Iowa is out of step with the majority of states by refusing to close corporate tax loopholes. Equity demands better.
Through the years in Iowa, very few lawmakers have had the courage to take on an utter abomination in our corporate tax system: tax loopholes.
It is one thing to expressly pass a tax preference — a credit, exemption or deduction — with a specific purpose, clearly defined for all taxpayers to see and reviewed for its effectiveness. (Iowa does not provide such accountability with many such preferences, but that is for another post.)
It is quite another thing, however, to see weaknesses in your tax code exposed and exploited by large companies, and to leave those holes open for routine abuse. Welcome to Iowa.
A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities discusses this issue as part of overarching tax policy that states can use to advance racial equity and sustain services responsibly. From the report:
States can nullify a variety of tax avoidance strategies employed by large multistate corporations by adopting a reform known as “combined reporting,” which treats a parent company and its subsidiaries as one entity for state income tax purposes, thereby minimizing companies’ ability to shift income earned in a state to other states that are tax havens (like Delaware and Nevada).
The figure below shows Iowa is out of step with the majority of states on this issue. All but one of our neighboring states has a corporate income tax, and all but one of those states has combined reporting to stop companies from avoiding taxes that were originally intended by the tax code to be collected.
The Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Fiscal Partnership have been encouraging Iowans to look at this issue for many years. We made it part of our 2018 Tax Policy Kit — explaining here how Iowa could save itself tens of millions of dollars that are squandered to companies that effectively set their own tax policy. The Iowa Taxpayers Association consistently defends this break that not only burdens our state, but tilts the playing field to big, multistate corporations and against Iowa-based, Iowa-focused businesses.
Two governors, Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver, at times proposed adoption of combined reporting, but the issue — while getting some attention at the committee level — has not reached a floor vote in the House or Senate.
Iowa’s tax code needs to be fair to all residents. It needs to generate revenue to sustain services that are important to all residents, from education to water quality to law enforcement to health care. To allow corporations to set their own rules by exploiting weaknesses in the tax code defies these oft-stated Iowa values of fairness and accountability.
It’s so easy to overdo it — with pumpkin spice or with tax-cut rhetoric. Keep it simple. The tax cuts are for the wealthy, and come at great cost of services while making the tax system less fair.
You find it everywhere these days: pumpkin spice this, pumpkin spice that … tax cuts this, tax cuts that. It’s so easy to overdo it — with pumpkin spice or with tax-cut rhetoric.
Keep it simple. The tax cuts are for the wealthy, and come at great cost of services while making the tax system less fair.
Just ask the Iowa Department of Revenue, which produced the following analysis in May, just before state legislators rammed their backroom tax package for the rich through both houses of the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk. Yes, she signed it.
Put another way, almost 40 percent of resident taxpayers will get about 3 percent of the benefit of the tax cut in tax year 2021; over four-fifths of taxpayers will together see only about 26 percent of the benefit. On the other hand, the top 2.5 percent — families making over $250,000 — will receive 46 percent of the benefit.
This was a tax cut for the richest Iowans, who did not need a cut, and the bill overall will cost almost a half billion dollars in 2021.
These effects have been apparent for months, despite claims that are obvious distortions, according to the Department of Revenue analysis.
That analysis shows the average tax change in tax year 2021 for people making between $50,000 and $60,000 — this covers the latest median-income level of $58,570 — would be a $156 cut, or less than $3 a week. Don’t spend it all in one place. Meanwhile, the cut for millionaires would, on average, be $24,636.
By the way, the “fact checkers” who let loose-speaking pols off the hook for their exaggerations about tax cuts are often missing a critical point: Many Iowans, including some middle- and moderate-income working families, actually will see tax increases, or no change at all, if the new law is not changed.
Of course, most won’t see these effects right away, despite the promises. How convenient.
 Iowa Department of Revenue analysis for Legislative Services Agency, May 2, 2018
 Charles Bruner and Peter Fisher, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, “Tax plan facts vs. spin,” May 5, 2018, http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-plan-facts-vs-spin/
See also: “A Roadmap for Opportunity: What real tax reform would look like,” Iowa Policy Project, http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180906-roadmap-taxes.pdf
Concerns about IPERS changes stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.
IPERS, the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, has come under attack in recent years for no substantive reason — only ideology and politics. Understandably, IPERS members, who number well over 10 percent of the population of Iowa, are concerned.
So, some folks are engaged in what might be called “care tactics,” to make sure the stakes on that issue are well-understood. People who care want good information, and are asking for it.
These efforts and concerns are being dismissed by those who claim there is no threat to IPERS. Political scare tactics indeed are part of the 2018 campaign on several issues — primarily taxes, as illustrated by the hair-on-fire ads on television that do more to distort than inform.
But it’s hard to make that case about pension concerns, which stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.
Those now dismissive of pension concerns point to recent campaign-season comments by Governor Kim Reynolds. Yet not so long ago Reynolds herself raised the prospect of some change in IPERS’ actual pension structure to a “defined contribution” or 401k-style structure for new employees. Her predecessor, Terry Branstad, had made similar comments. Legislation was proposed in 2017 in the Senate. All of this remains fresh in the minds of those who are worried, as do efforts by others to undermine IPERS.
IPERS critics have promoted that riskier “defined contribution” structure, needlessly scaring Iowa taxpayers about Iowa’s secure IPERS system. The Des Moines Register has run such scare pieces, by Don Racheter of the Public Interest Institute and by Gretchen Tegeler of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa.
Neither the media nor IPERS critics have been able to explain how a separate system based on a 401k style structure — “defined contribution” — could be introduced for new employees without undermining existing and promised IPERS benefits for current members.
Contributions plus Interest investments equal Benefits plus Expenses in administration of the system— this is what is required for full funding of IPERS. If you reduce that first item, contributions, by setting new employees apart in a different plan, clearly that matters. It’s math.
In fact, it affects more than those new employees. Reducing contributions by diverting those from new employees reasonably means lower benefits — for current members!
The media and all policy makers should be asking more about this. It’s not enough to accept a “nothing to see here” argument from someone who in the recent past declared herself open to a change — especially when activists have pushed for it, and legislation has been proposed. The dismissal — not exposing it — is the “scare tactic.”
Let’s stay away from the “scare tactics,” and focus on the “care tactics.”
 Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times, “Reynolds says state looking at IPERS task force,” Jan. 26, 2017. https://qctimes.com/news/local/government-and-politics/reynolds-says-state-looking-at-ipers-task-force/article_bf76d410-c70b-5300-951c-ad1cb6bced3f.html
 William Petroski, The Des Moines Register, “IPERS cuts key target; unfunded pension liabilities up $1.3 billion,” March 24, 2017. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/24/ipers-cuts-key-target-unfunded-pension-liabilities-up-13-billion/99600866/
 O. Kay Henderson, RadioIowa, “Democrats accuse GOP of plotting that IPERS be dismantled,” December 11, 2017. https://www.radioiowa.com/2017/12/11/democrats-accuse-gop-of-plotting-that-ipers-be-dismantled/
 Don Racheter, Public Interest Intitute “Replace IPERS with defined-contribution plan,” The Des Moines Register, May 27, 2016. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/abetteriowa/2016/05/17/replace-ipers-defined-contribution-plan/84492576/
 Gretchen Tegeler, Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, “Don’t minimize Iowa’s public pension debt,” The Des Moines Register, January 16,2018, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2018/01/16/iowas-public-pension-debt-eclipses-other-public-debt/1035979001/; also “Public retirement systems are not ideal for young, mobile employees,” The Des Moines Register, December 8, 2016, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/12/08/public-retirement-systems-not-ideal-young-mobile-employees/95148216/
Iowans need a handle on what the budget surplus means, and what it doesn’t.
• Large cuts to higher education were unnecessary
• Continuing to short-change K-12 schools was needless
• Concerns about large tax cuts were warranted.
During the 2018 session we saw legislators craft mid-year cuts and an FY2019 austerity budget behind closed doors. The effect will be the same as it has been for several years now: Iowa lawmakers won’t have much to work with when the 2019 legislative session convenes in January due to large tax cuts, leaving tight purse strings for education.
The October 2018 Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) projections show a $127 million surplus — up $95.6 million from what was expected for fiscal year 2018, which ended in June. Many in the state are searching for factors they think contributed to the surplus. In reality, the discrepancy in expected and actual revenue is related to errors in forecasting. The REC used a slower rate of growth in calculating these projections after overestimating revenues for the past two fiscal years.
A significant factor contributing to the surplus is a state revenue boost caused by new federal tax cuts, especially for higher-income families. Iowa has a special state break for federal taxes paid. But because fewer federal taxes are being withheld, additional income is subjected to state tax.
Proponents of the state tax cuts seek to attribute the budget surplus to the cuts themselves. First, it is impossible to credit the budget surplus to the 2018 state tax cuts, most of which will not take full effect until 2019 and beyond.
Second, even the REC estimates do not predict continued growth at the FY18 levels. Iowa will have already given away the FY18 surplus before the beginning of the next legislative session, because tax cuts mean less revenue. The FY20 budget will be tight. This will steer the legislative discourse to hold down K-12 spending, to push higher-ed costs toward tuition and student debt, and to threaten needed services and institutions — as the administration is doing right now to the University of Iowa Labor Center.
Sustainable budgeting requires realistic forecasts and working to help all Iowans understand the impacts of budget and tax choices. It also means generating adequate revenue to pay for essential services such as education, health care and environmental quality, and helping to create opportunity for all.
 Iowa Department of Management, “Iowa budget closes with higher-than-expected revenue, $127 million surplus.” September 2018.
We’ll throw a penalty flag when we see bad information being spread about issues we cover. Case in point: the Governor’s spin about taxes.
At the Iowa Policy Project, we are nonpartisan and we do not support or endorse candidates for office. Rather, we hope those who do, and the candidates and parties themselves, will conduct their discussions on a foundation of fact.
When they do not, we just might throw a penalty flag. Our work is public policy research and analysis, to help people see what is fact and what is not, and to introduce context where it is missing. This is not always easy with complex issues, and there are gray areas. Where bad information is being spread, that interferes with the mission of our work, so we will do what we can to keep that record straight.
Very early in Wednesday’s debate between Governor Kim Reynolds and businessman Fred Hubbell, the Governor made at least two clearly unsupportable claims about taxes. These are issues we cover constantly.
First, the 2018 tax overhaul not only was costly, but overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply unsupportable, using data provided by the Iowa Department of Revenue in May before the bill passed. Those supporting the bill knew this would be the impact, and those writing it drew it that way.
According to the department, the legislation will mean either no change, or an actual tax increase, to nearly a quarter of resident taxpayers — 23.3 percent — in tax year 2019. For those who receive cuts, the average cut for millionaires was projected to be $20,021; for someone between $60,000 and $70,000 adjusted gross income, the cut was projected to be a tiny sliver of the benefit compared to millionaires — $232.
This flatly negates the Governor’s comment that, “In 2019, virtually every single Iowan will see their taxes go down.” This is clearly inaccurate. Further, as the law is phased in, the continuing impact will be that some will lose, some will not. Unquestionably it will affect public services as hundreds of millions in revenues are cut — which means Iowans who depend upon those services, and that is most Iowans, will lose even more.
Second, the Governor in pushing for new corporate tax cuts chose to play to the myths about business taxes promoted by the business lobby to drive down Iowa’s already low business taxes.
Business consultants have exposed the hollow core of this claim, most recently the Anderson Economic Group, which in June ranked Iowa 15th lowest in state and local business taxes (all of which are governed by state policy). Iowa business taxes consistently have been shown to be competitive.
For more information about both the tax legislation and Iowa taxes on business see these resources:
What real Iowa tax reform would look like, Iowa Policy Project “Roadmap for Opportunity” series, August 2018.
Iowa tax overhaul: Sorting facts, key points from spin, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, May 2018
At this critical juncture, Iowa can take the high road to shared prosperity, or go down a dead end.
Iowa can unlock the potential of each individual and allow all workers to share in the fruits of their labor by making public investments in the foundations of a strong economy. Well-resourced schools, access to higher education, decent wages and protections, economic supports, clean water and renewable energy, and a cleaned-up tax system, all can pave the way to opportunities and broadly shared prosperity that Iowans want.
Unfortunately, policy choices have put us on a road that prioritizes corporate profits over worker wages and corporate tax cuts over the public investments that allow for a strong, sustainable economy. We are at a crossroads and our policy choices today and in the near future can either pave the path to economic opportunity in every corner of our state, or create roadblocks to prosperity for everyday Iowans.
Our people-first roadmap offers the way forward. It lays out the evidence-based, responsible solutions to our state’s most pressing issues, pinpointing several stops along the way that would mark progress for our state, such as:
Creating the workforce of our future and ensuring our children reach their potential. Iowa can and should ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need for every child to succeed, no matter where they live. We also must restore our commitment to higher education with more state support, lower tuition, and aid to reduce student debt.
Boosting economic security and supports for working Iowans. Giving Iowans’ lowest wage workers a long overdue raise, ensuring workers get paid what they’re legally owed, shoring up our system of compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, and restoring worker rights to collective bargaining can ensure that all Iowa workers are getting a fair deal. Iowans also need a boost in child care assistance, which can make or break the ability of a family to work.
Restoring a public commitment to the health and well-being of every Iowan, particularly seniors and people living with disabilities. Reversing the privatization of Medicaid and pursuing cost savings through innovation and efficiency rather than reduced services and worker wages are critical steps to ensuring access to health care for all Iowans — now and in the future.
Ensuring clean water and renewable energy for a healthy, sustainable Iowa. We can and must balance the state’s need for clean and abundant water with our agricultural economy by reducing water pollution. Likewise, Iowa should restore its legacy of leadership in renewable and efficient energy in order to create a cleaner, greener state for future generations.
Cleaning up and restoring balance to the tax code. Right now, Iowa asks the lowest income Iowans to pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than those with the highest incomes. We can fix this by cleaning up corporate tax loopholes that squander precious public dollars that could otherwise be invested in shared opportunity for Iowans.
Iowa is at a critical juncture. We can take the high road that leads to progress and shared prosperity, or go down a dead end. The policies in this roadmap provide a clear route to a stronger Iowa. For more detail on each stop on the roadmap, please click here.