Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Health exchanges: Why not fix?

Posted July 12th, 2017 to Blog

What would be your response if someone said to you: “The transmission in my car needs an overhaul. This just proves vehicular transportation doesn’t work, so I am going to get rid of my car and my pickup, even though the truck is still running fine.” You would probably think they were crazy. Why not just fix the car’s transmission?

Yet this is the logic being put forward by Senator Grassley and many others as they seek to repeal Obamacare. Yes, we have a problem with the insurance exchange in Iowa, where we now have just one insurance company offering policies. But instead of pursuing solutions to that problem, our representatives are using it as an excuse to repeal Obamacare, including the Medicaid expansion, which has nothing at all to do with the insurance exchange and in fact is still in good running order.

The lack of insurers in the Iowa exchange is largely a self-inflicted problem. Insurers have left the market in part because the state of Iowa did so little to encourage people to sign up, and to provide assistance in navigating the exchanges. Iowa was also extremely generous in allowing people to continue with existing poor-quality insurance.

The problem was worsened by President Trump’s efforts to sabotage the exchanges during the final weeks of the annual sign-up in January by banning all advertising and encouraging people to think Obamacare was going to end. As a result, the number enrolling in the exchanges, which had been on a pace to exceed that of the previous year, ending up falling short.[1] Too few younger and healthier people enrolled, leaving the insurance companies with older and sicker people.

There are solutions to this problem. Both the Iowa Insurance Commissioner and Iowa Democrats have proposed measures to solve the exchange problem at the state level. But the House and the Senate bills repealing and replacing Obamacare, instead of shoring up the exchanges, repeal the individual mandate. Analyses of their replacement provisions predict that they would worsen the problem instead of solving it, leaving the exchanges with even fewer healthy individuals.[2]

Now about the pickup truck. The Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) would likely result in 232,000 Iowans losing health insurance coverage over the next five years.[3] Three-fourths of them would become uninsured because of the loss of Medicaid, the rest because of cuts in premium assistance for policies purchased on the exchange.

Iowa expanded Medicaid eligibility (with 90 percent federal funding under Obamacare) to include low-income non-elderly adults, most of whom are working in low-wage jobs with little or nothing in benefits. The BCRA would effectively end the Medicaid expansion for about 177,000 Iowans.[4] This will hit rural Iowa the hardest, and it will undermine the finances of rural hospitals.

The Medicaid expansion has nothing to do with the health insurance exchanges. Our representatives should stop using a fixable problem with the exchanges as an excuse for passing a broad bill that ends health insurance for tens of thousands of Iowans.

[1] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sabotage Watch: Tracking Efforts to Undermine the ACA.

[2] Jacob Leibenluft and Aviva Aron-Dine. Senate Health Bill Can’t Be Fixed; Reported Changes Would Not Affect Bill’s Core Features. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 10, 2017.

[3] Linda Blumberg et al. State-by-State Coverage and Government Spending Implications of the Better Care Reconciliation Act.

[4] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute. The Impact of Per Capita Caps on Federal and State Medicaid Spending. March 2017.

Peter Fisher, Research Director, Iowa Policy Project & Iowa Fiscal Partnership

Why not a special session?

Posted July 11th, 2017 to Blog
Long-term impacts could be decided in short order;
Might not our state lawmakers want to weigh in?

If anything has been clear about the current health-care debate in Washington, it is that little is clear — except the likelihood that (1) people will lose insurance coverage and thus access to health care, and (2) this will pose new challenges for state government.

That being the case, it seems a good time for the Legislature to return to Des Moines and sort it out, sooner rather than later. It will be easier for legislators to talk to their federal counterparts about all this before legislation passes than afterward.

Because of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Medicaid expansion serves about 150,000 Iowans, and would serve an estimated 177,000 Iowans in 2019 if preserved. But those Iowans — and some 55,000 more — would be in jeopardy of losing insurance under legislation pending in the Senate. If the enhanced federal share of funding for Medicaid expansion is reduced or eliminated under any legislation to come — and both the House and Senate bills currently would do this — states would have a choice: Fill in the gap or let people go uninsured.

Oh, and if you’re going to choose to fill in the gap, go ahead and plan now on what will have to be cut to compensate for it. K-12 education, perhaps? Even more cuts to the regents institutions? Child care? Water protection? Law enforcement and corrections?

Already, legislators and Governor Kim Reynolds are facing those kinds of questions amid a looming fiscal shortfall and speculation about a possible special session.

In The Des Moines Register this week, columnist Kathie Obradovich suggested Governor Reynolds “is prudent to wait until fall to make a decision on a special session but that doesn’t mean she should avoid talking about it. Now is the time to be speaking frankly with Iowans and individual legislators, identifying the causes and consulting on potential solutions.”

Now is also the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and for that reason, waiting until fall might be too late. Legislative leaders and the Governor right now could be bringing in experts for a special session to discuss the potential impacts, and reach out to the congressional delegation, before decisions are made that restrict state budget choices for many years to come.
Unless, of course, they want to see budget crunches and special sessions more frequently.
Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

A look at future health care in Senate plan

Posted July 6th, 2017 to Blog
What Iowans need to know about coverage and costs

Health care policy is a complex issue. There’s no getting around that. But one way to consider the options vs. what we have is to look at basic, reliable estimates of the real-life impacts of the policy choices. How many Iowans would have insurance, and how many would not?

The Urban Institute has state-by-state estimates of these impacts. By 2022 — five years from now — under the Senate’s proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act, uninsurance in Iowa would more than double. Across the board of various population groups, significantly more Iowans (including children) would be uninsured than under the current Affordable Care Act, (ACA, or ObamaCare).

According to the Urban Institute:

• 148,000 non-elderly adults would be uninsured, or 8 percent, under the ACA, compared with 351,000 under BCRA, or 19 percent. This is an increase of 137 percent.

• 25,000 children would be uninsured, or 3.2 percent, under the ACA, compared with 54,000 under BCRA, or 6.9 percent. This is an increase of 117 percent.

• 115,000 non-elderly, non-Hispanic white Iowans would be uninsured under the ACA, or 5.4 percent, compared with 306,000 under BCRA, or 14.3 percent. This is an increase of 167 percent.

• 38,000 non-elderly Hispanic Iowans would be uninsured under the ACA, or 16.6 percent, compared with 53,000 under BCRA, or 23 percent. This is an increase of almost 39 percent.

For more about the impacts of the Senate proposal, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project.

BCRA hits seniors, rural Iowans

170118_capitol_170603-6:5New analysis shows Senate health care bill, like House-passed plan, gives big tax breaks to the wealthy as an estimated 232,000 Iowans would lose insurance. 

See our report by Peter Fisher here:

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KanOwaSin: Low-road neighbors, together?

Posted June 27th, 2017 to Blog

Here we sit in Iowa, nestled between two political petri dishes where experiments have gone wrong, and wondering if our elected leaders may let the mad scientists loose on us as well.

Some politicians would like to turn Iowa into another Kansas, another Wisconsin, where tax-cut zealotry already has driven down economic opportunity.

Welcome to KanOwaSin. In the anti-tax ideologues’ world, we’d all look the same. Why not ​share a name?

​Before someone squeezes another drop of anti-tax, anti-worker snake oil on us, let’s get out the microscope.Our friends in Wisconsin tell us: Don’t become Wisconsin. Our friends in Kansas tell us: Don’t become Kansas — and Kansans already are turning off the low road.A couple of researchers in Oklahoma are telling us: Listen to those folks. From the abstract of their working report:

“The recent fiscal austerity experiments undertaken in the states of Kansas and Wisconsin have generated considerable policy interest. … The overall conclusion from the paper is that the fiscal experiments did not spur growth, and if anything, harmed state economic performance.”


Their findings are among the latest exposing the folly of tax-cut magic, particularly with regard to Kansas, which IPP’s Peter Fisher has highlighted in his analysis that ferrets out the faulty notions in ideological and politically oriented policies that tear down our public services and economic opportunity.

Iowa has long been ripe for tax reform, due to a long list of exemptions, credits and special-interest carve-outs in the income tax, sales tax and property tax. These stand in the way of having sufficient resources for our schools, public safety and environmental protection.

Each new break is used to sell Iowans on the idea that we can attract families and businesses by cutting  — something we’ve tried for years without success, as Iowa’s tortoise-like population growth has lagged the nation.

On balance, this arrangement favors the wealthy over the poor. The bottom 80 percent pay about 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes that are governed by state law. The top 1 percent pay only about 6 percent. Almost every tax proposal in the last two decades has compounded the inequities.

For the coming 2018 legislative session, and for the election campaigns later that year, we are being promised a focus on income tax. Keep in mind, anything that flattens the income tax — the only tax we have that expects a greater share of income from the rich than the poor — steepens the overall inequity of our regressive system.

Thus, as always, the devil is in the details of the notion of “reform.” If “reform” in 2017 and beyond means more breaks for the wealthy, and inadequate revenue for traditional, clearly recognized public responsibilities such as education and public health and safety, then it is not worthy of the name.

So, when you hear about the very real failures of the Kansas and Wisconsin experiments, stop and think about what you see on your own streets, and your own schools. Think about the snake oil pitches to follow their lead, and whether you want Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

That is the promise of Kansas and Wisconsin for Iowa.

Or, if you prefer, KanOwaSin.


Dan S. Rickman and Hongbo Wang, Oklahoma State University, “Tales of Two U.S. States: Regional Fiscal Austerity and Economic Performance.” March 19, 2017.
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Any way you cut it — Americans lose health coverage

Posted June 26th, 2017 to Blog

First, let’s make no mistake: Both the Senate and House bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) represent substantial cuts in health coverage, including Medicaid.

People will lose coverage, have less coverage, and/or pay more for it. This is a public policy choice being offered in the drive to repeal ACA’s enhancement of insurance coverage for millions of Americans. In Iowa alone, uninsurance dropped from over 8 percent to 5 percent in just two years.

It is at best disingenuous for anyone to suggest otherwise, or to downplay the cut. Those who want to promote this legislation, for whatever reason, have to own the impact. If they’re afraid of the political disadvantage of admitting it, that’s another story.

The stakes for some 200,000 Iowans are significant, jeopardizing recent health-care coverage gains and putting vulnerable Iowans at risk. An Iowa Fiscal Partnership report from Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project sets the context for this week’s discussions in the Senate.

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (see graph at right) shows how the Senate bill would drive up costs for the 31 states that — along with Washington, D.C. — expanded Medicaid under the ACA.

For Iowa, the estimates are daunting: In 2021, Iowa would have $54 million more in costs, and in 2024, $395 million more — a 315 percent increase.

That CBPP report is part of the exceptionally good information available even in the short time frame we have to understand what is emerging from the backrooms of Washington, out of public view.

See these reports, just produced in the last couple of days by tremendously reputable organizations:

This is our business. We can demand to know the facts and we might just want to know them before the Senate votes — even if some in the Senate might be uncomfortable with that.

By Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Closing the books — why real math matters

Posted June 20th, 2017 to Blog

Or: How Governor Branstad claimed to reach his jobs goal but did not come close

As it all turned out, the job-growth goal set by former Governor Terry Branstad was at best ambitious, and never realistic.

With four previous terms behind him, and 12 years out of office, Branstad came back in 2010 with a goal of 200,000 new jobs in five years.

Nothing wrong with setting lofty goals. The biggest problem with this one was the way the longtime Governor decided to measure progress toward it. If the goal was never realistic, the counting method was never math.

Iowa’s economy produced 106,900 new jobs — the net job increase — through the Governor’s second round in office.

As late as April, the last jobs report released in Governor Branstad’s tenure, the official report from Iowa Workforce Development bore an extra line, ordered by someone, for “Gross Over-the-month Employment Gains,” from January 2011. And that line would, magically, put the state over the 200,000 mark — a year late, but more on that later.

There was no explanation with the report on how this special line was computed, but analysis showed the administration cherry-picked job gains to come up with the “gross” figure. Job categories that showed a loss in a given month were simply ignored.

It was as if a business reported its sales but not its expenses, or a football team counted its own touchdowns but not those it gave up. The number, then, was literally meaningless as an indicator of anything happening in the economy.

Last week, IWD released its first report on monthly job numbers since Governor Kim Reynolds took office, and the “gross” gains line was gone from the official spreadsheet.

So, for the sake at least of history, a little context:
— Through the five years of the Governor’s goal, Iowa produced 92,100 new jobs.

— Through the end of the Governor’s tenure, Iowa produced 106,900 new jobs.

In fact, we didn’t reach 200,000 under even the Governor’s counting gimmick until January of this year, a year late. Meeting the goal would have required 60 months averaging over 3,300 net new jobs a month. Instead, we have seen far less:

The slow pace of recovery should not have been a surprise to anyone. Iowa and the nation had just come out of a shorter and less severe recession in 2001. The pace of that recovery — up until the Great Recession hit — was quite similar to what we have seen over the past six years before even the latest pace slowed down.

The actual job numbers and what they may illustrate remain more important than Governor Branstad’s spin on them. It would be a mistake to devote undue further attention to the fake numbers.
Likewise, it would be a mistake to attribute any general job trends — positive or negative, even legitimately derived with actual math — principally to state efforts. Much larger forces are at work. Plus, overselling the state role feeds poor policy choices, namely to sell expensive and unaccountable tax breaks, supposedly to create jobs, at the expense of the public services that make a strong business environment possible and make our state one where people want to raise families.
Iowa needs more jobs and better jobs. To understand whether we’re getting them
requires responsible treatment of data, and honest debate with it.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

Kansas experiment yields valuable lessons

Posted June 7th, 2017 to Blog

By Heidi Holliday, Kansas Center for Economic Growth

You’re welcome, America.

Our state, Kansas, just wrapped up a five-year experiment in governance from which the other 49 states can now glean some important lessons. The Kansas Legislature has voted to roll back much of the 2012 package of tax cuts that sent the state into a downward spiral of financial instability and weakened the Kansas’ public schools, universities, Medicaid program, and virtually everything else that the state funds.

With the state facing yet another budget shortfall of $900 million, government leaders decided that enough was enough. Governor Brownback, who heralded the 2012 experiment, was proposing yet more temporary band-aid approaches and more cuts deal with the shortfalls. The Legislature chose a different path and instead sent the Governor a bill that would raise more than $1.2 billion in new revenue over two years by, among other things, repealing a costly tax break for pass-through income, rebalancing individual income tax rates by reinstating a third tax bracket, and reversing course on the Governor’s plan to eliminate our state income tax. Brownback vetoed the legislation but, with bipartisan support, the House and Senate quickly overrode the veto.

Our state has begun the path to fiscal stability and is closer to becoming a model of good policy choices as much as it is a cautionary tale. The damage done to Kansas from this reckless experiment will not be undone overnight, but other states need not wait to act upon the lessons learned.

Put simply, revenue matters. You can’t get something for nothing. We all want and deserve thriving communities with great schools, parks, and modern roads and bridges; and we chip in to pay for that. That’s what taxes are for.

Because of the scope of the 2012 changes, it didn’t take long before Kansans in every corner of the state began connecting the dots between the actions of state lawmakers and the quickly eroding quality of the things that make for a good economic foundation in every community. With every subsequent shortfall, the picture became more clear.

Meanwhile, the promised economic boom — and the revenue rebound that would supposedly follow — never happened (as economists predicted). In the last few election cycles, voters have viewed candidates and their promises through a different lens, and the 2017 Legislature had the experience and public backing to chart a new course.

Most state tax codes, including ours, need further reform, but it’s high time that state tax policy adhere to one basic, proven (and now proven once again) principle — states need revenue to invest in the things that create thriving communities and a prosperous economy. Kansas just learned this lesson again, the hard way, so that your state doesn’t have to.

You’re welcome.


The Kansas Center for Economic Growth is part of the State Priorities Partnership (SPP), a nationwide network of policy analysis groups coordinated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Iowa Fiscal Partnership — a joint initiative of the Iowa Policy Project and the Child & Family Policy Center — also is a member of SPP.

Rosy forecasts bring thorny budgets

Capitol-DSC_0119-7inA memo from the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) indicates a higher-than-anticipated cost of a special-interest sales-tax break primarily for manufacturers.

We could not afford it when Governor Terry Branstad attempted to implement it by rule in 2015, or when a scaled-back version passed in 2016, and we cannot afford it now.

But it appears likely that the new break is at least part of the reason sales-and-use taxes are flattening out, putting fresh pressure on the budget even after FY2017 cuts and continued reliance of state policy makers to push tax breaks that divert millions from critical services such as education.

There is great irony in this report coming as Governor Branstad was turning over the keys to Kim Reynolds, especially given this comment in the LSA piece by senior fiscal legislative analyst Jeff Robinson:

One potential explanation for the recent sales/use tax downturn is an underestimated fiscal impact of the sales/use tax exemption for manufacturing supplies and replacement parts. For proposed legislation in previous years, estimates of the impact of exempting manufacturing supplies and replacement parts from the State sales/use tax had been much higher.

As Robinson suggests, there was ample reason to think the cost would be “much higher” and that should have been taken into account in revenue estimates and crafting the FY17 budget.

Likewise, the four of us were present in the Iowa House chamber in 1983 when new Governor Branstad proposed a sales-tax increase, just a few months after bludgeoning his election opponent, Roxanne Conlin, with a “tax and spend” refrain. The new Governor inherited a budget shortfall right out of the gate, a product of overly rosy revenue projections by the Ray administration.

To be fair to Governor Ray, the farm crisis was unfolding back then, and the landscape was not necessarily as clear.

This time, the continuing revenue problem is due principally to out-of-control tax giveaways, which have accelerated long since Governor Ray left office. Just this one perk for manufacturing was expected to cost $21.3 million from the state budget.* However, the latest LSA analysis suggests, the cost to the state may be two or three times what was expected.

Odd that Governor Branstad, burned so early in his tenure by optimistic revenue estimates, would let this happen to his very own successor as she took office. Maybe he just forgot.

We did not forget.


* That cost figure grows to $25.6 million when including the dedicated revenue for local school infrastructure, and $29.2 million when including lost local-option tax revenue.

Posted by IPP Executive Director Mike Owen, IPP Founder David Osterberg, IPP Board President Janet Carl, and IPP Board Member Lyle Krewson. Owen was the Statehouse correspondent for the Quad-City Times and Osterberg, Carl and Krewson were state representatives from Mount Vernon, Grinnell and Urbandale, respectively — in 1983.

Sales-tax break didn’t add jobs

Posted June 6th, 2017 to Blog

Pushes for lower taxes on business routinely come with promises for more jobs. On that score, the more-costly-than-expected manufacturing sales-tax break has not produced for Iowans.

Since the start of the current fiscal year, when the new law took effect, Iowa manufacturing jobs are even lower than where they started. Clearly the new break did not cause the drop — a decline in manufacturing jobs started over two years ago after some recovery from the 2007-09 Great Recession. Iowa lost more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs from the peak in those years and never fully recovered. Manufacturing jobs dipped below 211,000 in April for the third time in six months, to nearly their lowest level in five years.

Thus, whatever can be said about the expensive new sales-tax break for business, creating jobs in manufacturing is not one of them.

It does appear the break is more costly than had been expected. An April memo from the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) has received significant attention in recent days, as sales-tax revenues are on pace to be down about $100 million from what was expected for the fiscal year ending June 30. The cost of the sales-tax break for an expanded list of items used in manufacturing had been projected at $21.3 million for the state.

The LSA analysis suggests that at least part of the unexpected revenue loss might be due to underestimated costs of that special sales-tax break.

It is true that the manufacturing sales-tax break was promoted on larger grounds than just job growth. In a break from its usual promotion of a hodgepodge of inequitable breaks creating a severely unbalanced playing field, the business lobby had promoted this as a fairness issue for businesses. That political strategy worked.

But increasing jobs was the steady drumbeat from Governor Branstad for his economic policies throughout the six years of his return to office in 2011, so it is reasonable to look for any job impacts.

In this case, none are immediately apparent. What we can see is that without the change, and with more careful budget projections, new Governor Kim Reynolds quite likely would not be facing the added revenue challenges she has before her.

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