Iowa Fiscal Partnership / Energy & Environment
Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Energy & Environment

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

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

Too few inspectors to assure clean water

Posted May 12th, 2014 to Blog

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently seeking public comments on proposed rule changes required by the Iowa Legislature that would bring Iowa’s requirements for concentrated animal feeding operations into agreement with federal regulations.

The changes would also satisfy the terms of a work plan signed by the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rules need enforcement and the agency — by its own admission — has not maintained enough inspectors. Even the recent changes since the agency was reprimanded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 have not replaced enough employees to get the number of inspectors back to the level that existed in 2004.

Originally in answer to U.S. EPA complaints, the department envisioned a 13 staff-person increase that would only bring numbers back to approximately the 2004 staffing levels — before the addition of many more confinement operations. However, the Governor and General Assembly did not even authorize this number.

Let me repeat, rules need adequate enforcement. DNR does not appear to have enough staff.

See this passage from a DNR 2011 report on manure on frozen and snow-covered ground:

“The scope and complexity of confinement program work increased disproportionately beginning with legislation in the late ’90s. With this, public awareness of environmental issues also grew, resulting in a significant increase in local demand for education, compliance assistance and compliance assurance. To address these needs, animal feeding operations field staffing gradually increased to a high of 23 by SFY 2004.* In SFY 2008, four staff people were shifted into a newly established open feedlots program. Then in the fall of 2009, as General Fund expenditures declined, confinement staffing was reduced again. This reduced staff numbers from 19 to 11.5. Further reductions leave the total of field staff for confinement work at 8.75 full time equivalents. This reduction means that the DNR will not be able to maintain an adequate level of compliance and enforcement activity in confinements.”**

*State Fiscal Year 2004

IPP-osterberg-75  Posted by David Osterberg, IPP Founding Director

With ALEC, it’s not just ‘Who?’ but ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’

Posted January 10th, 2014 to Blog

Some Iowa legislative leaders are taking issue with claims that all Iowa legislators are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

See these links:

All of this calls to mind the words of the great comedian Groucho Marx, who is widely quoted:

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Groucho presumably was never a member of ALEC — like many Iowa lawmakers now protesting claims of their inclusion. But regardless of who belongs to ALEC, the bigger issue is whether ALEC belongs at the public policy table.

Iowa Policy Project analysis has refuted the value of legislative initiatives promoted by ALEC, which is essentially a bill mill backed by corporate interests. IPP’s Peter Fisher and the national group Good Jobs First, in their 2012 report “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” showed that states following ALEC proposals were likely to show worse economic results than other states.

As Fisher noted at the time:

“We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results. We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.”

This recalls another quotation:

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

No, that is not the ALEC mission statement. Again, they are words widely attributed to Groucho Marx.

But if the shoe fits ….

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Posted January 28th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

This session of the Iowa Legislature offers a tremendous opportunity to move the state forward with a balanced approach — including responsible, fair tax reform and investments in critical needs that have gone unmet, in education at all levels, in environmental quality and public safety.

The proposal for a blanket $750 tax credit to couples, regardless of need and blind to the opportunity cost of even more lost investments, does not fit that approach. To compound a penchant to spend money on tax breaks is fiscally irresponsible to the needs of Iowa taxpayers, who will benefit from better services, and to the promise that we would return to proper investments when the economy turned up, as it has. Furthermore, to give away Iowa’s surplus when uncertainty remains about the impact of federal budget decisions on our state’s tax system and services is tremendously short-sighted.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has established, cutbacks in higher education funding have caused costs and debt to rise for students and their families, not only at the Regents institutions but community colleges as well. While Iowa voters, through a statewide referendum, have expressly called for new revenues to go toward better environmental stewardship, lawmakers have not taken action. The surplus we now see should be used responsibly for the future of Iowans, who patiently endured budget austerity for the day when we could once again see support for critical services. This is no time to be forgetting our responsibilities.

Iowa can do better by returning to the basics of good budgeting, crafting budget and tax choices that keep a long-term focus on the needs of young and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the foundations we leave them.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Talk is cheap

Posted November 20th, 2012 to Blog
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

There are three principal problems with the Governor’s proposed Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and they can be summed up in three words: Talk is cheap.

Solutions to this problem start with enforcement, and that takes money. The state of Iowa shortchanges water quality, underfunding it even compared to what we did a decade ago. Our March 2012 report, Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, found that this water-quality funding decline came despite greater needs for water protection and public willingness to fund it.

Second, inadequate enforcement of environmental rules for Iowa’s livestock industry has resulted in the state’s censure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and this threatens our ability to write permits and otherwise enforce our obligations under the Clean Water Act. The strategy bases enforcement on voluntary acceptance of state rules. This has not worked.

Finally, it says much about Iowa’s commitment to water quality — or lack of commitment — when the state proposes a major nutrient reduction strategy and offers no new money to get the job done. The strategy proposes nothing to make sure Iowa does better in assuring clean water for its residents, for states downstream, and the future.

In short, we need a strategy that recognizes the serious water quality problem we have and offers a realistic approach to addressing it. This must be more than a goal — but a guarantee to all Iowans.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

Posted November 13th, 2012 to Blog

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

How ironic that we have reason to ask that question, a week after a presidential election that capped three-plus years of courting of Iowa voters, and a few days before a potential 2016 candidate visits to start all of it brewing again.

Yet the question is unavoidable. Consider two pieces in today’s Des Moines Register.

First, the Register reports, the federal Environmental Protection Agency may take over water quality enforcement in Iowa due to weak efforts by Iowa’s state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As IPP’s David Osterberg recently told EPA officials to hold DNR more accountable because the state is underfunding water protection.

“EPA should help the agency in bargaining with a legislature that has shown itself to be less concerned with water quality protection than tax cuts. … There is no question that if EPA simply accepts the agency’s agreement to try to do better, water quality will not improve in this state.”

If the EPA admonishment of Iowa’s lax environmental enforcement were not enough, we also are waiting for the state to offer its long-overdue decision on how to proceed on health reform. The 2012 election affirms the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed, so the state’s dragging its heels on creating a health insurance exchange no longer makes sense — if it ever did.

Yet, we now have a real question of whether it’s a good idea for the state to move ahead on its own with an exchange, where Iowans can shop for affordable insurance and not be denied coverage, or having the federal government do it for us. As the Register opined in an editorial today, “It is too important for this state to mess up.” Citing problems implementing temporary high-risk pools, and political dealings in previous legislative attempts to create an exchange, the Register noted:

“Iowans need the coming insurance marketplace to work for them in years to come. But state leaders have shown they are not the ones to design it.”

Can we govern ourselves? Apparently national candidates will come calling in Iowa without worrying about that. So maybe we should answer if for ourselves.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

How about that timing of worker pay report?

Posted October 31st, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Timing is everything.

Consider the announcement Tuesday by the Branstad administration of a new report produced by an outside company to examine whether Iowa state workers are paid too much.

Paid too much?

As the Department of Administrative Services was releasing the report, emergency rescue workers across the Eastern seaboard were putting themselves in harm’s way to help their neighbors in the path of the deadly Hurricane Sandy. And right here in Iowa, within a couple hours of the DAS news conference, bank robbers shot two law enforcement officers — critically wounding the Sumner police chief and injuring a state trooper.

We count on public servants every day, sometimes when lives are at stake, sometimes in enriching life with education, sometimes in just keeping life orderly enough that we can enjoy it without worrying whether the water or food will poison us, or that our job will not put us in danger we did not sign up for.

Oh, and the report? It found that pay scales for Iowa state workers are generally competitive. Where the report cited potential problems, the information provided was too sketchy to delve in and really go through it. And, being produced by a private company that copyrighted the report, we might just never know what our tax dollars produced. This is what happens with privatization, folks. But if you want a quick look at the holes in the report, see the review Tuesday by IPP’s Peter Fisher.

So, for those less inclined toward knee-jerk appeals against public workers, the timing of this report, you might say, wasn’t too bad.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Why the federal budget debate matters in the states

Posted August 9th, 2012 to Blog

There’s doggone near nobody who isn’t concerned about dealing with the nation’s long-term budget challenges of deficit and debt.

What not enough people will recognize, however, is the danger of diving headlong into a deficit-cutting approach that just digs a deeper hole, both for the economy and for the critical services that federal, state and local government spending supports.

Ryan budget impacts

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

And that’s the problem with the so-called “Ryan Budget,” named for Congressman Paul Ryan. That approach, passed by the House, makes cuts to funding for state and local services that are far deeper than the cuts many expect to happen with sequestration, the automatic cut process demanded by last year’s Budget Control Act compromise.

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities outlines the challenge for states generally with the Ryan approach:

  • Federal cuts of 34 percent by 2022 to Medicaid compared to current law, and by steadily larger amounts after that.
  • Federal cuts of 22 percent in 2014 and in later years to non-defense “discretionary” spending — which leaves Medicare and Social Security alone but hits local and state services in education, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and public health and safety including law enforcement.

For Iowa, the non-defense “discretionary” cuts are projected at $237 million in 2014 alone, and $2.1 billion from 2013 through 2021.

Want clean water? If you live in Iowa, where the state routinely shortchanges environmental enforcement, how bad do you think things might get when the federal funds are cut as well? Concerned about the quality of your food? Or your kids’ schools? Maybe the safety of the bridge you’re approaching on the way to work?

Well, folks, you get what you pay for.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director