Posted tagged ‘Mike Owen’

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

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

 

Raising debate about a raise

April 25, 2014

$10.10vs$7.25At the Iowa Policy Project, we deal with numbers — a lot. And the numbers matter — but only because those numbers affect people.

On no issue is that more important than the minimum wage.

As we all know, Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It’s pathetic. (We’ll show why in a moment.)

It’s important to remember, Iowans considered $7.25 something of a triumph when it passed — seven years ago.

When it took effect a few months later, on Jan. 1, 2008, it put Iowa ahead of most of the country. It took another year and a half for the federal minimum wage to reach that level.

In the meantime, costs kept going up. And both the U.S. and Iowa minimum wage stayed the same. So the real question is not whether the minimum wage should rise. It’s: “How much?”

Certainly the $10.10 proposed by Senator Tom Harkin and others is a good start. It chips away at the bills. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that even then, people will be working full time in jobs that do not pay enough for them to get by.

Peter Fisher and Lily French show why with their “Cost of Living in Iowa” research for IPP. For example, in Linn County and the Cedar Rapids area, if you make $7.25 an hour and work a full-time job 50 weeks a year, you make $14,500 before taxes. As our analysis shows:

•  In Linn County, you need more than that whether you are single or married with kids.

•  In the Cedar Rapids metro area — covering Linn, Benton, Jones, Iowa and Cedar counties — a single mom with one child needs to make $20.17 an hour. For a married couple with two kids, the family-supporting wage is $16.43 for each parent. And for all other families with kids, a parent needs to make over $20 an hour.

So the minimum wage matters. The only problem is, it doesn’t matter enough.

2014-COL-linn-504

COL-FamilySuppWage-Region504

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

Let’s be done with Iowa’s fake job number

March 18, 2014

For some time now, the Iowa Policy Project and others have noted a bogus statistic that has been inserted into official jobs data provided by Iowa Workforce Development (IWD).

It just keeps getting better — the fake statistic — because it is designed to work that way.

“Gross Over-the-month Employment Gains” is an extra line that has been added to IWD’s seasonally adjusted, nonfarm jobs spreadsheet, which provides month-by-month data by job sector, back to January 2008.

Basic RGB

Below the standard table of rows and columns is the special line, with numbers reflecting the gains-only count since January 2011, when Governor Branstad took office. Construction up 200 but manufacturing down 400? No problem. Ignore the manufacturing losses and call it a gain of 200. That is exactly how this method treats job counts.

And now there’s a new wrinkle. Previously, IWD only showed what the count looked like for each month, with no overall total. You had to add the numbers yourself.

Beginning with the latest report, the ever-helpful IWD now takes care of that for you, or for whomever would want the meaningless number. With the latest report, IWD makes it a cumulative count.

Our experience with IWD staff is that they are professionals. No doubt they cringe every time that number comes out of the agency — whoever ordered them to compile it.

But no doubt the Governor is pleased. While the number is a total distortion of reality, it shows him close to the pace he would need after three years (120,000) to get to his magic goal of 200,000 jobs in five years. Kind of like winning a basketball game by shutting off the opponent’s side of the scoreboard, but, whatever it takes, right?

So, in case you’re interested, Iowa’s economy has created a net increase of just under 61,000 jobs since the Governor took office — about half of what he’d need to be on pace toward his goal. For a real analysis of Iowa’s job picture, see IPP’s monthly Iowa JobWatch report, or our annual report on The State of Working Iowa.

140318-jobsat36months2Now it’s one thing if the Governor’s campaign wants to peddle silly job numbers under its own letterhead. But it is wrong — flat out wrong — for official data to be presented by IWD with what amounts to a political campaign line for the Governor.

For those of us engaged in nonpartisan research and analysis, the political tainting of IWD reports is a great disappointment. Like us, IWD should be trying to determine and illustrate the actual job picture facing our state, so policy makers can make decisions in that light.

IWD and all state agencies must be neutral players if their mission is to serve all Iowans — not someone’s political agenda.

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

Watch tax spending more closely

February 4, 2014

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

A minimum wage increase for Iowa?

December 18, 2013

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 new look for the first of the month

November 1, 2013

All right! The first of the month! Always a big day for those living paycheck to paycheck. And November 1 is no exception.

Yet, for those working low-wage jobs and receiving SNAP benefits, November 1 is not as good as October 1. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which many know as Food Stamps. And it’s under constant attack.In Iowa, the more than 420,000 people who count on food assistance can count on less this month than they received a month ago.

Same goes for SNAP recipients across the country, as benefits drop with the expiration of small improvements that were passed in the 2009 Recovery Act.

SNAP benefits in Iowa have averaged about $116 a month per recipient — about $246 per household.* That works out to just about $1.30 per meal per person. Take a look below at what happens to that supplemental benefit when the modest improvement from the Recovery Act goes away today.

 SNAPmonthlyCut-1-31-13

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3899

Our economy has not fully recovered from the Great Recession. And if it’s not enough that this Recovery Act improvement is expiring before the work is done, recognize that some in Congress see right now as a time to whack away further at SNAP benefits as a new Farm Bill is negotiated.

Now, we might not like to hear that some 13 percent of the state’s population is receiving food assistance. But you don’t address that issue by just cutting benefits to those people who are stuck in low-wage jobs, or are children, or are seniors, or are disabled.You need to make the jobs better, which starts with an increase in the minimum wage and pressure on Iowa businesses that pay low wages to do better. If we want a higher-road economy, we need to put a better foundation under it.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

* Iowa Department of Human Services, Food Assistance Program State Summary for September 2013, Report Series F-1.


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