BOSTON — A controversial subsidy for filmmakers was set in place as part of the state budget, even as lawmakers retired several other tax breaks.
A $47.6 billion spending package signed by Gov. Charlie Baker last week repeals three tax credits that a state commission deemed were not worth their weight in lost revenue.
One of the scrapped subsidies is a credit for medical device user fees, which reimburses companies for certain fees they pay to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The tax credit, which costs the state upward of $600,000 a year, is being “claimed by a number of predominately large corporations,” the panel found in a report, and there are “no similar tax provisions in neighboring states.”
“The use of this credit by less than half a dozen large companies is a strong indication that it is not relevant,” stated the report by the Tax Expenditure Review Commission. “While its low cost suggests it might be easily justified, we conclude the average tax credit is too small to provide a meaningful incentive to the relatively large businesses that claim it.”
Another subsidy going away provides vessel owners a dollar-for-dollar offset of the federal harbor excise tax. It was also flagged by the commission for repeal.
“We conclude that while this credit does provide an incentive to use Massachusetts ports, we find it does not have a measurable benefit, and does not have any relevance today,” the report’s authors wrote.
Also scrapped is a five-year tax exemption on income derived from the sale or transfer of patents for energy conservation. The panel noted it was so narrowly structured, “no one has ever actually used it.”
The commission of state officials, lawmakers and fiscal experts reviewed nearly a dozen tax credits, deductions and exemptions offered to companies that do business in Massachusetts.
Greg Sullivan, a commission member and senior analyst at the Pioneer Institute, praised lawmakers for moving quickly to eliminate the subsidies.
“When a tax break makes it into law, sometimes it effectively becomes permanent because it’s not subject to a review,” he said. “Many of these tax credits are aimed at job creation and economic growth, but we need to make sure those benefits are in line with the costs.”
The tax commission advised lawmakers to scrap the film tax credit, which was set to expire in 2023. Instead, the Legislature made it permanent and tweaked the criteria to qualify.
The program gives refundable tax credits equal to 25% of the production costs for feature films, TV shows, documentaries and commercials filmed in the state.
Critics call it a giveaway to Hollywood studios while supporters say it spurs a small but thriving film industry that is creating jobs and contributing revenue to the state’s economy.
The tax panel also questioned a sales tax exemption on alcoholic beverages, which it says cost the state up to $130 million a year in lost revenue.
It pointed out that alcoholic beverages are not subject to the state’s 6.25% sales tax and are taxed at a lower rate than other retail goods at a similar price.
“There is more state tax paid on a basket of taxable groceries, containing items such as paper towels and toothpaste, than on a bottle of alcohol of equal retail price,” the report noted.
Lawmakers whose districts are near the New Hampshire border have long pushed to lift the sales tax levy on alcohol entirely to make the state’s liquor stores more competitive. Despite that, the Legislature took no action on the commission’s suggestion.
Sullivan said the recommendations are only the first tranche of tax credit reviews. The commission has hired consultants to look into other tax breaks.
“It’s a healthy exercise for any state to revisit these tax expenditures frequently,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.