Oops! We Think We Made a Bit of a Mistake


Politicians in Iowa, like politicians everywhere, want to encourage their local economy to grow. But back in 2008, construction in Iowa, like construction everywhere, had slowed because of the recession. So the Hawkeye state's legislators did what they thought was a smart thing. As part of an overall reform that raised the sales tax rate from 5% to 6%, they streamlined the rules regarding heavy construction equipment. Specifically, they said that sales would be subject to the equipment excise tax — but rentals and leases would not. Makes sense, right? Why make construction more expensive by imposing a sales tax on folks who aren't actually buying the equipment they use?  

Since then, the Iowa Department of Revenue has collected more than $20 million in tax on equipment sales. Nobody paid any special attention to the new rules — at least, until last summer. That's when a curious attorney for an equipment buyer contacted the Department with the unwelcome news that the legislature had streamlined the tax a little too well. In fact, the language of that legislation had accidentally repealed it entirely!  

And nobody noticed. Not the staffers who wrote the law. Not the legislators who introduced it into the statehouse, marked it up, and passed it. Not the governor who signed it. Not the 185 or so equipment vendors who mistakenly collected the tax on behalf of the state. And certainly not the Department of Revenue who happily took the vendors' deposits, year after year after year.  

Oops. "I think you call that a mess," said Rep. Tom Sands, Chair of the Iowa House Ways & Means Committee.  

What could Iowa do? Honoring the mistake would mean paying back $20-30 million in taxes and interest, plus giving up $7 million more every year going forward. That may sound like a drop in the bucket compared to the state's overall $15 billion budget. But in today's tight economy, every bit counts.  

The legislators who accidentally repealed the tax probably would have preferred to ignore the whole thing and hope that nobody noticed. But once that lawyer discovered their goof, the game was up. On March 10, the Iowa House voted 95-0 to pass a "technical administration" bill reinstating the tax, retroactive all the way back to 2008. On March 27, the state Senate concurred, 26-21. And on April 10, Governor Branstad signed it into law.  

So, does it count as "raising taxes" to pass a bill retroactively reinstating a tax you never meant to repeal in the first place?