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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Budget and Tax

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


Focusing better on new Iowans

Posted July 3rd, 2014 to Blog

Oftentimes the topic of immigration reform stirs up heavy debates and preconceived notions about what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. Reality about immigrants, their occupations and contributions to the economy can be misunderstood.

But here in Iowa, we know immigrants are important to our state and our economy. There are 120,000 documented and undocumented immigrants contributing both as workers and as employers. Most immigrants came to find jobs so it shouldn’t be surprising that most are of prime working age, and are working.

Look around your community and you will see them working in grocery stores and delis as butchers and meat cutters, teaching in high schools and colleges, cleaning homes and businesses, and working as computer programmers. Some are small business owners, filling gaps for particular goods and services in Main Street-type businesses.

10371388_10154327977850154_8158749370873517078_nOne big misunderstanding is about the state and local taxes that immigrants pay, regardless of their legal status, on the income they earn, the goods they purchase and the homes where their families live.

It is also estimated that 50-70 percent of undocumented workers — those who do not have legal authorization to work or live in the United States, have federal and state income and payroll taxes withheld from their paychecks.

Our new Iowa Policy Project report estimates that undocumented immigrants annually pay $64 million in Iowa state and local taxes, increasing revenue available for public programs and services, including many services they are unable to access themselves.

Immigration reform enabling work authorization and a path to citizenship for current undocumented residents would bring benefits not only to immigrants but all Iowans. Legal work status would open up better job opportunities and make it more worthwhile to invest in worker education and training. Immigrants would be less susceptible to wage theft and other exploitation by employers.

Legal status would increase earnings for workers and revenues for the state. It would mean that young adults brought here as children (DREAMers) could attend college and get better jobs and it would give immigrant business owners access to more options to start or expand a business.

While the future of immigration reform is uncertain, we can be certain that immigrants contribute to the state’s workforce, economy, tax revenues and communities.

IPP-gibney5464Posted by Heather Gibney, IPP Research Associate


Policy choices are about quality, not quantity

Posted May 28th, 2014 to Blog

The headline on my doorstep today says, “Legislature continues trend of passing fewer bills.” That lead story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette notes that for the fourth straight year, a divided Iowa Legislature has passed fewer than 150 pieces of legislation.

Ah, numbers. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em. But in this case, they don’t make a lot of difference.

What matters are the words and the policies embodied in those 150 or fewer bills. It’s about quality, not quantity.

What have those bills included in recent years? Here are some key points:

  • A commercial property tax overhaul that is tainted by big benefits to huge out-of-state retailers that need no help and pay too little in Iowa tax as it is.
  • An expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that improves tax fairness for low- and moderate-income working families across Iowa.
  • Funding to assure a tuition freeze remains for a second year in regents institutions.
  • A small boost in child care assistance for working students, making them eligible for the benefit so they can get skills for better paying jobs to sustain their families.

What have those bills not included in recent years? Here are some noteworthy omissions:

  • No overhaul of the personal income-tax system to better balance tax responsibilities for all taxpayers regardless of income, or to assure revenues are kept adequate to meet costs of critical services.
  • No greater accountability on spending that is done through the corporate tax code, outside the budget process.
  • No increase in the minimum wage, stagnant at $7.25 for over six years now.
  • No broad expansion of child care access for struggling families who don’t make enough to cover costs, but make too much to receive assistance.
  • No move to battle wage theft, which we have estimated to be a $600 million annual problem in Iowa’s economy — not including the $60 million lost in uncollected taxes and unemployment insurance.
  • No long-term answers for funding of education at all levels, violating the promise of law for K-12 schools, and leaving a legacy of debt for many college students and their families.

Those are not exhaustive lists, but a statement of priorities established by agreement, stalemate or inertia. We covered some of these points in our end of session statement. Some will like the overall product of recent years, some will not. Few will ask how many bills were passed.

At least one theme weaved by this record cannot be disputed: Iowa is on record that we will not ask the wealthy and well-connected to do more. We pretend more often than not that we can meet our obligations to the citizens of Iowa without investing in the public services they require, that if we just keep cutting taxes all will be well. Every now and then we’ll say something about opportunity for all and mean it, but we’re not ready to make that a long-term commitment.

Sometimes, not passing something says as much about legislative priorities as passing it.

Owen-2013-57   Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


Bad research never gets good

Posted May 13th, 2014 to Blog

It might be a stretch to say that good research never gets old — at some point you might need an update — but one thing is certain: Bad research never gets good.

Fisher-GradingPlacesIPP’s Peter Fisher is one of the nation’s experts on rankings of state business climates. In two reports published in the last two years by our colleagues at Good Jobs First, Fisher lays out irretrievable problems with the Rich States, Poor States analysis periodically offered by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Fisher tested ALEC’s claims against the actual economic performance of states, finding that states following ALEC-favored policy did more poorly than other states.* He also found serious flaws of methodology, including comparisons of arbitrary states instead of all 50.

As Good Jobs First’s executive director, Greg LeRoy, wrote in the preface to the 2013 Grading Places report:

Indeed, the underlying frame of these studies — that there is such a thing as a state “business climate” that can be measured and rated — is nonsensical. The needs of different businesses and facilities vary far too widely. … Given these realities, “business climate” studies must be viewed for what they are: attempts by corporate sponsors to justify their demands for lower taxes and to gain public-sector help suppressing wages. …

To borrow Oscar Wilde’s witticism about cynics, these “business climate” studies know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

In the case of ALEC, others are noticing. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times has written twice in recent days about the ALEC problem, citing the work of both Fisher and Professor Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin.

See these pieces by Hiltzik:

In the latter, Hiltzik notes a recent “response to the critics” by ALEC:

It’s a curious document that ends up proving the critics’ point. Take the point made by Chinn and by Peter S. Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project that the correlation between ALEC’s policies and economic growth is largely negative.

When the ALEC “analysis” is dissected, it becomes clear that its conclusions are faulty, and its policy prescriptions are no more valid. And it is good for Iowa to have Peter Fisher on the case.

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

 

 

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