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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged transparency

Sheltering the data in place

Posted April 8th, 2020 to Blog

Governor Kim Reynolds over the past few weeks has moved incrementally to close more kinds of businesses, to the point where Iowa’s restrictions now resemble those of states that have a blanket statewide “shelter in place” order. Significant distinctions remain: a proper and comprehensive shelter in place order closes all businesses except those specified as essential, leaving no ambiguities and loopholes, and comes with clear and enforceable restrictions on travel and social activities.

The governor continues to assert that her recommendations are driven by the same four metrics that have guided her since the beginning and that only recently became partly public information due to efforts by the press. We provided a thorough analysis of that guidance several days ago. On Tuesday, we finally learned about one of those metrics: There are three long-term care facilities with a sufficient number of COVID-19 cases to be classified as a facility with an outbreak.

We now know enough to construct the point system in spite of stonewalling by the Governor’s Office.

The first of the four measures — percent of population age 65 or over — can be found from census data. The second — cases per 100,000 population — can be calculated because the number of cases has been released by IDPH by county. The third — outbreaks at care facilities — is now known, with locations, because of a question at a press conference.

That leaves the fourth — hospitalizations as a percent of cases — that is unknown by county or region because the governor still refuses to release the data. But we know the total score by region because it shows up on the maps that are intermittently released at press conferences (but remain unavailable on the IDPH website). Thus by subtraction we can determine that all four regions must be at the highest level, a 3, on the hospitalization rate score.

From here on out, the only thing that can change is the cases per 100,000 population and the number of care facility outbreaks. Region 5 is already at the maximum on the cases measure, and regions 1 and 6 will likely get there soon, leaving all three regions with a score of 9, 1 short of 10, the number that supposedly triggers shelter in place. So those regions, covering a large majority of the state’s population and COVID-19 cases, can get to 10 only with another outbreak at a care facility.

The governor on the one hand argues that we already have the equivalent of shelter in place, and at the same time the metric that she says still guides her decisions shows that shelter in place is not yet warranted anywhere in the state. Has that metric really been used thus far, and in what way? How do you get from the metrics to a list of particular additional businesses to close? What will happen when a region reaches 10? Will the governor order more stringent measures in just that region? Or will the whole thing be scrapped once a proper forecasting model is developed that meets with her approval?

One thing is clear: transparency has been sadly lacking, and for no apparent reason.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

IFP Statement: Disclose data, plans

It is past time to provide all Iowans with COVID-19 data, plans

A new policy brief by Iowa Policy Project research director Peter Fisher examines the arbitrary and backward-facing approach of the metrics that the administration of Governor Kim Reynolds has disclosed that Iowa officials are using in their response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. See that brief on the Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) website.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership released the following statement from Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, about the lack of transparency in Iowa’s COVID-19 response.

“In a public health crisis like living Iowans and Americans have never seen, our leaders should welcome the value public scrutiny and perspective can bring to decision-making.

“It should not have taken an enterprising news reporter to coax out the short list of metrics[1] that Governor Kim Reynolds and her administration are using to make decisions about public safety. Responding to the crisis is public business, as consequential as most of us have seen. Iowans not only need to know what data is being used, and its sources, but how choices are being made with that information.

“Are other measures being considered? What measures have been dismissed? Who are the analysts? What comparisons are being made to other data and other states’ actions? These are only a few of the questions that logically arise. Not enough testing is being done to make the Governor’s metric of an infection rate meaningful, for one thing.

“The Governor asserts her actions thus far are as strong as official ‘shelter-in-place’ orders in other states. Even if comparisons wind up backing that claim, we need more information.

“Do we have the resources to make sure front-line health workers and all public and private workers handling essential services are protected? From medical care to corrections to seniors’ housing to day-care centers, do workers have the personal protective equipment to do their jobs safely? Do they have sufficient resources to protect the people in their care? Any of us could be among those needing care in the coming weeks.

“It is fair for Iowans to ask how they can expect that the state will avoid an overwhelmed health care system when we are relying on looser rules for social interaction than they are seeing in other states. Should we not build into public policy the findings of analysis that illustrate the benefit of reducing travel in preventing the spread of the virus?[2]

“It is not possible for Iowa to have all hands on deck to respond without knowing what resources we have, what we can reasonably expect to need, and to know how our leaders plan to bridge any gap.

“Yes, we are owed the information. It affects us all, and without it we cannot contribute with ideas to make solutions better or bring them along faster.

“It is time — past time — that all Iowans are brought to the table.”

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The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit, Iowa-based organizations — the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, and the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. Find reports at www.iowafiscal.org, and the IPP and CFPC websites, www.iowapolicyproject.org and www.cfpciowa.org.

[1] Zachary Oren Smith, Barbara Rodriguez, Jason Clayworth, Des Moines Register, April 2, 2020. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/health/2020/04/02/shelter-in-place-iowa-covid-19-benchmark-guidance-tool-waits-for-hospitalization-outbreaks/5111747002/

[2] The New York Times, “Where America Didn’t Stay Home Even as the Virus Spread.” April 2, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/02/us/coronavirus-social-distancing.html?algo=top_conversion&fellback=false&imp_id=603400842&imp_id=967213594&action=click&module=trending&pgtype=Article&region=Footer

Questions — before the answer comes

Posted May 9th, 2019 to Blog

As Governor Kim Reynolds mulls SF634, the property tax limitation bill, there are many questions anyone would have to consider — questions that did not get an adequate hearing before the rush to passage of a backroom-built bill in the waning hours of the 2019 Iowa legislative session.

1)   Why an arbitrary 2 percent limit on new tax revenues? No matter what increasing costs an individual community may face to provide public services, the bill limits growth in revenues to 2 percent.

2)   Why penalize growth? No matter how much property valuation grows in good times, the revenue limits would restrict the public services needed to service a growing community.

3)   Why penalize recovery from disaster? Reduced property value under tax levy limits will reduce revenue for critical public services in recovery.

4)   Why take local tax decisions out of the hands of locally elected officials? It’s never easy for local officials to raise taxes — taxes they also pay — but the bill substitutes the arbitrary will of state legislators for the judgment of board and council members the voters choose to make local decisions.

5)   Why hinder jobs, encouraging local cuts in public service jobs by putting special levies for employee benefits such as pensions under the new, artificial and arbitrary general revenue cap?

6)   Why encourage a reduction of health benefits for local public service employees by putting those costs under an arbitrary revenue cap?

7)   Why should a “no” vote count twice as much as a “yes” vote? That is the effect of the two-thirds super majority required to go above legislative mandated 2 percent revenue growth. Local officials would have to reach that threshold in many cases with actually more than two-thirds approval: four “yes” votes on a five-member board or council, five if there are seven members — and that is the case even if revenues exceeding 2 percent growth would mean a decrease in tax rates!

8)   Why reward backroom deals in the name of transparency? There was no opportunity for a public debate on this deal hatched in the waning hours of the legislative session. There was no transparency in the process.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Be sure to see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project for more information about the actual property tax trends in the state — trends ignored by proponents of the legislation who offered a false narrative about this issue.

Also see this blog by Peter Fisher.

An opportunity for a productive, fair agenda

Posted December 8th, 2016 to Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org


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


The limits of transparency

Posted April 3rd, 2013 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

You can’t fix problems you can’t find. That’s why transparency is so important in public policy and especially spending through the tax code.

You would never find some of this information just going to the Iowa Economic Development Authority website — you have to know where to look. And even then, there are limitations on what is available from the state for its citizens to see.

The Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Fiscal Partnership have long argued for greater transparency with regard to the state’s expenditures on economic development through the tax code. We are happy to see a new report from the Iowa Public Interest Research Group that brings attention to this issue, properly including business tax credits and other tax expenditures among the categories of state spending that citizens have a right to know about.

But it’s very important to look at the deficiencies that remain in Iowa. In our view, those problems tell far more about the state’s interest in transparency than the items that are given a favorable rating by PIRG.

While the PIRG report gives Iowa credit for having a website that allows a citizen to find economic development subsidies awarded by company name (including the amount, the jobs promised, the jobs created, and the location), two problems in particular should be addressed in the future.

  • First, only tax credits that must be awarded are listed; similar information should be available for all economic development tax credits, including those that are automatic.
  • Second, the database of subsidies is buried deep in the website of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (for those interested it is here: http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/annualrpt/?cmd=default&rptyear=2011). It’s hard for the public to find. A link to this database should be posted on the state’s DataShare website, where only aggregate information on tax credits is available.

The Legislature did pass a notable transparency improvement in 2009 that requires the state to identify by name the recipients of Research Activities Credits in excess of $500,000. The bill failed, however, to require identification of how much of a company’s credit was in the form of a refund check. Taxpayers have a right to know how much of their tax dollars are going to subsidize corporations that are paying no state income tax.

It should be clear by now that the disclosure of company-specific subsidy information does no harm to the company or to the state’s economic development efforts; there is no excuse not to make all of our business tax subsidies transparent.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director