Republican officials in Tennessee say a widening hole in the state budget may have been caused by companies exploiting loopholes to avoid paying taxes.
Gov. Bill Haslam, other leaders in his administration and several state lawmakers say they have started to look into whether companies have found a new way to shift money or assets out of state and avoid their tax bill.
The plunge in business tax revenue comes even as stock prices have surged and the economy has improved. Meanwhile, the state's franchise and excise taxes — the third-biggest revenue source for Tennessee after the federal government and sales taxes — have missed projections by 20 percent, or more than $200 million.
State officials say they do not know why.
"That's our responsibility to figure it out," said Haslam. "If it's a business that had been paying us tax for activity in Tennessee and has found a way around that, we have to correct it."
Legislative leaders and members of the Haslam administration have begun to float the suggestion that there are tax loopholes this week, as the downturn in business taxes has started to impact the state. Haslam says the shortfall has forced him to delay planned raises for teachers and other spending.
It's not clear that any loopholes even exist. Business taxes have been known to fluctuate in the past, and Haslam initially blamed the downturn on companies' claiming refunds because they paid too much previously.
But Tennessee officials say the hole in the budget could grow deeper unless they figure out the cause. When corporations such as Toys 'R' US and Wal-Mart discovered ways to cut their taxes in the 1990s and 2000s, other companies were quick to copy their practices, before states caught up by changing their laws or challenging their practices in the courts.
Tennessee is not the only state where business taxes have fallen. The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government said last month that business taxes are down in 22 states. In 15 states, the decline is at least 10 percent.
All of that is occurring despite a surge on Wall Street and a strengthening economy.
"There are lawyers up in New York and accountants up in New York that go around to businesses selling them these proposals," said state Sen. Randy McNally, the Oak Ridge Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. "We're kind of like the little Dutch boy. We've got to plug the holes as they come up."
Finance Commissioner Larry Martin has been assigned to figuring out why business taxes are falling. Auditors with the Department of Revenue also have begun to comb corporate tax returns.
"That's part of Revenue's responsibility, to make certain we're collecting all the taxes we should," Haslam said.