Posted tagged ‘Mike Owen’

Budgeting in the dark

April 13, 2015

April 15 is more than Tax Day. It’s also Budget Day, the date by which Iowa school districts are required to certify and adopt their budget for the year starting July 1.

And that’s important, because Iowa schools consider themselves bound by law.

This stands in stark contrast to the General Assembly. The Legislature and Governor, you see, have not told the school districts yet how much money they will have for this budget that must be set by Wednesday. By law, they’re about 14 months late … and counting.

You read that right. Lawmakers were supposed to tell school districts in February 2014.

If schools were really getting the “first bite at the apple,” as some are so fond of saying, this number would have been set. Instead, schools are left wondering how much of the core of the apple will be left when legislators finally get their act together.

Those first bites are already gone — to backfill property-tax cuts, or to provide giant subsidies to multistate corporations that pay no income taxes to our state, or to let millions slip through corporate tax loopholes while our Legislature looks the other way.

The budget deadline is here, and schools don’t know how much they will be permitted to spend, how much of it will be state aid, or how much to levy in the property tax share of that budget.

How, then, do districts respond?

The safest approach for school districts is to assume the worst. This will differ around the state; for many, it means no increase in state aid or per-pupil budget growth.

Because budgets are a mix of state aid and property tax, and you’re assuming no state aid increase, you’ll be setting a levy at its highest amount. If state aid comes in higher, you will lower your levy to the authorized amount — but your overall budget may still be too low to meet the needs you have identified.

While these little tricks keep your district within the law, they do nothing for the spirit of transparency, to enable everyone to be part of the process.

  • District residents don’t really have a clear picture of what their levy will be, so what can they expect to learn, or say, at the required public hearing?
  • District teachers and board members trying to negotiate contracts in good faith through the winter and early spring have no firm numbers to discuss.
  • District administrators trying to plan for fall classes may not be sure whether they will be able to keep current staff levels, or be able to add staff to meet increases in enrollment, special needs, or demands for achievement in cutting-edge fields of study.

All we know as April 15 approaches is that districts, one way or another, will meet the letter of the law. No thanks to state legislators.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Editor’s Note: Mike Owen has been a member of the West Branch Community School Board since 2006.

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Maximum focus on minimum wage

April 1, 2015

There are lots ways to look at the minimum wage issue. Some make sense, and some do not. There are good numbers and bad numbers, the latter usually tainted by ideology or politics.

Any discussion about the minimum wage in Iowa — whether on the floor of the Iowa House or Senate, or outside the Capitol in any coffee shop or street corner — should focus on the clear, central realities of this issue, with reliable and credible numbers.

How much?

Iowa’s first minimum wage passed in 1989, almost half a century after the first federal minimum wage of 25 cents an hour took effect in 1938. That first Iowa minimum wage was phased in over three years.

So the minimum wage has long been established in public policy as a floor for wages. But it’s a sinking floor.

  • The wage has not been increased in Iowa since January 1, 2008, when it went to $7.25.
  • Had it kept up with inflation since 1992, the Iowa minimum wage would now be $7.91 (February 2015).

The latter shows just how conservative is the legislation pending in the Iowa Senate. A minimum wage bill would raise the wage to $8 in July — about where it would be had the original state minimum been indexed to inflation in 1992 — and bump it to $8.75 a year later. Given that this issue is only rarely reviewed in the Legislature and that the wage is not indexed, it would not take long for inflation to catch $8.75 and certainly we’d be seeing another debate in a few years.

The $8.75 proposal from the Senate is a considerable compromise from the $10.10 federal minimum proposed a couple of years ago by Senator Tom Harkin and President Obama, and from the $15 sought by people trying to bring the minimum closer to a “living wage.”

For whom?

An increase to $8.75 would benefit:
•   12 percent of Iowa workers
•   112,000 Iowa workers directly*
•   69,000 Iowa workers indirectly*
•   181,000 Iowa workers in total — about 3 1/2 times the number of people working at the current minimum.

150205-MWgraphic

The minimum wage matters

No matter the politics, what no one can deny is that the minimum wage is not enough — not nearly enough — to get by. Many Iowa families in Iowa depend greatly on that wage.

When minimum-wage workers account on average for 44 percent of their family income, it is certain that any increase will benefit a large number of Iowa working families.

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

 

* Estimates from Economic Policy Institute. Indirectly affected workers have an hourly wage just above the proposed minimum wage. They would receive a raise as employers adjusted pay scales upward to reflect the new minimum wage.
See our two-page fact sheets on:

Iowa impact of $8.75 minimum wage

Iowa impact of $10.10 minimum wage

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Start with ‘zero’ on credits

March 11, 2015

It was​ fascinating Tuesday to see Iowa lawmakers talking about zero-based budgeting — starting every budget from scratch — when they have refused to do the same with tax credits.

Spending on tax credits — including millions to companies that don’t pay any state income tax — just keeps going on and on.

And on.

And on.

Companies basically get to appropriate state money to themselves. Quite a deal if you can get it.

If the state were to sunset business tax credits, as recommended in 2010 by a special governor-appointed Tax Credit Review Panel, lawmakers could review each one and decide which are actually producing a public benefit, whether any of them are money well spent. If so, they could renew the credit. If not, we could put our resources where they make more sense for all Iowans.

Maybe a part-time legislature could start with a zero base on tax credits before we talk about it for an entire state budget.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

What happens at $8.75 in Iowa?

February 24, 2015

There are serious competing ideas in Iowa about the minimum wage — whether to raise it, and by how much. Iowa lawmakers are currently discussing the issue; the Governor is staying out of it.

What cannot be denied is that the minimum wage is not enough — not nearly enough — to get by, and that regardless of political spin to the contrary, there are many families in Iowa whose household budgets depend greatly on that wage. Any increase will benefit a large number of Iowa working families.

We have illustrated with data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) how an increase to $10.10 from the current $7.25 would affect Iowans. That two-page piece is here. That proposal would raise the hourly wage for an estimated 306,000 Iowans (216,000 directly, and 90,000 indirectly*).

A proposal in the Iowa Senate would raise the wage by a smaller amount, to $8.75. Again with analysis from EPI, below is what could be expected if the wage were raised to $8.75 in July 2016. Compared to the current $7.25, the new wage would affect:

•   12 percent of Iowa workers
•   112,000 Iowa workers directly
•   69,000 Iowa workers indirectly*
•   181,000 Iowa workers in total — about 3 1/2 times the number of people working at the current minimum.

150205-MWgraphic

More impacts are shown in the adjacent graphic. EPI projects increased wages of $147 million and increased economic activity (GDP) of $93 million.

There are those who dismiss the minimum wage as a minor issue. They are wrong, and the numbers show this.

* Workers affected indirectly have wages slightly above the proposed minimum and will be affected as pay scales adjust.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

See ya later, Gator: Civics lesson from bowl game

December 31, 2014

ipp-kinnick6Of course we’re all excited that the Iowa Hawkeyes will be playing Jan. 2 against Tennessee in the — uh, what’s the name of that bowl again?

It has something to do with tax preparation. (No royalties are being paid for publication of this message, so no need to repeat it.) So for now, let’s just call it the Pay Your Taxes Bowl.

Or, to recognize what we do by preparing and paying our taxes, we could make it the Feed the Hungry Bowl, the Educate the Children Bowl, the Fix the Highways Bowl, or the Clean the Air and Water Bowl.

In years past, most bowl games promoted a tradition, or an image, related to their locale. This game in Jacksonville, Florida, used to be called the Gator Bowl, and that was the name of the stadium. Now it’s played in a rebuilt stadium named for a bank.

The Gator Bowl has a storied past, including a good game in 1983 between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Florida Gators, who won 14-6.

Even the Beatles played there once — though it was for a concert, not a gridiron battle with the Beach Boys — and that seems more interesting than the heavy-handed advertising that dominates these games now. Maybe the Fab Four Bowl? Strawberry Fields Bowl? Hold Your Hand Bowl?

There was a time when the Orange Bowl wasn’t connected to the name of a delivery service or a credit card company. There was a Citrus Bowl in Florida and a Peach Bowl in Georgia. I remember going to the Alamo Bowl once, happy to see the name bound to the enduring history of San Antonio, with no connection to rental cars.

Almost all bowls now feature a corporate sponsor’s name, so it may be in the nature of things that when many Iowa fans remember “The Catch” by Warren Holloway to beat LSU as the clock expired, they involuntarily associate it with the name of a credit card.

Still, we should acknowledge the irony that with the corporatization of all that is good, like football bowl games, at least one bowl game is associated with paying taxes instead of avoiding them.

Just understand: Some of us will still think of it as the Gator Bowl.

Go Hawks!

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

Editor’s Note: This piece was published as an Iowa View in the Dec. 28, 2014, Des Moines Register

Leveling the playing field

December 11, 2014

Small business owners get it: They follow the rules, but preferential treatment for giant companies puts them at a disadvantage.

Case in point: Lora Fraracci, who had an excellent guest opinion in today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette about practices big companies use to avoid paying U.S. taxes. The problem is not exclusively an issue with the lax U.S. tax code. It is a big problem at the state level as well.

Ms. Fraracci runs a residential and commercial cleaning business. As she noted:

“As a small-business owner in Des Moines, I play by the rules and pay my taxes to support our American economy. I create jobs that will continue to support our local economy. When the playing field is so uneven it makes it hard to realize this dream.”

The issue has been receiving some national attention, but many may not realize the prevalence of this problem and its extension to state taxes. While Ms. Fraracci and other small businesses, or Iowa focused businesses, follow the rules, large companies they may serve can find a way to either (1) avoid the rules, or (2) block stronger rules.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership has written about these issues for some time, and the reports are on our website.

The biggest Iowa breaks come in two ways: tax loopholes and tax credits.

Tax loopholes have been estimated to cost the state between $60 million and $100 million a year. Loosely written law is an invitation to big companies’ lawyers and accountants to find ways to lower their firms’ taxes. Multistate firms can shift profits to tax-haven states and avoid taxes they otherwise would be paying in Iowa. That creates the uneven playing field Ms. Fraracci sees.

Iowa could fix this by adopting something called “combined reporting,” which the business lobby has fought tooth and nail when proposed in the past by Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver. Many states — including almost all our neighbors (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska) — already do this. See our 2007 report, which remains relevant because Iowa has refused to act.

Tax credits are particularly costly, rarely reviewed with any sense that they will be reformed. This is illustrated best with the Research Activities Credit, which provides a refundable credit to big companies to do something they are likely to anyway: research to keep their businesses relevant and competitive.

In 2013, that credit cost $53 million, with $36 million of that going to companies that paid no state income tax in Iowa. The default position must be that this is wasted money, because it is never reviewed in the regular budget process the way other spending is examined every year — on schools, law enforcement, worker protection and environmental quality. In Iowa, spending on tax credits is spending on autopilot.

Read here about Iowa’s accountability gap on tax-credit spending.

Looking ahead, as a new legislative session approaches and we hear repeatedly that things are tight, keep these points in mind to better understand the real fiscal picture facing Iowa. The more small-business owners understand this, the more likely pressure can build for real reform.

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

The case for Governor Branstad’s minimum wage increase

November 14, 2014

Election Night 2014 — the hours that established why Governor Terry Branstad should push for an increase in the state minimum wage.

At first blush, this might not seem obvious. It was a big Republican night, and support of the minimum wage is not a marquee issue for Republicans.

On Election Night, a minimum-wage critic won the U.S. Senate seat of one of the nation’s most high-profile and ardent supporters of a minimum-wage increase, Iowa’s Tom Harkin, and Republicans took control of that chamber. Over in the House, Republicans flipped one seat and now hold three of Iowa’s four, along with a historically overwhelming majority that makes the minimum-wage increase sought by President Obama highly unlikely.

This turns the focus to the Iowa Statehouse, where the power structure remains effectively the same: Republican governor, narrowly Democratic Senate, slightly stronger Republican majority in the House.

With little change in Des Moines, why would passage be more likely now?

For one thing, we have gone one more year without an increase. It has been almost seven years now at $7.25; it is only a matter of time — and we may be there — when Iowa reaches a tipping point where inertia succumbs to an increase in the minimum wage.

For another, the near-certainty that it will not pass in Washington erodes pleas to wait for the feds. Recall that Iowa stopped waiting in 2007, passing the $7.25 wage that took effect in January 2008, almost 19 months ahead of the federal $7.25.

Finally, the tipping point noted above may be signaled in state referendum victories on Election Night for minimum-wage forces in two neighboring “red” states — Nebraska and South Dakota — indicating the time is right politically. Of the states bordering Iowa, only Wisconsin is stuck with us at $7.25.

State minimum wages higher than U.S. minimum on Jan. 1, 2015

State minimum wages higher than U.S. minimum on Jan. 1, 2015 (National Conference of State Legislatures)

An increase would be popular in Iowa. A recent poll showed 53 percent support for an increase to $10.10 an hour.[i] No politician in either party will be disadvantaged in 2016 having supported a minimum wage increase.

On the merits, it is well established that a minimum-wage increase is overdue. It comes nowhere close to a family-supporting income, and it has not kept pace with rising costs for almost seven years. Families depending on minimum-wage income have not seen lower costs of food, fuel, housing, clothing and health care in those years. Passing it now would mean:

  • Fewer Iowans in poverty.
  • A boost to local and state economies as families have more to spend.
  • A fiscal benefit to the state as less is needed to support extremely low-income working families.
  • More resources to support stronger work-support programs to point low-wage workers on a path to the middle class.

In the past, Governor Branstad has made it clear the issue was not his priority but he has not ruled it out.[ii]

For all of these reasons, the time is right for Governor Branstad to move ahead. It’s the right thing to do, and the ball is in his court.

[i] http://globegazette.com/news/iowa/poll-majority-of-iowans-favor-raising-minimum-wage/article_1b688a49-214b-5688-bfff-9e74ead757bd.html

[ii] http://whotv.com/2014/01/31/minimum-wage-branstad-hasnt-ruled-out-increase/

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


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