Iowa Fiscal Partnership / Economic Opportunity
Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Economic Opportunity

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

Health care ‘reform’ just keeps getting worse

Posted April 27th, 2017 to Blog

The House Republican plan to replace Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) with the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which a few weeks ago failed to even come to a vote, has been reincarnated. The new version of the AHCA has apparently won the support of the Freedom Caucus in the House, but in so doing has become significantly worse for millions of Americans.

Here are the key points about this new attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare:

  • Despite repeated promises to keep the most popular part of Obamacare, the provision prohibiting insurance companies from refusing to cover those with pre-existing conditions, the new version returns us to the bad old days. While a particular state may choose to keep the prohibition, there is no longer any nationwide requirement that insurance companies issue affordable policies regardless of pre-existing conditions.
  • Nationwide standards for health insurance policies will be rolled back; plans will no longer be required to cover services such as mental health, maternity care, or substance abuse treatment.
  • The nationwide prohibition on lifetime and annual limits on benefits will be gone, meaning the possibility of medical bankruptcy will loom once again for many.
  • The modified version of the bill still effectively ends the Medicaid expansion; about 150,000 Iowans now covered under that provision could lose insurance altogether.
  • The bill still cuts $840 billion from Medicaid over 10 years, most of the savings going to wealthy individuals, drug companies, insurance companies, and other corporations.
  • Premiums and deductibles will still rise for large numbers of persons buying insurance on the exchanges, especially for the elderly, those with lower incomes, and those in high-cost states or areas, such as most of rural Iowa.
  • Under the bill, there would be no limit on the premium an insurance company can charge based on medical history; thus someone with pre-existing conditions could in theory be offered coverage, but at a cost that is simply unaffordable. There is little difference between this situation and straight denial of coverage. A state could choose to prohibit this practice (i.e., to keep the Obamacare provision in place), but few states chose to do so before Obamacare.

While the proponents of this revised plan may argue that it keeps the prohibition on gender discrimination, a woman would pay substantially more for a plan that included maternity coverage. Such coverage would not be a required part of all plans, but instead would be an expensive option.

Just how this revised bill would affect overall coverage rates, premiums, and out-of-pocket costs, awaits a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. But it is quite possible that the bill will be voted on in the house without the benefit of that analysis. Part of the pressure to pass the bill now comes from the desire on the part of the Trump administration to come up with large savings to the federal government that can then be used to finance cuts to corporate and individual income taxes.

The bottom line: worse health care coverage at higher cost to millions, loss of coverage entirely to millions more, in order to finance tax cuts for corporations (and probably millionaires as well).

Posted by Peter Fisher, research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

Also see Fisher’s March 2017 policy brief for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership: “Replacing ACA: What you need to know about the AHCA.”

Session Recap: ‘Historic’ — not label of pride

Posted April 25th, 2017 to Blog



IFP Statement: ‘Historic’ session not a label of pride

Legislative session hits working families and traditions of good governance

Basic RGB

Statement of Iowa Fiscal Partnership • Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

To describe the 2017 Iowa legislative session as “historic” is not a label its leaders should wear with pride.

Iowans needed a legislative session that worked to raise family incomes and expand educational opportunity. Iowans had long demanded water-quality improvement measures. Many called for lawmakers to address the lack of fairness, adequacy and accountability in a tax system laden with special-interest breaks and costly subsidies to corporations.

Instead, Iowans got a continued ratcheting down of funding for PK-12 public education. There were significant and serious cuts in post-secondary education that will lead to tuition increases. We saw cuts to early-childhood education and other programs that serve our most at-risk children and neglect of the child-care assistance program that helps working families struggling to get by.

The Legislature continues to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. Their ultimate action on water merely diverts resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety.

Lawmakers largely left the tax issue to the next session. An overture in the House to reform Iowa’s reckless system of tax credits was a welcome acknowledgment that this issue needs attention, but devils in the details make further discussion of this issue during the interim even more welcome.

Perhaps as troubling as the destructive nature of policy content this session, Iowa’s image of adherence to good governance took a big hit. The most controversial policy changes came not through collaborative, public discussion in committee, let alone the 2016 political campaigns, but were often dumped into lawmakers’ laps with little opportunity for amendments.

In what could accurately be called a “session of suppression,” lawmakers achieved:

  • Wage suppression, with a bill to preempt local minimum wage increases while refusing to raise Iowa’s repressive, 9-year-old minimum of $7.25.
  • Workplace suppression, gutting collective bargaining protections for public employees, and making it more difficult for Iowans recover financially from injuries on the job.
  • Health-care suppression, achieved in workers’ compensation legislation while also refusing to reverse Governor Branstad’s disastrous move to privatize Medicaid.
  • Local suppression, whacking at local government control in a variety of areas: minimum wage, legal defenses against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), fireworks sales, and collective bargaining options.
  • Voter suppression, with a bill to make it more difficult for many citizens, particularly low-income and senior voters, to exercise their right to vote.
  • Suppression of children’s healthy development, with additional cuts to Early Childhood Iowa and Shared Visions that will reduce access to critical home visitation, child care and preschool services for some of our most at-risk youngsters.

Some legislators may boast of a “historic” session. History will mark 2017 as a low point in Iowans’ respect and care for each other, a legacy that will not be celebrated when future Iowans look back on this session and the closing act of Governor Branstad’s long tenure in office.

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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. Reports are available at, and on the websites of the two partner organizations, and

Today’s virtual House graphic: Risky fix to non-problem

Posted March 27th, 2017 to Blog

Under the radar at the Iowa Statehouse, a significant and dangerous change is being promoted through a proposed constitutional amendment to cap spending in a state where spending is below the U.S. average.

The amendment — approved by the Senate and soon to be considered in the House — is a gimmick rather than real reform. In fact, because the amendment would require two-thirds approval of both legislative changes to prohibit spending more than an arbitrary limit, it would impede elected representatives from making the kinds of public investments in Iowa’s children, the state’s infrastructure, and our environment that the people of Iowa say they want. To learn more about this issue, click here for Peter Fisher’s brief report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Editor’s Note: The Iowa House of Representatives now denies the ability of lawmakers to use visual aids in debate on the floor. To help Iowans visualize what kinds of graphics might be useful in these debates to illustrate facts, on several days this session the Iowa Policy Project is offering examples. In today’s graphic, we illustrate the realities of state spending in Iowa, often inflated in political rhetoric.

Repeal of Obamacare: Following the money

Posted March 21st, 2017 to Blog

Congressional Republicans have proposed replacing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, with the American Health Care Act, or AHCA. To understand why, suppose we follow the money — who loses, who gains?

On the losing side are thousands of Iowans who would find themselves facing higher costs for health insurance. Consider a married couple with two young children, and with $40,000 annual income. In Iowa’s metropolitan counties, this family’s tax credits for the purchase of health insurance would fall by $3,469 annually. In rural areas, where health insurance is much more expensive, the same family would face nearly an $8,000 reduction in credits — in other words, an $8,000 increase in the cost of health insurance. For couples in their late 50s or early 60s, the jump in costs is much higher: $11,300 in urban areas, over $17,000 in rural counties. (See an earlier IPP report for details.)

The much greater impact on rural Iowans is because the Republican plan gives everyone the same credit, whether they are in a high-cost or low-cost county. While the credit rises with age,  the credits for older Iowans cover a far smaller share of their much higher insurance costs. Overall, the average Iowa family currently receiving subsidies for the purchase of insurance would see a $2,512 drop in the subsidy.[1]

But who are the winners? The Republican plan includes tax cuts primarily for the wealthiest Americans, as well as drug and insurance companies. The 400 highest-income taxpayers nationally would get annual tax cuts averaging about $7 million each. These taxpayers, whose annual incomes average more than $300 million, would receive tax cuts totaling about $2.8 billion a year.[2]

We now know how two of these cuts, amounting to $31 billion a year, would impact Iowans. The Affordable Care Act was financed in part by these two new taxes. One is the Net Investment Income Tax, the other the Additional Medicare Tax. Both fall primarily on the wealthiest. Repeal of these two ACA taxes would shower $116.7 million in tax cuts each year on just 1.9 percent of Iowa taxpayers. A full 92 percent of those tax cuts would go to the richest 1 percent of Iowa taxpayers — those making $444,000 a year or more, and with an average income of $1.17 million. Those taxpayers would receive on average $7,004 a year.[3]

Basic RGB“Follow the money” is good advice. But what you find when you get there is often not a pretty picture.

[1] Aviva Aron-Dine and Tara Straw. House Tax Credits Would Make Health Insurance Far Less Affordable in High-Cost States. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 9, 2017.

[2] Chye-Ching Huang. House Republicans’ ACA Repeal Plan Would Mean Big Tax Cuts for Wealthy, Insurers, Drug Companies. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. March 8, 2017.

[3] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Affordable Care Act Repeal Includes a $31 Billion Tax Cut for a Handful of the Wealthiest Taxpayers. March 2017.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project

A spotlight, not a floodlight, on business breaks

Posted March 21st, 2017 to Blog

A bill in the Iowa House, HSB187, would cut a range of Iowa tax credits, eliminating refundability and capping overall spending on credits. There is significant opposition, because people like their tax breaks. But the issue is suddenly in the spotlight because these and other giveaways are responsible for Iowa’s serious revenue challenge.

There are solutions to the state’s rampant and often unaccountable spending on tax credits and other tax breaks. It is interesting that an interim committee that meets every year to examine a rotating set of tax credits has not produced any reforms. It’s not because reforms are not necessary. Rather, it’s a lack of resolve.

One of several strong recommendations in January 2010 by a Special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Gov. Culver in the wake of the film credit scandal was for a five-year sunset on all tax credits. This would require the Legislature to re-approve every tax credit.

That would be a start. Another option: Instead of eliminating refundability for all credits, which affects even credits where refundability makes sense (Earned Income Tax Credit), limit it where it does not. The Special Tax Credit Review Panel recommended eliminating refundability for big recipients of the Research Activities Credit (companies with gross receipts over $20 million). Another option would be to cap refundability for all credits at $250,000, which would not harm small players, either businesses or individuals, and would reduce the excessive checks to big businesses.

The scrutiny and demand for a return on investment on these credits would be too much for many of these special arrangements to withstand. Eliminating or capping wasteful credits would free up revenues for other priorities; some would invest more here or there — education, or public safety, or the environment — and some would simply use it to reduce overall spending. But either way, we would have the opportunity for a debate.

There is a danger in putting everything on the table at once. It presents a false equivalency of tax credits — that they are somehow all the same. It ignores the fact that some are for private gain and some for the common good, and some are a mixture. Some work, and some do not.

Some meet the purpose for which they were advertised (the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, which benefits low-income working families), and some miss the mark with tens of millions of dollars every year (the Research Activities Credit, where most of the money goes to huge, profitable corporations that pay little or no income tax instead of to small start-ups as envisioned).

Iowa’s business tax credits will have risen by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

Challenging all credits at the same time gets everyone’s backs up. That is a recipe to assure continued unwillingness to take on any of it. And that will not serve Iowa very well.

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

Less government means ‘less us’

Posted March 1st, 2017 to Blog

Imagine new occupants of a large historic building who decide to do a major remodeling project, and they do not take the time to learn how the building was built and what previous structural changes were done to the building. They tear into this column, that wall, or that beam, without thinking that these are indeed load-bearing walls and beams that keep the building standing.

The remodeling fever we are seeing in Washington and the Statehouse involve trashing all things public: public schools, public services, public health, and public employees — the load-bearing foundations of democracy and daily life.

The most meaningful insight I gained from serving on the City Council involved learning the functioning of government at the community scale: police protection, fire protection, water, sewer and inspection services, planning services, utilities, arts and cultural services, a fantastic library, community center, great schools and services for children with special needs. I get up every morning thinking about these public services and the people who make them happen, and I am grateful.

That is why I find it astonishing that so many people continue to fall for the falsehood that “government is bad.” Many of us immigrants have come from countries that have fallen apart in violence and disorder in the absence of a functioning government. Thousands of U.S. troops have died to establish a decent governing process in Iraq and Afghanistan, but here at home, we are told government is bad, private-everything is good, corporations are the greatest, and all things public are bad. Do our troops serving in Afghanistan know about the rush to diminish government at home?

Because government means “us,” less government means “less us.” It almost always means more corporate interest, not public interest, making decisions for us, and invariably leads to more inequality, injustice, and disparity. Worst of all, it means fewer public services. We have heard “government should be small,” but why have we not heard “corporations should be small and their influence on government limited?”

Less self-governance, providing fewer services, has produced results: contaminated eggs sickening thousands and contaminated meats killing children because we have not inspected and protected our food supply. Inspection services supposedly are “too much regulation.” Toxic releases, polluted air, contaminated drinking waters, the national financial crisis are all clear and predictable results of “less regulatory burden,” “less government” and more corporate irresponsibility.

Let us not forget that our properties, our lives, our neighborhoods, and our businesses are richer and better because there is police and fire protection, law, order, a system of fair courts, and regulations. We are better off because we are situated in and are beneficiaries of a publicly organized infrastructure that offers basic services to all, including protecting Iowa’s commonwealth which provide ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water. Public works.

While the process of governing ourselves is not perfect and can be improved, “less government” is no improvement. We are the lucky beneficiaries of many generations before us who gave so much to build this nation, but, as many of us immigrants know, democracy and self governance are highly perishable. They are not something we have, but something we have to make every day and nurture through our involvement. Like a garden, you have to tend it.

kamyar-enshayan5464300Kamyar Enshayan served on the Cedar Falls City Council from 2003 to 2011. Enshayan is director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches environmental studies. He has been a member of the Iowa Policy Project board of directors since July 2016.