Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged Mike Owen

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.


Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,

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.

Blowhards can’t shut all of us down

Posted October 1st, 2013 to Blog


For a couple of weeks, I’d planned to take today off. Doctor appointment, work in a few errands and odd jobs around the house, etc.

Now, wild Tea Partiers couldn’t keep me away.

No way I’m going to choose to take a day off when people I know are being forced to stay home, all for the sake of politics, and bad politics at that.

The shutdown of the federal government is an affront to self-government, to the concept of democracy in a republic.

Worse, it will have a real impact on real people. Not just the employees, some of whom are friends who live in my community — West Branch, the birthplace of President Herbert Hoover. Some are employees of the National Park Service, running and maintaining a national park; some work at the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, part of the National Archives. But it also affects the rest of us. We all benefit from their work, some more directly than others.

Just yesterday on my way to work, I passed one of them working on railings of a bridge that children in our community cross on the way to school. She and some of her co-workers have kids in our schools, or have in the past. Wonder if she’ll be working tomorrow, I thought.

The national parks are, as a friend of mine pointed out this morning, some of the best places our country has to offer and we employ people to maintain them, preserve them and share the stories they hold. These federal employees — like those who preserve our physical and financial security — are routinely assailed by some who portray them as unnecessary and wasteful, among other things.

The portrayals say more about the portrayers than about their targets, the people we hire to do what needs doing.

And what they do needs doing, in practical terms certainly, but also because they remind us more of what unites us than of what divides us.

OK, now I’m off to my doctor’s appointment. But I’ll be back to work afterward, because blowhards in Washington can’t shut all of us down.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Why, again, would it make sense to cut SNAP?

Posted September 17th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will be considering severe cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Already, SNAP benefits are scheduled to be cut in November because Recovery Act improvements will expire. Any discussion among Iowans about even more SNAP cuts should not miss this context:

Food security remains a serious challenge. In Iowa, the latest report from USDA suggests this has risen by almost one-third in the last decade, from 9.1 percent in 2000-02 to 12.6 percent in 2010-12. (three-year averages) The increase is even greater proportionally for families in more severe situations. See this information from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

SNAP use certainly has risen in the last several years — just as it was supposed to in tough times. We have not fully recovered from the Great Recession, but things are getting better and SNAP use will level off and decline as we recover. CBO predicts SNAP spending nationally to fall to 1995 levels by 2019. See this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

SNAP is only a supplemental benefit, but a critical one even at only about $1.25 per meal per person in Iowa. We show the share of Iowans who benefit from SNAP, by county and by congressional district, in maps on our Facebook page  (compiled from Iowa Department of Human Services reports and U.S. Census data). By the numbers, here is the share of the population in each Iowa congressional district receiving food assistance in July:

1st District — 12.3 percent; about 94,000 people.
2nd District — 15.8 percent; about 121,000 people.
3rd District — 14.7 percent, about 115,000 people.
4th District — 12 percent, about 91,000 people.
Here’s the county-by-county look (note, the golder and greener a county, the greater percentage of the population receives food assistance):

The House bill would end categorical eligibility, which permits states to provide access to SNAP benefits for families just above the SNAP earnings limit of 130 percent of poverty. Iowa in 2008 used this option to expand gross income eligibility to 160 percent of poverty. An Iowa Fiscal Partnership policy brief last November noted this is particularly important for low-income working families with children, particularly when child care takes such a big bite out of their budgets.

SNAP is a work support. Contrary to the claims of detractors, SNAP is one of those benefits that enable people to take jobs they otherwise would not be able to accept. When we have an economy that is producing jobs that pay below what is needed to get by, these work support programs are critical. We have illustrated the issues there with our Cost of Living in Iowa research, where we have demonstrated that even at median wage, many Iowa families would not get by were it not for work support programs.
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Hyperbole Alert: The drumbeat to cut corporate taxes in Iowa

Posted July 24th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen


The figure practically screams at you, even when it’s not in all caps, when the conversation comes to corporate tax rates in Iowa.

Here’s the thing: It’s not a real number. Not really.

That is what is known as Iowa’s “top marginal rate” on corporate income tax. And it’s not a real number because it simply does not — cannot — reflect what a business pays on all its profits. Yet that is the implication when people (especially politicians) or corporations complain about it.

A top Iowa columnist, Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, this week discussed the political battles over Iowa’s latest gigantic subsidies to Egyptian fertilizer company Orascom. In his piece he expressed a note of concern about the hyperbole in those battles. Then, he turned the discussion to Governor Branstad’s desire for cuts in corporate income taxes.

It is in that discussion where the hyperbole typically has been the strongest in Iowa. We are often told — as Dorman noted — that Iowa’s top corporate income tax rate is the nation’s highest. Note the emphasis added on “top.” More on that in a moment. Dorman also noted, accurately, that Iowa “has four brackets and a tangle of special interest credits.”

Because of the latter, any serious concern for our corporate friends should evaporate. Because they’re really being taken care of quite nicely, thank you, by their friends in the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office.

Now, about that “top rate.” It applies only to Iowa-taxable corporate profits above $250,000. Iowa doesn’t tax any profits from sales outside the state, so the rate doesn’t apply at all there, which for many businesses is a significant share of profits. For all taxable profits below $250,000, rates are lower — 6 percent on the first $25,000, 8 percent on the next $75,000 and 10 percent on the next $150,000.

Before these rates kick in, the business gets to deduct half its federal income tax from taxable income, and may have other deductions or ways to shelter income from state tax.

Then, after the rates are computed and the taxes determined, the tax credits enter the picture — and state revenues exit. The state just expanded the potential for those credits by $50 million, raising the cap on a select group of credits. In the case of the Research Activities Credit, these credits not only erase all tax liability, but offer state checks for the remaining amount of the credit. Through that program in 2012, Iowa paid out almost $33 million to 130 firms that paid no income tax, because those companies had more credits than tax liability.

And you can bet the corporate execs and their accountants fully understand all these nooks and crannies in our tax code. But if you want to give them a free million or so, they’ll take it. They are smart folks, and they have proven themselves to be more skilled negotiators than Iowa’s economic development moguls.

Want to talk reform? Then recognize the real problems — that we receive less in corporate tax than we used to, and that a lot of corporate tax is not collected because of the swiss-cheese nature of our tax code. That gives us all something to talk about.

Just be ready for the hyperbole from those who don’t want to change that part of our system.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

For more information about Iowa business taxes, see these Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports:
— “Reducing Iowa Commercial Property Taxes,” by Heather Milway and Peter Fisher, April 24, 2013.
— “Amid Plans to Relax Limits, Business Tax Credits Grow,” by Heather Gibney, April 16, 2013.
— “Corporate Taxes and State Economic Growth,” by Peter Fisher, revised April 2013.
— “A $40 Million Budget Hole: Persistent and Growing,” IFP backgrounder, February 25, 2013.
— “Tax Credit Reform Glass Half-Full? Maybe Some Moisture,” IFP backgrounder, revised March 23, 2010.
— “Single Factor to Consider,” IFP backgrounder, April 2, 2008.

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.


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.