In 2011, businesses were eligible to claim about $161 million in tax credits — double from the prior year — mostly because of the increase to 5 percent from 3 percent in the state's personal income tax rate, which is a factor in determining the value of the incentives. The boost marked the largest increase in the Economic Development for a Growing Economy tax credit program, the state's main economic development program, since its creation in 1999.
The EDGE program allows a business to claim a credit against its corporate income tax liability if it agrees to create and/or retain jobs and make an investment in the state of at least $1 million, for companies with fewer than 100 workers, and at least $5 million for larger companies.
Once accepted into the program, which typically lasts 10 years, a company applies on an annual basis for a tax credit certificate, similar to a voucher, which it can claim when it files its taxes.
Marcelyn Love, a spokeswoman with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which administers the program, said that under the tax credit program companies make investments and employ workers, practices that otherwise would not have occurred without the credits.
"Both the private investment and the increased employment significantly increase tax revenue collection for the state in excess of the credits given," Love said in an email. Far from adding to the tax burden, she added, these incentives actually generate revenue for the state. "Further, most of these tax credits pay for themselves within two years."
The certificates are the only way to gauge the potential cost and scope of the program, because tax filings are not public. The Tribune obtained the 2011 certificates data, the latest year available, under the state's Freedom of Information Act. Companies have as many as five years to redeem a certificate.
After a deal is finalized, a company has two years to meet its side of the bargain and begin applying for certificates. Thus, the increase in the total value of 2011 tax breaks is also the result of companies receiving certificates for the first time. For example, Ford Motor Co. began applying for its certificates in 2010 from a 2007 deal.
During Gov. Pat Quinn's administration, companies have received increasingly larger deals. Many have been for retaining jobs, according to a Tribune analysis. In 2011, Sears Holdings Corp. was offered a tax credit package worth $150 million over 10 years to keep its headquarters in the state and retain at least 4,250 full-time jobs. The company, which after the deal was announced revealed that it was closing 125 stores nationwide, has yet to apply for a certificate. Five of those stores were in Illinois. State officials have said that during a recession, when few jobs are created, it's important to focus on retaining workers.
Chris Brathwaite, a Sears spokesman, said the company's employment level at its headquarters is higher than the more than 6,000 jobs it had when the deal was approved, but he declined to provide figures.
In general, the value of a certificate equals the number of jobs created and/or retained, multiplied by wages tied to those jobs and the state's personal income tax rate.
That means companies that didn't add one worker and kept wages at the 2010 rate received a 67 percent boost to their 2011 corporate income tax break. Just like individuals, corporations also registered a tax rate increase in 2011. Lawmakers set the new corporate income tax rate at 7 percent, up from 4.8 percent. The increases in breaks partially offset that hike.
The formula under which companies become eligible to receive tax breaks was aimed at encouraging job creation and increasing employee wages. Still, the 2011 data revealed that some companies made deals to allow job cuts and still qualify for incentives, a practice known as "normal attrition."
A case in point is Motorola Mobility. For the past two years, Motorola Mobility has qualified for certificates worth a total of $22.6 million while slowly chipping away at its workforce. Late last year, the smartphone-maker, which was acquired by Google Inc. in May, announced it was laying off 20 percent of its global workforce. Locally, the company cut hundreds of workers, bringing its Illinois head count to about 2,300, a figure that would make it ineligible for a 2013 certificate unless it boosts its workforce before the end of the year.
The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said the EDGE program played a crucial role in keeping Motorola Mobility in Illinois after it was acquired by Google. Its presence, the agency said, is drawing more technology investment and jobs to the state.
A state lawmaker wants the state to end the wiggle room practice, cap at $100 million the annual amount of tax breaks awarded and remove the investment bar so more small and medium-size businesses can qualify for breaks.
"Large multinationals are getting all the breaks," said Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, adding that his focus is to modernize the program and increase accountability.
Franks' House Bill 1336 would also limit the length of the tax breaks to five years and require that companies pay workers at least the median salary of their occupation as determined by federal data. The bill also eliminates the provision requiring companies to make a capital investment in the state of at least $1 million or $5 million, depending on their size. And it creates a nine-member board to oversee the deals, with members appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate.