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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Better understanding the 47 percent

Posted October 1st, 2012 to Blog
Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Heather Gibney

The current political environment has set off a firestorm of confusion about who does and who does not pay taxes in America — and unfair criticism of many working families and others.

It’s true that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay taxes. In fact, almost two-thirds of the 47 percent are low-income, working households who are paying payroll taxes to help finance Social Security and Medicare, and many pay federal excise taxes on things like gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes.[1] These households are also paying a large percentage of their income in state and local sales and property taxes.

Many working Americans are exempt from the income tax because of features Congress added to the tax code — with overwhelming bipartisan support, in an effort to enable people to care for themselves and their children while encouraging them to work. Some of these features include the Earned Income Tax Credit, a Ronald Reagan era anti-poverty program that enables low-wage working families with children to meet their basic needs while promoting employment. In addition, the child tax credit gives families a tax credit through the form of a refund check even when they don’t owe federal income taxes.[2]

The other one-third of the 47 percent — those households that aren’t paying either major federal tax — includes those who are unemployed, low-income senior citizens who paid taxes during their working years and aren’t currently taxed on Social Security benefits, students, those who have disabilities or can’t work due to serious injury and people who don’t meet the income tax obligation because their wages aren’t high enough.

Often missed in the focus on those who are not currently paying income taxes is the errant assumption that all those people have never paid taxes and never will. Just because a household doesn’t owe income tax one year, doesn’t mean they won’t pay income taxes over their lifetime. For many, a career change, the loss of a job, a disability or injury, or low wages can lead to incomes too low to pay taxes.

Iowa households who aren’t paying federal income tax are still paying a large percentage of their incomes to state and local taxes. As the Iowa Policy Project reported in (2009), moderate-and low-income Iowans pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the rich do. [3] [4]

whopays2009As the graph at right shows, Iowa’s regressive tax system takes a larger share of the incomes from those who have the least, and a smaller share from those who have the ability to pay a larger percentage of their income. Make no mistake: Working Iowans pay taxes.

For more on this issue, see our two-pager, “Better understanding the 47 percent.”


Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Posted September 21st, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

The enormous package of state and local incentives provided to the Egyptian company Orascom to locate a fertilizer plant in Lee County has drawn considerable attention. The package includes $110 million in state tax credits and other incentives and $133 million in local tax abatements — a total of $243 million when all is said and done. All this to attract a plant that will employ just 165 workers.

At a cost per worker of nearly $1.5 million, the incentive is an astounding amount, well beyond the normal range of awards, in Iowa or anywhere else. (While the company claims a large number of ancillary jobs will follow, these claims are unverifiable, and it is not clear how many would even fall to Iowa residents; furthermore, there are always some spin-off jobs with any project, so the valid comparison with other awards is in terms of cost per direct job.)

Yet little attention has been paid to what is possibly the largest incentive provided: tax-exempt bonds, not even included in the above calculations.

Early on in the negotiations, in fact last April, the Iowa Finance Authority awarded Orascom up to $1.19 billion in Midwest Disaster Area (MDA) bonds. These bonds are exempt from federal income tax; Midwestern states affected by the 2008 flood were each given an allocation of these bonds to be awarded to projects in eligible counties — those declared disaster areas after the flood. The $1.19 billion loan would constitute 46 percent of the Iowa allocation.

Because the interest is exempt from federal income tax, the wealthy individuals and financial institutions that would purchase such bonds will accept a lower interest rate than they would require on taxable corporate bonds. The after-tax rate is what they focus on. This means that the company saves money. How much? That depends on the spread between corporate bond interest rates and tax-exempt rates.

Information from officials at the Iowa Finance Authority indicates that the spread would likely range from 1 percent to 2 percent. For a $1.19 billion bond issue to be repaid in equal annual installments over a 20-year period, the savings in interest would amount to between $153 million and $297 million, depending on what the interest rate differential turned out to be.

These tax-exempt bonds could have been used in Lee County or in Scott County; both were flood disaster areas and both, at one point, were under consideration as a location for the fertilizer plant. When the Scott County site was rejected, attention turned to Illinois, specifically the area near Peoria. But neither Peoria County nor any counties surrounding it were eligible for the Illinois allocation of MDA bonds.

This means that Lee County was starting with a huge advantage over the Illinois site: the availability of an incentive probably worth in the neighborhood of $200 million.

While the MDA bonds cost federal taxpayers, there is no loss of Iowa income-tax revenue. (The federal cost comes because the federal government forgoes income-tax revenue on the interest, which must then be made up by the rest of federal taxpayers.) But the point is that, whoever bears the cost, this was a very large incentive that Iowa could provide and Illinois could not.

Thus it raises the question: Given this advantage from the start, why was it necessary for the state of Iowa and Lee County to double down and provide another $200 plus million, especially when the Illinois tax incentives were not even a reality — they had passed the Illinois Senate, but not the House, and the Legislature had adjourned months ago?

Did Iowa just get taken to the cleaners?

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


Does Iowa know when to walk away?

Posted September 5th, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

There’s Texas Hold ’Em,” and then there’s “Iowa Fold ’Em.”

Wouldn’t you just love to play poker against the folks who run this state?

They never call a bluff. Companies come calling with demands for tax breaks and big checks, or they’ll build somewhere else. And Iowa just happily falls in line with the demands. You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The latest: Today the board of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is scheduled to consider sweetening its already generous offer to Orascom — $35 million to build a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County — to about $110 million with a slew of new tax credits. As The Des Moines Register points out today, that’s $110 million for 165 “permanent” jobs paying on average $48,000 a year, plus construction jobs that will be gone when the project is finished.

The state tax credits are in addition to the enormous benefit the state is providing by allocating federal tax-exempt flood recovery bonds to this project. If the interest rate difference — between taxable and tax-exempt bonds — were 1 percentage point, the company would save $320 million in interest payments over the life of the $1.2 billion bond. That would bring the firm’s total benefits to $2.7 million per permanent job, a truly astounding number. Even without considering the federal interest subsidy, the state tax credits would total $687,500 per job, many times the typical level of subsidy in deals such as this.

There are no estimates available about the potential environmental costs that will be caused by this plant. Since Iowa does a poor job of monitoring for pollution damage, those ongoing costs might be low, but if there is an accident, it could be costly.

The Register also quotes Debi Durham, head of IEDA, that incentives wouldn’t be needed if Iowa were to reduce corporate income tax rates. Nonsense. Research has shown repeatedly that this is a myth, and that in fact, Iowa’s income taxes paid by corporations are competitive with other states. In many cases, giant corporations are paying not a dime in income tax yet getting huge subsidy checks from the state to do things they would do without incentives.

This hand is the one we are dealt from years of unaccountable economic development strategies by Iowa state government.

Time for a fresh deck.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

The bridge to recovery

Posted August 29th, 2012 to Blog

There’s a whole lot of politickin’ going on these days and one of the targets is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, or the “stimulus.”

One of the points we made at the Iowa Fiscal Partnership during and after the adoption of the Recovery Act was its use as a “bridge” for state services. As we note on our IFP website, “economic stimulus measures need to be targeted, timely and temporary, to act as a bridge across the economic and fiscal valley of a recession.”

Recall that some in the Legislature, and some folks during the 2010 campaign season, complained that such use of “one-time funds” was a bad idea for ongoing services — that it would create a “cliff” in funding that, once exhausted, would leave the state on the hook for new responsibilities it might not be able to afford.

Late last week, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency shed new light on this discussion with a simple bar graph on the front page of one of its “Issue Review” reports, this one about Iowa state appropriations over time.

Iowa appropriations graph

Source: Iowa Legislative Services Agency, August 2012

Note the green portion of the bars, representing where ARRA funds filled in for lower state revenues caused by the Great Recession. No cliff emerged following the use of ARRA funds as state revenues (the red portions of the bars) rose. But note from FY2009 to FY2010 how state resources might have fallen without the ARRA funds. That potential cliff would have threatened state funding of education and health services that Iowans depend upon.

Clearly, the folks promoting one-time-fund orthodoxy were wrong, and the “bridge” analogy was spot-on.

The stimulus successfully bridged the gap in revenues to stop the critical loss of state services, and maintain the benefit of those services to the state’s economy.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Nonsense from the Far Right

Posted August 24th, 2012 to Blog

Political consultant Dick Morris slipped into Iowa last week, and the Spin-O-Meter was in overdrive.

Now, rather than repeat Mr. Morris’ misinformation, here is a link to a Des Moines Register story about his appearance at a rally orchestrated by the national right-wing organization Americans for Prosperity.

What Iowans need to know is that (1) Morris is wrong about what is driving the federal budget deficits, and (2) the causes are clear: You can’t cut taxes and fight two wars at the same time without digging a big budget hole.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities graph

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

As shown in the graph at right from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the economic downturn, President Bush’s tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq explain the vast majority of the deficit through 2019. One thing folks must recognize is that deficits caused by those factors cause more debt down the road, because we have to keep paying interest. Even after the Iraq war ended, we have to keep paying for it.

As we deal with these self-inflicted budget problems, we must maintain the fundamental and long-accepted responsibilities of our nation — to care for the most vulnerable and put them on their feet to get work and succeed in our economy.

Dick Morris has a big megaphone to try to instill something other than a factual presentation about what’s causing our deficits and debt. Fortunately, the discerning Iowan can find the facts by looking for them, and not buying into the conventional spin he delivers in his traveling medicine show.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Why the federal budget debate matters in the states

Posted August 9th, 2012 to Blog

There’s doggone near nobody who isn’t concerned about dealing with the nation’s long-term budget challenges of deficit and debt.

What not enough people will recognize, however, is the danger of diving headlong into a deficit-cutting approach that just digs a deeper hole, both for the economy and for the critical services that federal, state and local government spending supports.

Ryan budget impacts

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

And that’s the problem with the so-called “Ryan Budget,” named for Congressman Paul Ryan. That approach, passed by the House, makes cuts to funding for state and local services that are far deeper than the cuts many expect to happen with sequestration, the automatic cut process demanded by last year’s Budget Control Act compromise.

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities outlines the challenge for states generally with the Ryan approach:

  • Federal cuts of 34 percent by 2022 to Medicaid compared to current law, and by steadily larger amounts after that.
  • Federal cuts of 22 percent in 2014 and in later years to non-defense “discretionary” spending — which leaves Medicare and Social Security alone but hits local and state services in education, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and public health and safety including law enforcement.

For Iowa, the non-defense “discretionary” cuts are projected at $237 million in 2014 alone, and $2.1 billion from 2013 through 2021.

Want clean water? If you live in Iowa, where the state routinely shortchanges environmental enforcement, how bad do you think things might get when the federal funds are cut as well? Concerned about the quality of your food? Or your kids’ schools? Maybe the safety of the bridge you’re approaching on the way to work?

Well, folks, you get what you pay for.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Iowa’s holiday from taxes — and reality

Posted August 3rd, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Oh, boy! It’s sales-tax holiday weekend in Iowa.

We’re talking about a “7 percent off” sale, folks — on only a limited list of items. When’s the last time that brought you into a store? At any other time of year, it would not draw customers, but guffaws. Seven percent? Really?

As IPP’s Andrew Cannon pointed out last year at this time, these gimmicks “drain revenue, and feed unfairness in a state tax system.” They are found, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR), in 17 states, and take various forms.

Of course the folks in the malls will say they’re great — anything to get someone in the door. But think about it. We’re literally talking about a few bucks off a pair of jeans, about $5 off a $70 pair of shoes. You could do a heck of a lot better on a regular sale at a store even when you’re paying sales tax.

And when you’re paying the tax, you’re not stiffing the school that your child will be attending in a few weeks in new jeans and shoes.

There is a price to public services any time we chip away at revenues. Whether the cost is around $3 million — as this gimmick appears to cost, according to a 2009 report from the DOR — or $40 million in some business tax credit program, it all adds up. Money not brought in due to exceptions in the tax code costs the bottom line every bit as much as money spent by a state agency.

Make no mistake, Iowans are being sold a bill of goods — but at least it’s tax-free!

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


House vote: Thumbs up or thumbs down for 86,000 Iowa families?

Posted August 1st, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Iowans would stand to lose much under a proposal this week in the U.S. House of Representatives. Citizens for Tax Justice offered a striking analysis last week highlighting the impact of the 2009 improvements in the refundable tax credits for low-income working families in Iowa.

Simply put, the House proposal would undo the good work of 2009 and increase tax inequities, while a Senate-passed bill would keep the good stuff.

One of the 2009 improvements is an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), an issue we have covered extensively at IPP and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Any attempts to weaken the EITC at either the state or federal level will harm low- to moderate-income working families in our state. More than 1 out of every 7 federal tax filers in Iowa claims the EITC (about 15 percent). But under H.R. 8, the tax proposal being offered by the House leadership, the EITC improvements from 2009 would be lost.

H.R. 8 also would fail to extend the improvements made in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in 2009, and in the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education expenses.

It is impossible to find balance in the approach of H.R. 8, which would end these provisions above for 13 million working families with 26 million children, while extending tax cuts for 2.7 million high-income earners.

The state numbers from CTJ (full report available here):

  • 86,321 Iowa families with 190,553 kids would lose $62.5 million ($724 per family), if 2009 rules on EITC and the Per-Child Tax Credit are not extended;
  • 17,503 Iowa families with 28,179 kids would lose $32 million if the Per-Child Tax Credit earnings threshold does not remain at $3,000, compared to $13,300 as proposed by H.R. 8.
  • 59,159 Iowa families with 139,806 kids would lose $30.5 million if the two 2009 expansions of the EITC — larger credit for families with three or more children, and reducing the so-called “marriage penalty” — are not extended in 2013.

These “Making Work Pay” provisions of the tax code are almost exclusively of help to working families earning $50,000 or less at a time of stagnant wages and a difficult job market in which the Iowa economy is shifting toward lower-wage jobs.

To address our nation’s serious deficit and debt issues, a balanced approach should do nothing to increase poverty or income inequality. The Senate bill passed last week would keep the EITC and CTC improvements from 2009, and follows that principle. The bill that has emerged in the House does not.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


The policy effects of Supreme Court ruling — beyond politics, legal arguments

Posted June 28th, 2012 to Blog

Andrew Cannon

While many are focusing on the political and judicial ramifications of today’s Supreme Court ruling affirming the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it’s important to focus on how the law will affect health coverage.

ACA provisions at the heart of the Supreme Court decision are the personal responsibility requirement (or individual mandate) and the Medicaid expansion. Both provisions are not scheduled to take effect until January 1, 2014.

However, a number of provisions have been in effect since 2010 — shortly after the law’s passage, and have helped make insurance coverage accessible and more affordable for millions of Americans. Today’s ruling upholding the law means that millions of Americans will retain that coverage and those benefits.

Among the provisions currently in effect:

  • Young adult coverage — Uninsured persons age 18 through 25 may continue to be insured as a dependent on their parents’ health coverage. This provision has extended health care coverage to an estimated 6.6 million young Americans.[1]
  • Protections against pre-existing condition exclusions for children — The ACA prevents insurers from denying coverage to sick children. In Iowa, there are up to 51,000 children who have pre-existing conditions.[2]
  • The end of lifetime and annual benefit limits — Consumers with serious health conditions and treatment expenses no longer need to worry about bumping against maximum amounts an insurer will pay.
  • The elimination of the Medicare “doughnut hole” — Under existing Medicare law, seniors with high prescription costs had to pay for prescriptions entirely out-of-pocket. The ACA gradually eliminates this “doughnut hole,” providing seniors a 50 percent discounts on name-brand drugs and a 7 percent discount on generic drugs.
  • Tax credits for small businesses — Small businesses that meet specified qualifications may presently receive a tax credit if they offer their employees coverage and cover at least half of the premium cost.[3] Estimates of the number of eligible businesses vary, from about 2.6 million to about 4 million.[4] Take-up has been limited, partially due to lack of awareness.

Provisions that will take effect in 2014:

  • Expanding Medicaid coverage — Under the ACA, uninsured individuals with earnings at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,657 for a family of four in 2012) will qualify for enrollment in Medicaid.  If Iowa fully participates in the Medicaid expansion, as many as 114,700 Iowans may receive coverage.[5]
  • Creation of new insurance marketplaces, or “exchanges” — The ACA instructs states to construct new insurance marketplaces, accessible by Internet, in which those who don’t receive insurance through their employer may shop for insurance coverage. Individuals who don’t qualify for Medicaid coverage will receive tax credits to help them cover the cost of their heath premium. This is the group affected by the individual mandate. According to estimates, as many as 250,000 Iowans could find their health coverage through the new insurance marketplace, or exchange.[6]

While legal scholars and political pundits will undoubtedly have much to say for months on today’s decision, the central purpose of the law should not be lost in the discussion: to expand health insurance coverage and help create a health system that works for everyone.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate


[1] Sara R. Collins, Ruth Robertson, Tracy Garber and Michelle M. Doty, “Young, Uninsured, and in Debt: Why Young Adults Lack Health Insurance and How the Affordable Care Act is Helping,” the Commonwealth Fund. June 2012. <http://www.commonwealthfund.org/~/media/Files/Publications/Issue%20Brief/2012/Jun/1604_collins_young_uninsured_in_debt_v4.pdf>.

[2] Christine Sebastian, Kim Bailey, and Kathleen Stoll, “Health Reform: A Closer Look. Help for Iowans with Pre-Existing

Conditions,” Families USA. May 2010. <http://www.familiesusa.org/assets/pdfs/health-reform/pre-existingconditions/iowa.pdf>.

[3] See “Right Balance for Small Business in Health Reform,” Iowa Fiscal Partnership, July 22, 2010. <http://www.iowafiscal.org/2010docs/100722-IFP-HCR-credits.pdf>.

[4] “Small Employer Health Tax Credit: Factors Contributing to Low Use and Complexity” (GAO-12-549), Government Accountability Office, May 2012. <http://gao.gov/assets/600/590832.pdf>.

[5] John Holahan and Irene Headen, “Medicaid Coverage and Spending in Health Reform: National and State-by-State Results for Adults at or Below 133% FPL,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, May 2010. <http://www.kff.org/healthreform/upload/medicaid-coverage-and-spending-in-health-reform-national-and-state-by-state-results-for-adults-at-or-below-133-fpl.pdf>.

[6] Matthew Buettgens, John Hollahan, and Caitlin Carroll, “Health Reform Across States: Increased Insurance Coverage and Federal Spending on the Exchanges and Medicaid,” Urban Institute, March 2012. <http://www.urban.org/uploadedpdf/412310-Health-Reform-Across-the-States.pdf>.