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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Bad research never gets good

Posted May 13th, 2014 to Blog

It might be a stretch to say that good research never gets old — at some point you might need an update — but one thing is certain: Bad research never gets good.

Fisher-GradingPlacesIPP’s Peter Fisher is one of the nation’s experts on rankings of state business climates. In two reports published in the last two years by our colleagues at Good Jobs First, Fisher lays out irretrievable problems with the Rich States, Poor States analysis periodically offered by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Fisher tested ALEC’s claims against the actual economic performance of states, finding that states following ALEC-favored policy did more poorly than other states.* He also found serious flaws of methodology, including comparisons of arbitrary states instead of all 50.

As Good Jobs First’s executive director, Greg LeRoy, wrote in the preface to the 2013 Grading Places report:

Indeed, the underlying frame of these studies — that there is such a thing as a state “business climate” that can be measured and rated — is nonsensical. The needs of different businesses and facilities vary far too widely. … Given these realities, “business climate” studies must be viewed for what they are: attempts by corporate sponsors to justify their demands for lower taxes and to gain public-sector help suppressing wages. …

To borrow Oscar Wilde’s witticism about cynics, these “business climate” studies know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

In the case of ALEC, others are noticing. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times has written twice in recent days about the ALEC problem, citing the work of both Fisher and Professor Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin.

See these pieces by Hiltzik:

In the latter, Hiltzik notes a recent “response to the critics” by ALEC:

It’s a curious document that ends up proving the critics’ point. Take the point made by Chinn and by Peter S. Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project that the correlation between ALEC’s policies and economic growth is largely negative.

When the ALEC “analysis” is dissected, it becomes clear that its conclusions are faulty, and its policy prescriptions are no more valid. And it is good for Iowa to have Peter Fisher on the case.

Owen-2013-57  Posted by Mike Owen, IPP Executive Director

 

 

*View Peter Fisher’s reports for Good Jobs First on business climate rankings including the ALEC claims:


Too few inspectors to assure clean water

Posted May 12th, 2014 to Blog

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently seeking public comments on proposed rule changes required by the Iowa Legislature that would bring Iowa’s requirements for concentrated animal feeding operations into agreement with federal regulations.

The changes would also satisfy the terms of a work plan signed by the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rules need enforcement and the agency — by its own admission — has not maintained enough inspectors. Even the recent changes since the agency was reprimanded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 have not replaced enough employees to get the number of inspectors back to the level that existed in 2004.

Originally in answer to U.S. EPA complaints, the department envisioned a 13 staff-person increase that would only bring numbers back to approximately the 2004 staffing levels — before the addition of many more confinement operations. However, the Governor and General Assembly did not even authorize this number.

Let me repeat, rules need adequate enforcement. DNR does not appear to have enough staff.

See this passage from a DNR 2011 report on manure on frozen and snow-covered ground:

“The scope and complexity of confinement program work increased disproportionately beginning with legislation in the late ’90s. With this, public awareness of environmental issues also grew, resulting in a significant increase in local demand for education, compliance assistance and compliance assurance. To address these needs, animal feeding operations field staffing gradually increased to a high of 23 by SFY 2004.* In SFY 2008, four staff people were shifted into a newly established open feedlots program. Then in the fall of 2009, as General Fund expenditures declined, confinement staffing was reduced again. This reduced staff numbers from 19 to 11.5. Further reductions leave the total of field staff for confinement work at 8.75 full time equivalents. This reduction means that the DNR will not be able to maintain an adequate level of compliance and enforcement activity in confinements.”**

*State Fiscal Year 2004
**http://www.iowadnr.gov/Portals/idnr/uploads/afo/2011%202011%20DNR%20Manure%20on%20Frozen%20Ground%20Report%20FINAL.pdf

IPP-osterberg-75  Posted by David Osterberg, IPP Founding Director


Why the tuition freeze matters

Posted May 2nd, 2014 to Blog

A bright spot in the just completed session of the Iowa Legislature is that lawmakers for the second year in a row have assured a tuition freeze at Iowa’s Regents universities.

The 4 percent increase in state funding for FY2015 is an important investment. It means current students will be able to keep a little more money in their pockets, and prospective students will have greater access to higher education at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa.

For now, the state has stalled its trend toward sharp tuition increases — a trend similar to what’s happened at public colleges and universities across the country. A new report from the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities found that from FY2008-FY14 state funding per student at Iowa’s Regent universities decreased by 23.8 percent, leading to a 12.2 percent change in average tuition after adjusting for inflation — $854 more a year per student.

It’s a simple equation: When state funding goes down, tuition goes up and/or resources to help students are reduced. Iowa Fiscal Partnership research has shown these trends in our state, as noted in the graph below covering tuition vs. state support of Regents institutions from 2001-13.

tuitionvsstateaid

These trends shift the cost of education from the state to the students and their families. The result is that students take on more debt or have fewer choices among institutions, if they choose to attend at all. At low incomes, some students may simply choose not to enroll even though education might be what they want, and necessary to their career goals.

Excessive student loan debt has broad economic implications. It is associated with lower rates of homeownership among young adults, it can create enough stress to decrease the probability of graduation and reduce the chance that graduates with majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will go on to graduate school.

The economic importance of higher education will continue to grow, as getting a college degree is increasingly a prerequisite to enter the middle class. And beyond those who receive the degree, everyone in the community benefits when more residents have college degrees. An area with a highly educated workforce attracts better employers who pay better wages and this can boost an area’s economic success.

Strong state revenues offer a time to reinvest in higher education, and to return funding of services to pre-recession levels.

IPP-gibney5464  Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate


First Iowa Tax Day with expanded EITC

Posted April 30th, 2014 to Blog

Almost unnoticed as Iowans file their state income taxes today is that many thousands of families are benefiting from a newly expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Iowa legislators last year passed and Governor Branstad signed an expansion of the working family credit, doubling it from 7 percent of the federal EITC to 14 percent for 2013, and bumping it to 15 percent for this year. The increase was barely mentioned by the Governor when he signed it as part of a larger package of tax changes. Yet, as we noted recently — the boost is “arguably the most important legislation he signed last year.”

arguably the most important legislation he signed last year: doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. – See more at: http://www.iowafiscal.org/ifp-news-statement-on-governors-address/#sthash.NzN7o0IR.dpuf

New data from 2012, compiled by the Brookings Institution, sort out by legislative district the number and percentage of tax filers who benefit from the federal EITC, on which the state credit is based. We have put that information into a new Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder; the two-pager is available here. In the map below, the golder and greener the district, the greater its constituents use the EITC. In the green areas, over 20 percent of filers use the EITC.

130506-EITCmap

Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit is an important tool in making work pay for low-income households. We have shown how a further expansion could better fill the gap between low-wage income and a basic-needs household budget, as well as improve Iowa’s tax treatment of low-wage families.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

 


Two numbers say so much

Posted March 6th, 2014 to Blog

Two numbers say so much: 140 and $36 million.

Last year, 140 companies paid no income taxes in Iowa but — through the tax code — received $36 million in research checks.

Those two numbers alone tell us two things: We have a problem with transparency, and we have a problem setting priorities.

We know those two numbers because Iowa’s Department of Revenue is required every February to report on the use of the state’s Research Activities Credit.

We don’t know enough about what’s behind those two numbers — the problem of transparency. As it’s public money, the assumption should be that we are owed full information about where every dollar is spent (a case made well by The Des Moines Register in a recent editorial). Cities, schools and counties are required to disclose this routinely.

In fairness, some lawmakers worked hard in 2009 to assure the transparency that we do have, passing a good law that required the annual reports. Before that, we had even less information. Big business fought hard to stop the law, and failed. And because we have the law, we can make several noteworthy observations that are detailed in this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder, and get some insights on who benefits, as in the table below.

Table3-RACrecipients-w

But the annual reports do not tell us — or indicate with certainty — which companies receive the benefit as checks, how much each receives or how the money is used. There is no evidence of jobs created. There is no evidence of need or of public benefit, or return on the public investment.

There is no point where we say, “Enough already. You know, Company X, you had $200 million in profits last year — we don’t really think your shareholders need Iowa taxpayers’ help when our schools can’t keep up with costs and our city water systems need updates and our roads have potholes. And, by the way, your company and your employees are better off if we take care of those priorities before we give money to you.”

This exposes the problem with budget priorities: This spending is done outside the budget process. Spending on the RAC is decided before the Legislature even convenes. It’s automatic. The decision has already been made for 2015, and 2016, and so on, and we don’t even know for sure how much it will cost — though the Revenue Department projects it to grow precipitously.

State law provides that companies are entitled to that money regardless of any other pressures on state budget choices — including cuts to education. Example: In 2013, Iowa spent that $36 million to help companies that contributed no income tax, but for the current fiscal year that started in July 2013, the state reneged on its commitment to the school funding formula. The state fell more than $60 million short of its share, leaving property taxpayers to pay it — in the same year, by the way, that legislators boasted about property-tax reform.

I think I know where we could have found $36 million of that lost school funding.

A special state panel that reviewed all Iowa tax credits in 2009 singled out the so-called “refundability” of the RAC as a special problem. It recommended eliminating refundability for big companies, which have dominated the spending on this credit. And it also recommended putting a sunset — an automatic elimination — on all tax credits after five years. To keep them going, the Legislature would actually have to take a vote on them. That is accountability.

As it stands, our Legislature does not touch this issue. Meanwhile, big and immensely profitable companies are sucking dollars away from our local schools, state universities, community colleges, local police, county mental health services, environmental quality programs and enforcement, wage and hour enforcement … well, you get the idea.

That is the budget choice being made, because our state is happily spending on autopilot with no proof of a public benefit.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


A taste of transparency

Posted February 11th, 2014 to Blog

This week we will get a taste of what transparency could look like for the hundreds of millions of dollars that Iowa spends through the tax code.

We’ll only get a taste, to be sure, as what we’ll see won’t be enough. But, thanks to a law that passed against difficult and powerful lobbying interests in 2009, we do get that taste — a glimpse into who benefits from Iowa’s largest and most generous business tax credit.

It’s the Research Activities Credit (RAC), a costly little gem that has provided big companies some big checks from the state — in some cases even when they pay nothing in income tax. The Iowa Department of Revenue projects the cost of this credit to grow by more than half in the next five years, from $52.4 million to $80.3 million.[1]

projected growth of RACCould this be a shrewd investment for the state? Not likely, or at least that must be the presumption, as the beneficiaries have neither shown nor had to show the state’s real taxpayers what they get in return for the giveaway. Click here for a look at the recent history on this credit.

Projected RAC costs tableThe economic development gurus defend the RAC with little more than a “trust us” argument, which of course is not a strong enough argument for public schools, or state universities, or community colleges, or cities with law enforcement and infrastructure challenges, or counties with mental health services and emergency response challenges.

And the costs just keep rising for the RAC and many other business tax credits, with virtually no public accountability. What little that is available will come in the Department of Revenue report that is due yet this week. It will show the total amount of claims, the total amount paid as checks to companies that do not pay state income tax, and will identify companies with over half-a-million dollars in claims. Stay tuned.

[1] Iowa Department of Revenue, Tax Credits Contingent Liabilities Report, December 2013, http://www.iowa.gov/tax/taxlaw/1213RECReport.pdf

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


Watch tax spending more closely

Posted February 4th, 2014 to Blog

Iowa is behind — not that we didn’t already know that.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines several aspects of what states do in budget planning. Particularly noteworthy in the report for Iowa is its poor attention to the impact of tax expenditures — spending through the tax code. When we have a tax break on the books, such as a credit or exemption, it has an impact on the budget bottom line the same as if the lost revenues were spent on the other side of the ledger.

Most of this spending, as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has shown over the years, is on autopilot. These breaks exist year to year, never requiring renewal — unlike the kind of spending we do through direct appropriations, where critical services are subjected to annual scrutiny to exist or not for another year.

Here’s why it matters, according to the executive summary of the CBPP report:

When recessions occur, states must scrutinize all forms of spending.  An important tool for this is oversight of various tax expenditures (tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that reduce state revenue), which in many ways function as spending through the tax code. This will enable states to make sound choices between the most essential tax expenditures and those the state can forgo. For example, states can regularly publish tax expenditure reports that list each tax break and its cost. And states can enact sunset provisions so that tax breaks expire in a specified number of years unless policymakers choose to extend them.

The problem in Iowa is not a lack of analysis or data. The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) has produced solid tax expenditure studies in 2000, 2005 and 2010. They are found here on the DOR website. And there is considerable information outside those formal studies that illustrate overall costs — primarily a so-called “tax credit contingent liabilities report” offered three-to-four times a year by DOR for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference. Furthermore, a number of important tax expenditures have been the subject of in-depth reports to the legislative committee charged with reviewing tax credits.

So in what way is Iowa behind the curve? The CBPP report lists 10 ways states can better budget for the future, including one on the tax-expenditure oversight issue:

Oversight of tax expenditures:  expiration dates for tax expenditures after a set number of years to subject them to regular scrutiny of their cost and effectiveness, in addition to tax expenditure reports that list the costs of individual tax breaks.

Such expiration dates are called “sunsets.” A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Culver in the wake of the 2009 film-credit scandal produced a set of strong recommendations for reform, among them a five-year sunset on all credits. This proposal was ignored.

Furthermore, a review of tax credits on a five-year rotation set up by lawmakers in response to that panel’s recommendations has produced no apparent policy change; this perhaps is not surprising since the committee that reviews the credits has not issued findings that the credits are meeting the intent of policy, or producing a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


With ALEC, it’s not just ‘Who?’ but ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’

Posted January 10th, 2014 to Blog

Some Iowa legislative leaders are taking issue with claims that all Iowa legislators are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

See these links:

All of this calls to mind the words of the great comedian Groucho Marx, who is widely quoted:

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Groucho presumably was never a member of ALEC — like many Iowa lawmakers now protesting claims of their inclusion. But regardless of who belongs to ALEC, the bigger issue is whether ALEC belongs at the public policy table.

Iowa Policy Project analysis has refuted the value of legislative initiatives promoted by ALEC, which is essentially a bill mill backed by corporate interests. IPP’s Peter Fisher and the national group Good Jobs First, in their 2012 report “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” showed that states following ALEC proposals were likely to show worse economic results than other states.

As Fisher noted at the time:

“We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results. We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.”

This recalls another quotation:

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

No, that is not the ALEC mission statement. Again, they are words widely attributed to Groucho Marx.

But if the shoe fits ….

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


A better choice for full-time investigator

Posted December 16th, 2013 to Blog

Today’s Des Moines Register reports that the big push by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz to crack down on voter fraud is proving what he doesn’t want: that it’s not a problem in Iowa.

A full-time criminal investigator is on the job with five guilty pleas to show for it. Kind of makes you wonder why we bother, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, wage theft is a pervasive problem in America and, as we have shown, Iowa is no exception.

Yet Iowa has only one full-time position for enforcement of wage-and-hour rules even though the Iowa Policy Project has shown violations are pervasive and other states do more. Wage theft deprives Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, when wages are not paid or underpaid, tips are skimmed by employers, and employees are misclassified as “independent contractors” to avoid taxes, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. It also deprives the state of tax revenue and deprives law-abiding businesses of an even playing field.

Budgets are a statement of values. We focus our finances — in the home and at the State Capitol — on what we think is important. Surely making sure hard-working people are paid what they are owed is on that list.

It defies good budgeting sense to devote a full-time criminal investigator to a phantom issue, particularly when those resources could be put toward sensible budget choices, such as enforcing worker protections. When unscrupulous employers know we’re not even watching them, we effectively encourage the very behavior we don’t want in Iowa.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


The $54 question

Posted November 25th, 2013 to Blog

Breaking news out of Des Moines is that many Iowa taxpayers will be eligible for an extra $54 tax credit.

This is the result of one of the most short-sighted pieces of legislation passed by the Iowa General Assembly in recent years. Lawmakers created what they called the “Taxpayers Trust Fund,” which we should call the “Giveaway Slush Fund.” It’s a pot of money to dole out to taxpayers and boast about at election time. Chances are, the “givers” won’t give you the whole picture.

Their game is an illusion, a political parlor trick: Hold down funding for key priorities, such as K-12 education, or universities, and then when revenues create a surplus, call it an “overpayment” by taxpayers.

Does anyone really believe their spin? The $120 million to be given away represents easily $120 million in services that could have been provided. For K-12 alone, a little over half of it could have been used this year to fully pay the state’s share of allowable growth at the 4 percent level lawmakers authorized. Instead, state funding only supports half of the state share.

By shortchanging school districts with funding for only 2 percent allowable growth this year despite strong revenues, lawmakers compounded a trend of squirreling away big dollars while claiming poverty. This way, they have given themselves $120 million to spend on dessert — the Giveaway Slush Fund — by choosing not to pay the state’s share of the bill for the meat and potatoes: school aid.

One Iowa columnist who has seen through this is The Des Moines Register’s Rekha Basu, who noted Sunday: “Doling out money piecemeal is a gimmick that may bring smiles to some faces but it can’t take the place of sound and consequential actions.” She’s right.

Is it really worth it to you to receive the $54, instead of putting adequate and appropriate funding back into our education system? Or cleaner water? Or safer streets? Or, well, you get the idea.

Give me a break. On second thought, don’t.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director