Will local wage laws spark state action?

The question in October is a question for January: Will local minimum wage efforts force a serious debate and action on a meaningful minimum wage for Iowa?

The pressure is building in Iowa for a minimum wage increase.

Polk County last week became the latest county to take matters into its own hands as Iowa lawmakers and Congress have left the state and national minimum wages at $7.25. Four counties have now approved minimum wage increases above $10 per hour by 2019, with one of them — in Johnson County — scheduled to be fully phased in by Jan. 1.

Within several days of that, the Iowa Legislature will convene and the ball will be in state lawmakers’ court.

In the meantime, Iowans tired of the nine-year wait for an increase may keep acting locally to boost prosperity for low-income working families — which is critical as about 1 in 5 Iowa do not earn enough for a basic-needs household budget.

Here is the current local minimum-wage lineup in Iowa:

Johnson County is currently at $9.15 in the second step of its three-step increase to $10.10 on Jan. 1, indexed to inflation after that.
Linn County has approved an increase to $10.25 by 2019 (three $1 steps, Jan. 1, 2017-19).
Wapello County will move to $10.10 by 2019 (three 95-cent steps, Jan. 1, 2017-19).
Polk County approved a wage of $10.75 by 2019 (three steps: $1.50 April 2017, $1 more in January 2018 and 2019), indexed to inflation afterward. Includes exception for workers under age 18.

There has been discussion or interest in a similar move in at least four other counties: Lee, Woodbury, Des Moines and Black Hawk. For some, this has become a county supervisor campaign issue.

The question in October is a question for January: Will the pressure of these local efforts, which are growing, be enough to force a serious debate in the Legislature on a statewide increase? And if it is, will that effort produce a wage that pushes Iowa closer to a cost of living wage? (Hint: Even $10 an hour is nowhere close.)

Stay tuned.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa plants cookies in data center megadeals

The report’s recommendation: Cap data-center subsidies at $50,000 per job and be ready to walk away from bidding wars that guarantee losses for taxpayers.

161011-gjf-datacenter5x5A new study by Good Jobs First shows Iowa has two of the 11 “megadeals” in which states have awarded a total of $2 billion to Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Amazon Web Services for data center projects.

“The average cost of their 11 ‘megadeals’ profiled here is astronomical: $1.95 million per job. At that price, taxpayers will always lose, because a worker will never pay $1.95 million more in state and local taxes than public services she and her dependents consume,” the report states.

Sound familiar? It should. Iowa has two of the cited “megadeals,” which the report describes as subsidy deals of $50 million-plus. Both Iowa deals were with Microsoft — a $107.3 million subsidy in 2014 and a $65.3 million subsidy in 2010 for its “megadeal” list. Both fell below the $2 million per job average cost, but the Microsoft megadeal costs per job were $1.28 million and $964,627, respectively. In addition, the report notes competition between Washington and Iowa in 2010 for a Microsoft center, and Nebraska and Iowa in 2013 for a Facebook project.

Good Jobs First’s recommendation to all states: Cap data-center subsidies at $50,000 per job and be ready to walk away from bidding wars that guarantee losses for taxpayers.

In the new report, “Money Lost to the Cloud,” author Kasia Tarcynzska finds that states routinely subsidize data-center projects with special tax breaks that are not central to companies’ choices on where to locate.

“Decisions on where to locate data centers — which consume large amounts of electricity but employ few workers — are primarily based on the availability of reliable, low-cost electricity,” she wrote.

“Despite their New Economy allure, internet companies have fully embraced Old Economy habits of playing states and localities against each other in bidding wars, putting public officials in a ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ and causing governments to grossly overspend for trophy deals.”

Iowa, which has made deals with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook, is one of eight states with special sales and use tax exemptions on electricity purchased by data centers.

In addition, the report notes, property taxes are often the largest taxes paid by companies, and local property tax abatements can be the largest component of subsidy packages — but frequently are not disclosed.

“Data centers create very few permanent jobs, so one of the biggest benefits that a community can hope for is a stronger tax base. But that benefit fails to materialize when the major taxes such as sales, utility and property levies are abated,” the report states.

The report concludes with a “larger question,” one that should be asked of any subsidy at any time when state and local officials try to attract development from big, stable companies. Why, Tarcynzska asks, “should communities use their limited financial resources to subsidize such self-sufficient companies to build something the companies must have?”

See the report here and the news release here from Good Jobs First.

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


Tying science to policy — for Iowa

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

160915-59170_dox35x45The Iowa Policy Project has always enlisted the help of students and professors or former professors from Iowa colleges to help produce good research.

IPP founder and researcher David Osterberg, left, in his job as a professor of Public Health at the UI, has been part of the annual statement on climate change signed by researchers and teachers at all the colleges and universities in Iowa.

This year’s statement, released today with 187 signers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities, is about farming to sequester carbon and improve water quality: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture.

An excerpt:

Farmers and land managers who have implemented proven conservation practices have positioned Iowa to lead implementation of Climate‐Smart Agriculture. Iowa’s leadership through wider adoption of conservation practices will benefit our state, while these practices lessen human contribution to net greenhouse gas emissions. …

We, as Iowa educators, believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.

Find the full statement here.

Find the news release here.

The statement envisions “a multi‐faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs” to generate a more diverse landscape. It concludes:

Such a landscape would benefit all Iowans by transforming Iowa’s vast croplands into resources that simultaneously generate food, feed, fuel, a healthier climate, better soils, wildlife habitat, and cleaner waters.

The lead authors are Chris Anderson, who has served as assistant director of Iowa State University’s climate science program, and Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, with editorial assistance from senior science writer Connie Mutel of the UI.

Also contributing were: Gene Takle, Diane Debinski and David Swenson, ISU; David Courard-Hauri, Drake; Neil Bernstein, Mount Mercy; Peter Thorne, Greg Carmichael, Elizabeth Stone and David Osterberg, UI; and Kamyar Enshayan, University of Northern Iowa.

The issues raised in this statement fit well with our work at the Iowa Policy Project. We produce papers on water quality and confined animal agriculture, and connect these issues to public policy impacts. What we do at this small policy institute fits into larger questions addressed by academics and policy people in the state.

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

‘Nothing to see here, folks,’ 2017 edition

What really drives state growth is the rate of new business formation. And what matters most for entrepreneurial vibrancy is the education level of the state’s residents.

slide_taxfoundation-cropBasic flaws remain in Tax Foundation business index

The Tax Foundation released the 14th edition of its State Business Tax Climate Index (SBTCI) today (Sept. 28). The basic flaws that have rendered it of little use as a guide to state economic policy remain. While a few methodological tweaks have been made, it is still a hodge-podge of over 100 different features of state tax law, mashed together into an index number. The components are weighted illogically, and the result is a ranking that bears little or no relation to the taxes businesses actually pay in one state versus another.

The Tax Foundation acknowledges that they are not measuring actual tax levels on business, but rather the states’ tax structure. But they provide no evidence that tax structure influences business decisions. If you were a business, what would you care more about: the bottom line amount you will pay, or whether there were three tax brackets or five tax brackets involved in the calculation that got you there? The Tax Foundation would have you count brackets, and ignore the dollars.

The SBTCI has separate components for the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, property taxes, etc. So let’s consider the corporate tax component. Even as a measure of “structure” somehow, it falls short because it leaves out two major determinants of corporate income tax liabilities — federal deductibility and the apportionment rule — while including numerous minor features. As a result, the corporate tax index is a meaningless number.

Furthermore, the corporate income tax is much less important than the property tax, for most businesses. According to the Council on State Taxation, the property tax accounted for 43 percent of all business taxes, the corporate income tax just 11 percent, in 2014. Yet in coming up with the overall state rankings, the latest Tax Foundation index weights the property tax 14.9 percent, the corporate income tax 19.7 percent. That makes states with high property taxes and low corporate income taxes look much better on the index than they really are, and penalizes the states with a robust corporate income tax, a high state share of education funding, and low property taxes.

To make matters worse, the index weights change every year. This makes it impossible to know if a change in a state’s rank from one year to the next is due to a change in tax law, or just a change in the weights.

More importantly, the whole focus on business tax competitiveness is misplaced. State and local taxes are a very small share of overall business costs. What really drives state growth is the rate of new business formation. And what matters most for entrepreneurial vibrancy is the education level of the state’s residents.

2010-PFw5464Editor’s Note: Peter Fisher, research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP), wrote this blog for GradingStates.org, IPP’s separate website devoted to promoting a better understanding of various state business climate rankings. For a look at components of state policies that can promote prosperity, see this page on the GradingStates.org site.

Is it time for Woodbury County to join the party?

This week, two more counties in Iowa — Linn and Wapello — joined Johnson County in setting a countywide minimum wage. In Linn County, the wage will rise to $10.25 by January 2019, while Wapello County followed Johnson County’s lead in raising the wage to $10.10 in three installments. Polk County is expected to take up a proposal soon to raise the wage there to $10.75 by 2019. Lee County supervisors, meanwhile, have appointed a study group to consider a minimum wage.

Unlike these counties, Woodbury is part of a three-state metropolitan area that includes counties in Nebraska and South Dakota where the state minimum wage has already been raised above the federal. The minimum wage is currently $8.55 in South Dakota and $9.00 in Nebraska. Sioux City employers are already competing in a labor market with wages above the Iowa minimum of $7.25.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, economists at the Economic Policy Institute estimate that about 10,000 workers in Woodbury County would see an increase in their hourly wage if the county set a minimum equal to Nebraska’s $9.00 by January 2018. Those 10,000 workers on average would see their annual income rise by about $1,500.

If the Woodbury County wage were raised further, to $10.25 by January 2019, putting it on a par with Linn County, the number of workers benefiting would grow to about 12,600. The average gain in income would about double, to $3,000.[i]

The Census data dispel the usual myths about low-wage workers. In Woodbury County, over 80 percent of those benefiting from the $9.00 or $10.10 minimum would be age 20 or over, with about a third over age 40. Well over half of them work full time. About 26 percent are parents, and 3,400 to 4,700 children live in a family that would see a rise in income.

Raising the minimum wage puts more disposable income in the pockets of the work force. Much of that income would be returned to the local economy as workers spend more at grocery stores, car dealerships, clothing stores, restaurants, theaters — in fact, throughout the local retail and service sectors. Increased sales in turn would create a need for more workers.

It is this increase in local spending that is a major reason that studies of local minimum wage laws have found no effect on employment. The higher labor costs to employers are offset in part by increased demand for their goods and services, and in part by lower employee turnover and greater productivity.

The Iowa Policy Project’s 2016 Cost of Living in Iowa shows what it takes for families to get by, just covering basic expenses for food, rent, transportation, child care and health care. In Woodbury County, a married couple who both work and who have two children needing child care would each need to earn at least $13.00 an hour to get by, even with health insurance provided by an employer. Without health insurance, they would need to make over $16 an hour. Even a single person living alone would need a wage of $12.46 to get by without public assistance, or nearly $11.00 an hour in a job with health benefits.

While $9.00 or $10.10 does not represent a living wage in Woodbury County, it gets workers closer to that goal and helps thousands of families, many struggling below the poverty line. And it provides a significant boost to the local economy through increased spending.


[i] These estimates include those affected directly and indirectly. About three-fourths of the workers gaining a higher wage represent those earning less than the new minimum. But the other fourth represent those a little higher up the wage scale who would benefit as employers adjust pay levels to remain competitive or to restore parity within a business.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project


A new baseline: Drop in number of uninsured Iowans

The new census numbers set a baseline to evaluate the effects of Iowa’s move this year to privatize Medicaid. After sharp declines in Iowa’s uninsured population, it will be interesting to see if declines continue.

Nineteen out of 20 Iowans are now covered by health insurance, thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act and Iowa’s Medicaid expansion. The latest census data, released today, show that the percent of Iowans who were uninsured dropped from 8.1 percent in 2013 to just 5.0 percent in 2015. While 248,000 Iowans were without insurance in 2013, by 2015 the number had dropped to 155,000.

Only four states have a lower percent of the population without health insurance: Massachusetts, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont, plus the District of Columbia.

Across the country, the gap has widened between states that expanded Medicaid and those that did not, as shown below. Twenty-eight states, including Iowa, chose to expand Medicaid eligibility in 2014 or 2015 to families with income up to 138 percent of the poverty level. The uninsured population has declined faster in the last two years in the states that chose to expand.

In Iowa, the 2015 census numbers establish a baseline for evaluating the effects of Iowa’s Medicaid privatization, which took place early this year. It will be interesting to see if the uninsured population continues to decline in 2016.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


For more on this issue, see:
Census Data Show States Not Expanding Medicaid Falling Further Behind, by Matt Broaddus, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Solar power shines when most needed

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

By David Osterberg and Nathaniel Baer

The hot sun we experienced this August not only caused the local electric grid to experience high use, but it also powered solar systems distributed around Eastern Iowa.

The middle of a hot summer day is a time when almost any U.S. electric utility expects to see highest demands during the year. Aug. 11 was going to be one of those days in Eastern Iowa. Peak demands of high electricity use translate to high costs.

So, a day in advance, MidAmerican Energy asked the University of Iowa’s Facilities Management team to cut back the university’s electric load from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016.

The university has an arrangement with the electric utility to decrease its electric load by cutting back on air conditioning and other usage, when called upon, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The goal is to reduce costs for all utility customers by encouraging some customers to reduce their electricity use at the highest and most expensive times.

This type of arrangement is a win-win not only for UI and MidAmerican, but also other MidAmerican customers. Utilities often make these arrangements available to large customers as well as residential customers with air conditioning.

The university has two small solar energy systems that produce electricity. The data for one of them, a 38-kilowatt solar array, showed energy production varying during the morning of Aug. 11 (below). During the utility’s predicted peak period of energy use, the solar array’s production rose quickly and continued to be strong for the remaining period.

Basic RGB

Similarly, the solar arrays at Johnson County’s Secondary Roads and SEATS campus began producing much higher levels of solar energy shortly after the 12:30 p.m. high-use period started. These panels also continued with strong production through 5 p.m., when the period ended. (below)


The hot sun caused the MidAmerican system to experience a peak day but also powered distributed solar systems in the area to help meet those higher energy needs.

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is an energy and environment researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANathaniel Baer is the energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. baer@iaenvironment.org.


A version of this column ran in the Sept. 6 Cedar Rapids Gazette.