Archive for the ‘Budget and Tax’ category

Bargain, schmargain

July 30, 2014

It’s back again: Iowa’s SALES TAX HOLIDAY.

What a charade. Retailers love it, because it’s a gimmick to lure people into their stores to buy things at full price, instead of waiting for a back-to-school sale.

The happy-talk label disguises its real impact: to throw away revenue while pretending to, as one report put it, “help boost the economy and give consumers a break.” It does neither.

Iowa’s policymakers are selling you a pig in a poke. You’re told you’re saving money, but you’re buying dirty water, underfunded schools and fees for amenities such as parks. The cost is estimated at over $4 million.

For two days, Iowans will spend money on the same things they would have spent money on anyway, in those two days or others, so it doesn’t boost the economy. Sales taxes do hit low-income folks hardest, but those families would be better served by a break that went all year. They still have only so much to spend in these upcoming two days.

Let’s also recognize that consumers won’t save all that much, if at all — and may in fact pay more. How many times have you rushed off to a “6 Percent Off” or “7 Percent Off” sale? Who’s to say a retailer, with this officially sanctioned “holiday” marketing, won’t bump prices by 10 percent or call off a 20 Percent Off sale that might have been in place?

But it is a deal for politicians who like to brag about cutting taxes, while pointing fingers at others when they cut teachers and police officers because budgets are tight.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would welcome Tax Day and loathe the first weekend of August.

2010-PF-sqPosted by Peter Fisher, IPP Research Director

 

 

Comforting the comfortable

July 25, 2014

Comfort the comfortable and penalize the poor. Like the idea? If so, you’ll really like legislation scheduled for consideration today in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House is scheduled to take up legislation that would gut improvements for low-income Americans in the Child Tax Credit (CTC), improvements passed originally in 2009, renewed in 2010 and 2012, the latter as part of the “fiscal cliff” package, where it was used as a bargaining chip to pass very expensive exemptions in the estate tax — a benefit only to America’s super-rich.

To put this in context, the House leadership bringing this new legislation to a vote will not even consider an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant over five years nationally (6 1/2 in Iowa). The CTC, it must be noted, is one of the nation’s most effective anti-poverty tools, offsetting part of the cost of raising a child. So, as families earning at or below the minimum wage continue to lose ground, the CTC proposal will set them back even further. As noted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):

But a single mother with two children who works full time throughout the year at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (which House leaders oppose raising) and earns just $14,500 would lose $1,725. Her CTC would disappear altogether.

A loss at lower incomes — yet a boost at higher incomes. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Iowa impact of the new legislation would be:

  • a $285 loss on average to families with incomes below $40,000, and
  • a $696 benefit (tax cut) to families with income above $100,000.

Here’s how it works, according to a summary by CTJ:

The House Republican bill, H.R. 4935, would expand the CTC in three ways that do not help the working poor. First, it would index the $1,000 per-child credit amount for inflation, which would not help those who earn too little to receive the full credit. Second, it would increase the income level at which the CTC starts to phase out from $110,000 to $150,000 for married couples. Third, that $150,000 level for married couples and the existing $75,000 income level for single parents would both be indexed for inflation thereafter.

Adding insult to injury for low-income folks is that the improvements targeted for repeal came in the aforementioned “fiscal cliff” package, which made permanent big estate tax breaks for the rich, while extending improvements in the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit for only five years. CBPP’s Robert Greenstein at the time called that a “bitter pill.”

That was before these new proposals not only to cut back the CTC for lower-income families — but to expand access at higher incomes — and to adjust the high end for inflation, something lawmakers have refused to do for the minimum wage.

A bitter pill? At least. For some, all of this might seem to be an overdose.

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

Focusing better on new Iowans

July 3, 2014

Oftentimes the topic of immigration reform stirs up heavy debates and preconceived notions about what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. Reality about immigrants, their occupations and contributions to the economy can be misunderstood.

But here in Iowa, we know immigrants are important to our state and our economy. There are 120,000 documented and undocumented immigrants contributing both as workers and as employers. Most immigrants came to find jobs so it shouldn’t be surprising that most are of prime working age, and are working.

Look around your community and you will see them working in grocery stores and delis as butchers and meat cutters, teaching in high schools and colleges, cleaning homes and businesses, and working as computer programmers. Some are small business owners, filling gaps for particular goods and services in Main Street-type businesses.

10371388_10154327977850154_8158749370873517078_nOne big misunderstanding is about the state and local taxes that immigrants pay, regardless of their legal status, on the income they earn, the goods they purchase and the homes where their families live.

It is also estimated that 50-70 percent of undocumented workers — those who do not have legal authorization to work or live in the United States, have federal and state income and payroll taxes withheld from their paychecks.

Our new Iowa Policy Project report estimates that undocumented immigrants annually pay $64 million in Iowa state and local taxes, increasing revenue available for public programs and services, including many services they are unable to access themselves.

Immigration reform enabling work authorization and a path to citizenship for current undocumented residents would bring benefits not only to immigrants but all Iowans. Legal work status would open up better job opportunities and make it more worthwhile to invest in worker education and training. Immigrants would be less susceptible to wage theft and other exploitation by employers.

Legal status would increase earnings for workers and revenues for the state. It would mean that young adults brought here as children (DREAMers) could attend college and get better jobs and it would give immigrant business owners access to more options to start or expand a business.

While the future of immigration reform is uncertain, we can be certain that immigrants contribute to the state’s workforce, economy, tax revenues and communities.

IPP-gibney5464Posted by Heather Gibney, IPP Research Associate

Policy choices are about quality, not quantity

May 28, 2014

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

Bad research never gets good

May 13, 2014

It might be a stretch to say that good research never gets old — at some point you might need an update — but one thing is certain: Bad research never gets good.

Fisher-GradingPlacesIPP’s Peter Fisher is one of the nation’s experts on rankings of state business climates. In two reports published in the last two years by our colleagues at Good Jobs First, Fisher lays out irretrievable problems with the Rich States, Poor States analysis periodically offered by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Fisher tested ALEC’s claims against the actual economic performance of states, finding that states following ALEC-favored policy did more poorly than other states.* He also found serious flaws of methodology, including comparisons of arbitrary states instead of all 50.

As Good Jobs First’s executive director, Greg LeRoy, wrote in the preface to the 2013 Grading Places report:

Indeed, the underlying frame of these studies — that there is such a thing as a state “business climate” that can be measured and rated — is nonsensical. The needs of different businesses and facilities vary far too widely. … Given these realities, “business climate” studies must be viewed for what they are: attempts by corporate sponsors to justify their demands for lower taxes and to gain public-sector help suppressing wages. …

To borrow Oscar Wilde’s witticism about cynics, these “business climate” studies know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

In the case of ALEC, others are noticing. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times has written twice in recent days about the ALEC problem, citing the work of both Fisher and Professor Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin.

See these pieces by Hiltzik:

In the latter, Hiltzik notes a recent “response to the critics” by ALEC:

It’s a curious document that ends up proving the critics’ point. Take the point made by Chinn and by Peter S. Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project that the correlation between ALEC’s policies and economic growth is largely negative.

When the ALEC “analysis” is dissected, it becomes clear that its conclusions are faulty, and its policy prescriptions are no more valid. And it is good for Iowa to have Peter Fisher on the case.

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

 

 

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

Too few inspectors to assure clean water

May 12, 2014

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently seeking public comments on proposed rule changes required by the Iowa Legislature that would bring Iowa’s requirements for concentrated animal feeding operations into agreement with federal regulations.

The changes would also satisfy the terms of a work plan signed by the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rules need enforcement and the agency — by its own admission — has not maintained enough inspectors. Even the recent changes since the agency was reprimanded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 have not replaced enough employees to get the number of inspectors back to the level that existed in 2004.

Originally in answer to U.S. EPA complaints, the department envisioned a 13 staff-person increase that would only bring numbers back to approximately the 2004 staffing levels — before the addition of many more confinement operations. However, the Governor and General Assembly did not even authorize this number.

Let me repeat, rules need adequate enforcement. DNR does not appear to have enough staff.

See this passage from a DNR 2011 report on manure on frozen and snow-covered ground:

“The scope and complexity of confinement program work increased disproportionately beginning with legislation in the late ’90s. With this, public awareness of environmental issues also grew, resulting in a significant increase in local demand for education, compliance assistance and compliance assurance. To address these needs, animal feeding operations field staffing gradually increased to a high of 23 by SFY 2004.* In SFY 2008, four staff people were shifted into a newly established open feedlots program. Then in the fall of 2009, as General Fund expenditures declined, confinement staffing was reduced again. This reduced staff numbers from 19 to 11.5. Further reductions leave the total of field staff for confinement work at 8.75 full time equivalents. This reduction means that the DNR will not be able to maintain an adequate level of compliance and enforcement activity in confinements.”**

*State Fiscal Year 2004
**http://www.iowadnr.gov/Portals/idnr/uploads/afo/2011%202011%20DNR%20Manure%20on%20Frozen%20Ground%20Report%20FINAL.pdf

IPP-osterberg-75  Posted by David Osterberg, IPP Founding Director

Why the tuition freeze matters

May 2, 2014

A bright spot in the just completed session of the Iowa Legislature is that lawmakers for the second year in a row have assured a tuition freeze at Iowa’s Regents universities.

The 4 percent increase in state funding for FY2015 is an important investment. It means current students will be able to keep a little more money in their pockets, and prospective students will have greater access to higher education at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa.

For now, the state has stalled its trend toward sharp tuition increases — a trend similar to what’s happened at public colleges and universities across the country. A new report from the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities found that from FY2008-FY14 state funding per student at Iowa’s Regent universities decreased by 23.8 percent, leading to a 12.2 percent change in average tuition after adjusting for inflation — $854 more a year per student.

It’s a simple equation: When state funding goes down, tuition goes up and/or resources to help students are reduced. Iowa Fiscal Partnership research has shown these trends in our state, as noted in the graph below covering tuition vs. state support of Regents institutions from 2001-13.

tuitionvsstateaid

These trends shift the cost of education from the state to the students and their families. The result is that students take on more debt or have fewer choices among institutions, if they choose to attend at all. At low incomes, some students may simply choose not to enroll even though education might be what they want, and necessary to their career goals.

Excessive student loan debt has broad economic implications. It is associated with lower rates of homeownership among young adults, it can create enough stress to decrease the probability of graduation and reduce the chance that graduates with majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will go on to graduate school.

The economic importance of higher education will continue to grow, as getting a college degree is increasingly a prerequisite to enter the middle class. And beyond those who receive the degree, everyone in the community benefits when more residents have college degrees. An area with a highly educated workforce attracts better employers who pay better wages and this can boost an area’s economic success.

Strong state revenues offer a time to reinvest in higher education, and to return funding of services to pre-recession levels.

IPP-gibney5464  Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate

First Iowa Tax Day with expanded EITC

April 30, 2014

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

March 6, 2014

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

February 11, 2014

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


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