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Posts tagged Governor Terry Branstad

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

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

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org


An opportunity for Governor Reynolds

IFP Statement:

New Governor Takes Office Facing Issues that Demand Leadership

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

 

Iowa-StateSealIowa has a new Governor. We cannot say that very often, as only four individuals previously held the office over the last 48 years. The swearing-in today of Governor Kim Reynolds offers all Iowans, including the Governor, an opportunity to lead us past the divisive and cloistered decision making of the last six years.

  • Over 367,000 Iowans are in poverty, including 105,000 children, despite their families’ hard work and long hours. A 12 percent poverty rate is daunting, but far greater shares of Iowa households — particularly single and single-parent households — cannot make ends meet on what they earn in our low-wage state. This imposes extra demands on taxpayers who also frequently subsidize low-wage employers due to poorly designed economic development strategies.
  • Nearly 239,000 Iowans are employed in state and local government. Legislative attacks in 2017 dishonored their service. Trust needs to be restored. That starts by recognizing the contribution of these workers to our economy, and honoring our commitments to them.
  • More than 300,000 Iowa workers — about 1 in 10 Iowans, plus the families they support — would benefit from a meager minimum wage increase to $10.10. Anything less than that is inadequate, especially when federal policy changes in the works would undermine work-support programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Iowa spends hundreds of millions of dollars on tax breaks that have no demonstrated net benefit to the state, while underfunding our most important investment opportunity — in public education, from pre-K through post-secondary institutions.
  • Iowa water quality is an embarrassment as well as a health hazard. It’s time to get it cleaned up and to demand that those causing the pollution contribute to the solutions.

The most controversial policy changes of 2017 came in a climate that undermined Iowa’s longstanding reputation of good governance. Backroom dealing and abbreviated debate must not become the norm.

We stated at the end of the legislative session that history “will mark 2017 as a low point in Iowans’ respect and care for each other.” Governor Reynolds could change that. The legacy of 2017 does not have to be limited to the failure of vision, and the lack of compassion, stewardship and justice, that marked the legislative session. And, it is fair to note, 2018 could be even worse unless we change course.

Governor Reynolds has a chance to help us do more, and do it better. We wish her the best, and hope she will reach out to all Iowans to achieve collaboration on the way forward for Iowa.

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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. Find reports at www.iowafiscal.org, and the IPP and CFPC websites, www.iowapolicyproject.org and www.cfpciowa.org.

Lost legacy of science and research?

Posted April 19th, 2017 to Blog

Editor’s Note: The Cedar Rapids Gazette published a version of this piece online Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

While Iowans and others celebrate Earth Day on Saturday with a March for Science, many legislators have already tripped over their own votes.

Besides several cuts to higher education Iowa legislators have taken aim at particular scientific centers at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

With the state’s second largest city and its largest university both almost recovered from massive flooding, they attacked the Flood Center at the UI, which may survive with a 20 percent cut to reward how its data and research have helped citizens of the state.

Certainly as troubling is the pending elimination of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU, and the farming out of duties at the Energy Center at ISU to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. So much for independent research.

One thing lost in these assaults is a sense of institutional memory. Those of us who started the Leopold Center some 30 years ago found agreement to assure Iowans a lasting resource independent of industry control and other research funding. And it has worked.

Much of the research on how to reduce agricultural damage to water quality has been started by the Leopold Center — more than 600 research projects, according to Leopold’s director, Professor Mark Rasmussen.

You drink the water. You breathe the air. Are you comfortable that Iowa’s premier research universities are being blocked from conducting research on topics including water quality, manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development?

In fact, as Rasmussen notes, many practices recommended in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce agricultural pollution — including streamside buffers, erosion control measures, and bioreactors — “were first researched through Leopold Center funding.”

Now, the history of the Leopold Center is being reinvented by lawmakers attempting to erase a three-decade, bipartisan commitment to sustainable funding of independent research. They would eliminate the publicly directed mission and turn it over to businesses.

It is hard to know if these attacks are driven by politics or corporate interest. Maybe it is just Iowa’s version of an attack on science generally.

Either way, the bill eliminating the Leopold Center has passed the Senate and Iowans have only a short time to demand more from their elected officials in the House and the Governor. Voices rising helped to save the Flood Center with only a cut. Concerned Iowans may yet save the Leopold Center, but the clock is ticking.

 

David Osterberg, a state representative from Mount Vernon from 1983-1994, is co-founder and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. Osterberg and fellow legislators Ralph Rosenberg and Paul Johnson were co-authors of the law that created the Leopold Center at Iowa State University.


Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

Posted January 10th, 2017 to Blog
Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

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

Iceberg ahead — but how big?

Posted December 21st, 2016 to Blog
060426-capitol-swwThe Des Moines Register disclosed Wednesday afternoon in a copyright story that the private, for-profit companies now running Iowa’s Medicaid program are finding big problems in the first year.

With big policy decisions ahead on the future of Medicaid, not only in Iowa but in Washington with a new administration, it is reasonable to wonder if Governor Terry Branstad’s go-it-alone Medicaid privatization is only the tip of the iceberg — and how big the iceberg may be.

Besides the great uncertainty for health-insurance coverage for millions if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement, there is the idea that Congress might block-grant Medicaid. The goal would be to save the federal government money — not to assure health care for the most vulnerable as Medicaid now provides.

A block-grant approach means states would be allotted a share of funds for Medicaid, and when it is gone, that’s it — services would be cut. In that scenario, the decisions would be made in the states. As noted by Edwin Park of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Such a block grant would push states to cut their Medicaid programs deeply.  To compensate for the federal Medicaid funding cuts a block grant would institute, states would either have to contribute much more of their own funding or, as is far more likely, use the greater flexibility the block grant would give them to make draconian cuts to eligibility, benefits, and provider payments.

Maybe someone can provide the campaign literature from the 2016 legislative races that illustrates successful candidates’ thoughts on whose coverage would be the first to go. Who gets cut off? Someone will have to decide that if we go to a block-grant program.

It probably won’t be Governor Branstad making that tough decision, by the way. The new ambassador-to-be will be off doing diplomatic stuff in China when these hard decisions are made.

Is that what these new legislators signed up to do when they put their names on the ballot? But they could check in with Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst to find out if Iowa Statehouse job descriptions might change in the months ahead.

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

An opportunity for a productive, fair agenda

Posted December 8th, 2016 to Blog

Congratulations to Governor Terry Branstad on his nomination as ambassador to China and to Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds for her coming role as Governor of our state.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the new Governor to start marking her clean slate with a productive and fair agenda that advances opportunity for children and families, protects the vulnerable and enhances our quality-of-life assets of clean air, clean water, and cultural enrichment.

A good place to start is establishing a new regime of transparency and accountability in state spending with a reform agenda for tax credits and other tax expenditures — something she may embrace as a former county treasurer. Important decisions are being made in the shadows in the Iowa State Capitol. Our incoming Governor has an opportunity to bring them out into the open.

With this type of reform, we may find there are in fact adequate revenues to again cultivate Iowans’ long-held commitments to education, to our safety net, to our environment, and to fairness and safety in the workplace.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we welcome inquiries from the new Governor and her staff about our research. May they — like Iowans around the state — find it to be a credible and reliable resource to better understand our public policy choices.

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

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org


Of course the $33 million matters, Governor

Posted November 1st, 2016 to Blog

It seems no Governor Branstad costume is complete without rose-colored glasses, even after Halloween.

For on the final day of October, as goblins prepared to venture out to neighbors’ houses for treats, the Governor offered news on his unilateral decision to privatize Medicaid: It will cost the state an extra $33 million this fiscal year, payments to private companies not previously anticipated.

But he’s telling us not to worry about that spending. For example, the Des Moines Register story prominently noted reassurances from the Governor and his chief of staff, Michael Bousselot:

But the situation will not negatively impact the state budget because Medicaid cost savings will exceed $140 million when compared to the old Medicaid program, they said.

 

Hmmm. So, we’re going to spend $33 million more — $33 million we weren’t planning to spend — and that doesn’t “negatively impact” the state budget?

That is not what we’re told when it’s $33 million for schools, or cracking down on polluters or businesses that deliberately stiff their employees for wages owed. For those things, we just don’t have the money.

Think of it this way: Last month, the Revenue Estimating Conference projected that the state would take in $72 million less in FY2017 than it had estimated in March. That means those funds will not be coming in and may affect what can be spent. Now, we learn of an extra $33 million charge. Already, some $100 million less for the current year.

Of course the $33 million matters. There is an impact on the budget bottom line, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Budget projections are always a difficult thing. But from the start of the Governor’s decision to privatize Medicaid, without legislative consent, we have been asked to accept optimistic assessments of what to expect. And if the optimism is misplaced? Education funding and other general-fund priorities inevitably lose.

Medicaid privatization already has scared a fair number of Iowans about their access to health care. Those fears are not resolved. Neither are concerns about the fiscal side of this issue.

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

Iowa Sales-Tax Sleight of Hand

POLICY BRIEF

Proposals test limits of authority, defy voters’ intent and expectations

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By Mike Owen

Recent proposals and actions on Iowa’s sales tax would directly cost Iowa schools funding for both facilities and general operations, and most critical services could expect less as well. Aside from fiscal impacts, these proposals ignore existing law or voters’ directives, and long traditions in the way we govern ourselves. To many, this is a low road — of lower revenues, services and commitment. We map that road below.

Here we do not review in detail the impact of the sales tax on various types of Iowa households, though we examine Iowa’s significant shifts toward regressive taxation (particularly the sales tax) in greater depth elsewhere.[i] Rather, we focus on the revenue and governance issues raised by a recent unilateral action by the Branstad administration for a special sales-tax break, and pending proposals by the Governor and legislators to change intended spending from sales taxes now in place. Each represents a sleight-of-hand either in defiance of existing laws that have not been duly changed, or of promises made to voters who years ago authorized specific tax policy changes with clear expectations on the use of new revenue.

These new, opportunistic approaches are suddenly possible because of Iowa’s polarized political landscape. Ironically, they capitalize on what education and environmental advocates had seen as opportunities to progress despite a general lapse of the state’s commitment of funding. Only an expectation that lawmakers will not agree to stop the Governor permits him to act unilaterally on a sales tax exemption, a reinterpretation of longstanding existing law to grant manufacturers a special break without prior legislative approval. Only the looming expiration of­­ the school infrastructure sales tax gives the Governor an opportunity to attempt a diversion of that funding from school districts to water programs — an immediate loss to schools in the near term, and insufficient resources for schools and the full range of environmental priorities for the long term.

Meanwhile, policy makers do not follow the dictates of law for school funding, nor the direction of voters on environmental funding. Legislators already routinely dismiss their annual legal deadline for setting state school aid levels 14 months ahead of schools’ own budget certification deadlines. And we now see attempts by both the Governor and some legislators to come up with proposals that divert revenue and change the rules for funding of school facility needs. While education advocates have voiced concerns for several years about the state’s commitment to funding of public schools, environmental advocates have done the same through five-plus years of legislative inaction following a 2010 electoral victory. That year, voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment directing the first three-eighths-cent sales-tax increase to a trust fund to enhance stewardship of Iowa’s land, air and water resources — not all of which are in the Governor’s plan. 

 

The Sales Tax Under Current Law

Iowa’s state sales tax is part of a three-pronged funding structure to support state and local services and infrastructure: state and local sales and excise taxes; state income tax and local income surtax; and local property tax. State law governs all of these. The state sales tax is 6 percent on applicable purchases and services, with exemptions set by state law. The first five pennies of sales tax per dollar go to the state general fund; the sixth penny is dedicated to school infrastructure or school property tax replacement. That penny is worth about $435 million to Iowa schools in Fiscal Year 2016.[ii]

New Proposals Reduce Revenues for Services, Either Directly or Indirectly

Each of the imminent or proposed actions summarized below provide less revenue for public education than is provided under current law. These come at a time when the Legislature and Governor have settled Iowa into a trend of holding down the basic building block of school budgets — per pupil cost — in a formula designed to produce equitable funding for a student regardless of his or her school district. These actions give local school districts scant ability to sustain funding over time.

Administrative Change in Sales-Tax Law Without Legislative Approval

The first policy change, an administrative order to be implemented July 1 unless blocked by a veto-proof majority in the Legislature this spring, unilaterally reinterprets existing sales-tax law governing purchases by manufacturers. The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) preliminarily estimated the cost of this change to be $35 million or more in FY2017, which begins July 1. While there has been no official update of that estimate, many have projected it to be higher.[iii]

The governance issue may be of even greater importance than the fiscal impact. One observer with experience in the world of administrative rules, in testimony to the DOR on the proposed rule change, called it “an unprecedented potential shift of institutional, constitutional forces.”[iv] James C. Larew, an Iowa City attorney and former general counsel to Governor Chet Culver, stated:

“The balance of political power changes from one election to the next. 

“The balance of constitutional power — the relationship between the Iowa General Assembly and executive departments of our state government — is more serious and more lasting. 

“Broad statutory interpretive powers given up by the legislature to an executive agency, in one moment of time, concerning one issue, are not easily later recovered.”

The sharp partisan divide between the Iowa House and Senate appears to be weighing against a reversal of the Governor’s new interpretation of longstanding tax law, though about two months into the session there are indications that lawmakers may agree on a compromise that lessens the fiscal impact.[v] If the Governor’s change stands, it leaves an open question of how many other executive-branch reinterpretations of other tax laws may occur with this precedent, and with fiscal impacts of their own.

The following proposals stem in part from pressure for greater environmental funding, and capitalize on school districts’ interest in extending a statewide sales tax currently designated for school infrastructure funding but set to expire in 2029. Each proposal would cut into schools’ exclusive use of those funds even before the deadline.

Diverting the “Statewide Penny” from School Infrastructure for Other Uses

The so-called “statewide penny” is the sixth cent of Iowa sales tax — the sixth cent per dollar in sales on goods or services, added in 2008. After Governor Branstad first took office in 1983, he proposed and passed an increase in the sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent. Again, in 1992, he approved an increase in the state sales tax to 5 percent. Meanwhile, beginning in 1998, local school districts were permitted to seek, through authority granted countywide, a 1 percent sales-tax increase to fund school infrastructure. This was known as the School Infrastructure Local Option, or SILO, tax. Frequently, these local referendum campaigns included assurances to voters by school administrators and school board members that the penny would be used for school facilities — and could not be used for salaries or other purposes. In 2008, these local SILO taxes were converted to a statewide tax, with an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2029. The stated legislative intent in the law is that the 1 percent tax “shall be used solely for purposes of providing revenues to local school districts under this chapter to be used solely for school infrastructure purposes or school district property tax relief.”[vi] Further, local districts must follow a voter-approved “revenue purpose statement” governing how the funds — from what is called the Secure and Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE, fund — will be used within the bounds of the state law.

School officials across Iowa have been seeking an extension — or removal — of that sunset provision because they are allowed to borrow money against those anticipated SAVE revenues. The closer they get to that 2029 date, the more they are limited in long-term borrowing against that revenue source for school infrastructure projects. Schools also have been concerned about the possibility of attempts to scoop revenues from that source for other purposes. The Iowa Association of School Boards made “preserving the integrity of the statewide penny sales tax for school infrastructure,” along with repeal of the 2029 sunset, one of its four priorities for the 2016 legislative session.[vii] Proposals under consideration offer a nod to the latter — extending the law rather than repealing the end date — only by losing the “integrity of the statewide penny.”

Governor’s Plan — Diversion for Water Programs

While the question of school infrastructure is one of many funding challenges for schools as operational budgets have been held down by lawmakers in recent years, environmental advocates have sought more resources to deal with land and water management at a time of serious pollution issues. The latter have been highlighted by a 2015 lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works against three counties whose ag-based pollution has driven up water treatment costs for their urban and suburban neighbors downstream.

The Governor’s proposal amounts to a bait-and-switch tactic to voters who passed local school infrastructure sales taxes, and to legislators who converted them into a statewide tax in 2008. Iowa Code Chapter 423F, with the same restrictions on the use of revenue.

Voters had approved strategies to address both challenges, for schools and the environment. While the Governor purports to do the same with a different approach, the changes weigh heavily against schools, when compared with current law for the near term and educator-backed proposals for the long term. While he would extend the school facilities sales tax from 2029 to 2049, he would reduce the share of that tax going to schools for the next 13 years, and limit growth to only $10 million a year statewide — a net loss to schools of $425.9 million through 2029.[viii] At the same time, he would divert increasing shares of the growth in those revenues through 2049 to water programs — an estimated $4.7 billion. See Figure 1 below.

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The history of this sixth penny of the state sales tax is important, as it established a level of political legitimacy for a tax increase among legislators who have not typically been out front in favor of tax increases. Its roots are in local votes across Iowa, where voters were asked to add a penny per dollar in sales tax to fund improvements to school facilities and equipment. This purpose was expressly stated for those elections. The Legislature in 2008 — following those local, carefully focused ballot issues — converted the local taxes to a statewide sales tax with a common expiration date and the same purpose as that used to sell voters on the tax increases from the outset. It is quite likely that without the local taxes in place, there would have been no political vehicle for establishment of the statewide tax that replaced them.

At the same time the Governor’s plan ignores the historical justification for the sixth penny of sales tax, he has rejected implementation of an alternative for water-quality funding that Iowa voters have given him. The 2010 referendum — passed in the same election that returned the Governor to his office after 12 years away — did not require the passage of a sales tax, but it did designate the first three-eighths of a penny of the next sales tax increase to be used for environmental stewardship. Voters said “yes” to a penny for school infrastructure, and said “yes” to three-eighths of a cent for water and land improvements. Voters have not granted authority for the Governor’s hybrid approach.

House Alternative Proposals to Divert School Revenue

Proposals in the Iowa House offer other ways in which the sales-tax increase is extended, but for uses different from those in the 2008 legislation that created the sixth penny of sales tax and different from those in the local option votes that set up the statewide tax. One, HF2382, builds on the Governor’s proposal for water quality funding, but also includes provisions to permit use of the funds to ease statewide inequities in per-pupil spending[1] — with restrictions that do not exist for other general spending — and inequities in transportation spending. The funds could not be used for teacher pay, for example, which is a major share of the cost of educating students. The legislation also carries new requirements for a voter referendum on any school facility project costing over $1 million, and approval by a supermajority of at least 60 percent. Already, a supermajority is required for a general obligation bond issue against property tax. Adding this requirement for use of the sales tax would further institutionalize minority rule against school facility improvements, even for relatively small-scale construction projects. Other proposals in the House — HF2260, HSB549 and HSB548 — also would impose new limits on spending and divert funding currently designated for school facility improvements under long-accepted restrictions that schools have not contested. HF2260 includes a provision to allow for the use of the funds to help address inequities from district to district in the share of their budgets that go to transportation costs — one issue raised by education advocates about reforms needed in the school funding formula.[ix]

The desire of school districts to extend the tax for its currently authorized use is the opening, as noted above, for a host of new restrictions that lawmakers have sought to impose on public school spending authority in the state — with window-dressing solutions for other concerns schools have raised about statewide equity.

Property Tax Impact of Branstad Plan

A notable consequence of this change may well be property-tax increases — in two ways —because less funding would be available in real terms through the SAVE disbursement. First, districts looking for resources will be more likely to increase their Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, if they are not already at the maximum $1.67 per $1,000 levy rate. Second, where SAVE funding can reduce the need for, or size of, property tax-based bond issues for facilities, districts might be left with no other option, provided they have the bonding capacity to do so. In both cases, these could cause property-tax increases — even though reductions in property tax have been the driving message behind tax changes by both the Governor and legislators in recent years.

In addition, the sales tax for school infrastructure already provides some property-tax replacement funding, to the Property Tax Equity and Relief (PTER) Fund.[x] The Governor’s proposal would reduce that by a total of about $9 million through 2029 compared to current law, and by about $102 million overall compared to a simple 20-year extension of the current law.[xi]

Constitutional Amendment Remains in Place

One of the problems with setting tax policy through a constitutional amendment is that policy makers lose flexibility. Diverting other funds now for the purpose designated by the 2010 constitutional amendment may well tie lawmakers’ hands in raising revenue in the future. The next three-eighths of each penny raised by a sales-tax increase will go to environmental programs, regardless of action amending the use of the school infrastructure sales tax. In the event of a sales-tax increase in the next five-10 years, it is inevitable that this would set up new competition for revenues between environmental advocates and advocates for other critical services left out of the Governor’s plan. Would there be a move to redirect the diversion from the school infrastructure tax? How might this affect bonding arrangements for projects for either water quality or schools? It would be best for lawmakers to address such scenarios before, rather than after, passage of anything along the lines suggested by the Governor.

Conclusion

Transparency is essential for Iowans to understand how and why they are being taxed, and how the revenues will be used. Whatever their perceived merits, the tax policy changes that we examine here are being pursued in defiance of understandings and expectations that exist by both tradition and law. The precedents they offer raise uncertainties for future governance of our state.

Ultimately, the Governor’s proposed diversion of school funding to water programs is a response to a short-term challenge in both areas with, at best, long-term uncertainties. More likely it poses a long-term hindrance to school districts’ ability to meet facilities needs, and to the funding choices of future legislators and governors.

Finally, while we do not delve deeply with this paper into the tax fairness issues posed by an enhanced focus on the sales tax where revenues are needed, it is well established that Iowa’s sales taxes disproportionately affect poorer households. To put even more reliance on this most regressive piece of Iowa’s state and local tax structure, which overall is regressive, means policy makers should be looking at offsets to assist low-income families in conjunction with sales-tax increases. None of these proposals make an attempt to balance out fairness issues, which also is true of the solution offered by the 2010 constitutional amendment. Some proposals in the House, in fact, would exacerbate fairness problems, by encouraging local school districts to buy down property taxes with sales-tax revenues.

 


[1] Iowa school budgets are built based on a per-pupil cost, which varies by as much as $175 per student from the highest to lowest district. About half of Iowa school districts are at the lowest level, and in recent years this has prompted calls for a legislative solution. For more on this issue, see “Building blocks of inequity,” Iowa Policy Project blog post, February 2016, http://iowapolicypoints.org/2016/02/10/building-blocks-of-inequity/


[i] Cementing Inequity: Richest Iowans Pay Lower Tax Rate, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, January 14, 2015. http://www.iowafiscal.org/cementing-inequity-richest-iowans-pay-lower-tax-rate/
[iv] Testimony of James C. Larew, Iowa City attorney and former administrative rules advisory and General Counsel to Governor Chet Culver, Dec. 1, 2015. Available here: http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2015docs/151201-Larew-DOR_RulesTestimony.pdf.
[v] The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, March 9, 2016: Iowa legislators move forward with compromise on taxes. http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/iowa-legislators-move-forward-with-compromise-on-tax-policy-compromise-20160309
[vi] Code of Iowa, Chapter 423F.1 Legislative intent: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/code/423F.pdf
[viii] Calculations by Shawn Snyder, Finance Support Director, Iowa Association of School Boards.
[ix] See December 2015 testimony to Iowa Legislature School Finance Inequities Committee, https://www.legis.iowa.gov/committees/meetings/documents?committee=24164&ga=ALL, and the committee’s final report, Jan. 1, 2016: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/IP/765872.pdf
[x] Iowa Code Chapter 423F https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/code/423F.pdf, Iowa Code Chapter 257.16A https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/code/423F.pdf. The Property Tax Equity and Relief (PTER) Fund receives a state appropriation, plus funds from the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) Fund, after per-pupil allocations are made as a result of the statewide 1 percent sales tax for school infrastructure.
[xi] Calculations by Shawn Snyder, Finance Support Director, Iowa Association of School Boards.

 

IPP-Owen-2013-5464Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City. A former journalist in Iowa and Pennsylvania, he has been a member of the West Branch Community School District Board of Education since 2006.

 

110929-ifp-newlogo10IPP and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines are two nonpartisan, nonprofit Iowa-based organizations that formed the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, to make public policy analysis available to all Iowans. Reports are at www.iowafiscal.org. The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is part of the national State Priorities Partnership, with IFP research supported in part by the Stoneman Family Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, as well as individual and organization donors in Iowa. IFP analysis is solely the responsibility of the authors and may not reflect the views of supporting funders.

IFP Statement: Governor diverts revenue — and attention from choices on water and schools

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Fiscal Partnership today issued this statement regarding Governor Branstad’s promotion of a study claiming economic benefits of his proposed diversion of sales-tax revenue to water projects:

The Governor’s office today asserted that his proposal to divert revenue from the school infrastructure sales tax to clean water initiatives “would mean more jobs for Iowa families.” This assertion is quite misleading, because the Governor puts his plan in a vacuum.

In fact, there are alternatives to the Governor’s plan, both in funding of water strategies and in the use of an already established statewide penny sales tax that he would divert from its intended purpose: school infrastructure. The study the Governor relied on makes it clear that researchers could not say whether the Governor’s diversion would create more jobs or fewer jobs than alternative uses of the funds.

The Governor’s news release cherry-picks the study’s findings, quoting a line from its executive summary, that on an annualized basis, “projected spending under this proposal would generate approximately $690 million in economic activity, 1,150 full-time direct employment positions and 2,800 total full-time positions.”

The statement conveniently ignores the next, and concluding, line of the researchers’ own summary of their findings: “However, it should be understood that alternative projects and proposals are likely to result in similar economic activity and employment.”

We make no conclusion about the researchers’ findings. That there are economic benefits in addressing Iowa’s significant problem with agriculture-induced water pollution will surprise no one.

What also would be no surprise is that economic benefits would result — perhaps more — from increased school infrastructure spending. The Governor’s plan diverts funds from that already designated purpose between 2017 and 2029, and would direct the lion’s share of growth in that revenue source to his preferences for the 20 years following.

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 at www.iowafiscal.org.