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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Remaking ‘Blazing Saddles’

Posted December 13th, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

Some of the arguments against raising tax rates on the richest 2 percent of Americans back to the level that prevailed during the boom years of the 1990s bring to mind Mel Brooks’ classic, Blazing Saddles. In the film, new Sheriff Bart is surrounded by an angry mob. He draws his gun, points it at his own head and warns he’ll shoot if someone makes a move. The mob freezes and Bart escapes to safety.

In the current remake of the film, Bart is being played by the wealthy businessmen claiming they will have to lay off workers if we raise the tax rate on their profits by 3.6 percentage points.

We can reasonably assume those workers are currently productive, earning enough for the owner to cover their wages and add something to the bottom line. If not, they would have been laid off long ago. So these owners would have us believe that an increase in the tax on profits would lead them to lay off these productive workers. That, in turn, would mean the business is producing less, earning less profit before taxes.

So the owners are actually saying, “If you raise my taxes, I will show you a thing or two — I’ll deliberately sabotage my business so you have less profit to tax.”

A business owner whose objective is to maximize after-tax profits will always be better off producing more, with more workers, and earning more before-tax profit, no matter what percent of those profits end up going to pay income taxes. On the other hand, making a political point may be so important to these owners that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot, if not the head, to do it. If they are rich enough to afford that symbolic gesture, I guess we can’t stop them.

Fortunately, in the remake of Blazing Saddles, it appears that the angry mob is ready to call their bluff. They recognize that the “job-killing tax increase” is no such thing. It is simply an effort to reclaim for the average American a share of the increased wealth generated by workers in this economy in recent years that has been captured almost entirely by the richest among us.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


Remaking ‘Blazing Saddles’

Posted December 13th, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

Some of the arguments against raising tax rates on the richest 2 percent of Americans back to the level that prevailed during the boom years of the 1990s bring to mind Mel Brooks’ classic, Blazing Saddles. In the film, new Sheriff Bart is surrounded by an angry mob. He draws his gun, points it at his own head and warns he’ll shoot if someone makes a move. The mob freezes and Bart escapes to safety.

In the current remake of the film, Bart is being played by the wealthy businessmen claiming they will have to lay off workers if we raise the tax rate on their profits by 3.6 percentage points.

We can reasonably assume those workers are currently productive, earning enough for the owner to cover their wages and add something to the bottom line. If not, they would have been laid off long ago. So these owners would have us believe that an increase in the tax on profits would lead them to lay off these productive workers. That, in turn, would mean the business is producing less, earning less profit before taxes.

So the owners are actually saying, “If you raise my taxes, I will show you a thing or two — I’ll deliberately sabotage my business so you have less profit to tax.”

A business owner whose objective is to maximize after-tax profits will always be better off producing more, with more workers, and earning more before-tax profit, no matter what percent of those profits end up going to pay income taxes. On the other hand, making a political point may be so important to these owners that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot, if not the head, to do it. If they are rich enough to afford that symbolic gesture, I guess we can’t stop them.

Fortunately, in the remake of Blazing Saddles, it appears that the angry mob is ready to call their bluff. They recognize that the “job-killing tax increase” is no such thing. It is simply an effort to reclaim for the average American a share of the increased wealth generated by workers in this economy in recent years that has been captured almost entirely by the richest among us.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


States should beware ALEC-brand snake oil

Posted November 29th, 2012 to Blog

Peter Fisher

Legislative sessions will be starting across the country after the first of the year, and with them, some very bad ideas for public policy.

The purveyor of many poor prescriptions is a very influential right-wing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. The organization promotes policies to cut taxes and regulations in the disguise of promoting economic growth, but what they really do is reduce services, opportunity and accountability.

In short, the ALEC medicine show is a prescription for poor results, and states should beware.

Our new report, “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” examines ALEC’s proposals and the misinformed, primitive methodology behind the study that supports them. The new report, a joint project of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and Good Jobs First in Washington, D.C., illustrates how ALEC’s prescriptions really offer stagnation and wage suppression.

In fact, we find that since ALEC first published its annual “Rich States, Poor States” study with its Economic Outlook Ranking in 2007, states that were rated better have actually done worse economically.

Find “Selling Snake Oil to the States” at http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/snakeoiltothestates.

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.

ALEC’s rankings are based on arguments and evidence that range from deeply flawed to nonexistent, consistently ignoring decades of peer-reviewed academic research.

What we know from research is that the composition of a state’s economy — whether it has disproportionate shares of high-growth or low-growth industries — is a far better predictor of a state’s relative success over the past five years. Public policy makers need to stick to the basics and recognize that public services that benefit all employers.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


A full table

Posted November 21st, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

As the serving table groans and the plate runneth over for many Americans on Thanksgiving Day, the bounty of food they enjoy will not be so plentiful for all.

Many Iowans will face a challenge — as they often have — just to be able to provide enough for their family. They will be thankful that our nation does set aside enough to help them get by. It’s nothing extravagant, but it matters in keeping their children and themselves fed when times are tough. It comes in the form of what we have long known as “Food Stamps,” one of the most successful programs ever initiated by the federal government.

Against this backdrop, Congress holds the fate of the Farm Bill, legislation passed every five years. Three-fourths of the package is related to nutrition support, including Food Stamps — now SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The outcome, as outlined by Michael Bruner in a recent brief for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, Children and the Farm Bill, shows that decisions in the lame-duck session will have important implications for how well SNAP continues to meet the needs of struggling Americans.

Gridlock in Washington over the past year has left this issue hanging. As IPP’s Andrew Cannon noted a year ago in his report on public and private nutrition programs, A Secure Nutrition Network, “Even a robust private network of food banks and food pantries cannot fully cover the needs of food insecure Americans if federal nutrition programs lapse.”

As we celebrate the holidays and prepare for the year ahead, we should note that over 197,000 households in Iowa, representing over 419,000 people, received food assistance benefits in October totaling about $51 million. Is $51 million a lot of money? Yes — and it’s going into local economies across the state, while providing important help to families.

But there’s no one living extravagantly off that assistance. It works out to about $121 a month per person — about $3.89 per day, or $1.30 per meal. It is, as advertised, a “supplemental” benefit for, in many cases, working families.

The table is full of important issues, none more important than assuring that all Americans, particularly children, have enough to eat.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

———

Other resources on this issue:

Check out the “Policy Basics” brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226 and the latest food security report from USDA: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err141.aspx


Talk is cheap

Posted November 20th, 2012 to Blog
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

There are three principal problems with the Governor’s proposed Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and they can be summed up in three words: Talk is cheap.

Solutions to this problem start with enforcement, and that takes money. The state of Iowa shortchanges water quality, underfunding it even compared to what we did a decade ago. Our March 2012 report, Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, found that this water-quality funding decline came despite greater needs for water protection and public willingness to fund it.

Second, inadequate enforcement of environmental rules for Iowa’s livestock industry has resulted in the state’s censure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and this threatens our ability to write permits and otherwise enforce our obligations under the Clean Water Act. The strategy bases enforcement on voluntary acceptance of state rules. This has not worked.

Finally, it says much about Iowa’s commitment to water quality — or lack of commitment — when the state proposes a major nutrient reduction strategy and offers no new money to get the job done. The strategy proposes nothing to make sure Iowa does better in assuring clean water for its residents, for states downstream, and the future.

In short, we need a strategy that recognizes the serious water quality problem we have and offers a realistic approach to addressing it. This must be more than a goal — but a guarantee to all Iowans.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director


Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

Posted November 13th, 2012 to Blog

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

How ironic that we have reason to ask that question, a week after a presidential election that capped three-plus years of courting of Iowa voters, and a few days before a potential 2016 candidate visits to start all of it brewing again.

Yet the question is unavoidable. Consider two pieces in today’s Des Moines Register.

First, the Register reports, the federal Environmental Protection Agency may take over water quality enforcement in Iowa due to weak efforts by Iowa’s state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As IPP’s David Osterberg recently told EPA officials to hold DNR more accountable because the state is underfunding water protection.

“EPA should help the agency in bargaining with a legislature that has shown itself to be less concerned with water quality protection than tax cuts. … There is no question that if EPA simply accepts the agency’s agreement to try to do better, water quality will not improve in this state.”

If the EPA admonishment of Iowa’s lax environmental enforcement were not enough, we also are waiting for the state to offer its long-overdue decision on how to proceed on health reform. The 2012 election affirms the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed, so the state’s dragging its heels on creating a health insurance exchange no longer makes sense — if it ever did.

Yet, we now have a real question of whether it’s a good idea for the state to move ahead on its own with an exchange, where Iowans can shop for affordable insurance and not be denied coverage, or having the federal government do it for us. As the Register opined in an editorial today, “It is too important for this state to mess up.” Citing problems implementing temporary high-risk pools, and political dealings in previous legislative attempts to create an exchange, the Register noted:

“Iowans need the coming insurance marketplace to work for them in years to come. But state leaders have shown they are not the ones to design it.”

Can we govern ourselves? Apparently national candidates will come calling in Iowa without worrying about that. So maybe we should answer if for ourselves.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


How about that timing of worker pay report?

Posted October 31st, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Timing is everything.

Consider the announcement Tuesday by the Branstad administration of a new report produced by an outside company to examine whether Iowa state workers are paid too much.

Paid too much?

As the Department of Administrative Services was releasing the report, emergency rescue workers across the Eastern seaboard were putting themselves in harm’s way to help their neighbors in the path of the deadly Hurricane Sandy. And right here in Iowa, within a couple hours of the DAS news conference, bank robbers shot two law enforcement officers — critically wounding the Sumner police chief and injuring a state trooper.

We count on public servants every day, sometimes when lives are at stake, sometimes in enriching life with education, sometimes in just keeping life orderly enough that we can enjoy it without worrying whether the water or food will poison us, or that our job will not put us in danger we did not sign up for.

Oh, and the report? It found that pay scales for Iowa state workers are generally competitive. Where the report cited potential problems, the information provided was too sketchy to delve in and really go through it. And, being produced by a private company that copyrighted the report, we might just never know what our tax dollars produced. This is what happens with privatization, folks. But if you want a quick look at the holes in the report, see the review Tuesday by IPP’s Peter Fisher.

So, for those less inclined toward knee-jerk appeals against public workers, the timing of this report, you might say, wasn’t too bad.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

 

Problems with new state pay study

Posted October 30th, 2012 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

The contracted study of state employee compensation released today by the Iowa Department of Administrative Services is raising questions — including from those of us at the Iowa Policy Project who have been watching this issue for some time.

Many will recall our groundbreaking report from February 2011, Apples to Apples: Private-Sector and Public-Sector Compensation in Iowa, broke down myths about public-sector pay and benefits. In short, we found that even when often more-generous health benefits packages are considered, total compensation for public-sector (state and local government) employees in Iowa is less than that for private-sector employees who have similar education.

Briefly, we would raise these points about the study released today:

  • First, you lose an apples-to-apples comparison when you compare a mean, or average, with a median. Yet that is what this study does, comparing an average or mean base salary in state government with the median pay in the “market.” Income and wages are usually distributed in such a way that the mean is higher than the median. There is not enough information provided to show those distributions in this study, but the danger is that it creates a built-in bias to make the public-sector wages appear higher than the market. (Suppose seven workers earn $40,000 and three earn $60,000, in both the public and the private sector. The average is $46,000, the median is $40,000 — a wide disparity.)
  • The study compares base pay (without benefits) in Iowa state government, with pay for supposedly similar jobs in “the market,” which means both the private sector and other state governments. For about half the job titles, there is no data for other states, so half the comparisons are with public and private jobs together (weighted or averaged in some unknown fashion), the other half just with the private sector.
  • No numbers are given for how many persons fill each job category, so it is difficult to assess the practical implications for the state budget to say 11 positions paid more than the market and seven paid less. Presumably there are many more nurse clinicians (paid below the market) than there are health facilities surveyors (paid above market). They do not explain the derivation of the oft-cited number that overall Iowa base pay is 17.9 percent above market — did they just average all the job titles or did they take into account the number of persons with each job title?
  • The full report does compare Iowa pay with pay for the same job titles in other states — but does not tell us the comparison group. We believe any study should compare states in close proximity; we do not really compete for state employees in most job classifications with Vermont, California, Florida or Mississippi. Most importantly, the results here are simply not believable. They find actual base pay to be well above what other states are paying, often 30 percent to 50 percent more. How did this happen for years and years without anyone noticing, including the state negotiators who presumably were concerned with comparability? These results are not credible, and once again, they compare an Iowa mean with a market median.
  • The report shows the job title for the positions in Iowa, but does not show what the corresponding private-sector job titles were. The devil is in the details here, and the results depend crucially on how they selected private-market analogues to public sector jobs. What private-sector job is comparable to a corrections officer, a special agent, a state trooper, an income maintenance worker, or a child support recovery officer?

Today’s report does nothing to dissuade us from our earlier conclusions, but we do have more questions, because we all can learn from more information where it is available. The problem with the study released today by the state is that it throws out a lot of numbers, but really not a lot of information to enlighten how the company that produced it came up with those numbers.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director


Small businesses understand competitive realities, role of government

Posted October 25th, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Political talk pandering to small businesses is commonplace, and often involves inaccurate assumptions about positions on taxes and the role of government. Thus, they are not only frequent, but frequently wrong.

A survey released today by the Small Business Majority (SBM) www.smallbusinessmajority.org — a nonpartisan small-business advocacy group — found wide acknowledgement of the need for more equitable, sustainable fiscal choices in Washington. As noted by SBM:

Contrary to popular belief, nationwide scientific opinion polling conducted earlier this month found that the majority of small business owners—more of whom identify as Republican than Democrat (47%-35%)—believe that raising taxes on the wealthiest 2% is the right thing to do in light of our budget crisis. What’s more, 40% strongly believe this.

The polling also found the majority of entrepreneurs see a productive role for government in helping small businesses achieve success. Nearly 6 in 10 agree government can play an effective role in helping small businesses thrive.

These are interesting results but they should not be terribly surprising.

Folks in small business know:

  • Budgets have two sides — spending and revenue.
  • Small businesses benefit when employees and consumers are educated, safe, healthy and financially secure.
  • Small businesses can compete when the playing field is level for all businesses; it’s hard to compete with bigger competitors who are getting special breaks from the referee — government.

And there are lessons in this for state policy makers as well.

Tax breaks geared to multistate corporate giants that can shift profits to other nations or states do not benefit small businesses, or all businesses equitably, and do not always help the economy. It is clear that people running small businesses understand this.

Iowa can make the playing field better, and restore squandered revenue, by plugging tax loopholes that are costing the state $60 million to $100 million a year. Several states already do this, including four of the six states that border Iowa: Illinois (home of Deere & Co.), Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska. But Iowa lawmakers have refused to defy the big corporate lobbyists that have stood in the way of this important reform, known as “combined reporting.”

You can learn more about that and other inequitable, unaccountable tax breaks in Iowa at the Iowa Fiscal Partnership website, www.iowafiscal.org.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Score one for economic reality: Public jobs matter

Posted October 22nd, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Today’s New York Times editorial, “The Myth of Job Creation,” takes both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney to task for their comments in the second debate about the importance of public-sector (government) jobs.

As the Times noted:

Public-sector job loss means trouble for everyone. Government jobs are crucial to education, public health and safety, environmental protection, defense, homeland security and myriad other functions that the private sector cannot fulfill. They are also critical for private-sector job growth in … fundamental ways.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we have made this case repeatedly in Iowa over the last few years, both in response to cutbacks in Iowa budgets and to misinformed political assaults on federal stimulus spending, which did a good job bridging revenue gaps in Iowa to prevent worse cutbacks in public-sector spending. See our latest “Iowa JobWatch.”

In Iowa, 1 in 6 jobs is a government job, at the local, state or national level. How is it possible that roughly a quarter-million jobs in our state do not have an important impact on our economy? The answer of course is that they do. The lion’s share of those jobs are in local government, so they are scattered across the state. They are filled by our neighbors, buying goods and services from local businesses and keeping kids in our schools. As the Times notes, regarding comments by both presidential candidates suggesting that “government does not create jobs”:

Except that it does, millions of them — including teachers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers, sailors, astronauts, epidemiologists, antiterrorism agents, park rangers, diplomats, governors (Mr. Romney’s old job) and congressmen (like Paul Ryan).

As with shortsighted approaches in budgeting that attempt to resolve all deficit issues with spending cuts, instead of taking a balanced approach to both the spending and revenue sides of the budget ledger, our leaders make a mistake when they think all new jobs have to be in the private sector or they don’t matter. Public-sector spending feeds private industry, and creates new jobs in the private sector. To pretend otherwise is foolish.

It’s always good when a dose of fiscal and economic reality hits the public debate. But it is unfortunate that it doesn’t happen more often.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director