Two-thirds of Minnesotans think the government should outlaw corporate inversions — the much-discussed business tactic in which U.S.-based companies acquire foreign firms and then move their own headquarters to a country with lower tax rates.
A Minnesota Poll conducted this month found strong opposition among Democrats to deals like the one Fridley-based Medtronic Inc. has in the works. But a slight majority of Republicans also thought the maneuver should not be allowed.
The deals have become highly controversial, with President Obama calling companies that pursue them unpatriotic and urging Congress to pass an anti-inversion law.
Don Malm, a Democrat and “semiretired” contractor living in Park Rapids, said companies seeking inversions should recognize how much they’ve benefited from being in the United States, particularly from the schools that educated their workers.
“These corporations didn’t make it by themselves. They had a lot of infrastructure that this country has given them,” he said. “I just think it’s a little unpatriotic to, just for greed, move out of the country and not pay their fair share.”
Under the deal Medtronic unveiled in June, it would pay $42.9 billion to acquire one of the biggest suppliers of surgical supplies in the world, Dublin-based Covidien. Medtronic would use $14 billion it holds in overseas cash to acquire Covidien and then move its legal headquarters to Ireland.
A bevy of other companies are proposing similar deals, including Chicagoland biopharmaceutical firm AbbVie, which like Medtronic would move its legal headquarters to Ireland but retain its operational base in the United States. AbbVie’s $54 billion deal is the largest of the 11 deals pending today, even though Burger King’s $11.2 billion deal to move to Canada has arguably garnered the most press attention. All told, at least 75 U.S. companies have inverted since 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Some argue that the way to deter the deals is to make the U.S. corporate system more competitive globally — particularly by cutting the 35 percent tax rate, the highest in the developed world.
Henry Soenneker, a Republican and retired farmer in Bluffton, said new limits on corporate behavior are not the answer. “Republicans are generally for business and corporations, whereas Democrats would love to control every corporation in the country.” Soenneker said. “I think [tax] policies should be changed so it’s more friendly to corporations. Washington is not very friendly to corporations.”
Medtronic officials declined to comment on the poll results. In the past, they have argued that the tax advantages in the deal will allow the company to invest billions more, not less, in future Minnesota jobs and research, and that the company’s operational base and executive offices would remain in-country. Company officials note that Medtronic’s average global tax rate would only drop to 16 percent, down from the roughly 18 percent companywide rate today.
While that 2 percent drop might not seem huge, Medtronic officials have reserved the right to cancel the deal without financial penalties if U.S. lawmakers approve a law to expose more of the company’s cash to taxes.
“If that law says, ‘Now, Covidien, you have to pay taxes on profits that you otherwise would not have had to,’ I don’t know if the deal would occur. But I guarantee you, both managements want it to occur, so there would be discussion,” Medtronic corporate tax director Philip Albert said in a recent interview with the Star Tribune. “They would look at the law and say, ‘Under this law, can we still do the deal?’ ”
What many critics of inversions don’t think about is that such deals represent just one strategy among many that corporations use to manage their tax bills, even though inversions are the “devil du jour” right now, according to Claire Hill, director of the Institute for Law and Rationality at the University of Minnesota Law School. Many individuals also use strategies to avoid taxes, like buying goods online or strategically timing charitable donations.
Hill said a more nuanced law that addresses a wider range of issues in the corporate-tax code is needed, rather than a quick-fix to discourage inversions. But such a prospect seems remote at best, especially since inversions themselves are such an easy target for voter disapproval.
“We feel more comfortable with black and white, bad guys and good guys. In the inversion story, corporations are bad guys, and regular folk are good guys,” Hill said. “But some regular folk may be shareholders too, who might benefit if their corporations paid less in tax and had more to invest or pay as dividends. Of course, the corporations could just pay the tax savings to their executives in the form of bonuses.”