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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Mike Owen

We promise: We won’t cook burgers

Posted July 18th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

So, McDonald’s and VISA have teamed up to tell low-wage workers how to make ends meet.

We have a proposal for McDonald’s and VISA: Leave economic and policy analysis to us, and we won’t compete with you on burgers and debt.

The McDonald’s/VISA plan is ironic on two fronts.

First, McDonald’s is an example of a low-wage employer — the folks who have profited mightily while their employees have not. In fact, the McDonald’s/VISA plan expects the worker to have two jobs, to make ends meet on an unrealistically low budget and have money left over — “spending money,” the plan happily calls it. That “spending money” would have to cover all food, among other things.

As Iowa Policy Project research has shown, the cost-of-living assumptions by McDonald’s are too low. A bare-bones budget for a single person in Iowa with no kids is just over $20,100 (2011 figures), requiring a job that pays about $24,000 before taxes. It assumes absolutely nothing for eating out (even at McDonald’s), let alone saving for school or retirement.

Second, McDonald’s/VISA doesn’t assume any cost of consumer credit for debt incurred, other than a car payment. VISA depends upon low- and middle-income folks taking on debt and seeing it pile up. Sometimes it’s consumer debt, but debt also can come from health-care out-of-pocket costs when your budget is on the edge. This is a very real cost for low- and middle-income families, and it can be made even worse with predatory lending practices that are dealt with feebly by state and federal lawmakers.

McDonald’s/VISA’s tortured compilation of expenses, it should be noted, comes fairly close to the one-person, total basic-needs budget we computed for 2011 — but a single person without kids would not come close to making that total budget by following the McDonald’s/VISA plan. Add child-related expenses, and — whoa! — there’s a fire in the kitchen!

McDonald’s and VISA also include some handy money-saving tips in their brochure to help low-wage workers get by, like riding your bike to work. How about these tips for saving money: Don’t eat out, and tear up your VISA card.

Click here to see how our researchers — Peter Fisher, Lily French and Noga O’Connor — came up with our numbers. Setting money aside for savings? Not possible. Health insurance at $20 a month? Actual insurance and out-of-pocket costs are far greater. The idea of having “spending money” left over? Laughable at best.

From “The Cost of Living in Iowa,” on IPP website

From “The Cost of Living in Iowa,” on IPP website

But none of this is funny. It illustrates that in the real world, choices for working people in Iowa are often about how to make ends meet when income falls short. And that is the situation for about three-fourths of single-parent families and about 23 percent of all families in our state.

Instead of assuring better ways to boost income, including a higher minimum wage, much of the public policy discussion is focused on cutting back supports such as food and energy assistance, not to mention Social Security, and holding down child-care assistance. We don’t seem to recognize the need for a living wage, however that may be computed. In the end, are we even willing to support a low-wage economy?

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


Why SNAP matters: Wages aren’t always enough

Posted July 11th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

It’s really quite amazing what kind of arguments people will use to beat up poor people.

Such an example is in the comments section of a story in today’s Des Moines Register about the debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as Food Stamps.

One writer, in playing to SNAP opponents, is pushing the idea that two full-time jobs at minimum wage lift a family above poverty according to the current administration. In that case, the writer implies, food assistance isn’t needed.

Let’s take a look at the actual numbers and what they mean. It’s not heavy lifting.

Actually the federal poverty guidelines as established have been consistent — and consistently faulty — through several administrations. They are seriously outdated and underestimate what is necessary to make ends meet.

The official poverty level for a family of four in 2013 is $23,550. Does anyone seriously believe a family of four can make it on that kind of income? Rent, food, clothing, utilities — the basics of just getting by — cost more than that in real life.

The Iowa Policy Project has looked at this issue and is constantly updating a more reliable estimate of what it costs to get by — our report, “The Cost of Living in Iowa,” is available on our website with county-by-county numbers that reflect this cost for varying family sizes.

You can quickly see how two minimum-wage jobs don’t get the job done.

A bare-bones family budget for a four-person family in the Des Moines area is — conservatively — $37,886 for one working parent. (Table below). That assumes $3,157 per month for clothing, household expenses, food, health care, rent and utilities, and transportation. If a second parent works you add more transportation costs, plus child care, which becomes the second-largest expense.

Next, figure in taxes — yes, they pay taxes, and a lot as a share of their income — and you get what it takes for a family just to get by. So, this absolutely no-frills budget, with no savings for school or a home or retirement, not even burgers at McDonald’s, rings up at $39,122 before taxes for one working parent, $58,520 for two.

120523-app-04-dm-w

And that means jobs that pay $14.63 an hour for each working parent, or $19.56 if one works.

Yet, at the $7.25 minimum wage, two jobs would pay $30,160. So much for the argument that two minimum-wage jobs per family solve poverty.

This helps to show why the meager Food Stamp benefit of about $1.25 per person per meal is such an important support for Iowa’s low-income working families. But while we’re at it, we could start talking about a higher minimum wage. Another day, perhaps.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


Asleep at the Switch in Iowa

Posted July 9th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline have caught us sleeping in Iowa.

Closing a loophole that lets those big online travel companies collect taxes on only part of sales taxes due on hotel room bookings is just one of four measures Iowa could take to lessen the drain of funds from state coffers before they are even collected.

A new paper by Michael Leachman and Michael Mazerov at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes the four options for states. Iowa is one of only 12 states that has failed to take any of those steps. Besides correcting the problem with revenue lost from hotel bookings, CBPP recommends:

  • Broadening the tax base to include more services. While Iowa has a fairly broad base subject to sales tax, there are many exceptions to the state’s sales tax that have been successfully achieved by the business lobby. In general terms, CBPP notes that household spending has been shifting from goods to services for decades, yet most states haven’t updated their sales taxes to reflect this fact, costing states tens of billions of dollars each year.
  • Enacting an “Amazon law” to require large online retailers to collect sales taxes. Purchases made through large online retailers such as Amazon or Overstock are subject to sales tax, but retailers aren’t required to collect them in Iowa and 33 other states, at a cost of over $20 billion a year. This puts Main Street businesses in Iowa at a price disadvantage vs. those multistate operations selling the same book, boots, chain saw or prom dress that caught an Iowa consumer’s eye.
  • Extending the sales tax to Internet downloads. As with the Amazon loophole, the sale of computer software, music, movies, and various other goods delivered on the Internet are not taxed in 23 states including Iowa — even though those states tax the same items when sold in physical stores. Lost revenue: roughly $300 million a year.

The CBPP paper is a good look at an issue Iowa lawmakers have been reluctant to address.

This is one more way research has exposed that Iowa is permitting businesses to take advantage of its residents, by pushing the costs of public services onto other taxpayers, or damming the state’s revenue stream to block funds from flowing to the state. The Iowa Fiscal Partnership already has shown how big multistate corporations avoid corporate income taxes because Iowa refuses to close corporate tax loopholes the way several neighboring states do, and how big companies benefit from the kind of property-tax breaks passed this year. The new piece by CBPP shows sales taxes also are an area where big business makes big money at Iowa taxpayers’ expense.

All of these areas remain good targets for better, more accountable tax policy in Iowa.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director


Iowa’s decline in job-based health insurance

Posted April 11th, 2013 to Blog

The Cedar Rapids Gazette today offered an interesting look at the question of where Iowans get their insurance. It’s less and less something that comes through employment. And when the costs of insurance keep rising, that makes it tougher on the household budget — or results in people not having insurance.

This is a trend we’ve been watching and reporting on at the Iowa Policy Project for many years, as have several good research organizations such as the Economic Policy Institute.

The Affordable Care Act offers at least a partial remedy. As health insurance exchanges are developed, affordable insurance should be more readily available. Tax credits for employers providing insurance will provide a targeted incentive to offer employees a better option than what employees might find on the individual insurance market.

Colin Gordon

Colin Gordon

Our State of Working Iowa report for 2012 offers another good look at this issue. As author Colin Gordon observes, wage stagnation, erosion of good jobs and recession have combined to batter workers, at the same time non-wage forms of compensation, health and pension benefits, also have declined. This has eroded both job quality and family financial security, and increased the need for public insurance. In Chapter 3, “The Bigger Picture,” Gordon writes that Iowa is one of 15 states, including five in the Midwest, to lose more than 10 percent of job-based coverage in a decade. He continues:

These losses reflect two overlapping trends. The first of these is costs. Health spending has slowed in recent years, but still runs well ahead of general inflation. Both premium costs … and the employee’s share of premiums have risen sharply — especially for family coverage — while wages have stagnated.

In 1999, a full-time median-wage worker in Iowa needed to work for about 10 weeks in order to pay an annual family premium; by 2011, this had swollen to nearly 25 weeks. Steep cost increases have pressed employers to drop or cut back coverage, or employees to decline it when offered. High costs may also encourage more employees to elect single coverage — counting on spousal coverage from another source and kids’ coverage through public programs. The second factor here is the shift in sectoral employment outlined above: Job losses are heaviest in sectors that have historically offered group health coverage; and job gains (or projected job gains) are strongest in sectors that don’t offer coverage.

This graph looks at the rate of employer-sponsored coverage, by industry sector, from 2002 to 2012.

job-based coverage comparison, Iowa 2002-2012

An interactive version of that graph in the online report allows the reader to toggle between those two years; the colored balloons sink on the graph in moving from 2002 to 2012, as if they all are losing air — the result of declining rates of coverage.

Good public policy could help to fill them again.

2010-mo-blogthumbPosted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

 


Owen: State approaches incentives in upside-down fashion

Mike OwenBy Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

The world is upside down when state subsidies of business are presumed to be essential, and when a leading newspaper criticizes those who dare to question it.

In that world, the Sioux City Journal’s March 24 editorial (“Iowa must be a player in the economic incentive game”) might not be surprising, but is no less misdirected.

The Journal’s editorial brushes off critics of the state’s Orascom scheme — a $200 million subsidy to an Egyptian company to build a fertilizer plant in Iowa. It reluctantly concedes that “legislators not only have the right, but in some cases the obligation to ask questions about economic development deals involving state money for incentives.”

Yet in that sentence the Journal lays bare the weakening of fundamental checks and balances in our state on the question of corporate subsidies.

Lawmakers should ask questions “in some cases,” the Journal believes? How very wrong. State legislators have the obligation in every single case to ask questions about economic development deals involving state money, or at least to hold state agencies accountable on all Iowans’ behalf. Among those questions just for starters: First, is it a good project? Second, is there a public benefit? And third, is a subsidy even necessary?

Iowans must be assured that tough questions are being asked and the answers evaluated before the checkbook is opened in surrender to the mindset of a “need to offer state incentives, sometimes big incentives, to attract large capital projects to Iowa within the intensely competitive arena of economic development.”

The proper default position when a corporation comes hat in hand for a subsidy is at best, “maybe.” And if the answer becomes “yes,” it must be defended and defensible, especially for big deals such as Orascom.

If we cannot always count on development officials to be so careful, we should be able to count on a newspaper, which has as great an obligation as legislators to ask questions about development deals.

Orascom offers one of those poster-child examples of poor practices, where the state very simply offered more than was necessary, even if you believe “big incentives” are sometimes necessary. Iowa had Illinois beat: The state offered more than Illinois could do because of a $1.2 billion low-interest loan available to Iowa and not Illinois through a federal flood-relief program. That was enough to bring the firm to our state. Then Iowa sweetened its offer and roped local property taxpayers into it, as well.

If you believe in a market-oriented economic system, as many claim to do, a subsidy is a last resort — not the starting place — for public-sector involvement in a private-sector project. All such deals demand questioning. Some deals will pass as sensible, and some may even be optimal approaches as targeted, careful investments that will produce a return on the public dollar.

Orascom already has failed the test.

 

Mike Owen is assistant director of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 2001 to produce research and analysis on state policy decisions. IPP focuses on tax and budget issues, economic opportunity and family prosperity, and energy and environmental policy.

This guest opinion ran in the April 3, 2013, edition of the Sioux City Journal.

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Posted January 28th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

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

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

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

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

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Accountability is good for tax breaks, too

Posted January 4th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

The Des Moines Register has an interesting editorial today about the state’s voluntary preschool program. The Register is asking for accountability:

“Before lawmakers consider any new education reforms, they should ensure that the changes they made a few years ago are helping.”

Hard for anyone to argue with that. Advocates of preschool surely would not fear a legitimate review. And what better time to review and adjust a program than its early years?

Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the same concept applied to Iowa’s many tax breaks for corporations? Do they do any good? There is no evidence that they do for the most part, a fact ignored routinely by the Iowa General Assembly and our Governors past and present, but they just keep on going. The idea of a review of tax breaks only gets lip service from most lawmakers; there are no serious reviews and no teeth in state law to require them.

The Research Activities Credit alone is a program crying out for this kind of scrutiny, a point clear from the few details that are available (See http://www.iowafiscal.org/2012research/120221-IFP-RAC.html). Unlike the preschool program, in which 9 out of 10 Iowa school districts participate, the RAC is used by a relative handful of companies in Iowa, well under 200, and is dominated by less than 10.

The money is not all that different: $58 million in 2011-12 for preschool through the state formula vs. almost $48 million for the RAC in 2011 — with $45 million of that paid in “refund checks.” These are not refunds of taxes paid, and they don’t even reduce taxes. Instead, millions go to big corporations such as Rockwell Collins, Deere and DuPont that owe so little in income tax that their tax credits are far above the amount of taxes they owe.

What’s good for the goose of preschool is certainly good for the gander of tax breaks.

//EDITOR’S NOTE: The next annual report on the use of the Research Activities Credit is due Feb. 15 from the Iowa Department of Revenue. Stay tuned!//

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Accountability is good for tax breaks, too

Posted January 4th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

The Des Moines Register has an interesting editorial today about the state’s voluntary preschool program. The Register is asking for accountability:

“Before lawmakers consider any new education reforms, they should ensure that the changes they made a few years ago are helping.”

Hard for anyone to argue with that. Advocates of preschool surely would not fear a legitimate review. And what better time to review and adjust a program than its early years?

Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the same concept applied to Iowa’s many tax breaks for corporations? Do they do any good? There is no evidence that they do for the most part, a fact ignored routinely by the Iowa General Assembly and our Governors past and present, but they just keep on going. The idea of a review of tax breaks only gets lip service from most lawmakers; there are no serious reviews and no teeth in state law to require them.

The Research Activities Credit alone is a program crying out for this kind of scrutiny, a point clear from the few details that are available (See http://www.iowafiscal.org/2012research/120221-IFP-RAC.html). Unlike the preschool program, in which 9 out of 10 Iowa school districts participate, the RAC is used by a relative handful of companies in Iowa, well under 200, and is dominated by less than 10.

The money is not all that different: $58 million in 2011-12 for preschool through the state formula vs. almost $48 million for the RAC in 2011 — with $45 million of that paid in “refund checks.” These are not refunds of taxes paid, and they don’t even reduce taxes. Instead, millions go to big corporations such as Rockwell Collins, Deere and DuPont that owe so little in income tax that their tax credits are far above the amount of taxes they owe.

What’s good for the goose of preschool is certainly good for the gander of tax breaks.

//EDITOR’S NOTE: The next annual report on the use of the Research Activities Credit is due Feb. 15 from the Iowa Department of Revenue. Stay tuned!//

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

Posted November 13th, 2012 to Blog

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


How about that timing of worker pay report?

Posted October 31st, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Timing is everything.

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

Paid too much?

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

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

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

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

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director