Posted tagged ‘Iowa Policy Project’

Stop politicizing water quality

August 26, 2014

Water quality in Iowa is so bad that any new initiative to improve our waters is probably a good thing. That said, Iowa farm groups’ new initiative to take action on agricultural pollution of our waters comes with a troubling rollout.

Making the announcement with Governor Branstad not only politicizes water quality, something that should be above politics, but masks the governor’s own decision this year to delay action.

The Governor’s veto of $11 million for water quality — funding passed by a divided legislature — makes an important statement about water quality. In addition, the governor also vetoed $9 million in funding for the REAP program, which is used by counties and cities to acquire and protect natural areas and to preserve Iowa’s environment.

Twenty percent of REAP goes to farmers to improve soil and water practices. If you are promoting a voluntary system to reduce nutrient runoff, shouldn’t you make sure farmers have resources to put sensible measures into practice?

The new group established to improve water quality needs to be taken seriously by the environmental community and by all Iowans. But this rollout does not engender trust.

The Iowa Policy Project recently released a report on water quality in Iowa. [See A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution] We showed that the addition of six new policies to the state’s new Nutrient Reduction Strategy would make it possible for the strategy to succeed.

One of those policies is the kind of effort the new farm group plans to push — bringing attention to the problem. A second policy is more funding, and farm group muscle could improve the chances in the Legislature. However, even if the Legislature acts, as in the 2014 session, legislation still has to get by a governor’s veto.

Maybe the best starting place to build broad support would be to invite an environmental group to the table, rather than a politician in the middle of a heated campaign. We know plenty who could help.

IPP-osterberg-75 Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the 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

What are U.S. workers missing?

June 23, 2014

Visiting other counties can mean drinking coffee in cafes, museums, night life and relaxing next to the sea. The best trips also include conversations with people from these lands.

I just taught a class in Romania and then visited Scandinavia to see friends and relatives. In both places I talked about work and family life. The first issue that always comes up is paid vacation, which America does not require.

What many U.S. workers may not know is that every other developed country has a legal requirement for paid vacation and holidays. All countries in the European Union require at least four weeks of paid vacation. Austria is the most generous, guaranteeing workers a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year.

U.S. workers have to depend on competition for such benefits. Companies must compete for workers. So in the U.S. the average worker gets 16 paid vacation days and holidays. However, that average is brought down by the fact that 1 in 4 U.S. workers does not have a single paid day off. That would not be allowed in Europe, or New Zealand, or Japan or Canada. In Canada, the federal government requires 19 paid days, and some provinces add additional time.

This data, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and USA Today, reflects what I heard in conversations during the last few weeks.

I can hear it now: Raising benefits will cost jobs. Wrong. The CEPR data comes from 2012 when Germany with one of the most generous time-off packages had an unemployment rate of just 5.5 percent when ours was 8.1. It becomes part of the overall marketplace.

Maternity leave is another benefit where the U.S. falls behind. According to the International Labour Organization and a study at McGill University in Canada, the U.S. joins Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia and Lesotho as countries that provide no financial support for working mothers through their job.

Since Bill Clinton pushed through the FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act), a mother in the U.S. can take off 12 weeks to give birth but there is no requirement that the time off be paid. Again when I talked to people on my recent trip, I was amazed that a worker in Sweden can get 420 days to take care of a new baby with 80 percent pay. That can be shared between the mother and father.

Most other countries are not so generous but Germany gives 14 weeks and Denmark requires a full year at 100 percent of pay. Japan demands 14 weeks at 67 percent of pay. In New Zealand, 14 weeks are paid at 100 percent and one can ask for another 38 weeks unpaid. Canada requires 52 weeks, with 17 weeks paid.

These are countries with successful economies. In some, jobs are harder to get than in the U.S. but in others, like Germany and New Zealand, the unemployment rate is lower than ours.

Travel overseas is a good thing. You get to relax, recharge the batteries and come back ready to do your job better.

You also might learn that what we have come to accept as reasonable family and work life in this country is so out-of-step with the rest of the world.

IPP-osterberg-75  Posted by David Osterberg, Founding Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Watching Iowa jobs: Don’t miss the deficit

June 20, 2014

Iowa’s up-again, down-again job picture is looking up again, at least for now. The May numbers from the state show an increase of 6,200 jobs. Coming on the heels of a 3,700 increase in April, this marks the first two-month gain since the end of last year, and the increase is the largest since last October.

One-month results, however, do not tell the whole story of what’s happening in the state economy and the job market. Over the past year, Iowa has averaged a gain of about 2,100 jobs per month, which is a modest pace. At this rate it would take about three years for Iowa to completely recover from recession losses.

In fact, even though Iowa has more jobs than it did when the recession started, the state shows a jobs deficit:

Basic RGBSource: Economic Policy Institute

Given that the population of Iowa has grown since the start of the recession, it makes sense that more jobs need to be added to the economy each year in order to keep up with the growing number of people. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 23,800 jobs have been added so far but 71,600 were needed by now to keep up with this growth. This means that there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who wants or needs one — a deficit of 47,800, as shown in the graph above.

For more about the latest Iowa job numbers, see our new Iowa JobWatch report. IPP has given its view of the monthly numbers since 2003 — there are always plenty of new angles for a “Job Watcher.”

IPP-gibney5464   Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Free-range concerns with hog confinements

June 19, 2014

A funny thing happened at the public meeting to consider the expansion of a hog operation in eastern Johnson County near West Branch. The operator withdrew his request for a permit.

Residents had been expressing their concerns because of quality-of-life conflicts they see coming if an existing large farm operation is permitted to create a second 2,500-head hog confinement, expanding the operation to nearly 4,900 hogs at that location.

Iowa law has always been most friendly to those who want to locate and operate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), rather than to the people who live near them. The state has largely limited county authority over the siting of these operations to just comments, and then only if a proposed confinement is large enough and does not meet enough specific standards for protecting soil, water and air cited in what is termed the Master Matrix.

As a 2008 IPP report showed, the current CAFO permitting process allows scant protection from spreading manure near drinking water sources — in a Dallas County case, near an already impaired river. Even worse as pointed out by Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig at the hearing, if this operator chooses to move his second planned building by a thousand feet, he would not be required to even ask for a permit.

The Master Matrix process is in its second decade and its deficiencies have not been corrected. Even operating normally, CAFOs can create significant water-quality and air quality problems — and when there are spills, as is historically the case, fish kills are one of the impacts.

As our 2008 report recommended, Iowa law should include:

  • Stronger minimum requirements for approval of new construction permits and manure management plans;
  • Real local decision-making authority by allowing counties to set rules to protect air and water quality, public health and community well-being; and
  • Requiring construction permits for smaller facilities — for hogs, half of the current requirement of permits for operations with 2,500 hogs or more.

Most in attendance cheered when, at the beginning of the meeting, it was announced that the request for a permit was withdrawn. However, it might still be built if moved less than a quarter mile. The state needs to change the law to allow for real local control over hog operations.

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

Wage theft: Atalissa case just tip of the iceberg

June 9, 2014

The Catholic Messenger in Davenport last week presented a good illustration of wage theft in the sad case of a group of men in Atalissa taken advantage of for decades.

A recent Cedar Rapids Gazette story looked at another case, in which an employee of a contractor for a now-closed Outback restaurant is fighting for wages she believes she is owed — even though the contractor remains in business, still serving another nearby Outback restaurant.

Iowans need to understand these are not isolated cases, but just the tip of the iceberg. Every year some $600 million is lost to workers and the Iowa economy because of wage theft, and about $60 million in taxes and unemployment trust fund revenues.

As Iowa Policy Project research has shown, wage theft takes many forms, and affects Iowans across a wide range of occupations, in both blue-collar and white-collar positions. That work goes on. IPP is at work right now on a new survey to document and collect worker experiences with wage theft and enforcement systems.

Yet corrective action passed by the State Senate (SF2295) was not even considered in the Iowa House in 2014. The bill would have required businesses to tell workers in writing how they would be paid — and to notify employees of deductions before they were made.

Meanwhile, enforcement has remained woefully underfunded, a chronic problem in Iowa left unaddressed by the 2014 session of the Legislature.

Doing what is right on this issue of wage theft also is doing right by the economy and by the taxpayer. When will Iowans demand action?

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

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


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