, a small subset of the information Buono's bill seeks.
But the treasurer has never produced the report required by the law, Turner and Buono both say. The office of Treasurer R. David Rousseau did not return calls for comment Thursday.
Turner said she wrote to the treasurer in August and again Wednesday asking about the report but had received no response.
"It is very disappointing as well as frustrating when there are laws on the books that are being ignored, and the treasurer doesn't seem to think that it's important to comply with something as important as millions and millions of taxpayer dollars that are being given to corporations with no accountability," Turner said. "I think taxpayers have a right to know exactly how their dollars are being spent."
Turner said she was inspired to create the law after hearing about a company that received state subsidies to create jobs in New Jersey that moved to New York City before fulfilling its obligations.
"They were taking the money, and they were running," Turner said.
Forsberg, of New Jersey Policy Perspective, said tax-expenditure reports are critical to understanding how the state allocates its resources. Every dollar of forgone revenue can mean higher taxes for someone else, or fewer services.
"It's important for people to realize that the state is losing money as a result of decisions that are never revisited," Forsberg said.
One example of a tax expenditure that is costing state taxpayers a significant amount of money is a long-standing agreement between New Jersey and New York regarding residents of one state who work in the other, Forsberg said. Under the agreement, residents pay income taxes to the state where they work. Forsberg said that in 2004, when the numbers were last available, the agreement cost New Jersey about $1.5 billion a year, a number she said was likely higher now.
Most of the people who live in New Jersey but work in New York pay more to New York than they would to New Jersey, which means that if New Jersey could end or rework the agreement, the state could receive more in income taxes while its individual residents would pay less, Forsberg said.
"Considering that income taxes in New Jersey are dedicated to property-tax relief, that's a lot of money that would be a very helpful thing for New Jersey to have," Forsberg said.
According to the Treasury Department, New Jersey has never done a formal tax-expenditure report.
In 2006, the state Division of Taxation compiled a list of many tax expenditures, finding 121 sales-tax exclusions, 44 gross-personal-income-tax exclusions, and 28 corporate-business-tax exclusions. The list did not attempt to estimate what each exclusion was costing taxpayers.