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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

A squeaky wheel is heard — but not fixed​

Posted April 27th, 2016 to Blog

Davenport has been the squeaky wheel on school funding inequity in Iowa, and the Iowa House this week tried to apply a drop of oil. Problem is, the whole axle is rusty, and cracked.

By law, 164 school districts — about half of Iowa’s 330 districts — are held $175 below the maximum per-pupil spending amount used to set local school budgets. In fact, almost 84 percent of school districts in the state are $100 or more below the maximum (graph below).

Basic RGB

On Tuesday, the House passed an amendment, H8291, that dealt only with the squeakiest wheel — Davenport — and only for a one-year fix.

Davenport is not buying. In a Quad-City Times story, Davenport lawmakers were not happy. Their school superintendent, Art Tate, called it “no help at all,” and for good measure, put the focus where it needs to be.

Wrote Tate in an email to the Times: “It does not address the moral imperative to make every student worth the same in Iowa.”

The larger question, given that moral imperative, is why more districts aren’t more active on this issue. One reason could be that Iowa’s inequities, while real, do not rise to the level of what might be found in other states.

Another reason might be that just fighting for basic school funding is hard enough, when the Legislature is setting a seven-year pace of funding growth below 2 percent despite faster growth in district costs, strong state revenues and approval of more business tax breaks.

160324-AG-SSA-history

We’re in the closing days, perhaps the closing hours, of the 2016 legislative session, with exceedingly few successes for education and working families. It’s too late in this session to expect real reform of the school funding system, pleas for which have come for many years — and focus on more than the per-pupil cost. There are other equity problems, the largest of which is in funding transportation services.

The weak House attempt at a one-year fix for Davenport, however, is a sign that the squeaky wheel is being heard. Think of what might happen if more wheels squeaked.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Wrong again: ALEC can’t pick its own ‘winners’ among states

Posted April 12th, 2016 to Blog

ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — persists in peddling “research” that knocks down its own policy ideas.

In its latest edition of Rich States, Poor States, just released, ALEC’s Economic Outlook Ranking scores states on 15 measures reflecting ALEC’s preferred policies towards business. Our Grading the States analysis has exposed the flawed methodology of ALEC’s report, but the authors have not changed it for the 9th edition.

ALEC’s dilemma: The index purports to predict which state economies will perform the best, but in fact there is no relation between a state’s score and how well the economy grows subsequently.

Since the first edition in 2007, it remains the case that ALEC’s “best” states — the ones with the highest rankings — are actually poorer on several measures than the supposedly “worst” states. The graph below has been updated to reflect the 9th edition rankings and the latest income data.

Basic RGB

The 20 states that performed best on the four measures of income (the actual rich states) actually score much worse on ALEC’s ranking than the 20 states with the lowest income (the actual poor states).

In its fervent anti-government bias, the report offers a package of policies — for fiscal austerity, suppressing wages and imposing proportionately higher taxes on low-income people — with a promise of economic growth, when it really is a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes for most citizens, and starving public infrastructure and education systems of needed revenue.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and developer of IPP’s Grading the States website, GradingStates.org.

 

 


Wrong again: ALEC can’t pick its own ‘winners’ among states

Posted April 12th, 2016 to Blog

ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — persists in peddling “research” that knocks down its own policy ideas.

In its latest edition of Rich States, Poor States, just released, ALEC’s Economic Outlook Ranking scores states on 15 measures reflecting ALEC’s preferred policies towards business. Our Grading the States analysis has exposed the flawed methodology of ALEC’s report, but the authors have not changed it for the 9th edition.

ALEC’s dilemma: The index purports to predict which state economies will perform the best, but in fact there is no relation between a state’s score and how well the economy grows subsequently.

Since the first edition in 2007, it remains the case that ALEC’s “best” states — the ones with the highest rankings — are actually poorer on several measures than the supposedly “worst” states. The graph below has been updated to reflect the 9th edition rankings and the latest income data.

Basic RGB

The 20 states that performed best on the four measures of income (the actual rich states) actually score much worse on ALEC’s ranking than the 20 states with the lowest income (the actual poor states).

In its fervent anti-government bias, the report offers a package of policies — for fiscal austerity, suppressing wages and imposing proportionately higher taxes on low-income people — with a promise of economic growth, when it really is a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes for most citizens, and starving public infrastructure and education systems of needed revenue.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and developer of IPP’s Grading the States website, GradingStates.org.

 

 


IPP’s Cost of Living: A better measure

Posted April 6th, 2016 to Blog

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Why do we produce our Cost of Living in Iowa research at the Iowa Policy Project? One reason is accuracy — to offer a better picture of what it takes to get by, rather than a vague concept of “poverty.”

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. But those official guidelines have challenges that we address with basic-needs budget calculations in The Cost of Living in Iowa.

The federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago.

For example, the calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food.

Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today with 23.5 million women with children under 18 in the labor force.[1] Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.[2]

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 below shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines.

Figure 1. Cost of Living is Much Higher than the Poverty Level

Fig 1 pov guideline comp

In fact, family supporting income in the absence of public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 2.1 to 3.3 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families, in other words, actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs.[3]

[1] Hilda L. Solis and Keith Hall, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2011).
[2] Sylvia A. Allegretto, Basic family budgets: Working families’ incomes often fail to meet living expenses around the US, Economic Policy Institute (August 30, 2005).
[3] Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two parent family with one worker. (That family type not shown here.)
2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and author of The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2016 Edition.
Peter Fisher is a nationally recognized expert on tax and economic development policy. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is professor emeritus in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.

 

 


Sensible context on school aid growth

Posted March 29th, 2016 to Blog

There are many ways to measure Iowa’s lagging commitment to public schools. One is a comparison of growth in school aid to growth in state revenues.

As K-12 schools are a significant share of the state budget, it seems sensible that we would expect at least similar numbers of growth in one vs. the other.

Basic RGBThat is not the case.

While not a perfect comparison — there are moving parts with both figures — you can get an idea of the general trend in the accompanying graph. Net General Fund revenues have been coming in with average yearly increases around 4 percent,* while the key school-aid number, for Supplemental State Aid, has averaged about half that.**

The numbers below are taken from the latest Revenue Estimating Conference report, available here: https://dom.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016/03/rec-projections-2016-03-16.pdf

  • The actual ending balance for FY2015 (the budget year ending last June 1) showed a net over-the-year revenue change from FY2014 of 5.1 percent. For that same period, schools had 4 percent Supplemental State Aid — the only year that high since FY2010.
  • For the current year, the most recent official revenue estimate is for a 3.3 percent state revenue increase, while schools are operating on budgets reflecting 1.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2017, the estimate is for a 4.4 percent state revenue increase, and the deal just hatched at the Statehouse — 13 months late — is for schools to see 2.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2018, for budgets to be approved a year from now, the state is expecting 4.1 percent revenue growth. The school aid number for FY2018 by law was to have been set a month ago so school districts could properly plan their budgets when enrollment counts are set this fall, and to negotiate staff contracts without big uncertainties. That number has not been set and apparently will not be during this legislative session, as neither the House nor the Governor is interested.

Understand, the revenue growth number is held artificially low by the growing and incessant demand for business tax breaks that undermine revenues. So the net revenue number would be much higher if legislators wanted it. Instead, they continue to give away hundreds of millions of dollars before they even reach the state treasury.

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

Alas, that is not the political world in which we live.

*The average growth for general fund revenues includes both actual results for FY11 through FY15, as well as projections by the Revenue Estimating Conference for FY16 and FY17.
**Supplemental State Aid — which is a percentage for per-pupil cost growth that districts must use in building an enrollment-based budget — includes the recent deal approved by the Senate and House and expected to be signed by Governor Branstad.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
Mike Owen is a former journalist in Iowa and Pennsylvania. He covered state government for the Quad-City Times from 1980-85 and was editor and co-publisher of the West Branch Times from 1993-2001. He is serving his third term on the West Branch Board of Education, and is a member of the Professional Advisory Board of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

State policies should focus on homegrown jobs

Posted March 15th, 2016 to Blog

2-3-16sfp-f1A recent report by Michael Mazerov and Michael Leachman finds that the vast majority of new jobs in a state are homegrown: They are created by start-ups and by firms already in the state who are expanding. Only 13 percent of new jobs come from new branch plants of out-of-state companies, or  actual plant relocations to a state. They argue that public policies need rethinking as a result:

“State economic development policies that ignore these fundamental realities about job creation are bound to fail. A good example is the deep income tax cuts many states have enacted or are proposing. Such tax cuts are largely irrelevant to owners of young, fast-growing firms because they generally have little taxable income. And, tax cuts take money away from schools, universities, and other public investments essential to producing the talented workforce that entrepreneurs require. Many policymakers also continue to focus their efforts heavily on tax breaks aimed at luring companies from other states — even though startups and young, fast-growing firms already in the state are much more important sources of job creation.”

Michael Mazerov and Michael Leachman. State Job Creation Strategies Often Off Base. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 3, 2016. http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/state-job-creation-strategies-often-off-base#_ftn23

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, IPP Research Director

 

Editor’s Note: This also ran on IPP’s “Grading the States” website — gradingstates.org

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Posted March 7th, 2016 to Blog
Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

———

One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.


Unspoken budget choices for Iowa

Posted March 2nd, 2016 to Blog

DSCN5662-detail240200There’s a reason we can’t have the things we need. We keep giving money away, often without a good understanding of why we’re doing it.

A good example is the so-called “coupling” legislation now moving through the Iowa Legislature. It would do some sensible things, but others — not so much, and not for the reasons being promoted. Read more about it in this Iowa Fiscal Partnership policy brief.

Most of the cost of the coupling bill is for a business tax break. The Farm Bureau recently quoted one of its local leaders, Washington County Farm Bureau vice president Tye Rinner, that this provision is “really important to us right now.”

“We’re all in limbo right now waiting to see what’s going to happen and that’s keeping us from making the investments in equipment, buildings and other capital purchases, which would also create jobs in our rural communities,” Rinner was quoted.

Unfortunately, that message has little to do with the legislation under consideration. What is missed is that the bill at the Statehouse would make changes for only one tax year — and it’s one already past. The changes are retroactive to tax year 2015.

So if farmers or other business people wanted to make a capital investment that would benefit from the kind of tax provisions being proposed, they would not get the break. They’d be too late.

On the other hand, the bill would reward decisions already made. It’s not an incentive to do something they would not have done anyway — and it’s very costly. It’s about $98 million that was not in the budget for the current year, and would hit the ending balance.

In perspective, this must be seen as a budget choice, put up against other ways to use that $98 million, which would go against the resources on hand for the new fiscal year. You might have noted the difference between the House and Senate on a school aid number is 2 percent in supplemental state aid, whether to set per-pupil cost growth at 2 percent or 4 percent. The difference is about $85 million, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.

So as you can see, we can subsidize business people to do something they already did without a subsidy, or for less money we can have a 4 percent increase in school aid. The House speaker says we can afford the first choice, but not the second. Both positions cannot be so.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director for the Iowa Policy Project.
Contact: pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

$8.9 million revenue boost with immigration reform

Posted February 24th, 2016 to Blog

A new report projects a 24 percent increase in state and local tax revenues from undocumented immigrants in Iowa if they were granted permanent legal residence.

The 50-state study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy examines current tax contributions by undocumented immigrants and projects how state revenues would rise either with the Obama Administration’s executive actions, or with passage of comprehensive reform that has stalled in Congress.

Find the report, Undocumented Immigrants’ State and Local Tax Contributions, here. It offers a sensible approach on how to quantify tax contributions by these immigrants — whose tax contributions often go unrecognized in political talking points. But undocumented immigrants pay sales and property taxes just like anyone else, and many have income taxes deducted from their paychecks.

As stated by ITEP’s state tax policy director, Meg Wiehe, “Regardless of the politically contentious nature of immigration reform, the data show undocumented immigrants greatly contribute to our nation’s economy, not just in labor but also with tax dollars.”

The report estimates current state and local taxes by undocumented immigrants in Iowa are $37.38 million, but would rise to $46.29 million — an increase of $8.91 million — with comprehensive immigration reform.

Full implementation of the 2012 and 2014 executive actions would create a smaller impact in Iowa, estimated to be a $3.61 million increase from the $17.18 million paid now by those affected.

According to ITEP, the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States collectively paid $11.64 billion in state and local taxes. ITEP finds their combined nationwide state and local tax contributions would increase by $805 million under full implementation of the administration’s 2012 and 2014 executive actions and by $2.1 billion under comprehensive immigration reform.

 

Owen-2013-57
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A good deal if you can get it

Posted February 19th, 2016 to Blog

But research credit refund checks are poor fiscal stewardship

The millions Iowa gives to companies that do not pay state income tax is about the same amount of 1 percent in state school aid.

That’s one takeaway from the latest annual report from the state on Iowa’s Research Activities Credit (RAC). That tax credit is used far less to ease taxes than to shovel subsidies to big corporations outside the budget process, whether they pay taxes or not.

The report shows that in 2015, 248 companies had $50.1 in claims from this tax credit. Because the credit is refundable, companies get the full benefit no matter how much they owe (or don’t owe) in taxes. And the report shows that of those claims, 75 percent, or $42.1 million, were paid as checks to 186 companies that paid no corporate income tax to the state.

As we note in a summary by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, each percentage-point increase in Supplemental State Aid for schools costs about $41 million to $43 million (Iowa Association of School Boards estimate).

160216-RAC-chksVclmsVsupp2b-line

What’s more, the largest claimants — 20 corporations receiving over $500,000 from this credit — took the lion’s share of the benefit with $43.9 million overall (about 88 percent).

Many millions are spent this way every year, outside the budget process. These companies don’t have to compete for what are supposedly scarce public dollars needed for critical public services such as education, health care, environmental protection and public safety. The latter types of spending must compete in the budget process.

The Research Activities Credit is only an entitlement. And except for the occasional lawmaker willing to stand up to restore some accountability, there is silence from the General Assembly.

This is perfectly legal. In fiscal policy terms, however, it’s a scandal, because it is legal. Lawmakers refuse to even consider whether to take this spending off autopilot.

When they claim the state is too strapped for money to provide more for school aid or human services, lawmakers should admit they let corporations take what they want first.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
For more information about the Research Activities Credit, visit www.iowafiscal.org