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Posts tagged Budget and Tax

A brief, shining moment

Posted January 8th, 2015 to Blog

It was a brief, shining moment for Iowa, and it came five years ago today.

A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Chet Culver, after an in-depth examination of all Iowa tax-credit programs, offered a 10-page review with some tough recommendations.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership* stated the day of the report’s release, Jan. 8, 2010, the panel “took an important step to make Iowa business subsidies more accountable and transparent.”

Major recommendations of the Tax Credit Review Panel were to:

•   Provide a five-year sunset on all tax credits;
•   Eliminate the refundability of the Research Activities Credit for large companies;
•   Eliminate the film tax credit;
•   Eliminate of the transferability of other credits;
•   Place all business credits under a $185 million cap;
•   Reduce the rate for the School Tuition Organization (STO) Tax Credit and lower the cap; and
•   Impose an income test for the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit.

Action in the Legislature, unfortunately, fell well short of those bold proposals, as we noted in a report that spring. In their biggest moves, lawmakers set up a periodic review of tax credits but required no action to affirm the value of any credits, and they put light restrictions on some credits. Some of those limits already have been raised; the proposal to restrict the STO subsidy for private school tuition not only was ignored but the credit has been expanded.

In short, five years later, Iowa is as lax as ever in its treatment of these subsidies. Under the sunset clause recommended back then, we would in 2015 be preparing for a round of debate and action to keep, expand, limit or eliminate certain tax credits. Instead, we have no expectation of any debate, let alone any action. If the credits are working, we don’t know because beneficiaries are not forced to show it.

It is not too late for Iowa lawmakers to address these issues and include some water in the tax credit reform glass. We said that in 2010, and we can say it again in 2015.

The seven members of the Tax Credit Review Panel, by the way, were Richard Oshlo, then interim director of the Department of Management; Fred Hubbell, interim director of the Department of Economic Development; Rob Berntsen, chair of the Iowa Utilities Board; Bret Mills, executive director of the Iowa Finance Authority; Cyndi Pederson, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs; Mark Schuling, director of the Iowa Department of Revenue; and Jeff Ward, executive director of the Iowa Agricultural Development Authority.

Their work was good and important, and with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, we should not forget it.

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

*The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit Iowa-based organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines.


See ya later, Gator: Civics lesson from bowl game

Posted December 31st, 2014 to Blog

ipp-kinnick6Of course we’re all excited that the Iowa Hawkeyes will be playing Jan. 2 against Tennessee in the — uh, what’s the name of that bowl again?

It has something to do with tax preparation. (No royalties are being paid for publication of this message, so no need to repeat it.) So for now, let’s just call it the Pay Your Taxes Bowl.

Or, to recognize what we do by preparing and paying our taxes, we could make it the Feed the Hungry Bowl, the Educate the Children Bowl, the Fix the Highways Bowl, or the Clean the Air and Water Bowl.

In years past, most bowl games promoted a tradition, or an image, related to their locale. This game in Jacksonville, Florida, used to be called the Gator Bowl, and that was the name of the stadium. Now it’s played in a rebuilt stadium named for a bank.

The Gator Bowl has a storied past, including a good game in 1983 between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Florida Gators, who won 14-6.

Even the Beatles played there once — though it was for a concert, not a gridiron battle with the Beach Boys — and that seems more interesting than the heavy-handed advertising that dominates these games now. Maybe the Fab Four Bowl? Strawberry Fields Bowl? Hold Your Hand Bowl?

There was a time when the Orange Bowl wasn’t connected to the name of a delivery service or a credit card company. There was a Citrus Bowl in Florida and a Peach Bowl in Georgia. I remember going to the Alamo Bowl once, happy to see the name bound to the enduring history of San Antonio, with no connection to rental cars.

Almost all bowls now feature a corporate sponsor’s name, so it may be in the nature of things that when many Iowa fans remember “The Catch” by Warren Holloway to beat LSU as the clock expired, they involuntarily associate it with the name of a credit card.

Still, we should acknowledge the irony that with the corporatization of all that is good, like football bowl games, at least one bowl game is associated with paying taxes instead of avoiding them.

Just understand: Some of us will still think of it as the Gator Bowl.

Go Hawks!

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

Editor’s Note: This piece was published as an Iowa View in the Dec. 28, 2014, Des Moines Register


Leveling the playing field

Posted December 11th, 2014 to Blog

Small business owners get it: They follow the rules, but preferential treatment for giant companies puts them at a disadvantage.

Case in point: Lora Fraracci, who had an excellent guest opinion in today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette about practices big companies use to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The problem is not exclusively an issue with the lax U.S. tax code. It is a big problem at the state level as well.

Ms. Fraracci runs a residential and commercial cleaning business. As she noted:

“As a small-business owner in Des Moines, I play by the rules and pay my taxes to support our American economy. I create jobs that will continue to support our local economy. When the playing field is so uneven it makes it hard to realize this dream.”

The issue has been receiving some national attention, but many may not realize the prevalence of this problem and its extension to state taxes. While Ms. Fraracci and other small businesses, or Iowa focused businesses, follow the rules, large companies they may serve can find a way to either (1) avoid the rules, or (2) block stronger rules.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has written about these issues for some time, and the reports are on our website.

The biggest Iowa breaks come in two ways: tax loopholes and tax credits.

Tax loopholes have been estimated to cost the state between $60 million and $100 million a year. Loosely written law is an invitation to big companies’ lawyers and accountants to find ways to lower their firms’ taxes. Multistate firms can shift profits to tax-haven states and avoid taxes they otherwise would be paying in Iowa. That creates the uneven playing field Ms. Fraracci sees.

Iowa could fix this by adopting something called “combined reporting,” which the business lobby has fought tooth and nail when proposed in the past by Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver. Many states — including almost all our neighbors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska) — already do this. See our 2007 report, which remains relevant because Iowa has refused to act.

Tax credits are particularly costly, rarely reviewed with any sense that they will be reformed. This is illustrated best with the Research Activities Credit, which provides a refundable credit to big companies to do something they are likely to anyway: research to keep their businesses relevant and competitive.

In 2013, that credit cost $53 million, with $36 million of that going to companies that paid no state income tax in Iowa. The default position must be that this is wasted money, because it is never reviewed in the regular budget process the way other spending is examined every year — on schools, law enforcement, worker protection and environmental quality. In Iowa, spending on tax credits is spending on autopilot.

Read here about Iowa’s accountability gap on tax-credit spending.

Looking ahead, as a new legislative session approaches and we hear repeatedly that things are tight, keep these points in mind to better understand the real fiscal picture facing Iowa. The more small-business owners understand this, the more likely pressure can build for real reform.

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


Job 1 for Day 1 — putting Iowa families first

Posted November 6th, 2014 to Blog

As election dust settles, priorities remain clear for Iowa families

Now that the votes are counted, the real work begins. Job 1? It could be any of a number of areas where solid research and analysis have shown better public policy could make a difference for a more prosperous, healthier Iowa. Take a step back from the TV ads and “gotcha” politics and these issues come clearly in focus.

In Iowa, research shows solid approaches to economic prosperity for working families include:

In Iowa, research shows a fiscally responsible approach to both find revenues and do better with what we have includes:

  • Stopping tax giveaways to companies that pay no income tax — which occurs at a cost of between $32 million and $45 million a year through one research subsidy program alone, even though there is nothing to show this spending boosts the Iowa economy or produces activity that would not occur anyway. http://www.iowafiscal.org/big-money-big-companies-whose-benefit/
  • Reining in unnecessary “tax expenditures” — tax breaks, tax credits and other spending done through the tax code — could bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for public services. A five-year sunset on all tax credits would force lawmakers to review and formally pass renewals of this kind of spending, now on autopilot. The last attempt at real reform fell woefully short. http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-credit-reform-glass-half-full-maybe-some-moisture/
  • Plugging tax loopholes — a $60 to $100 million problem — would pay for a 2 or 3 percent annual increase in state per-pupil funding of K-12 schools. Twenty-three states, including 4 of 6 Iowa neighbors, don’t permit multistate corporations to shift profits out of state to avoid Iowa income tax and contribute their fair share to local education and other state services. http://iowapolicypoints.org/2013/05/22/will-outrage-translate-into-policy/
  • Reforming TIF — tax-increment financing, which is overused and often abused by cities around the state, has caught lawmakers’ attention in the past and should again. Like many tools that provide subsidies to private companies and developers, it should be redesigned to assure subsidies only go to projects with a public benefit and only where the project could not otherwise occur. Further, it should be designed to assure that only the taxpayers who benefit are the ones footing the bill, which is a problem with current TIF practice. http://www.iowafiscal.org/category/research/taxes/tax-increment-financing-tif/

In Iowa, research shows a healthy environment and smart energy choices for Iowa’s future includes:

  • Putting teeth into pollution law — which means reforms in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to eliminate pollution in waterways. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140717-nutrient.html
  • Allowing local government to regulate frac sand mining — When it comes to cigarettes, guns and large hog facilities the Iowa Legislature took away the right of local government to listen to citizen desires. The General Assembly and the Governor should let democracy thrive and not take away local control of sand mining.
  • Encouraging more use of solar electricity in Iowa — Jobs are created while we confront climate change if we build better solar policy in Iowa. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/110325-solar-release.html
  • Promoting local food and good food choices with school gardens — and a pilot project to offer stipends to Iowa school districts could encourage both learning and better nutrition. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140514-school_gardens.html

None of these issues are new and it’s not an exhaustive list. But these were big issues for our state before the election and remain so, no matter who is in charge.

Together, we can build on the solid research cited above and lay the foundation for better public policy to support those priorities.

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


Issues in Waiting: Tax-Increment Financing Reform

Posted October 2nd, 2014 to Blog

Basic RGBThis is an excerpt from an interview with IPP’s Peter Fisher on “The Devine Intervention,” KVFD-AM 1400, Fort Dodge. Host Michael Devine discussed tax-increment financing, or TIF, with Fisher, whose reports on this issue have prompted many to call for reform. TIF is one of Iowa’s “Issues in Waiting” — issues discussed year after year, but not resolved. The quotes below are actual quotes from the interview; the questions are paraphrased.

What was the idea behind tax-increment financing, or TIF?

It was originally a tool to help cities redevelop blighted or declining areas and what it did was allowed a city to capture more of the tax revenue from redevelopment when the city undertook some project to try to turn around a declining neighborhood. If they were successful, businesses would come in, the tax base would go up.

And what TIF did was allow the city to use not just the city taxes on all that growth, but the county and school taxes as well for some period of time to pay the city back for their expenses for this project, for redevelopment. And in the long run the county and school districts were better off. The cities got their money back, they got more tax base. That was the idea.

How did the implementation of TIF look?

It worked that way for quite a while. And then about 20 years ago we opened the door to just about anything cities wanted to do by saying well it doesn’t have to be a blighted area, it doesn’t have to be a redevelopment. It just has to be “economic development.” And just about anything cities do it turns out they can call “economic development” and finance with TIF.

Is there a consequence if TIF is abused?

Not really — as long as they are doing something within the law. The county and the school district don’t have any say on whether the city is going to divert their taxes to the city’s TIF fund. And there’s no state regulation either, other than the court system.

To hear the full interview, click here.

For more resources from Peter Fisher and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership about TIF, click here.


Stop politicizing water quality

Posted August 26th, 2014 to Blog

Water quality in Iowa is so bad that any new initiative to improve our waters is probably a good thing. That said, Iowa farm groups’ new initiative to take action on agricultural pollution of our waters comes with a troubling rollout.

Making the announcement with Governor Branstad not only politicizes water quality, something that should be above politics, but masks the governor’s own decision this year to delay action.

The Governor’s veto of $11 million for water quality — funding passed by a divided legislature — makes an important statement about water quality. In addition, the governor also vetoed $9 million in funding for the REAP program, which is used by counties and cities to acquire and protect natural areas and to preserve Iowa’s environment.

Twenty percent of REAP goes to farmers to improve soil and water practices. If you are promoting a voluntary system to reduce nutrient runoff, shouldn’t you make sure farmers have resources to put sensible measures into practice?

The new group established to improve water quality needs to be taken seriously by the environmental community and by all Iowans. But this rollout does not engender trust.

The Iowa Policy Project recently released a report on water quality in Iowa. [See A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution] We showed that the addition of six new policies to the state’s new Nutrient Reduction Strategy would make it possible for the strategy to succeed.

One of those policies is the kind of effort the new farm group plans to push — bringing attention to the problem. A second policy is more funding, and farm group muscle could improve the chances in the Legislature. However, even if the Legislature acts, as in the 2014 session, legislation still has to get by a governor’s veto.

Maybe the best starting place to build broad support would be to invite an environmental group to the table, rather than a politician in the middle of a heated campaign. We know plenty who could help.

IPP-osterberg-75 Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project


Ten years of balanced analysis

For 10 years, two organizations have stood together to help Iowans see the stakes for their families in good public policy.

110929-ifp-newlogo10Back then, these two nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations — the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center (CFPC) in Des Moines — merged their common state policy work under one banner, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP).

We focus on better informed and well-targeted state policies to provide adequate public services and better economic opportunity to more Iowans, particularly those at low incomes who have been pushed back, held down or shut out. IFP draws upon the expertise in various areas of policy work by IPP and CFPC. In short, it takes money — appropriately and equitably generated — to provide services necessary for the common good.

Success has many parents, but we can safely say that because of IFP:

  • Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit is twice as large as it was just a few short years ago, benefiting more families and boosting the economy.
  • There is new scrutiny on spending on tax subsidies for large corporations that pay little or no income tax in Iowa.
  • Iowa policymakers and advocates know more about who pays taxes in our state, and can identify exaggerated or false claims when they are made.
  • Work supports — such as child care assistance — are shown to make work pay for Iowa families, and to help the economy and family prosperity.

In our 10 years, a variety of circumstances shaped the political climate in which we work — governors of both parties, legislatures under divided leadership or full control of one political party. Serious attention to issues means not being distracted by who has or who does not have the reins of power. Our business is the arena of issues, not of party politics. In this, we are not alone.

Inside the state, good advocacy groups work tirelessly for Iowans’ best interests — on family budgets, on education, on health and nutrition, on child care, on clean air and water, and on safe neighborhoods. They want the independent analysis that sets our work apart, so they can make their case to their elected officials. Likewise, media quote our work for information and perspective — and the policymakers themselves use our reports in debate and decisionmaking.

sppartnershipIFP has been for these past 10 years a proud member of what has been known as the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative, which has grown to 41 states and this summer took on a new name: the State Priorities Partnership.

Our Iowa Fiscal Partnership is proud to be a part of this new national partnership of organizations focused on “the fight for a just and equitable America.” There is no better place to be.

Beware the “business climateers”

Posted August 18th, 2014 to Blog

Fisher-GradingPlacesIowa’s business lobby appears to be preparing a new assault on the ability of our state to provide public services.

It would be the latest in a long campaign, in which lobbyists target one tax at a time under a general — and inaccurate — message about taxes that we will not repeat here.

Suffice to say, Iowa taxes on business are low already. Many breaks provided to businesses are rarely reviewed in any meaningful way to make sure that taxpayers are getting value for those dollars spent, ostensibly, to encourage economic growth. Rarely can success be demonstrated.

The Iowa Taxpayers Association is holding a “policy summit” this week and promoting a new report by the Tax Foundation to recycle old arguments that are no better now than they have been for the last decade.

Fortunately in Iowa, we know where to turn to understand claims from the Tax Foundation, and that resource is Peter Fisher, our research director at the Iowa Policy Project. Fisher has written two books on the so-called “business climate” rankings by the Tax Foundation and others, and is a widely acknowledged authority on the faults in various measures of supposed “business climates” in the states.

Fisher, in this guest opinion in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, noted weaknesses in the Tax Foundation’s claims, not the least of which is that the anti-tax messages are not supported by the foundation’s own report. Fisher notes this about the Tax Foundation’s “State Business Tax Climate Index”:

It is a mish-mash of 118 tax features … weighted arbitrarily and combined into a single number for the index.

This number has no real meaning. It produces wacky results because it gives great weight to some minor tax features (such as the number of tax brackets) while leaving out completely two things that have a huge impact on corporate income taxes in Iowa: single sales factor, and federal deductibility.

This past spring, this Iowa Fiscal Partnership two-pager noted:

A variety of factors influence the decisions businesses make about whether they want to locate or expand within a given state. These factors include available infrastructure, the proximity to materials and customers, the skill of its workforce, and whether the state has good schools, roads, hospitals, and public safety. As we have shown elsewhere, state taxes play at best a minor role.

In Iowa, we constantly hear the same old argument … used to enact large tax cuts for commercial and industrial property this past year and continues to be an excuse used to justify giving away large tax credits to businesses throughout the state.

But this argument just isn’t true…

Whether we are looking at the entire range of taxes that fall on businesses or just the corporate income tax, the fact is that business taxes in Iowa are low.

Only if Iowa policy makers and the public ignore the reality on Iowa business taxes will these special interests get their way again.

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

*View Peter Fisher’s reports for Good Jobs First on business climate rankings:

 


Bargain, schmargain

Posted July 30th, 2014 to Blog

It’s back again: Iowa’s SALES TAX HOLIDAY.

What a charade. Retailers love it, because it’s a gimmick to lure people into their stores to buy things at full price, instead of waiting for a back-to-school sale.

The happy-talk label disguises its real impact: to throw away revenue while pretending to, as one report put it, “help boost the economy and give consumers a break.” It does neither.

Iowa’s policymakers are selling you a pig in a poke. You’re told you’re saving money, but you’re buying dirty water, underfunded schools and fees for amenities such as parks. The cost is estimated at over $4 million.

For two days, Iowans will spend money on the same things they would have spent money on anyway, in those two days or others, so it doesn’t boost the economy. Sales taxes do hit low-income folks hardest, but those families would be better served by a break that went all year. They still have only so much to spend in these upcoming two days.

Let’s also recognize that consumers won’t save all that much, if at all — and may in fact pay more. How many times have you rushed off to a “6 Percent Off” or “7 Percent Off” sale? Who’s to say a retailer, with this officially sanctioned “holiday” marketing, won’t bump prices by 10 percent or call off a 20 Percent Off sale that might have been in place?

But it is a deal for politicians who like to brag about cutting taxes, while pointing fingers at others when they cut teachers and police officers because budgets are tight.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would welcome Tax Day and loathe the first weekend of August.

2010-PF-sqPosted by Peter Fisher, IPP Research Director

 

 


Comforting the comfortable

Posted July 25th, 2014 to Blog

Comfort the comfortable and penalize the poor. Like the idea? If so, you’ll really like legislation scheduled for consideration today in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House is scheduled to take up legislation that would gut improvements for low-income Americans in the Child Tax Credit (CTC), improvements passed originally in 2009, renewed in 2010 and 2012, the latter as part of the “fiscal cliff” package, where it was used as a bargaining chip to pass very expensive exemptions in the estate tax — a benefit only to America’s super-rich.

To put this in context, the House leadership bringing this new legislation to a vote will not even consider an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant over five years nationally (6 1/2 in Iowa). The CTC, it must be noted, is one of the nation’s most effective anti-poverty tools, offsetting part of the cost of raising a child. So, as families earning at or below the minimum wage continue to lose ground, the CTC proposal will set them back even further. As noted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):

But a single mother with two children who works full time throughout the year at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (which House leaders oppose raising) and earns just $14,500 would lose $1,725. Her CTC would disappear altogether.

A loss at lower incomes — yet a boost at higher incomes. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Iowa impact of the new legislation would be:

  • a $285 loss on average to families with incomes below $40,000, and
  • a $696 benefit (tax cut) to families with income above $100,000.

Here’s how it works, according to a summary by CTJ:

The House Republican bill, H.R. 4935, would expand the CTC in three ways that do not help the working poor. First, it would index the $1,000 per-child credit amount for inflation, which would not help those who earn too little to receive the full credit. Second, it would increase the income level at which the CTC starts to phase out from $110,000 to $150,000 for married couples. Third, that $150,000 level for married couples and the existing $75,000 income level for single parents would both be indexed for inflation thereafter.

Adding insult to injury for low-income folks is that the improvements targeted for repeal came in the aforementioned “fiscal cliff” package, which made permanent big estate tax breaks for the rich, while extending improvements in the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit for only five years. CBPP’s Robert Greenstein at the time called that a “bitter pill.”

That was before these new proposals not only to cut back the CTC for lower-income families — but to expand access at higher incomes — and to adjust the high end for inflation, something lawmakers have refused to do for the minimum wage.

A bitter pill? At least. For some, all of this might seem to be an overdose.

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