Watch tax spending more closely

Posted February 4, 2014 by iowapolicypoints
Categories: Budget and Tax, Organization

Tags: , , , , , ,

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

Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining

Posted January 30, 2014 by iowapolicypoints
Categories: Energy & Environment, Organization

Tags: , , , , , ,

Frac sand mining is an emerging concern for people in Northeast Iowa. This concern has prompted questions regarding potential impacts on water quantity, water quality, recreation and tourism amongst others.

In a new Iowa Policy Project report, “Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining,” we examined potential impacts of this industry on the environmental, economic and aesthetic assets of Northeast Iowa. Particularly with regard to water resources, we identify unique features of the region that warrant extra precaution such as trout streams and the prevalent karst geology.

frac sand deposits map

Well-rounded, crush-resistant sand prized by the fracking industry is found in several areas of three Northeast Iowa counties.

The potential impacts of frac sand mining on water quality and water quantity include changing local groundwater flow patterns and increased sedimentation of waterways through overflow and runoff events.

The exceptional waters and pristine environments found in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties contribute to the local economy drawing anglers and boaters. This led to $68 million in domestic travel expenditures and over 500 travel-related jobs in 2012 within these two counties. Frac sand mining in the region has the potential to affect this tourism-based economy in unforeseen ways. In fact, several economic studies from Wisconsin have shown that the costs associated with frac sand mining may exceed the benefits when comparing other economic activities in the region.

State regulations and local ordinances have an impact on the growth of this industry within a region as shown in this report’s comparison of Minnesota and Wisconsin activities. Wisconsin is shown to have less restrictive regulations than Minnesota, which has assisted the explosion of frac sand mining in Wisconsin.

These comparisons should inform local officials of different strategies and outcomes when drafting frac sand mining ordinances. They do have options, including hydrologic mapping, local well monitoring, and setbacks from trout streams and sinkholes.

As this industry becomes more active in Iowa, local officials and community members need to be aware of the potential effects it could bring to their lives and the local economy.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAPosted by Aaron Kline, IPP research intern

Click here to find the executive summary and full report, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining, by Aaron Kline and David Osterberg

This research was produced with the generous support of the Fred and Charlotte Hubbell Foundation.

With ALEC, it’s not just ‘Who?’ but ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’

Posted January 10, 2014 by iowapolicypoints
Categories: Budget and Tax, Economic Opportunity, Energy & Environment, Organization

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Some Iowa legislative leaders are taking issue with claims that all Iowa legislators are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

See these links:

All of this calls to mind the words of the great comedian Groucho Marx, who is widely quoted:

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Groucho presumably was never a member of ALEC — like many Iowa lawmakers now protesting claims of their inclusion. But regardless of who belongs to ALEC, the bigger issue is whether ALEC belongs at the public policy table.

Iowa Policy Project analysis has refuted the value of legislative initiatives promoted by ALEC, which is essentially a bill mill backed by corporate interests. IPP’s Peter Fisher and the national group Good Jobs First, in their 2012 report “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” showed that states following ALEC proposals were likely to show worse economic results than other states.

As Fisher noted at the time:

“We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results. We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.”

This recalls another quotation:

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

No, that is not the ALEC mission statement. Again, they are words widely attributed to Groucho Marx.

But if the shoe fits ….

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Stop the spin; climate change is for real

Posted December 30, 2013 by iowapolicypoints
Categories: Energy & Environment, Organization

Note: A version of this post ran as a guest opinion in the Saturday, Dec. 28, Cedar Rapids Gazette:
http://thegazette.com/2013/12/28/stop-the-spin-climate-change-is-for-real/

Get this straight, everyone: Climate change is real. The Earth is warming. There is no doubt that we have plenty to do with it because of the way we live, burning fuels that spew out pollution.

And no amount of spin will change that.

Yet, some urban myths just won’t die. In a recent issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, a couple of climate change deniers tell us that “global warming actually stopped 17 years ago.” Give me a break.

If you find that statement troubling, why not look at a respected source like NASA — the folks who get spacecraft to land safely on Mars. This is what they say:

NASA scientists say 2012 was the ninth warmest of any year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. With the exception of 1998, the nine warmest years in the 132-year record all have occurred since 2000, with 2010 and 2005 ranking as the hottest years on record.
See: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012-temps.html

The latest credible information has 2013 probably coming in as the fourth-warmest year. How does that square with global warming stopping 17 years ago?

NASA-warming2008-12

719289main_giss_navy_anomaly_celsiusSource: NASA

A bunch of organizations exist to say global warming is a myth. Unfortunately they and a few people like them are keeping the United States from confronting this huge global issue with policy that pushes renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Gazette columnist Todd Dorman opened a column on this issue in December 2012 with this sentence: “It’s tough to know who to believe.”

Todd was referring to a statement from a number of scientists from Iowa colleges including me, who warned about climate change, vs. the latest spin from apologists for the fossil fuel industry. “On one hand, you’ve got 138 science faculty and research staff from 27 Iowa colleges and universities. Or you can side with a lawyer from Tampa.”

Please consider the source. The climate is changing very quickly and humans are most likely doing most of it by burning coal and oil and other fossil fuel. Ignore the skeptics. We need to get after this problem.

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

A minimum wage increase for Iowa?

Posted December 18, 2013 by iowapolicypoints
Categories: Economic Opportunity, Organization

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The question is an old one. Sadly.

Every few years, the pressure builds enough that we finally get a discussion about raising the minimum wage. We seem to finally be reaching that stage. The president supports a $10.10 minimum, up from the current and outdated $7.25 per hour, as Senate Labor Chair Tom Harkin of Iowa proposed last February. And it’s grown in popularity, if not in paychecks of the working poor.

A Washington Post poll finds two-thirds of Americans support a minimum wage increase, and a firm majority — 57 percent — believe federal policy should be used to reduce the wealth gap between rich and poor.

Many forget that in Iowa, the pressure has been building longer than it has nationally, as IPP’s Heather Gibney pointed out last March. Yet there’s no assurance we’ll hear much about it in a promised short session of the Iowa Legislature in 2014.

Iowa actually beat the feds to the punch in 2007, raising the state’s minimum wage to $7.25 in January 2008, a full year and a half ahead of the federal wage increase. That means six full years have eroded the buying power of those at the minimum wage — effectively, a 60-cents-per-hour wage cut.

Basic RGBThe Cedar Rapids Gazette, while not totally sold on the merits many economists see in a minimum wage increase, argued for an increase in an editorial today. Wrote the Gazette:

“The ultimate goal should be to make the minimum wage less political and more predictable, both for workers and for businesses owners charting costs. Neither should have to guess which way the political winds and whims will blow their livelihood.”

Given the lack of assurance of this being addressed in Washington, and even less of it being done in a nonpolitical manner, raising and indexing the wage to inflation as the Gazette suggests would be an effective way of ending these periodic squabbles that leave pay for the working poor to “political winds and whims.” Can our Governor and Legislature begin to look at the issue that way?

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

A better choice for full-time investigator

Posted December 16, 2013 by iowapolicypoints
Categories: Budget and Tax, Economic Opportunity, Organization

Tags: , , ,

Today’s Des Moines Register reports that the big push by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz to crack down on voter fraud is proving what he doesn’t want: that it’s not a problem in Iowa.

A full-time criminal investigator is on the job with five guilty pleas to show for it. Kind of makes you wonder why we bother, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, wage theft is a pervasive problem in America and, as we have shown, Iowa is no exception.

Yet Iowa has only one full-time position for enforcement of wage-and-hour rules even though the Iowa Policy Project has shown violations are pervasive and other states do more. Wage theft deprives Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, when wages are not paid or underpaid, tips are skimmed by employers, and employees are misclassified as “independent contractors” to avoid taxes, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. It also deprives the state of tax revenue and deprives law-abiding businesses of an even playing field.

Budgets are a statement of values. We focus our finances — in the home and at the State Capitol — on what we think is important. Surely making sure hard-working people are paid what they are owed is on that list.

It defies good budgeting sense to devote a full-time criminal investigator to a phantom issue, particularly when those resources could be put toward sensible budget choices, such as enforcing worker protections. When unscrupulous employers know we’re not even watching them, we effectively encourage the very behavior we don’t want in Iowa.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

The $54 question

Posted November 25, 2013 by iowapolicypoints
Categories: Budget and Tax, Economic Opportunity, Organization

Tags: , , , ,

Breaking news out of Des Moines is that many Iowa taxpayers will be eligible for an extra $54 tax credit.

This is the result of one of the most short-sighted pieces of legislation passed by the Iowa General Assembly in recent years. Lawmakers created what they called the “Taxpayers Trust Fund,” which we should call the “Giveaway Slush Fund.” It’s a pot of money to dole out to taxpayers and boast about at election time. Chances are, the “givers” won’t give you the whole picture.

Their game is an illusion, a political parlor trick: Hold down funding for key priorities, such as K-12 education, or universities, and then when revenues create a surplus, call it an “overpayment” by taxpayers.

Does anyone really believe their spin? The $120 million to be given away represents easily $120 million in services that could have been provided. For K-12 alone, a little over half of it could have been used this year to fully pay the state’s share of allowable growth at the 4 percent level lawmakers authorized. Instead, state funding only supports half of the state share.

By shortchanging school districts with funding for only 2 percent allowable growth this year despite strong revenues, lawmakers compounded a trend of squirreling away big dollars while claiming poverty. This way, they have given themselves $120 million to spend on dessert — the Giveaway Slush Fund — by choosing not to pay the state’s share of the bill for the meat and potatoes: school aid.

One Iowa columnist who has seen through this is The Des Moines Register’s Rekha Basu, who noted Sunday: “Doling out money piecemeal is a gimmick that may bring smiles to some faces but it can’t take the place of sound and consequential actions.” She’s right.

Is it really worth it to you to receive the $54, instead of putting adequate and appropriate funding back into our education system? Or cleaner water? Or safer streets? Or, well, you get the idea.

Give me a break. On second thought, don’t.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

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