Iowa Policy Points

Triggers to drive Iowa down

In the midst of yet another episode of mid-year budget slashing, and with the prospect of further cuts for next year, a reasonable person might conclude that the state cannot afford any more tax cutting. But that is what Governor Reynolds has proposed, in a bill that would reduce state revenues by over $1 billion over five years.

But not to worry, the governor’s press release assures us: “The plan will also include revenue targets (or “triggers”) that will act as a safeguard in the event of a downturn in the economy.”

A better description of these triggers is a set of one-way ratchets that will force revenues down and leave the state with perennial budget shortfalls on into the future.

The bill sets forth five sets of rates. Each year, the growth in revenues over the previous year is compared to a target, and if the target is met, a further set of rate cuts go into effect.

Here’s the rub: There is no trigger for the first set of rate cuts. They will go into effect for tax year 2019 regardless, and they are far and away the largest of the rate cuts.

Furthermore, the standard deduction is doubled that year. The revenue losses from these measures will be offset to an extent by a reduction in federal deductibility from 100 to 25 percent and by sales tax increases, but the net effect is still a $129 million cut in state revenues for fiscal year 2019, the budget the legislature will be enacting in the next few weeks.

After tax year 2019, further reductions in rates are tied to the attainment of revenue targets. Those targets will not be difficult to meet. Assuming the most recent revenue forecast for FY2019 (4.2 percent growth over 2018) is not too far off, revenue growth of 2.9 percent or less in the following two years, and 3.2 percent in the third, will be enough to trigger all of the remaining rate cuts by fiscal year 2022. These target revenue increases are well under the 3.6 percent per year forecast used by the department of revenue.

At that point, the state will be locked into a set of tax cuts that will drain $300 million from the state budget each year. There is no going back. Income tax revenues will be 10 percent lower than under current law. Sluggish growth, or the next recession, will leave the state once again forced to cut services already pared down drastically from the past few years of service cutting.

Consider what would happen in a recession. If we experienced a downturn in the economy next year, it is possible none of the revenue targets would be met, since they are all expressed in dollar levels of revenue, not growth rates from the previous year. A decline in revenue next year would make it harder to grow sufficiently to attain those dollar targets in future years. But the first year rate cuts, averaging well over 10 percent, already would have done damage to the ability to provide services in a downturn, when some are most needed.

Let’s remember what a real safeguard looks like. It is called a rainy day fund. When the economy is doing well, the rainy day funds are filled. When growth turns sluggish or a recession hits, the rainy day fund can be drawn down to maintain services. That is how we keep our public schools from having to cut programs and increase class sizes, how we keep the court system functioning without year-long delays in justice, how we keep our state parks open, how we keep family social service workers from becoming so burdened that children fall through the cracks.

If you thought it was obvious that our state can ill afford more tax cuts, you were right.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.