We all know the drill: The Legislature passes bills and the Governor signs or vetoes them, whereupon they become either laws, or nothing.
Not anymore, apparently.
The move by the Branstad administration to implement a new sales tax break worth an estimated $40 million a year — possibly more — is taking place outside the legislative session. If it succeeds, we have entered a new world of executive authority in Iowa.
Business lobbyists wanted the change, it could not pass the Legislature, and the administration thinks it has found a short cut: Change the longstanding interpretation of the existing law. Presto, tens of millions of dollars will be available for manufacturers. And those same tens of millions of dollars will not be available for schools.*
Consider a Des Moines Register guest opinion by Mike Ralston of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, a lobbying group representing manufacturers who would benefit from the change:
Part of the change affects Iowa’s existing sales and use tax exemption for machinery and equipment used in the manufacturing process. The change is sound policy.
If that’s the case Mr. Ralston wants to make, let him make it during the legislative session. This rules change skirts the legislative process, and Iowans are noticing. Jon Muller writes in an insightful piece on the Bleeding Heartland blog:
It’s easy to look at political discourse today and conclude everything is a battle between Democrats and Republicans, the left and the right, liberals and conservatives. But far more is going on with this issue. … A Democrat will surely be Governor again someday, and it would be a mistake to set a precedent that allows the Executive Branch to so drastically change the tax climate. If Republicans in the Legislature do not stand up against this unprecedented over-reach of power, they will almost certainly live to regret it.
James Larew, an Iowa City attorney who was general counsel to former Governor Chet Culver, served for four years as Culver’s appointee on the Administrative Rules Review Committee, a panel of legislators who have the authority to delay the rule change from taking effect. He advised the panel: “This is new territory. What is sauce for the goose eventually becomes sauce for the gander, too.” Larew went on:
The balance of political power changes from one election to the next.
The balance of constitutional power — the relationship between the Iowa General Assembly and executive departments of government — is more serious and more lasting.
Broad interpretive powers given up by the Legislature, in one moment of time, concerning one issue, are not easily, later recovered.
As the Cedar Rapids Gazette opined in an editorial, the change “breaks the rules of good government.” The Gazette wrote:
The Branstad administration should drop its rule change bid and make its case to the General Assembly, which is elected to craft a budget and write tax policy. If it’s truly a great idea that will create jobs, as the department contends, surely the sales job won’t be that difficult.
Many businesses, we often note at IPP and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, already pay no income tax in Iowa, and they just had their property taxes slashed. The corporate appetite for tax cuts is insatiable. Guess who pays?
* Note: The Department of Revenue estimate of the cost of this tax break to both the state and local governments is over $40 million for each of the first four full years of implementation, according to a document provided the Administrative Rules Review Committee. The Legislative Services Agency has told ARRC that it does not have enough information to determine the accuracy of that estimate. We have revised the initial version of this blog post to reflect this uncertainty, until state officials agree on an estimate.