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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Mike Owen

Leveling the playing field

Posted December 11th, 2014 to Blog

Small business owners get it: They follow the rules, but preferential treatment for giant companies puts them at a disadvantage.

Case in point: Lora Fraracci, who had an excellent guest opinion in today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette about practices big companies use to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The problem is not exclusively an issue with the lax U.S. tax code. It is a big problem at the state level as well.

Ms. Fraracci runs a residential and commercial cleaning business. As she noted:

“As a small-business owner in Des Moines, I play by the rules and pay my taxes to support our American economy. I create jobs that will continue to support our local economy. When the playing field is so uneven it makes it hard to realize this dream.”

The issue has been receiving some national attention, but many may not realize the prevalence of this problem and its extension to state taxes. While Ms. Fraracci and other small businesses, or Iowa focused businesses, follow the rules, large companies they may serve can find a way to either (1) avoid the rules, or (2) block stronger rules.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has written about these issues for some time, and the reports are on our website.

The biggest Iowa breaks come in two ways: tax loopholes and tax credits.

Tax loopholes have been estimated to cost the state between $60 million and $100 million a year. Loosely written law is an invitation to big companies’ lawyers and accountants to find ways to lower their firms’ taxes. Multistate firms can shift profits to tax-haven states and avoid taxes they otherwise would be paying in Iowa. That creates the uneven playing field Ms. Fraracci sees.

Iowa could fix this by adopting something called “combined reporting,” which the business lobby has fought tooth and nail when proposed in the past by Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver. Many states — including almost all our neighbors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska) — already do this. See our 2007 report, which remains relevant because Iowa has refused to act.

Tax credits are particularly costly, rarely reviewed with any sense that they will be reformed. This is illustrated best with the Research Activities Credit, which provides a refundable credit to big companies to do something they are likely to anyway: research to keep their businesses relevant and competitive.

In 2013, that credit cost $53 million, with $36 million of that going to companies that paid no state income tax in Iowa. The default position must be that this is wasted money, because it is never reviewed in the regular budget process the way other spending is examined every year — on schools, law enforcement, worker protection and environmental quality. In Iowa, spending on tax credits is spending on autopilot.

Read here about Iowa’s accountability gap on tax-credit spending.

Looking ahead, as a new legislative session approaches and we hear repeatedly that things are tight, keep these points in mind to better understand the real fiscal picture facing Iowa. The more small-business owners understand this, the more likely pressure can build for real reform.

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


Job 1 for Day 1 — putting Iowa families first

Posted November 6th, 2014 to Blog

As election dust settles, priorities remain clear for Iowa families

Now that the votes are counted, the real work begins. Job 1? It could be any of a number of areas where solid research and analysis have shown better public policy could make a difference for a more prosperous, healthier Iowa. Take a step back from the TV ads and “gotcha” politics and these issues come clearly in focus.

In Iowa, research shows solid approaches to economic prosperity for working families include:

In Iowa, research shows a fiscally responsible approach to both find revenues and do better with what we have includes:

  • Stopping tax giveaways to companies that pay no income tax — which occurs at a cost of between $32 million and $45 million a year through one research subsidy program alone, even though there is nothing to show this spending boosts the Iowa economy or produces activity that would not occur anyway. http://www.iowafiscal.org/big-money-big-companies-whose-benefit/
  • Reining in unnecessary “tax expenditures” — tax breaks, tax credits and other spending done through the tax code — could bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for public services. A five-year sunset on all tax credits would force lawmakers to review and formally pass renewals of this kind of spending, now on autopilot. The last attempt at real reform fell woefully short. http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-credit-reform-glass-half-full-maybe-some-moisture/
  • Plugging tax loopholes — a $60 to $100 million problem — would pay for a 2 or 3 percent annual increase in state per-pupil funding of K-12 schools. Twenty-three states, including 4 of 6 Iowa neighbors, don’t permit multistate corporations to shift profits out of state to avoid Iowa income tax and contribute their fair share to local education and other state services. http://iowapolicypoints.org/2013/05/22/will-outrage-translate-into-policy/
  • Reforming TIF — tax-increment financing, which is overused and often abused by cities around the state, has caught lawmakers’ attention in the past and should again. Like many tools that provide subsidies to private companies and developers, it should be redesigned to assure subsidies only go to projects with a public benefit and only where the project could not otherwise occur. Further, it should be designed to assure that only the taxpayers who benefit are the ones footing the bill, which is a problem with current TIF practice. http://www.iowafiscal.org/category/research/taxes/tax-increment-financing-tif/

In Iowa, research shows a healthy environment and smart energy choices for Iowa’s future includes:

  • Putting teeth into pollution law — which means reforms in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to eliminate pollution in waterways. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140717-nutrient.html
  • Allowing local government to regulate frac sand mining — When it comes to cigarettes, guns and large hog facilities the Iowa Legislature took away the right of local government to listen to citizen desires. The General Assembly and the Governor should let democracy thrive and not take away local control of sand mining.
  • Encouraging more use of solar electricity in Iowa — Jobs are created while we confront climate change if we build better solar policy in Iowa. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/110325-solar-release.html
  • Promoting local food and good food choices with school gardens — and a pilot project to offer stipends to Iowa school districts could encourage both learning and better nutrition. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140514-school_gardens.html

None of these issues are new and it’s not an exhaustive list. But these were big issues for our state before the election and remain so, no matter who is in charge.

Together, we can build on the solid research cited above and lay the foundation for better public policy to support those priorities.

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


Food insecurity: 1 in 9 Iowa households

Better in Iowa than U.S. average — but worse for Iowans over the decade

140904-IFP-foodinsec-boxIowa households fared better than the national average on food insecurity in 2011-13, but worse than Iowans did a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In its annual report on food insecurity, USDA reported the prevalence of food insecurity in Iowa at 11.9 percent in those years, compared to a national average of 14.6 percent.

In addition, 4.4 percent of Iowans experienced “very low food security” — households that cited several food-insecure characteristics and disruption in eating patterns because of a lack of money or other resources.

The nonpartisan Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) noted that in both cases, Iowans were doing much better on the food security scales in 2001-03 than in the latest period examined.

“While Iowans’ very low food security was lower than the national average of 5.7 percent, it was almost 50 percent higher than it had been only a decade before,” said Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, part of IFP. Owen noted that level had risen from a 3.0 percent average for 2001-03 to 4.4 percent in 2011-13.

Charles Bruner, executive director of the Child & Family Policy Center, also part of IFP, pointed to the overall food insecurity change, from 9.5 percent in 2001-03, to 12.1 percent in 2008-10, to 11.9 percent in the latest period examined.

“Statistically, food insecurity in Iowa has been fairly level for recent years, but these are Iowans — including kids and seniors, not statistics — and the comparison over the decade is disturbing,” Bruner said. “This makes it more important to assure that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is maintained, that eligibility standards are not weakened, and that access is assured to all who need the help.”

For both food insecurity and very low food security, USDA reported the small Iowa improvements from 2008-10 to 2011-13 to be statistically insignificant. According to the USDA, taking into account margins of error for the state and U.S. estimates, eight states had statistically significant higher levels of food insecurity than the national average of 14.6 percent in 2011-13.

Iowa was among 14 states with a statistically significant lower level of food insecurity than the national average. In addition, the Iowa level of very low food security was statistically lower than the national average, as was the case in 12 other states.

 The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two Iowa-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations — the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) in Iowa City and the Child & Family Policy Center (CFPC) in Des Moines. For IFP reports, go to http://www.iowafiscal.org. For information about how to make tax-deductible contributions to IPP or CFPC, visit their websites: http://www.iowapolicyproject.org and http://www.cfpciowa.org, respectively.

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* Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Christian Gregory and Anita Singh, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2013,” U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 

Beware the “business climateers”

Posted August 18th, 2014 to Blog

Fisher-GradingPlacesIowa’s business lobby appears to be preparing a new assault on the ability of our state to provide public services.

It would be the latest in a long campaign, in which lobbyists target one tax at a time under a general — and inaccurate — message about taxes that we will not repeat here.

Suffice to say, Iowa taxes on business are low already. Many breaks provided to businesses are rarely reviewed in any meaningful way to make sure that taxpayers are getting value for those dollars spent, ostensibly, to encourage economic growth. Rarely can success be demonstrated.

The Iowa Taxpayers Association is holding a “policy summit” this week and promoting a new report by the Tax Foundation to recycle old arguments that are no better now than they have been for the last decade.

Fortunately in Iowa, we know where to turn to understand claims from the Tax Foundation, and that resource is Peter Fisher, our research director at the Iowa Policy Project. Fisher has written two books on the so-called “business climate” rankings by the Tax Foundation and others, and is a widely acknowledged authority on the faults in various measures of supposed “business climates” in the states.

Fisher, in this guest opinion in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, noted weaknesses in the Tax Foundation’s claims, not the least of which is that the anti-tax messages are not supported by the foundation’s own report. Fisher notes this about the Tax Foundation’s “State Business Tax Climate Index”:

It is a mish-mash of 118 tax features … weighted arbitrarily and combined into a single number for the index.

This number has no real meaning. It produces wacky results because it gives great weight to some minor tax features (such as the number of tax brackets) while leaving out completely two things that have a huge impact on corporate income taxes in Iowa: single sales factor, and federal deductibility.

This past spring, this Iowa Fiscal Partnership two-pager noted:

A variety of factors influence the decisions businesses make about whether they want to locate or expand within a given state. These factors include available infrastructure, the proximity to materials and customers, the skill of its workforce, and whether the state has good schools, roads, hospitals, and public safety. As we have shown elsewhere, state taxes play at best a minor role.

In Iowa, we constantly hear the same old argument … used to enact large tax cuts for commercial and industrial property this past year and continues to be an excuse used to justify giving away large tax credits to businesses throughout the state.

But this argument just isn’t true…

Whether we are looking at the entire range of taxes that fall on businesses or just the corporate income tax, the fact is that business taxes in Iowa are low.

Only if Iowa policy makers and the public ignore the reality on Iowa business taxes will these special interests get their way again.

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

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

 


Policy choices are about quality, not quantity

Posted May 28th, 2014 to Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First Iowa Tax Day with expanded EITC

Posted April 30th, 2014 to Blog

Almost unnoticed as Iowans file their state income taxes today is that many thousands of families are benefiting from a newly expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Iowa legislators last year passed and Governor Branstad signed an expansion of the working family credit, doubling it from 7 percent of the federal EITC to 14 percent for 2013, and bumping it to 15 percent for this year. The increase was barely mentioned by the Governor when he signed it as part of a larger package of tax changes. Yet, as we noted recently — the boost is “arguably the most important legislation he signed last year.”

arguably the most important legislation he signed last year: doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. – See more at: http://www.iowafiscal.org/ifp-news-statement-on-governors-address/#sthash.NzN7o0IR.dpuf

New data from 2012, compiled by the Brookings Institution, sort out by legislative district the number and percentage of tax filers who benefit from the federal EITC, on which the state credit is based. We have put that information into a new Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder; the two-pager is available here. In the map below, the golder and greener the district, the greater its constituents use the EITC. In the green areas, over 20 percent of filers use the EITC.

130506-EITCmap

Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit is an important tool in making work pay for low-income households. We have shown how a further expansion could better fill the gap between low-wage income and a basic-needs household budget, as well as improve Iowa’s tax treatment of low-wage families.

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

 


Two numbers say so much

Posted March 6th, 2014 to Blog

Two numbers say so much: 140 and $36 million.

Last year, 140 companies paid no income taxes in Iowa but — through the tax code — received $36 million in research checks.

Those two numbers alone tell us two things: We have a problem with transparency, and we have a problem setting priorities.

We know those two numbers because Iowa’s Department of Revenue is required every February to report on the use of the state’s Research Activities Credit.

We don’t know enough about what’s behind those two numbers — the problem of transparency. As it’s public money, the assumption should be that we are owed full information about where every dollar is spent (a case made well by The Des Moines Register in a recent editorial). Cities, schools and counties are required to disclose this routinely.

In fairness, some lawmakers worked hard in 2009 to assure the transparency that we do have, passing a good law that required the annual reports. Before that, we had even less information. Big business fought hard to stop the law, and failed. And because we have the law, we can make several noteworthy observations that are detailed in this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder, and get some insights on who benefits, as in the table below.

Table3-RACrecipients-w

But the annual reports do not tell us — or indicate with certainty — which companies receive the benefit as checks, how much each receives or how the money is used. There is no evidence of jobs created. There is no evidence of need or of public benefit, or return on the public investment.

There is no point where we say, “Enough already. You know, Company X, you had $200 million in profits last year — we don’t really think your shareholders need Iowa taxpayers’ help when our schools can’t keep up with costs and our city water systems need updates and our roads have potholes. And, by the way, your company and your employees are better off if we take care of those priorities before we give money to you.”

This exposes the problem with budget priorities: This spending is done outside the budget process. Spending on the RAC is decided before the Legislature even convenes. It’s automatic. The decision has already been made for 2015, and 2016, and so on, and we don’t even know for sure how much it will cost — though the Revenue Department projects it to grow precipitously.

State law provides that companies are entitled to that money regardless of any other pressures on state budget choices — including cuts to education. Example: In 2013, Iowa spent that $36 million to help companies that contributed no income tax, but for the current fiscal year that started in July 2013, the state reneged on its commitment to the school funding formula. The state fell more than $60 million short of its share, leaving property taxpayers to pay it — in the same year, by the way, that legislators boasted about property-tax reform.

I think I know where we could have found $36 million of that lost school funding.

A special state panel that reviewed all Iowa tax credits in 2009 singled out the so-called “refundability” of the RAC as a special problem. It recommended eliminating refundability for big companies, which have dominated the spending on this credit. And it also recommended putting a sunset — an automatic elimination — on all tax credits after five years. To keep them going, the Legislature would actually have to take a vote on them. That is accountability.

As it stands, our Legislature does not touch this issue. Meanwhile, big and immensely profitable companies are sucking dollars away from our local schools, state universities, community colleges, local police, county mental health services, environmental quality programs and enforcement, wage and hour enforcement … well, you get the idea.

That is the budget choice being made, because our state is happily spending on autopilot with no proof of a public benefit.

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


A taste of transparency

Posted February 11th, 2014 to Blog

This week we will get a taste of what transparency could look like for the hundreds of millions of dollars that Iowa spends through the tax code.

We’ll only get a taste, to be sure, as what we’ll see won’t be enough. But, thanks to a law that passed against difficult and powerful lobbying interests in 2009, we do get that taste — a glimpse into who benefits from Iowa’s largest and most generous business tax credit.

It’s the Research Activities Credit (RAC), a costly little gem that has provided big companies some big checks from the state — in some cases even when they pay nothing in income tax. The Iowa Department of Revenue projects the cost of this credit to grow by more than half in the next five years, from $52.4 million to $80.3 million.[1]

projected growth of RACCould this be a shrewd investment for the state? Not likely, or at least that must be the presumption, as the beneficiaries have neither shown nor had to show the state’s real taxpayers what they get in return for the giveaway. Click here for a look at the recent history on this credit.

Projected RAC costs tableThe economic development gurus defend the RAC with little more than a “trust us” argument, which of course is not a strong enough argument for public schools, or state universities, or community colleges, or cities with law enforcement and infrastructure challenges, or counties with mental health services and emergency response challenges.

And the costs just keep rising for the RAC and many other business tax credits, with virtually no public accountability. What little that is available will come in the Department of Revenue report that is due yet this week. It will show the total amount of claims, the total amount paid as checks to companies that do not pay state income tax, and will identify companies with over half-a-million dollars in claims. Stay tuned.

[1] Iowa Department of Revenue, Tax Credits Contingent Liabilities Report, December 2013, http://www.iowa.gov/tax/taxlaw/1213RECReport.pdf

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


Watch tax spending more closely

Posted February 4th, 2014 to Blog

Iowa is behind — not that we didn’t already know that.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines several aspects of what states do in budget planning. Particularly noteworthy in the report for Iowa is its poor attention to the impact of tax expenditures — spending through the tax code. When we have a tax break on the books, such as a credit or exemption, it has an impact on the budget bottom line the same as if the lost revenues were spent on the other side of the ledger.

Most of this spending, as the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has shown over the years, is on autopilot. These breaks exist year to year, never requiring renewal — unlike the kind of spending we do through direct appropriations, where critical services are subjected to annual scrutiny to exist or not for another year.

Here’s why it matters, according to the executive summary of the CBPP report:

When recessions occur, states must scrutinize all forms of spending.  An important tool for this is oversight of various tax expenditures (tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that reduce state revenue), which in many ways function as spending through the tax code. This will enable states to make sound choices between the most essential tax expenditures and those the state can forgo. For example, states can regularly publish tax expenditure reports that list each tax break and its cost. And states can enact sunset provisions so that tax breaks expire in a specified number of years unless policymakers choose to extend them.

The problem in Iowa is not a lack of analysis or data. The Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR) has produced solid tax expenditure studies in 2000, 2005 and 2010. They are found here on the DOR website. And there is considerable information outside those formal studies that illustrate overall costs — primarily a so-called “tax credit contingent liabilities report” offered three-to-four times a year by DOR for use by the Revenue Estimating Conference. Furthermore, a number of important tax expenditures have been the subject of in-depth reports to the legislative committee charged with reviewing tax credits.

So in what way is Iowa behind the curve? The CBPP report lists 10 ways states can better budget for the future, including one on the tax-expenditure oversight issue:

Oversight of tax expenditures:  expiration dates for tax expenditures after a set number of years to subject them to regular scrutiny of their cost and effectiveness, in addition to tax expenditure reports that list the costs of individual tax breaks.

Such expiration dates are called “sunsets.” A special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Governor Culver in the wake of the 2009 film-credit scandal produced a set of strong recommendations for reform, among them a five-year sunset on all credits. This proposal was ignored.

Furthermore, a review of tax credits on a five-year rotation set up by lawmakers in response to that panel’s recommendations has produced no apparent policy change; this perhaps is not surprising since the committee that reviews the credits has not issued findings that the credits are meeting the intent of policy, or producing a return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The bottom line is this: Unless tax expenditures sunset, there is little incentive for legislative committees to take evaluations seriously.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


A new look for the first of the month

Posted November 1st, 2013 to Blog

All right! The first of the month! Always a big day for those living paycheck to paycheck. And November 1 is no exception.

Yet, for those working low-wage jobs and receiving SNAP benefits, November 1 is not as good as October 1. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which many know as Food Stamps. And it’s under constant attack.In Iowa, the more than 420,000 people who count on food assistance can count on less this month than they received a month ago.

Same goes for SNAP recipients across the country, as benefits drop with the expiration of small improvements that were passed in the 2009 Recovery Act.

SNAP benefits in Iowa have averaged about $116 a month per recipient — about $246 per household.* That works out to just about $1.30 per meal per person. Take a look below at what happens to that supplemental benefit when the modest improvement from the Recovery Act goes away today.

 SNAPmonthlyCut-1-31-13

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3899

Our economy has not fully recovered from the Great Recession. And if it’s not enough that this Recovery Act improvement is expiring before the work is done, recognize that some in Congress see right now as a time to whack away further at SNAP benefits as a new Farm Bill is negotiated.

Now, we might not like to hear that some 13 percent of the state’s population is receiving food assistance. But you don’t address that issue by just cutting benefits to those people who are stuck in low-wage jobs, or are children, or are seniors, or are disabled.You need to make the jobs better, which starts with an increase in the minimum wage and pressure on Iowa businesses that pay low wages to do better. If we want a higher-road economy, we need to put a better foundation under it.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

* Iowa Department of Human Services, Food Assistance Program State Summary for September 2013, Report Series F-1.