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Wrong again: ALEC can’t pick its own ‘winners’ among states

Posted April 12th, 2016 to Blog

ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — persists in peddling “research” that knocks down its own policy ideas.

In its latest edition of Rich States, Poor States, just released, ALEC’s Economic Outlook Ranking scores states on 15 measures reflecting ALEC’s preferred policies towards business. Our Grading the States analysis has exposed the flawed methodology of ALEC’s report, but the authors have not changed it for the 9th edition.

ALEC’s dilemma: The index purports to predict which state economies will perform the best, but in fact there is no relation between a state’s score and how well the economy grows subsequently.

Since the first edition in 2007, it remains the case that ALEC’s “best” states — the ones with the highest rankings — are actually poorer on several measures than the supposedly “worst” states. The graph below has been updated to reflect the 9th edition rankings and the latest income data.

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The 20 states that performed best on the four measures of income (the actual rich states) actually score much worse on ALEC’s ranking than the 20 states with the lowest income (the actual poor states).

In its fervent anti-government bias, the report offers a package of policies — for fiscal austerity, suppressing wages and imposing proportionately higher taxes on low-income people — with a promise of economic growth, when it really is a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes for most citizens, and starving public infrastructure and education systems of needed revenue.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and developer of IPP’s Grading the States website, GradingStates.org.

 

 


Wrong again: ALEC can’t pick its own ‘winners’ among states

Posted April 12th, 2016 to Blog

ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — persists in peddling “research” that knocks down its own policy ideas.

In its latest edition of Rich States, Poor States, just released, ALEC’s Economic Outlook Ranking scores states on 15 measures reflecting ALEC’s preferred policies towards business. Our Grading the States analysis has exposed the flawed methodology of ALEC’s report, but the authors have not changed it for the 9th edition.

ALEC’s dilemma: The index purports to predict which state economies will perform the best, but in fact there is no relation between a state’s score and how well the economy grows subsequently.

Since the first edition in 2007, it remains the case that ALEC’s “best” states — the ones with the highest rankings — are actually poorer on several measures than the supposedly “worst” states. The graph below has been updated to reflect the 9th edition rankings and the latest income data.

Basic RGB

The 20 states that performed best on the four measures of income (the actual rich states) actually score much worse on ALEC’s ranking than the 20 states with the lowest income (the actual poor states).

In its fervent anti-government bias, the report offers a package of policies — for fiscal austerity, suppressing wages and imposing proportionately higher taxes on low-income people — with a promise of economic growth, when it really is a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes for most citizens, and starving public infrastructure and education systems of needed revenue.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and developer of IPP’s Grading the States website, GradingStates.org.

 

 


IPP’s Cost of Living: A better measure

Posted April 6th, 2016 to Blog

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Why do we produce our Cost of Living in Iowa research at the Iowa Policy Project? One reason is accuracy — to offer a better picture of what it takes to get by, rather than a vague concept of “poverty.”

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. But those official guidelines have challenges that we address with basic-needs budget calculations in The Cost of Living in Iowa.

The federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago.

For example, the calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food.

Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today with 23.5 million women with children under 18 in the labor force.[1] Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.[2]

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 below shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines.

Figure 1. Cost of Living is Much Higher than the Poverty Level

Fig 1 pov guideline comp

In fact, family supporting income in the absence of public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 2.1 to 3.3 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families, in other words, actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs.[3]

[1] Hilda L. Solis and Keith Hall, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2011).
[2] Sylvia A. Allegretto, Basic family budgets: Working families’ incomes often fail to meet living expenses around the US, Economic Policy Institute (August 30, 2005).
[3] Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two parent family with one worker. (That family type not shown here.)
2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and author of The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2016 Edition.
Peter Fisher is a nationally recognized expert on tax and economic development policy. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is professor emeritus in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.

 

 


Sensible context on school aid growth

Posted March 29th, 2016 to Blog

There are many ways to measure Iowa’s lagging commitment to public schools. One is a comparison of growth in school aid to growth in state revenues.

As K-12 schools are a significant share of the state budget, it seems sensible that we would expect at least similar numbers of growth in one vs. the other.

Basic RGBThat is not the case.

While not a perfect comparison — there are moving parts with both figures — you can get an idea of the general trend in the accompanying graph. Net General Fund revenues have been coming in with average yearly increases around 4 percent,* while the key school-aid number, for Supplemental State Aid, has averaged about half that.**

The numbers below are taken from the latest Revenue Estimating Conference report, available here: https://dom.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016/03/rec-projections-2016-03-16.pdf

  • The actual ending balance for FY2015 (the budget year ending last June 1) showed a net over-the-year revenue change from FY2014 of 5.1 percent. For that same period, schools had 4 percent Supplemental State Aid — the only year that high since FY2010.
  • For the current year, the most recent official revenue estimate is for a 3.3 percent state revenue increase, while schools are operating on budgets reflecting 1.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2017, the estimate is for a 4.4 percent state revenue increase, and the deal just hatched at the Statehouse — 13 months late — is for schools to see 2.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2018, for budgets to be approved a year from now, the state is expecting 4.1 percent revenue growth. The school aid number for FY2018 by law was to have been set a month ago so school districts could properly plan their budgets when enrollment counts are set this fall, and to negotiate staff contracts without big uncertainties. That number has not been set and apparently will not be during this legislative session, as neither the House nor the Governor is interested.

Understand, the revenue growth number is held artificially low by the growing and incessant demand for business tax breaks that undermine revenues. So the net revenue number would be much higher if legislators wanted it. Instead, they continue to give away hundreds of millions of dollars before they even reach the state treasury.

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

Alas, that is not the political world in which we live.

*The average growth for general fund revenues includes both actual results for FY11 through FY15, as well as projections by the Revenue Estimating Conference for FY16 and FY17.
**Supplemental State Aid — which is a percentage for per-pupil cost growth that districts must use in building an enrollment-based budget — includes the recent deal approved by the Senate and House and expected to be signed by Governor Branstad.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
Mike Owen is a former journalist in Iowa and Pennsylvania. He covered state government for the Quad-City Times from 1980-85 and was editor and co-publisher of the West Branch Times from 1993-2001. He is serving his third term on the West Branch Board of Education, and is a member of the Professional Advisory Board of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

IFP News: Sales-tax sleight of hand in Iowa

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

View the report

IOWA CITY, Iowa (March 10, 2016) — Schools would lose revenue and Iowa voters’ intent would be distorted by new proposals on the state sales tax, according to a report from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

“This is the new sleight of hand in Iowa — pass a tax for one purpose, and then shift the way the money will be used. That’s what the Governor is proposing with his attempt to divert funding from the school infrastructure sales tax, and that’s only one example,” said Mike Owen, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and author of the report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

“Another is a special sales-tax break for manufacturers that the Governor has set in place on his own, without legislative approval. This might change in current budget negotiations, but we likely would not be talking about it at all had the Governor not acted on his own.

“The precedents being set raise uncertainties for the future governance of our state.”
 
The six-page report is available here: http://www.iowafiscal.org/sales-tax-sleight-of-hand-in-iowa/.

In the paper, Owen looks at a sales-tax break implemented unilaterally by the Branstad administration, as well as various proposals that would extend a state sales tax currently designated for school facilities and equipment — but only if shares of the funding are diverted to other purposes.

 
The Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) uses Department of Revenue data to project the Governor’s plan, now in the House as HF2382, would cause a loss of $426 million for school infrastructure from FY2017 through FY2029, when the current tax expires.

Schools would see a 20-year extension of the tax under the Governor’s plan, but would receive $4.7 billion less through FY2049 than under a straight 20-year extension of the sales tax for its currently defined use, according to IASB.

 
“That sales tax would not exist but for local votes across the state, for the revenues to go to school infrastructure, and secondarily to offset property taxes,” Owen said. “What the Governor and proposals in the Iowa House would do is to divert that funding to purposes never intended.

“They would do this in the near term, changing the rules of the current law set to expire in 2029, and they would do so in greater proportions over the following 20 years. Construction costs for schools will not be going down over that time.”

Proposals also would impose new restrictions on schools’ ability to spend the funds, and two would require voter approval by supermajority for even relatively small-scale construction projects, anything over $1 million.

 
“Once more, we see efforts to impose minority rule against efforts to improve our public infrastructure, to make it more difficult for school boards to do their jobs,” said Owen, who is serving his third term as an elected school board member in West Branch.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations, the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. Reports are at www.iowafiscal.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.

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Posted March 7th, 2016 to Blog
Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

———

One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.


Unspoken budget choices for Iowa

Posted March 2nd, 2016 to Blog

DSCN5662-detail240200There’s a reason we can’t have the things we need. We keep giving money away, often without a good understanding of why we’re doing it.

A good example is the so-called “coupling” legislation now moving through the Iowa Legislature. It would do some sensible things, but others — not so much, and not for the reasons being promoted. Read more about it in this Iowa Fiscal Partnership policy brief.

Most of the cost of the coupling bill is for a business tax break. The Farm Bureau recently quoted one of its local leaders, Washington County Farm Bureau vice president Tye Rinner, that this provision is “really important to us right now.”

“We’re all in limbo right now waiting to see what’s going to happen and that’s keeping us from making the investments in equipment, buildings and other capital purchases, which would also create jobs in our rural communities,” Rinner was quoted.

Unfortunately, that message has little to do with the legislation under consideration. What is missed is that the bill at the Statehouse would make changes for only one tax year — and it’s one already past. The changes are retroactive to tax year 2015.

So if farmers or other business people wanted to make a capital investment that would benefit from the kind of tax provisions being proposed, they would not get the break. They’d be too late.

On the other hand, the bill would reward decisions already made. It’s not an incentive to do something they would not have done anyway — and it’s very costly. It’s about $98 million that was not in the budget for the current year, and would hit the ending balance.

In perspective, this must be seen as a budget choice, put up against other ways to use that $98 million, which would go against the resources on hand for the new fiscal year. You might have noted the difference between the House and Senate on a school aid number is 2 percent in supplemental state aid, whether to set per-pupil cost growth at 2 percent or 4 percent. The difference is about $85 million, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.

So as you can see, we can subsidize business people to do something they already did without a subsidy, or for less money we can have a 4 percent increase in school aid. The House speaker says we can afford the first choice, but not the second. Both positions cannot be so.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director for the Iowa Policy Project.
Contact: pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

High Cost of Conformity

Coupling with Federal Tax Changes Would Dent Iowa’s General Fund

Instead of incentives to invest, the proposals reward decisions made with no subsidy needed

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By Peter S. Fisher

Introduction

Late last year Congress passed a law extending various federal income tax deductions and credits that were set to expire and preserving more generous versions of those deductions and credits. If the State of Iowa chooses to “couple” with these changes in federal law, the more generous provisions would be available on Iowa income tax returns wherever Iowa has a corresponding deduction or credit that is specifically tied to the federal credit. If the state does not couple, then those deductions and credits would be available on Iowa state tax returns either at the old rates or levels, or not at all.

The Iowa House passed a bill (HF2092) that would couple Iowa with all of the federal tax changes (with the exception of something called bonus depreciation) for the 2015 tax year. The changes would be retroactive to January 1, 2015, and so would affect the tax returns that are due this April 30 based on last year’s income. (For farmers, taxes are due March 1 if they want to avoid a penalty for underpayment.) The bill does not couple Iowa law with the federal changes for 2016 or beyond, though of course that could be done later this session or early in 2017.

The Department of Revenue has estimated that HF2092 would reduce current year revenues by nearly $100 million. Because it increases deductions Iowans can take on returns filed this spring, it increases refunds that must be paid this fiscal year and reduces collections. This current-year reduction cuts funds available for the Fiscal Year 2017 budget by nearly $100 million, and thus has an impact on funding for education and other priorities.

By far the most costly provision of the tax change is the so-called “Section 179 expensing” of business assets, where coupling will cost the state $79.8 million, nearly 80 percent of the total cost of the coupling legislation. Six other provisions together produce about $17 million in revenue losses.  We discuss each of these provisions in turn. 

Expensing Business Assets

Normally, when a business purchases assets such as buildings or machinery, the cost of those assets must be spread over a number of years (in theory, over the useful life of the building or machine). A share of the cost is deducted each year as depreciation. Section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code, however, allows businesses to “expense” some assets — that is, to deduct the entire cost in the first year — instead of deducting annual depreciation.  It is usually to a business’s advantage to deduct a cost now rather than later.[1]

Without the federal “extender” legislation, businesses would have been allowed to expense up to $25,000 of assets in 2015. This cap is phased down for businesses with more than $200,000 in total purchases of assets that qualify for 179 expensing. The cap is reduced by $1,000 for every $1,000 in asset purchases above $200,000, so that a business with $225,000 in asset purchases can no longer expense any assets. Though any business can use Section 179 expensing, the cap and phaseout effectively target expensing at smaller businesses, since large businesses will tend to purchase more than $225,000 in assets each year.

The federal legislation extended and made permanent a temporary increase in Section 179 limits to $500,000 in asset purchases in any given year. Furthermore, this limit begins to phase out only when total asset purchases exceed $2 million. By coupling with the federal law, Iowa businesses would be able to expense up to $500,000 in purchases of machinery and equipment, buildings and software for the 2015 tax year, instead of $25,000. Businesses with asset purchases of under $2.5 million would be able to use expensing.

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In the absence of coupling for 2015, Iowa businesses filing taxes this spring can still take full advantage of the federal changes on their Federal returns. The ability to expense a larger share of asset purchases is worth far more in terms of federal tax savings than Iowa tax savings. In the absence of coupling the typical small business[2] still gets over three-fourths of the combined federal-state tax benefit.

coupling-boxIt is also worth emphasizing that this increase in the Iowa expensing provisions has nothing to do with incentives to invest. Taxpayers who would take advantage of it when they file their taxes this spring can do so only for assets purchased last year. Those assets were bought presumably because they were needed at the time and made economic sense for the farm or business, and the purchase decision was made when an enhanced Iowa tax benefit did not exist.

Canceled Home Mortgage

Some homeowners who were unable to make payments on their home during the recent financial crisis had all or a portion of their mortgage debt canceled. If the home was a principal residence and the cancellation occurred after 2006, the amount of principal canceled (up to $2 million) does not have to be added to income for tax purposes. (Normally, a canceled debt is considered a form of taxable income.) The federal bill extended this provision to cancellations that occur through 2016. In the absence of coupling, debt cancellations occurring during 2015 will not qualify for the exclusion in Iowa and the amount of debt canceled will be added to Iowa gross income.

Deductibility of Home Mortgage Insurance Premiums

This provision of the tax law allows the premiums that homeowners pay for mortgage insurance to be counted and deducted as home mortgage interest. The deduction phases out as a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income reaches $110,000. This is of benefit only to taxpayers who itemize deductions. The 2015 federal law extended the deduction through 2016. In the absence of coupling, Iowa taxpayers who itemize would not be able to include mortgage insurance premiums paid in 2015 as deductible interest.

Tuition Deduction

Under this provision, taxpayers can deduct up to $4,000 in higher education tuition and related expenses. The deduction is an adjustment to gross income, so it can be taken regardless of whether the taxpayer uses the standard deduction or itemizes. The federal legislation extended this deduction through 2016.

Deduction for State and Local Sales Taxes

Federal taxpayers have in recent years had the option of claiming an itemized deduction for state and local income taxes, or for state and local sales taxes, but not both. The taxpayer can deduct actual sales taxes paid or use a schedule of deductible taxes specified by the IRS. The sales tax option was set to expire but was made permanent by the 2015 federal law. The Iowa law allowing Iowa itemizers to choose the sales tax deduction instead of an income tax deduction, if they chose the sales tax deduction on their federal return, has expired. HF2092 would extend the provision to 2015. In the absence of this bill, Iowa taxpayers who itemize and who take the federal sales tax deduction instead of the income tax deduction, will not be able to deduct state and local sales taxes on their Iowa return.

IRA Charitable Distributions

Individuals who are at least 70½ years of age and who have a distribution from an IRA go directly to a charitable organization can avoid paying any income taxes on that distribution. The distribution, up to $100,000 per taxpayer, is excluded from income. The 2015 federal legislation extended this provision permanently. Coupling would allow Iowa taxpayers to exclude the distribution from Iowa taxable income. It should be noted that the advantage of this provision is not as large as it may appear; a taxpayer may still take the IRA distribution personally, and then use the proceeds to contribute to a charitable organization and deduct that when itemizing Iowa deductions.

Deduction for Classroom Expenses

Elementary and secondary school teachers may deduct up to $250 in classroom and professional development expenses. This is an adjustment to gross income, so it is of benefit whether or not the teacher itemizes deductions.  This deduction was set to expire, but the 2015 federal legislation made it permanent. In the absence of coupling, Iowa teachers would not be able to take this deduction on their 2015 Iowa return.  Note that the maximum effect, for a teacher in the 8.98 percent tax bracket with $250 in deductible expenses, is $22.45.

Bonus Depreciation

Federal bonus depreciation has allowed business with larger asset purchases that are unable to take full advantage of Section 179 expensing because of the phaseout, to take additional first year depreciation on qualified asset purchases. Iowa has not coupled with bonus depreciation in the past, and this bill excludes it from coupling. In the absence of the bill, Iowa taxpayers would still not be able to use bonus depreciation on their Iowa returns. For that reason, there is no fiscal impact associated with the bonus deprecation provision of HF2092.

Fiscal Impacts Beyond FY2016

Should Iowa couple with all of the federal changes (except bonus depreciation) in future years, we can expect the fiscal impact to be similar. However, HF2092 couples only for tax year 2015. As a result, the fiscal effect of the bill for 2016 and beyond is positive rather than negative. This is because the additional Section 179 expensing that will occur for 2015 as a result of coupling will automatically increase state revenue over the next several years. A business can deduct the cost of a business asset only once; any asset expensed in 2015 does therefore not generate a depreciation deduction in 2016 or later. In the absence of coupling, the business would be depreciating that asset over several years, spreading the reduction in its tax liability (and the state revenue loss) over those years.

An Alternative Approach to Coupling

The Department of Revenue has drafted a bill that would couple with most of the tax credits extended by the 2015 federal legislation.  A major difference with HF2092 is that this bill (SSB3107) would not couple with those changes retroactively, but would start in 2016. The changes would be permanent. Most importantly, this bill does not couple with either bonus depreciation or the enhanced version of section 179 expensing.

The Department of Revenue has not produced a fiscal impact estimate for this bill. However, the overall cost in FY2017 would be just a fraction of the FY2016 estimate for HF2092 because the most costly component of the House bill — section 179 expensing — is not included in SSB3107.

Conclusion

Federal coupling legislation has been portrayed as little more than an accounting change designed to make it easier to file taxes this spring, and to encourage new investment, but that is not really the impact of the federal coupling legislation that has been proposed in the House. The bulk of the benefits are essentially bonuses to specific taxpayers for decisions they already made, with a significant cost that affects revenues available for the coming fiscal year.

Legislators must decide if the boon to specific Iowans is more important than improving the lives of Iowans in general by doing such things as funding schools and other General Fund items with the revenue otherwise lost.


[1] To see why this is so, imagine that expensing a $1,000 machine reduces taxes by $300 this year. (By taking the deduction the business saves the taxes on $1,000 worth of income, so if the marginal tax rate were 30 percent, it saves $300). In future years, the firm will not have depreciation deductions because they were in effect all used up by expensing this year. So future taxes will be higher by the same amount: $300. However, the $300 taken now could be invested and earn interest, with the principal used up gradually to pay the higher taxes in the future. This still leaves the firm ahead by the amount of interest earned.

[2] An Iowa small business or farm with taxable income (after all deductions and exemptions) of $50,000-$65,000, for example, would be in the 7.92 percent Iowa tax bracket but the 25 percent federal bracket. The new federal expensing provision is thus worth over three times the Iowa provision.

 

 

2010-PFw5464Peter S. Fisher is Research Director for the Iowa Policy Project. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is professor emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa. A national expert on public finance, Fisher is frequently quoted in the Iowa and national media on issues involving tax policy and economic development strategies. His two published critiques of various state business climate rankings have resulted in a new website, Grading the States, at www.gradingstates.org.

 

A good deal if you can get it

Posted February 19th, 2016 to Blog

But research credit refund checks are poor fiscal stewardship

The millions Iowa gives to companies that do not pay state income tax is about the same amount of 1 percent in state school aid.

That’s one takeaway from the latest annual report from the state on Iowa’s Research Activities Credit (RAC). That tax credit is used far less to ease taxes than to shovel subsidies to big corporations outside the budget process, whether they pay taxes or not.

The report shows that in 2015, 248 companies had $50.1 in claims from this tax credit. Because the credit is refundable, companies get the full benefit no matter how much they owe (or don’t owe) in taxes. And the report shows that of those claims, 75 percent, or $42.1 million, were paid as checks to 186 companies that paid no corporate income tax to the state.

As we note in a summary by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, each percentage-point increase in Supplemental State Aid for schools costs about $41 million to $43 million (Iowa Association of School Boards estimate).

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What’s more, the largest claimants — 20 corporations receiving over $500,000 from this credit — took the lion’s share of the benefit with $43.9 million overall (about 88 percent).

Many millions are spent this way every year, outside the budget process. These companies don’t have to compete for what are supposedly scarce public dollars needed for critical public services such as education, health care, environmental protection and public safety. The latter types of spending must compete in the budget process.

The Research Activities Credit is only an entitlement. And except for the occasional lawmaker willing to stand up to restore some accountability, there is silence from the General Assembly.

This is perfectly legal. In fiscal policy terms, however, it’s a scandal, because it is legal. Lawmakers refuse to even consider whether to take this spending off autopilot.

When they claim the state is too strapped for money to provide more for school aid or human services, lawmakers should admit they let corporations take what they want first.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
For more information about the Research Activities Credit, visit www.iowafiscal.org