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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

New rule! Governor wants to make laws himself

Posted October 14th, 2015 to Blog

We all know the drill: The Legislature passes bills and the Governor signs or vetoes them, whereupon they become either laws, or nothing.

Not anymore, apparently.

The move by the Branstad administration to implement a new sales tax break worth an estimated $40 million a year — possibly more — is taking place outside the legislative session. If it succeeds, we have entered a new world of executive authority in Iowa.

Business lobbyists wanted the change, it could not pass the Legislature, and the administration thinks it has found a short cut: Change the longstanding interpretation of the existing law. Presto, tens of millions of dollars will be available for manufacturers. And those same tens of millions of dollars will not be available for schools.*

Consider a Des Moines Register guest opinion by Mike Ralston of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, a lobbying group representing manufacturers who would benefit from the change:

Part of the change affects Iowa’s existing sales and use tax exemption for machinery and equipment used in the manufacturing process.  The change is sound policy.

If that’s the case Mr. Ralston wants to make, let him make it during the legislative session. This rules change skirts the legislative process, and Iowans are noticing. Jon Muller writes in an insightful piece on the Bleeding Heartland blog:

It’s easy to look at political discourse today and conclude everything is a battle between Democrats and Republicans, the left and the right, liberals and conservatives. But far more is going on with this issue. … A Democrat will surely be Governor again someday, and it would be a mistake to set a precedent that allows the Executive Branch to so drastically change the tax climate. If Republicans in the Legislature do not stand up against this unprecedented over-reach of power, they will almost certainly live to regret it.

James Larew, an Iowa City attorney who was general counsel to former Governor Chet Culver, served for four years as Culver’s appointee on the Administrative Rules Review Committee, a panel of legislators who have the authority to delay the rule change from taking effect. He advised the panel: “This is new territory. What is sauce for the goose eventually becomes sauce for the gander, too.” Larew went on:

The balance of political power changes from one election to the next.

The balance of constitutional power — the relationship between the Iowa General Assembly and executive departments of government — is more serious and more lasting.

Broad interpretive powers given up by the Legislature, in one moment of time, concerning one issue, are not easily, later recovered.

As the Cedar Rapids Gazette opined in an editorial, the change “breaks the rules of good government.” The Gazette wrote:

The Branstad administration should drop its rule change bid and make its case to the General Assembly, which is elected to craft a budget and write tax policy. If it’s truly a great idea that will create jobs, as the department contends, surely the sales job won’t be that difficult.

Many businesses, we often note at IPP and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, already pay no income tax in Iowa, and they just had their property taxes slashed. The corporate appetite for tax cuts is insatiable. Guess who pays?

*  Note: The Department of Revenue estimate of the cost of this tax break to both the state and local governments is over $40 million for each of the first four full years of implementation, according to a document provided the Administrative Rules Review Committee. The Legislative Services Agency has told ARRC that it does not have enough information to determine the accuracy of that estimate. We have revised the initial version of this blog post to reflect this uncertainty, until state officials agree on an estimate.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

 


Iowa Cannot Afford Another Wasteful Business Tax Break

Posted October 13th, 2015 to Blog

2010-PFw5464Statement by Peter Fisher, Research Director, The Iowa Policy Project, before the Administrative Rules Review Committee

October 13, 2015

The administration’s proposal to create new sales tax exemptions for Iowa businesses is unnecessary, expensive and counterproductive. The state can ill afford another tax break that will harm essential state services while producing little or no economic benefit.

Iowa business taxes are already quite competitive

  • The most recent study of state and local taxes on business as a percent of state GDP by Ernst and Young and the Council on State Taxation shows that Iowa taxes business at 4.7 percent of GDP, exactly the same as the national average. Iowa ranks right in the middle of the pack.
  • A study by Anderson Economic Group in 2015 calculated state and local taxes on business as a percent of pre-tax profits and found Iowa’s effective tax rate to be 8.7 percent, which placed it 32nd among the states, below the national average.

State and local taxes have little effect on business location decisions

  • State and local taxes are less than two percent of total costs for the average corporation. As a result, even large cuts in state taxes are unlikely to have an effect on the investment and location decisions of businesses, which are driven by more significant factors such as labor, transportation, and energy costs, and access to markets and suppliers.

Enacting a subsidy through administrative rules guarantees complete absence of evaluation and accountability

  • While the sales tax break has been promoted as an economic development incentive, creating it by administrative rule eliminates even the minimal level of accountability established by the Legislature for the periodic review of tax credits. There will be no review, no evaluation of its effectiveness, not even an annual accounting of its cost.

Tax breaks erode support for public investments in our future

  • The proliferation of tax incentives and business tax cuts over the past two decades has resulted in several hundred million dollars each year cut from the state budget. This has undermined the state’s ability to support quality education, from pre-school through public colleges and universities, which in the long run will have serious consequences for state economic growth and prosperity.

REAP: Long on Promise, Short on Support

Posted July 30th, 2015 to Blog

When Iowa’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program (REAP) was established in 1989, the Legislature set its spending authority at $30 million, but funded it at only half that — $15 million. The next year, funding (FY1991) was set at $20 million, an amount we thought was sustainable.

It never again reached that level — though lawmakers attempted to set it at $25 million for the 25th anniversary of the program in the just-completed fiscal year. Governor Branstad vetoed $9 million that year, leaving REAP at $16 million for FY2015, where it stands for FY2016 as well.

Ironically, the 2014 veto came as the state was promoting its voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Twenty percent of REAP goes to these programs. The veto reduced funds available to help farmers implement new nutrient runoff reduction and filtration measures that could contribute to the goals of the nutrient strategy. Actions like these contributed to a long-term REAP shortfall of more than $220 million.

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See our new Iowa Policy Project report, REAP: A Case Study of Stewardship. With a more clear understanding of how REAP can make a difference in our quality of life, all Iowans may evaluate how it should be funded. In practice, REAP is kept well short of the $20 million annual support that had been envisioned — a nearly 25-year trend that keeps REAP well short of its potential.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, IPP co-founder and environmental researcher

On big issues, Iowa leaders emerging locally

Posted July 23rd, 2015 to Blog

If state leaders won’t lead, local leaders in Iowa are showing they will take up the job.

On three big issues in the last several months, we have seen this:

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to see a trend.

Public policy matters in Iowans’ lives, in critical ways. We elect people who can take care of it in a way that works for all Iowans, but not enough who will. In the absence of state-level leadership, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that local officials who also are hired to work for their constituents will find a way to help them.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Big ‘Oops’ for tax-cutters in school vetoes

Posted July 15th, 2015 to Blog

Governor Branstad’s vetoes of “one-time” funding pose “ongoing” and “recurring” problems for a major and ill-advised proposal by his allies to restructure personal income taxes in Iowa.

And they should.

During the last session, while lawmakers and the Governor were telling schools the state could not afford more than a 1.25 percent increase in per-pupil school aid, a group in the House was pushing a plan to let individuals choose a “flat” income tax rate option. In other words, figure your taxes under the current rate structure, then compare it to the flat rate, and choose which one costs you less.

It benefits primarily the wealthy, and it costs big money. There is no upside.

We have seen such a proposal in the past, and we are virtually guaranteed to see it again in some form in 2016. Not only does it compound fairness issues in Iowa’s tax structure, but it loses hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, year after year, that Iowa legislators and the Governor have been telling us we cannot afford to lose.

Its supporters cannot avoid that contradiction, given their obsession this year about not letting a surplus — and a sustained one at that — be used for “ongoing” or “recurring” expenses on grounds they were not “sustainable.” Those are the grounds for the Governor’s vetoes of one-time funds for local schools, community colleges and state universities.

For good analysis of the 2015 alternative flat-tax proposal, which was not presented on the House floor as some of these messaging contradictions quickly became clear, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher. As Fisher noted, the projected revenue loss was projected at nearly half a billion dollars — $482 million — for the new fiscal year and around $400 million for each of the next three.

In short, the flat-tax idea is not “sustainable.” No need to discuss in the 2016 session.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Ongoing mistake in ‘one-time’ rhetoric

Posted July 8th, 2015 to Blog

The Governor appears to be missing his own point.

Vetoing one-time funding for one-time uses — as Governor Branstad did last week — goes against what the Governor himself has been saying. And Iowa students will suffer for it.

Set aside for a moment that it can be quite sensible to use one-time funds for ongoing expenses. It depends on the circumstances. Set aside the fact that Iowa revenues and projections are strong and that state money seems to be available on an ongoing basis for corporate subsidies if not for restoring repeated shortfalls in education funding.

In the case at hand, the Governor vetoed one-time funds — for public schools, community colleges and the three regents universities — that ironically would have been spent in line with his own stated concern. The $55.7 million in one-time funds for local schools and area education agencies would have supplemented regular funding, set at 1.25 percent growth per pupil, all part of a package negotiated by the split-control Legislature.

Here’s the oft-stated concern about one-time funds, in a nutshell: You don’t spend one-time money on things that commit you to the same or greater spending in the future, because you don’t know whether the funds will be there later on.

The compromise on school funding negotiated and passed by legislators (part of HF666) reflected that concern:

  • For K-12 schools, the legislation specifies that funds “are intended to supplement, not supplant, existing school district funding for instructional expenditures.” It goes on to define “instructional expenditures” in such a way that assures the funds are for one-time uses that carry no additional commitment beyond the FY2016 budget year.

So, you can add to one-time expenses that you would have had to leave out, for purposes such as textbooks, library books, other instructional materials, transportation costs or educational initiatives to increase academic achievement. You can’t plan on having the same funds available in the following budget year.

  • For community colleges and the regents, each section of the bill included this stipulation: “Moneys appropriated in this section shall be used for purposes of nonrecurring expenses and not for operational purposes or ongoing expenses. For purposes of this section, ‘operational purposes’ means salary, support, administrative expenses, or other personnel-related costs.”

In his veto message, the Governor stated, “Funding ongoing expenses with one-time money is unsustainable.” In neither case did the Legislature propose doing so.

The larger problem with one-time funding is that such a cautious approach was unnecessary, because funds are available for more ongoing spending on education than what either the Governor or the House leadership permitted. The latest estimates are for 6 percent revenue growth in the coming year.

With or without the one-time funds that would have helped school districts, the legislative compromise ensures the continued erosion of the basic building block for school budgets, the per-pupil cost.

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Supplemental State Aid (formerly termed “allowable growth) defines the percentage growth in the cost per pupil used to determine local school district budgets, which are based on enrollment. For FY2016, the Legislature and Governor have set the growth figure at 1.25 percent. Though state law requires this figure to be set about 16 months before the start of the fiscal year, the issue was not resolved until last week, when the Governor signed the legislation, and the fiscal year had already begun. The Senate passed 4 percent growth for FY2017 and the House 2 percent, but no compromise emerged and that remains unsettled. The education funding vetoed last week by the Governor affects separate one-time spending that would not have affected future budgets.

For the last six budget years, per-pupil budget growth has been above 2 percent only once. Once it was zero, and schools for the coming year are at 1.25 percent. This does not come close to meeting the costs of education at the same level year after year.

Ultimately, that is the test of what is, or is not, sustainable.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

 

See the Iowa Fiscal Partnership statement from July 2

Budgeting in the dark

Posted April 13th, 2015 to Blog

April 15 is more than Tax Day. It’s also Budget Day, the date by which Iowa school districts are required to certify and adopt their budget for the year starting July 1.

And that’s important, because Iowa schools consider themselves bound by law.

This stands in stark contrast to the General Assembly. The Legislature and Governor, you see, have not told the school districts yet how much money they will have for this budget that must be set by Wednesday. By law, they’re about 14 months late … and counting.

You read that right. Lawmakers were supposed to tell school districts in February 2014.

If schools were really getting the “first bite at the apple,” as some are so fond of saying, this number would have been set. Instead, schools are left wondering how much of the core of the apple will be left when legislators finally get their act together.

Those first bites are already gone — to backfill property-tax cuts, or to provide giant subsidies to multistate corporations that pay no income taxes to our state, or to let millions slip through corporate tax loopholes while our Legislature looks the other way.

The budget deadline is here, and schools don’t know how much they will be permitted to spend, how much of it will be state aid, or how much to levy in the property tax share of that budget.

How, then, do districts respond?

The safest approach for school districts is to assume the worst. This will differ around the state; for many, it means no increase in state aid or per-pupil budget growth.

Because budgets are a mix of state aid and property tax, and you’re assuming no state aid increase, you’ll be setting a levy at its highest amount. If state aid comes in higher, you will lower your levy to the authorized amount — but your overall budget may still be too low to meet the needs you have identified.

While these little tricks keep your district within the law, they do nothing for the spirit of transparency, to enable everyone to be part of the process.

  • District residents don’t really have a clear picture of what their levy will be, so what can they expect to learn, or say, at the required public hearing?
  • District teachers and board members trying to negotiate contracts in good faith through the winter and early spring have no firm numbers to discuss.
  • District administrators trying to plan for fall classes may not be sure whether they will be able to keep current staff levels, or be able to add staff to meet increases in enrollment, special needs, or demands for achievement in cutting-edge fields of study.

All we know as April 15 approaches is that districts, one way or another, will meet the letter of the law. No thanks to state legislators.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Editor’s Note: Mike Owen has been a member of the West Branch Community School Board since 2006.

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Avoid snap judgments on SNAP use

Posted April 10th, 2015 to Blog

Legislators have enough to do finding answers to real problems. However, some seem ready to invent problems so they can come to the rescue.

Case in point: the Missouri representative who wants to stop food assistance recipients from buying steak.

Photos, please, of this actually happening. Because common sense tells us that other than some unusual case or two, it’s just not the way people allocate their meager food assistance benefit.

Why? Let’s look at the average benefit in Iowa from SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps.

People who qualify for SNAP are making less than $2,200 a month in a three-person family, about $2,600 in a four-person family. On average, their SNAP benefit as of March was about $1.18 per person per meal. That’s why they call it “supplemental” assistance: On its own, SNAP is not enough to keep bellies full, let alone fully support good family nutrition.

SNAP is there to help people piece together what they need to get by. SNAP is part of a mix of resources that includes a share of a low-wage family’s own earnings, and probably the help of a local food pantry.

During the Great Recession, SNAP clearly helped Iowans. In our slow recovery from the last national recession, the number of SNAP recipients rose to over 423,000. As things have gotten better, that number has steadily fallen and was under 393,000 as of last month — a decline of 7 percent. That’s the way it is supposed to work.

But for those who still need it, SNAP is there. This critical point should not be missed by distractions like the bill in Missouri, or others that may crop up — even in our state.

The fact that SNAP exists says more about us as a nation than do snarky shoppers who stalk the poor in the checkout line.

Do we really want people who don’t even believe in SNAP to nitpick what people can buy with it? Because those are often the people attempting to call the shots on what goes in the shopping cart.

I’m not buying what they’re selling. They can check my cart.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
 Hear Mike Owen and KVFD’s Mike Devine discuss this issue in this April 9 interview.

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Keeping Ahead of the Kansans

Posted April 9th, 2015 to Blog

As state legislators consider drastic cuts in Iowa’s income tax, they would do well to consider the experience of our neighbor Kansas, which enacted a huge income tax cut in 2012, and cut taxes again in 2013. These cuts have dramatically reduced state funding for schools, health care, and other services.

It is instructive to consider as well the experience in Wisconsin, where a large personal income tax cut took effect at the start of 2013, with similar results: subsequent job growth of 3.4 percent, farther below the norm than Kansas’ 3.5 percent from the implementation of its tax cuts.

None of this should come as a surprise. Most major academic research studies have concluded that individual income tax cuts do not boost state economic growth; in fact, states that cut income taxes the most in the 1990s or in the early 2000s had slower growth in jobs and income than other states.

Businesses need an educated workforce, and drastic cuts to education are likely to make it difficult to attract new workers, who care about their children’s schools at least as much as they care about taxes.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project

See Fisher’s Iowa Fiscal Partnership Policy Snapshot on this issue.

 

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Keeping Ahead of the Kansans

Posted April 9th, 2015 to Blog

As state legislators consider drastic cuts in Iowa’s income tax, they would do well to consider the experience of our neighbor Kansas, which enacted a huge income tax cut in 2012, and cut taxes again in 2013. These cuts have dramatically reduced state funding for schools, health care, and other services.

It is instructive to consider as well the experience in Wisconsin, where a large personal income tax cut took effect at the start of 2013, with similar results: subsequent job growth of 3.4 percent, farther below the norm than Kansas’ 3.5 percent from the implementation of its tax cuts.

None of this should come as a surprise. Most major academic research studies have concluded that individual income tax cuts do not boost state economic growth; in fact, states that cut income taxes the most in the 1990s or in the early 2000s had slower growth in jobs and income than other states.

Businesses need an educated workforce, and drastic cuts to education are likely to make it difficult to attract new workers, who care about their children’s schools at least as much as they care about taxes.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project

See Fisher’s Iowa Fiscal Partnership Policy Snapshot on this issue.