Editor’s note: This story was corrected April 4. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly named Novogradac & Co. LLP.
Governors helped the U.S. Treasury Department choose nearly 9,000 economically distressed “opportunity zones” where people can get a tax break for investing in certain businesses and properties. But the 2017 federal tax law that created the zones doesn’t allow governors or state lawmakers to steer investors’ money into certain projects.
They’re trying to influence the market anyway.
This year 17 state legislatures have considered opportunity zone bills, including proposals for additional tax breaks to lure investors or encourage certain projects, such as affordable housing or solar energy development, according to Novogradac & Co. LLP, an accounting and consulting firm that is keeping track.
The federal government is expected to announce a second round of proposed opportunity zone regulations any day now, which would give many investors confidence to start striking deals.
“Through the added incentives, states can encourage the type of development they want to see in opportunity zones,” said Michael Novogradac, managing partner of Novogradac & Company.
Novogradac cautioned, however, that ultimately cities and counties may have more power over what gets built in a zone than states do. Last year, for example, the City Council in Boulder, Colorado, halted some development in its zone, citing the need for more planning.
“I do think they can bend the curve to be sure,” Novogradac said of states. “But at the end of the day it really depends on local government and local policies.”
Much of the early investment in opportunity zones is flowing into real estate. Sales of undeveloped land, previously developed but vacant land, and properties ripe for demolition and redevelopment surged in zones last year, according to a December report from Real Capital Analytics, a company that tracks real estate markets.
New York City, Los Angeles and Phoenix may be the hottest markets for opportunity zone funds, the report said.
Some state lawmakers want to tip the scales in favor of projects their constituents need but may be riskier or less lucrative than a new hotel or apartment building in a big city.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has proposed a state tax break like the federal one, though it would apply only to green technology and affordable housing projects.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, wants to lure businesses into zones with additional tax breaks for creating jobs, expanded workforce training assistance, and more funding for affordable housing development and small-business loans, among other incentives.
Washington state Rep. Mike Chapman also is interested in offering state tax credits to opportunity zone investors who can create jobs in economically depressed rural areas.
“We don’t have a lack of construction work in this state, so it’s not like we need to build more buildings,” the Democrat said. “We need jobs in rural counties that are living wage jobs where people can consistently receive a paycheck.”
To get the federal tax break, people must invest earnings from selling stocks, bonds or property in a fund that, in turn, invests in businesses or property in an opportunity zone. Investors who put money into such a fund can defer paying taxes on their gains right away and earn a 15 percent tax cut on the gains after holding their shares for seven years.
Investors who hold their shares for 10 years don’t have to pay capital gains taxes on money they make from those shares.
Most states have adopted a similar tax break. Nine states have not aligned with the federal tax break because they don’t tax incomes. Lawmakers in eight states have either declined to offer the same incentive or haven’t acted yet, according to Novogradac. But it’s not clear that creating a state version of the federal opportunity zone tax break will make much of a difference to investors.
Federal tax law typically influences people’s choices more than state tax law, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan adviser to the legislature, said of Newsom’s plan in a recent report. “Any state tax benefit provided would be a ‘windfall’ to investors because they likely would have made the investment even without the state benefit,” the report said.
Some progressive advocacy groups say the state tax breaks are a waste of money.
“It’s going to be going to the investor class, which is not a piece of our society that we need to help,” said Jody Wiser, executive director of Tax Fairness Oregon, a nonprofit pushing to eliminate Oregon’s version of the opportunity zone tax break.
“Most of the money will be spent where money was going to be spent anyway,” she said.
She pointed to zones in downtown Portland that already are filling up with office buildings and trendy restaurants.
Lawmakers are looking for other ways to use the state tax code to spur investment, particularly in businesses.
Encouraging investors to put money into businesses under current opportunity zone rules could be a challenge. State economic development officials have called for clarifying some of the criteria, such as the requirement that eligible businesses must derive half their income within a zone.
That requirement could disqualify “most e-commerce companies, manufacturers, and other businesses with the potential to create significant numbers of new jobs and wealth for their communities,” officials from Rhode Island, Utah and Louisiana wrote in a recent op-ed in The Hill.
West Virginia Del. Joshua Higginbotham, a Republican, has proposed giving investors in zone businesses a 10-year reprieve from state income and business taxes.
“What we wanted to do in West Virginia,” he said, “is make sure that our 55 opportunity zones are the most competitive of any opportunity zones in the country.”
Last week West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice vetoed Higginbotham’s proposal, but the legislator said he plans to push his bill again during an upcoming special session without the amendments Justice opposed.
Washington’s Chapman wants his state to offer $60 million in business tax credits to investors in opportunity zone funds focused on rural, economically depressed counties.
Funds would need permission from the state Department of Commerce to pass on the credits, and if they were to misuse the taxpayer dollars, they’d have to pay the state back.
The Senate has amended the bill to conduct a study on rural economic development programs, including tax credits, before the state makes any investments.
In Maryland, Hogan has proposed both new tax credits and expanding existing economic development programs — such as one that pays for the demolition of derelict buildings — to advance projects in opportunity zones.
“We’re really tying together everything that we were already doing and trying to use it to bolster the opportunity zone investment,” said Sara Luell, director of communications for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.
The additional state assistance would be available to any business or real estate project in a zone, she said, even those not receiving money from an opportunity zone fund.
Hogan recently toured a real estate project that will turn 40 acres of parking lots near a light-rail station into a hotel, office space for health care company Kaiser Permanente, apartments, a parking garage, and shops and restaurants.
An opportunity zone fund will help finance the apartment buildings, said Scott Nordheimer, a partner at Urban Atlantic, the company behind the project. But the project also relies on a long list of other incentives, he said, including state income tax credits and Prince George’s County’s multimillion-dollar investment in streets, utilities and other infrastructure on the site.
Without county help, the development would still be a parking lot.
“You could not privately finance the infrastructure,” Nordheimer said.