The Governor’s health plan for public employees: A solution in search of a problem

We’ve seen this before; why would we try it again?

DSCN5662-detail240200Governor Branstad’s plan to remove health benefits from negotiations on state, county, city and school employee contracts presents more questions than answers.

The first question: What again is the problem? The Governor has not identified one with any specificity.

The second: What would be the effects? Local decisions on health care coverage reflect local realities; the Governor has not shown why a statewide plan would (1) cover employees adequately; or (2) save a dime.

And perhaps the most important: We’ve seen this movie once in the last year with the Governor’s Medicaid privatization, and many would have preferred to walk out. So why would we go again?

Perhaps we need to take a deep breath and study the issue first.
The Governor is giving us a solution in search of a problem. There is no problem. He has not identified one — just vague and unsubstantiated concerns that won’t be repeated here because they are vague and unsubstantiated. You have to do better than that, Governor.

Next, we have no specifics from the Governor about his suggested statewide pool — who would run it, what options employees might have, not even what it would cost, or any idea about where the costs would be greater than they are now.

We do have experience with that, in this Governor’s unilateral decision to privatize Medicaid, which has been both costly and disruptive thus far. This experience leaves a serious question whether the state should be rushing into another big change with health coverage that would affect as many as 1 in 7 workers in the state, with no more study than has been apparent.

In fact, according to the Des Moines Register, a big issue with the Governor is making employees pay a greater share of their health costs. What is missing from that concern is the fact that employees have given up pay increases through the years in negotiating the health-benefit arrangement. Will the Governor be permitted to ignore this?
For good context, our 2011 report “Apples to Apples” demonstrates that benefit packages move public employees closer, on average, to the overall compensation of private-sector employees with similar skill sets — though still below private-sector compensation.

If the Governor’s goal is to reduce state expenditures by reducing public employee health benefits or increasing the employee share of costs, it should be recognized that this would widen the compensation disadvantage already experienced by public sector workers.

Many public employers — school districts, etc. — like the ability to offer something that might not cost as much as a straight pay increase, and that is a benefits package that includes health insurance. Where employers and employees agree on such a package, why would the state object?

A responsible approach by legislators would keep all of these considerations in the forefront in discussing any such changes to employee benefits.

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

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly.

Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

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

County Minimum Wages Spread their Benefits Widely

Clearly, any action by the Iowa Legislature to roll back county minimum wages would harm workers and local economies in many of Iowa’s most populous counties.

It’s not just four counties that benefit from the higher local minimum wages that go into effect this year. Those four counties — Polk, Linn, Johnson and Wapello — account for a third of all private-sector jobs in the state. And a large number of people holding those jobs live in neighboring counties.

Polk, Linn and Johnson counties are the hubs of metropolitan areas, surrounded by counties where a sizeable share of the workforce commutes to the hub. Those commuters earn higher wages thanks to the county supervisors in the three counties. And they come home to spend those higher wages at local gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and other retail shops. They hire local plumbers and builders and electricians. In all, at least 12 counties in addition to Polk, Linn and Johnson will see a substantial increase in resident incomes and local purchases as a result of those three county minimum wages.

The map below shows the percentage of lower wage workers in each suburban county who are employed in the hub county with the higher minimum wage.[1] Clearly, any action by the Iowa Legislature to roll back county minimum wages would harm the workers and the local economies in many of the state’s most populous counties.

Iowa 03-BLUE-counties

[1] Lower wage is defined as earnings of $3,333 per month or less. Restricting it to those earning $1,250 or less results in very similar percentages; the lower figure, however, would represent a wage of even less than the current minimum for someone working full time, whereas the county minimums when fully phased in will benefit all those earning under $10.10 (Johnson) to $10.75 (Polk), and some workers above those levels. These earnings cutoffs were the only ones provided in the Census data.

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

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Mission accomplished — no cuts needed

What if Iowa promoted our low business taxes, rather than run us down?

Tax-cutters are in hog heaven in Iowa these days. They soon assume the levers of power at the State Capitol and they are planning to use them — no matter the consequences.

But if they truly believed their own mantra about the economic glories of low taxes, they would be shouting “Mission Accomplished” from the top of the Capitol dome. For all their talk of making Iowa “competitive,” they would realize we are already there, and have been for many, many years.

Once again, the national accounting firm Ernst & Young has examined the range of state and local taxes affecting businesses in every state plus Washington, D.C., and found Iowa is in the same place it always lands — the middle of the pack.

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Twenty-three states and D.C. tax business more heavily than Iowa, which is tied for 25th with six other states including neighboring Minnesota. Even South Dakota, despite a low-tax image trumpeted by western Iowa politicians, is slightly higher than Iowa.

That is because responsible tax policy demands a comprehensive look at the impact of all pieces of the tax structure, as Ernst & Young does. Cherry picking only one tax that appears high — appears being the key word because this can be complex — ignores other offsets in the tax code.

Yet, the post-election rhetoric has been a lot about tax cuts — tax cuts we cannot afford.

To the extent state and local taxes matter in business decisions — and there is considerable evidence that they do not, despite the political spin — Iowa already is well-situated. In other words, the concept of “competitiveness” can be overstated easily. A tax structure would have to be markedly different from others, producing high-tax results that we certainly don’t see in Iowa, to make a difference in business expansion and location decisions.

As we pointed out in 2014, Iowa is a low-tax state. This remains so. Why aren’t our elected officials promoting that if it is so important to them?

Having already implemented what the Governor promoted as the largest tax cut in Iowa history with massive property tax giveaways benefiting big-box retailers in 2013, and recognizing state revenues are coming in more slowly than expected, our leaders need to take a deep breath.

We cannot afford new tax cuts for business. For stronger economic growth, let’s turn the page and look at things that matter.

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

Iceberg ahead — but how big?

When the decisions come to cut health care to Iowans, Governor Branstad won’t be around to make the tough choices. Is that what state legislators signed up for?

060426-capitol-swwThe Des Moines Register disclosed Wednesday afternoon in a copyright story that the private, for-profit companies now running Iowa’s Medicaid program are finding big problems in the first year.

With big policy decisions ahead on the future of Medicaid, not only in Iowa but in Washington with a new administration, it is reasonable to wonder if Governor Terry Branstad’s go-it-alone Medicaid privatization is only the tip of the iceberg — and how big the iceberg may be.

Besides the great uncertainty for health-insurance coverage for millions if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement, there is the idea that Congress might block-grant Medicaid. The goal would be to save the federal government money — not to assure health care for the most vulnerable as Medicaid now provides.

A block-grant approach means states would be allotted a share of funds for Medicaid, and when it is gone, that’s it — services would be cut. In that scenario, the decisions would be made in the states. As noted by Edwin Park of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Such a block grant would push states to cut their Medicaid programs deeply.  To compensate for the federal Medicaid funding cuts a block grant would institute, states would either have to contribute much more of their own funding or, as is far more likely, use the greater flexibility the block grant would give them to make draconian cuts to eligibility, benefits, and provider payments.

Maybe someone can provide the campaign literature from the 2016 legislative races that illustrates successful candidates’ thoughts on whose coverage would be the first to go. Who gets cut off? Someone will have to decide that if we go to a block-grant program.

It probably won’t be Governor Branstad making that tough decision, by the way. The new ambassador-to-be will be off doing diplomatic stuff in China when these hard decisions are made.

Is that what these new legislators signed up to do when they put their names on the ballot? But they could check in with Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst to find out if Iowa Statehouse job descriptions might change in the months ahead.

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

Oversight on the overseers of tax credits

These interim legislative meetings put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

You might have heard about a big meeting at the State Capitol today.

No, not that one, about whose portrait will hang in the Iowa House and Senate behind the presiding officer.

The meetings where there’s always some mystery are the annual reviews of selected tax credits. Only a few credits are reviewed each year by a panel of legislators. One meeting was in November; the other is today.

One tax giveaway — er, tax credit — on the agenda for today is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC.
No such review since these sessions started has produced meaningful reform, but the exercise does put information on the table and does put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

What we already know from previous evaluations and annual reports about the RAC is that it is costly — over $50 million a year — and that routinely at least two-thirds of the cost (and usually over four-fifths) goes to companies as so-called “refunds.” These are not refunds of taxes owed, but of tax credits the companies didn’t need because they owe so little, or no, corporate income tax.

Remember that when you hear the Iowa Taxpayers Association and others bleating about Iowa’s corporate taxes, which are actually low.
For perspective on the RAC, the $42 million given away in tax credit refunds under this program in 2015 would have paid for about 1 percent more in school aid, at the same time schools were told we didn’t have the money for it. Of course we did. Our legislators just chose to give it away, mainly to huge, profitable corporations.
In Room 103 of the State Capitol, 1:15 p.m., the public and legislators can hear from the Department of Revenue about the Research Activities Credit. And the session that follows at 2:15 on the Earned Income Tax Credit may be worth listening to as well, for contrast, as the EITC is a demonstrated boost to the economy while the RAC has never been demonstrated to be more than a drain on revenue.

You never know what legislators at the table will have to say about these issues, but we may get some insights.
As for that other meeting, we all now how it will come out.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen
Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Project Director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Spin and ideology are no substitute for good policy

The tax-cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content.

Basic RGBBrace yourselves for public policy backed by nothing but spin and ideology in Iowa. A good example: tax policy.

Senator Bill Dix, who will be the new majority leader in the Iowa Senate with a comfortable nine or potentially 10-vote edge, offers a strident approach for the coming legislative session in this story by veteran Statehouse reporter Rod Boshart:

“The states that are growing the fastest today are the ones that have recognized that economic policy and tax policy makes a big difference,” he said. “High income tax punishes people who want to work, save and make investments in our state. We need to recognize that. States that have grown the fastest the last couple of decades across our country today are the ones that have either lowered their rates, broadened their base and kept things simple or moved to no income tax at all.”

The tax cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content. Research is clear. So are the facts, and Senator Dix is missing them.

On IPP’s GradingStates.org website, Peter Fisher sorts out the fact from fiction with so-called “business climate” rankings that are certifiably unreliable. But they get a lot of attention from legislators who want something to back their ideological approach to policy.

Senator Dix is one of three Iowa state chairs for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which peddles much of the nonsense about tax cuts promoting economic growth.

Notes Fisher about the ALEC analysis, “when we can compare states ranked the best by ALEC with states ranked the worst, it turns out that ALEC’s 20 ‘best’ states have lower per capita income, lower median family income, and a lower median annual wage than the 20 ‘worst’ states. ALEC’s ‘best’ states also have higher poverty rates: 15.4 percent on average from 2007 through 2014, vs. 13.8 percent in the ‘worst’ states. The states favored by ALEC include the likes of Utah, North Dakota, and North Carolina, whereas ALEC’s ‘worst’ states include New York, California, and Vermont.”

Even if the prescriptions for lower taxes, etc. were right, they would not apply in Iowa. Our state has repeatedly been shown to be average or below average by any measure on taxes paid. In fact, few states can get below Iowa on corporate taxes, something the business lobby will not admit. So we start the legislative session with competitiveness not an issue for Iowa except in the minds of well-placed lobbyists and certain legislators.

And another angle not on their agenda: accountability on the large number of tax breaks already in Iowa law — something the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted today in an excellent editorial:

Over the years, lawmakers from both parties have given away tax exemptions, deductions and credits to an array of special interests lobbying for a break. Individually, the cuts look small. Added together, they have a significant budgetary impact.

They’re sold as an economic boost, but there’s rarely any follow up to find out if the tax cuts actually delivered on those promises.

And the real path to growth — the path lined with investments in human capital and public infrastructure? We’ll see how many of those demonstrated, positive approaches to prosperity even get a hearing in 2017.

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

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org