Ignore ideologues — IPERS sound, stronger

Time seems to be running out on those who do not want a stable, secure and sustainable retirement program for public employees. IPERS, the Iowa Public Employment Retirement System, is well on the way to recovery before its opponents can kill it. But they’re still trying.

The criticism this time comes in a Des Moines Register opinion piece, from a familiar source, the Public Interest Institute (PII) in Mount Pleasant.

In its latest ideological attack on IPERS, PII offers no data — not a single financial indicator — to demonstrate a problem. In fact, IPERS is rebounding from troubles brought on by the Great Recession and inadequate state contributions in the latter half of the last decade.

According to the latest IPERS annual report, IPERS’s ratio of funded actuarial assets to liabilities — which had dropped from 89.1 percent in FY2008 to a low of 79.9 percent in FY2011 — has continued to rebound, rising in FY2015 from 82.7 percent to 83.7 percent.

In an Iowa Policy Project report in late 2013, Imran Farooqi, Peter Fisher and David Osterberg showed that contrary to high-profile examples of public pension problems with the city of Detroit and the state of Illinois, the public employee pension systems in Iowa and most states were generally healthy and well-managed for the long term.

“Iowa’s public pension plans have sufficient assets to pay benefits now and well into the future. And recent improvement in the plans’ designs have already enabled them to begin recouping losses incurred during the recessionary stock market decline,” they wrote. Now, 2 1/2 years later, there is no indication of a change in that positive trend.

That report did recommend ways to strengthen IPERS and other public employee retirement plans in Iowa, such as increasing contributions and meeting actuarial recommendations for those contributions.

What we need to remember is that the purpose of IPERS is not to see how little we can pay public employees, but to attract good employees partly with a promise of a secure retirement. It is to “improve public employment within the state, reduce excessive personnel turnover, and offer suitable attraction to high-grade men and women to enter public service in the state.” This is the stated purpose of the law, Chapter 97B.2.

The biggest problem for PII is that IPERS may fully recover before PII gets the law changed to a less secure “defined contribution” system. A defined benefit system provides financial security by pooling risk in the group — more efficient than having everyone on their own based on defined contributions that they might outlive.

So let’s be clear: Shifting from a defined benefit plan like IPERS to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), is a way to cut benefits and reduce retirement security.

We can spend our time better addressing real concerns to assure our public employees can deliver on public education, overseeing human services, policing our streets and guarding prisoners — and making sure they can retire securely when they are done working for us.

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

A squeaky wheel is heard — but not fixed​

The weak House attempt to satisfy Davenport on school funding inequities is a sign that a squeaky wheel is being heard. But the whole statewide axle is rusty.

Davenport has been the squeaky wheel on school funding inequity in Iowa, and the Iowa House this week tried to apply a drop of oil. Problem is, the whole axle is rusty, and cracked.

By law, 164 school districts — about half of Iowa’s 330 districts — are held $175 below the maximum per-pupil spending amount used to set local school budgets. In fact, almost 84 percent of school districts in the state are $100 or more below the maximum (graph below).

Basic RGB

On Tuesday, the House passed an amendment, H8291, that dealt only with the squeakiest wheel — Davenport — and only for a one-year fix.

Davenport is not buying. In a Quad-City Times story, Davenport lawmakers were not happy. Their school superintendent, Art Tate, called it “no help at all,” and for good measure, put the focus where it needs to be.

Wrote Tate in an email to the Times: “It does not address the moral imperative to make every student worth the same in Iowa.”

The larger question, given that moral imperative, is why more districts aren’t more active on this issue. One reason could be that Iowa’s inequities, while real, do not rise to the level of what might be found in other states.

Another reason might be that just fighting for basic school funding is hard enough, when the Legislature is setting a seven-year pace of funding growth below 2 percent despite faster growth in district costs, strong state revenues and approval of more business tax breaks.

160324-AG-SSA-history

We’re in the closing days, perhaps the closing hours, of the 2016 legislative session, with exceedingly few successes for education and working families. It’s too late in this session to expect real reform of the school funding system, pleas for which have come for many years — and focus on more than the per-pupil cost. There are other equity problems, the largest of which is in funding transportation services.

The weak House attempt at a one-year fix for Davenport, however, is a sign that the squeaky wheel is being heard. Think of what might happen if more wheels squeaked.

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

Wrong again: ALEC can’t pick its own ‘winners’ among states

The 20 states that performed best on the four measures of income actually score much worse on ALEC’s ranking than the 20 states with the lowest income.

ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — persists in peddling “research” that knocks down its own policy ideas.

In its latest edition of Rich States, Poor States, just released, ALEC’s Economic Outlook Ranking scores states on 15 measures reflecting ALEC’s preferred policies towards business. Our Grading the States analysis has exposed the flawed methodology of ALEC’s report, but the authors have not changed it for the 9th edition.

ALEC’s dilemma: The index purports to predict which state economies will perform the best, but in fact there is no relation between a state’s score and how well the economy grows subsequently.

Since the first edition in 2007, it remains the case that ALEC’s “best” states — the ones with the highest rankings — are actually poorer on several measures than the supposedly “worst” states. The graph below has been updated to reflect the 9th edition rankings and the latest income data.

Basic RGB

The 20 states that performed best on the four measures of income (the actual rich states) actually score much worse on ALEC’s ranking than the 20 states with the lowest income (the actual poor states).

In its fervent anti-government bias, the report offers a package of policies — for fiscal austerity, suppressing wages and imposing proportionately higher taxes on low-income people — with a promise of economic growth, when it really is a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes for most citizens, and starving public infrastructure and education systems of needed revenue.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and developer of IPP’s Grading the States website, GradingStates.org.

 

 

IPP’s Cost of Living: A better measure

One reason we produce our Cost of Living in Iowa research is to offer a better picture than official definitions of what it takes for a family to get by.

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Why do we produce our Cost of Living in Iowa research at the Iowa Policy Project? One reason is accuracy — to offer a better picture of what it takes to get by, rather than a vague concept of “poverty.”

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. But those official guidelines have challenges that we address with basic-needs budget calculations in The Cost of Living in Iowa.

The federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago.

For example, the calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food.

Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today with 23.5 million women with children under 18 in the labor force.[1] Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.[2]

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 below shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines.

Figure 1. Cost of Living is Much Higher than the Poverty Level

Fig 1 pov guideline comp

In fact, family supporting income in the absence of public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 2.1 to 3.3 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families, in other words, actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs.[3]

[1] Hilda L. Solis and Keith Hall, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2011).
[2] Sylvia A. Allegretto, Basic family budgets: Working families’ incomes often fail to meet living expenses around the US, Economic Policy Institute (August 30, 2005).
[3] Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two parent family with one worker. (That family type not shown here.)
2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and author of The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2016 Edition.
Peter Fisher is a nationally recognized expert on tax and economic development policy. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is professor emeritus in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.

 

 

Sensible context on school aid growth

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

There are many ways to measure Iowa’s lagging commitment to public schools. One is a comparison of growth in school aid to growth in state revenues.

As K-12 schools are a significant share of the state budget, it seems sensible that we would expect at least similar numbers of growth in one vs. the other.

Basic RGBThat is not the case.

While not a perfect comparison — there are moving parts with both figures — you can get an idea of the general trend in the accompanying graph. Net General Fund revenues have been coming in with average yearly increases around 4 percent,* while the key school-aid number, for Supplemental State Aid, has averaged about half that.**

The numbers below are taken from the latest Revenue Estimating Conference report, available here: https://dom.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016/03/rec-projections-2016-03-16.pdf

  • The actual ending balance for FY2015 (the budget year ending last June 1) showed a net over-the-year revenue change from FY2014 of 5.1 percent. For that same period, schools had 4 percent Supplemental State Aid — the only year that high since FY2010.
  • For the current year, the most recent official revenue estimate is for a 3.3 percent state revenue increase, while schools are operating on budgets reflecting 1.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2017, the estimate is for a 4.4 percent state revenue increase, and the deal just hatched at the Statehouse — 13 months late — is for schools to see 2.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2018, for budgets to be approved a year from now, the state is expecting 4.1 percent revenue growth. The school aid number for FY2018 by law was to have been set a month ago so school districts could properly plan their budgets when enrollment counts are set this fall, and to negotiate staff contracts without big uncertainties. That number has not been set and apparently will not be during this legislative session, as neither the House nor the Governor is interested.

Understand, the revenue growth number is held artificially low by the growing and incessant demand for business tax breaks that undermine revenues. So the net revenue number would be much higher if legislators wanted it. Instead, they continue to give away hundreds of millions of dollars before they even reach the state treasury.

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

Alas, that is not the political world in which we live.

*The average growth for general fund revenues includes both actual results for FY11 through FY15, as well as projections by the Revenue Estimating Conference for FY16 and FY17.
**Supplemental State Aid — which is a percentage for per-pupil cost growth that districts must use in building an enrollment-based budget — includes the recent deal approved by the Senate and House and expected to be signed by Governor Branstad.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
Mike Owen is a former journalist in Iowa and Pennsylvania. He covered state government for the Quad-City Times from 1980-85 and was editor and co-publisher of the West Branch Times from 1993-2001. He is serving his third term on the West Branch Board of Education, and is a member of the Professional Advisory Board of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

State policies should focus on homegrown jobs

Researchers argue that many public policies on economic development need rethinking to reflect the fact that most jobs come from in-state, growing firms.

2-3-16sfp-f1A recent report by Michael Mazerov and Michael Leachman finds that the vast majority of new jobs in a state are homegrown: They are created by start-ups and by firms already in the state who are expanding. Only 13 percent of new jobs come from new branch plants of out-of-state companies, or  actual plant relocations to a state. They argue that public policies need rethinking as a result:

“State economic development policies that ignore these fundamental realities about job creation are bound to fail. A good example is the deep income tax cuts many states have enacted or are proposing. Such tax cuts are largely irrelevant to owners of young, fast-growing firms because they generally have little taxable income. And, tax cuts take money away from schools, universities, and other public investments essential to producing the talented workforce that entrepreneurs require. Many policymakers also continue to focus their efforts heavily on tax breaks aimed at luring companies from other states — even though startups and young, fast-growing firms already in the state are much more important sources of job creation.”

Michael Mazerov and Michael Leachman. State Job Creation Strategies Often Off Base. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 3, 2016. http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/state-job-creation-strategies-often-off-base#_ftn23

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, IPP Research Director

 

Editor’s Note: This also ran on IPP’s “Grading the States” website — gradingstates.org

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

———

One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.