Joseph Rotella is founder and president of Spencer Organ Company, Inc. in Waltham, Mass. Dennis Van Roekel is a math teacher and president of the National Education Association.
Some politicians might believe that "corporations are people," as former Gov. Mitt Romney declared last year.
At tax time, however, corporations enjoy better treatment than ordinary folks. While millions of individual Americans file last-minute income tax returns this month, some major corporations won't pay a dime despite reaping record profits.
From 2008 to 2010, the 280 most profitable U.S. corporations sheltered half of their profits from taxes, thanks to tax subsidies totaling nearly $224 billion, according to a 2011 analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice. A dozen large companies, including Exxon-Mobil, Boeing, and General Electric, reaped $175 billion in profits, but their combined tax rate was negative 1.4 percent, thanks to $64 billion in subsidies from oil depletion allowances, write-offs from overseas profits, and other loopholes, according to the study.
These subsidies didn't just come about by accident—at least 30 Fortune 500 firms pay their lobbyists more than they pay in taxes. Most small businesses can't afford lobbyists, so it's no surprise that the benefits of tax loopholes flow mainly to Wall Street, not Main Street.
Thanks to these loopholes, probably no major company pays the full federal corporate tax rate of 35 percent. The highest three-year average effective rate paid by any of the 12 large corporations in the Citizens for Tax Justice study was 14.2 percent—less than many middle class families.
That's the kind of sweetheart deal most taxpayers—and most small businesses—can only dream about. We do, however, get to pick up the tab for these costly tax breaks. For starters, when corporations shirk billions of dollars in federal taxes, middle class taxpayers must bear more of the cost of national defense, healthcare, and other necessary programs.
Then there is the effect on state and local services, most notably education.
Most states mirror federal tax loopholes, and many states also provide tax subsidies for companies just to locate within their borders. Total state and local tax subsidies to business add up to about $70 billion a year. That windfall for big business comes at the expense of students. Over the past three years local school districts have cut 238,000 education jobs, which means more students crammed into larger classes and fewer opportunities for extra tutoring or after-school programs. Middle class families have also had to foot a larger share of the bill for higher education, as total state funding has declined 3.8 percent over the last five years.
Small businesses also pay a price for corporate handouts. Not only is the tax burden shifted to companies that can't afford to game the system, but small businesses rely on public education to train skilled workers and teach them how to think critically. When Spencer Organ Company, Inc. was founded in 1995, many of the people who applied for jobs not only had basic reading and math skills—they also had been exposed to music education and had learned to use tools in shop classes, knowledge that is useful in the organ restoration business. Today, after years of curriculum cutbacks, most students have not had those opportunities, a shift that translates to higher training costs for this small business.
Our nation built the most prosperous economy in history during the 20th century, and public education was a foundation of that success. We all have a responsibility to provide similar opportunities for future generations to succeed, and our biggest corporations must do their fair share. After all, the same people who own stock in these companies also have a stake in America's future.