A poisoned process

As early as today, a bill may be debated in the Iowa Senate to drastically slash revenue for public services — phased in at a cost of over $1 billion a year, or about one-seventh of the state’s General Fund.

The Senate bill, as does any legislation with a fiscal impact, comes with a “fiscal note.” This analysis by the Legislative Services Agency, using Department of Revenue data, was made available sometime late Tuesday. The legislation itself was introduced a week ago today, and passed out of subcommittee and full committee the following day.

The legislation is so complex that it took the state’s top fiscal analysts a week to put together their summary, which includes four pages of bullet points in addition to tables of data about various impacts. The nonpartisan analysis finds that the wealthiest individuals and most powerful corporations once again are the big winners.

The timing of the official fiscal analysis was only the latest example of cynical approach to public governing that has slapped brown paper over the windows of the gold-domed sausage factory in Des Moines.

This General Assembly was elected in 2016. It is an understatement to suggest that this legislation could easily have been developed through the 2017 legislative session or the months leading up to this session. The public who will be affected, and advocates across the political spectrum, could have weighed in, and independent fiscal analysis considered.

Many have tried to educate the public about what is at stake for Iowa — including the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, which among other activities brought in experts from Kansas last year to show what has happened there with similar tax slashing. IFP also offered a reminder in October of what real tax reform could include, and later about both open government and the folly of Kansas’ course. Last week, we warned about the fiscal cliff ahead.

Everyone knew the legislative leadership and Governor wanted to do something to cut taxes, but no specifics were available, just a couple of hints with no real context. The session opened in the second week of January, and it wasn’t until most had left the building on the second-to-last day of February that a fiscal analysis magically appeared.

With a more transparent and deliberate process, everyone — including and especially the legislators who will be voting on it — would have had a chance to get full information about its impacts.

Instead, it is being rammed through. Regardless of whether the legislation itself is good or bad, the process has poisoned it. And perhaps it has poisoned governance in Iowa for years to come.

There are elements of the commentary defending and opposing this legislation that show general agreement on two key points of what meaningful, responsible tax reform would entail. On both sides, there is recognition that:

•  removing Iowa’s costly and unusual federal tax deduction would enable a reduction of top tax rates that appear higher than they really are; and

•  corporate tax credits are out of control and costing the state millions outside the budget process, while education and human services suffer.

The process, however, has shielded from public view a clear understanding of how the specifics of this legislation would affect two principles central to good tax policy: (1) the purpose of raising adequate revenues for critical services, and (2) raising those revenues in a way that reflects ability to pay — basic fairness of taxation, where Iowa (like most states) has a system that shoves greater costs on low-income than high-income taxpayers.

It also has raised to the altar of absurdity a ridiculous image of the competitiveness of Iowa taxes, which independent business consultants’ analysis has shown to be lower than half the states and in the middle of a very large pack that differs little on the state and local business taxes governed by state policy. (chart below)

Ernst&YoungFY2016

As the process moves from the Senate to the House, these concepts of good governance need to be central to timely debate, not just fodder for editorial pages afterward.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and project director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint initiative of IPP and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Cliff ahead: Learn from Kansas

Despite chronic revenue shortfalls that have forced a series of mid-year budget cuts, senators are moving a tax-cut bill forward without even an analysis of its impact.

The Iowa Senate is poised to move a massive tax cut bill out of committee today, in the belief that somehow what was a disaster in Kansas will be a big success in Iowa.

Despite chronic revenue shortfalls that have forced a series of mid-year budget cuts over the past two years, and the prospect of a tight budget for next year, Senate Republicans propose to cut $1 billion a year from the state budget. They are moving the bill forward without even an analysis of its impact.

Proponents claim this will make Iowa more competitive and boost the economy. There are two problems with this claim. First, two major accounting firms that rank states on their level of business taxation continue to put Iowa right in the middle of the pack, or even better. We are already competitive. Ernst & Young (below) ranks Iowa 29th, while Anderson Economic Group’s measure ranks Iowa 28th — in both cases, showing little difference across a broad middle range of the scale.

Second, there is good reason to expect the bill to have negative effects on the economy, not positive. When Kansas enacted major cuts to state income taxes in 2012 and 2013, the Governor and his friends at ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) lauded this experiment — which five years later has proven to be a dramatic failure.

Abundant evidence shows the tax cuts failed to boost the Kansas economy. In the years since the tax cuts took effect Kansas has lagged most other states in the region and the country as a whole in terms of job growth, GDP growth, and new business formation.

When confronted with the Kansas failure, the bill’s proponents respond that the only problem in Kansas was that they failed to cut services sufficiently to balance their budget. But here’s the problem: Their constituents were up in arms over the cuts they did enact; they would not have stood for anything more drastic.

In order to bring the budget somewhat back in balance, Kansas borrowed from the future, using up reserves, postponing infrastructure projects, and missing contributions to the pension fund. Schools closed weeks early when state funding ran out. Had they cut spending further, that would have put a bigger dent in the economy, as recipients of government contracts were forced to retrench and workers laid off spent less in the local economy.

A supermajority of the Kansas Legislature voted to end the experiment last year, recognizing it as a failure and responding to the demands of Kansas citizens to restore funding to education, highways, and other state services they rely on. That decision no doubt saved the state economy from performing even worse in the years to come.

The Senate bill would harm Iowa in much the same way. Education accounts for over half of the state budget. Tax cuts of this magnitude would have very serious consequences for our public schools, and would force tuition up drastically at community colleges and regents institutions. Our court system would be forced into further personnel cuts, meaning long delays for those seeking justice. We would see more children suffer as family service workers face ever higher caseloads.

Proponents claim the Senate plan is “bold.” So is jumping off a cliff.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Related from Peter Fisher:

The Lessons of Kansas

The Problem with Tax Cutting as Economic Policy

Putting the U.S. Constitution up for grabs

 

 

 

In a republic we have rules — laws — framed by a Constitution that sets limits on how far they go, and on who can exercise them, while assuring that we can change them as needed, in an orderly process that protects the rights of all.

Imagine these rules were gone, that they all changed, that a minority could routinely stop the majority from moving forward, that individual liberties could vanish.

Imagine the squabbling members of Congress you see every night on television setting themselves up as modern-day George Washingtons, James Madisons and Ben Franklins, and flipping everything on its head. A bill calling for a U.S. Constitutional Convention — approved last year by the Iowa Senate State Government Committee and moving again this year — could do just that.

The bill, Senate Joint Resolution 8, or SJR8, would put the State of Iowa on record calling for a constitutional convention, which could easily become a free-wheeling assault on our constitution, following whatever process it chooses, with no review by any existing court or legislative body.

While the resolution asserts that such a convention would be limited, the scope of issues is so broad as to effectively erase limitations: “to impose fiscal restraints, and limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.” Even then, it is not clear that states have the authority to limit the scope of a convention at all. According to constitutional scholars, the delegates would likely be free to define any limits as broadly as they wish, or to ignore them.

Why now? In some states, such as Iowa, far-right organizations including the Convention of States project and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) now have enough supporters in key positions to push for such changes even though none of this has been the focus — perhaps not raised at all — in Iowa election campaigns.

Supreme Court Justices ranging from the liberal Earl Warren to the conservative Antonin Scalia have warned against the dangers of opening up the constitution to radical change. If 34 states pass such a resolution, Congress will call a constitutional convention. One group counts 28 states that have already signed on.[1] It is conceivable that the threshold could be reached.

The Constitution contains very little guidance on the procedures for, or scope of, such a convention. The only precedent we have to go on is the constitutional convention of 1787, at which the existing document, the Articles of Confederation, was scrapped and an entirely new constitution, our present one, was created. That convention even changed the rules for ratification.

The delegates to a constitutional convention could set a rule that all decisions would require approval only by a simple majority of the states, with each state given one vote. That would allow the 26 least populous states, which contain less than 18 percent of the U.S. population, to rewrite the constitution.

The Constitution provides no guidance as to whether such a procedure is permissible. And even if Congress were to establish rules for the convention, there is no mechanism to force the convention to follow those rules.

Constitutional scholars say that under a convention now, the entire U.S. Constitution is up for grabs. It could quickly become a contentious and chaotic free-for-all, with moneyed interests free to lobby and purchase support however they chose.

[1] Iowa is shown as already on the approval list because of a resolution passed in 1979, but groups are pushing for a new one for fear that the age of that resolution will disqualify it, and because the wording of the 1979 version is different from the current one.

 

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

 

Rest/best/worst of the story

redink-capitol

Senator Joni Ernst is using Facebook to gin up support for the new tax bill. It is a one-sided picture, to say the least.

So, what does it really mean for Iowans that the tax bill is law?

  • Middle and low-income Iowans will see temporary ​tax cuts in the short term that are ​drastically smaller​​ than those high-income taxpayers will see — and these will be taken away or turned into tax increases by 2027 to help pay for permanent tax cuts for corporations.
  • Millions of people nationwide will lose health insurance coverage as elimination of the individual mandate drives up costs for all.
  • The wealthy will keep more millions of dollars that have never been taxed due to further exemptions in the estate tax.
  • The Child Tax Credit will be extended to affluent families who do not need assistance, while 86,000 children in working families in Iowa receive a token increase of $75 or less — both expansions to evaporate after 2025.
  • Businesses will get enormous, permanent tax breaks with no requirements to create jobs.

Some might recall a longtime radio commentator, Paul Harvey, and his “Rest of the Story” pieces. The points above are the “rest of the story” that you might not hear from backers of the latest tax giveaway in Congress. You might be OK with them and call them the “best of the story.”

Or, you might be concerned about the impact they will have on U.S. and Iowa families, on national debt and new challenges they bring to the safety net, and call them the “worst of the story.”

But they are the real story, and they should not be forgotten as the spin continues.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Careful backpedaling on estate tax, Senator

Contrast Senator Grassley’s current statements with his 2005 thought that “it’s a little unseemly” to suggest repealing the estate tax “at a time when people are suffering.” The tax bill promises suffering.

One of the problems with backpedaling is if you don’t do it well, you trip. Somebody catch Senator Chuck Grassley.

As has been widely noted across social media — a good example is this post in Bleeding Heartland — The Des Moines Register quoted Iowa’s senior senator that estate tax repeal would reward “people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.

Ironically, while promoted as a pullout quote in the packaging of the story, the “booze or women or movies” comment came quite low in the piece. More substantive problems with the Senator’s rationale for opposing the estate tax were presented higher: specifically his continued insistence that this has something to do with the survival of family farms.

It. Does. Not.

10-30-17tax-factsheet-f1Senator Grassley has promoted this unsupportable justification for his position for many years. This New York Times piece from 2001 includes it.

And he renewed it again Monday in claiming his “booze or women or movies” comment was out of context, taking the opportunity to promote his spin again — and again getting wrong the facts behind his fundamental objection: the impact on farms.

There, he claimed in the story that he wants a tax code as fair for “family farmers who have to break up their operations to pay the IRS following the death of a loved one as it is for parents saving for their children’s college education or working families investing and saving for their retirement.”

While only a handful might actually have to pay any tax at all because of the generous exemptions in the estate tax — shielding $11 million per couple’s estate from any tax — no one in the many years the Senator has pretended this is an issue has been able to cite a single farm that had to break up because of the tax.

Contrast his current statements with the one he made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when there was a move afoot to slash the estate tax. And — as shown by the graphs below — even fewer estates in Iowa and the nation are affected by the estate tax now than at that time, when he said “it’s a little unseemly to be talking about doing away with or enhancing the estate tax at a time when people are suffering.”

The tax legislation in Congress will cause millions to suffer, directly through a loss of health insurance, some with actual tax increases even at middle incomes, and over time with a loss of critical services that help low- and moderate-income families just to get by.

Furthermore, any middle-income tax cuts expire in 2026 while high-income benefits and corporate breaks remain in effect. And then, even more will suffer.

Questions we have been asking for years remain relevant today, and each time pandering politicians take a whack at the estate tax:

  • Is it a greater priority to absolve those beneficiaries of the need to contribute to public services — and make everyone else in the United States borrow billions more from overseas to pay for it — or to establish reasonable rules once and for all to assure the very wealthiest in the nation pay taxes?
  • Do we pass on millions tax-free to the heirs of American aristocracy, or do we pass on billions or trillions of debt to America’s teen-agers?

We all shall inherit the public policy now in Congress. As long as the estate tax exists, it remains the last bastion assuring that at least a small share of otherwise untaxed wealth for the rich contributes to the common good, or at least toward paying the debt they leave us. Fear not for their survivors; they still will prosper handsomely.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Iowa City. Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Editor’s Note: This post was updated Dec. 6 with the graphs showing the decline in Iowa estates affected by the estate tax.

What happened to infrastructure plans?

Already, federal help to improve drinking water and wastewater systems has been on the decline. How much appetite will there be for necessary construction when taxes to pay for it are being cut?

At the beginning of this year there was talk of possible bipartisan legislation to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure.

Both candidates for president had promised a new emphasis on repairing the nation’s roads, rails, sewage treatment plants and airports. The number kicked around during the campaign was often $500 billion. After President Trump won, he pushed up the rhetoric and spoke of a $1 trillion plan.

If Congress passes the tax bill now being considered, there will be little room in the budget to pay for present services, as we have emphasized here at IPP. How can this nation also invest in the things that will certainly produce jobs and make the nation more competitive?

The chances for implementing an ambitious infrastructure spending plan seem remote, as Congress is on course to add $1.4 trillion or even more in deficit spending over the next 10 years.

Already, federal help to improve drinking water and wastewater systems has been on the decline. How much appetite will there be spend more on what most agree is necessary construction when taxes to pay for those expenditures decrease so drastically?

When there is no appetite for spending, state governments sometimes resort to tax credits. That seems unwieldy in this case and, in the next few weeks, tax credits will lose much of their value anyway. When taxes are lower, there is less to gain by giving credits.

The new tax cut will give a benefit just for being a corporation or for being wealthy. Why invest in something productive when you are given a reward simply for “being?”

David Osterberg co-founded the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and remains its lead environment and energy researcher. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Beware corporate tax con job

Those who want us to believe in the magic of trickle-down economics are trying the oldest tactic in the books: misdirection.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this piece appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, Cedar Rapids Gazette. Online version here.

Those pushing the tax bill now before Congress have a tough job. They have to convince ordinary taxpayers that they should embrace a bill that gives massive tax cuts to corporations and rich people, raises the national debt, results in millions losing health care, and sets the stage for huge cuts in programs, from Medicare to food assistance to education.

Their principal argument — that trickle-down economics is going to bestow jobs and wages on the middle class — is a con job.

Why do U.S. corporations need a tax cut when they are already paying taxes at a lower overall effective rate than in other advanced economies? They don’t.

You have probably heard just the opposite: that our rates are the highest in the world, a skewed view that ignores only the nominal tax rate is higher than most other countries. In fact, a myriad of deductions and loopholes brings the actual rate corporations pay way down, to below average.[1]

The huge deficits created by this tax bill — $1.5 trillion over 10 years — would push interest rates up and would choke off investment, counteracting any tendency of the corporate tax cuts to increase investment. Furthermore, an examination of developed economies across the globe shows that corporate tax cuts over the past 15 years have not produced growth in capital investment. [2]

Nor is a cut in corporate tax rates going to lead to wage increases. U.S. corporate tax rates were slashed in the late 1980s, and in the years since we have seen the historic link between productivity and wages broken. In other words, the last corporate tax cut ushered in a period of stagnant wages, even though productivity continued to rise.

Think of it this way: Why would we expect tax cuts now would lead to corporations sharing productivity growth with workers through higher wages? It hasn’t been happening for the past 30 years.

It gets worse. The bill is supposed to be only $1.5 trillion because there are other tax increases that hold down the total. However one of those offsets won’t work as planned. A minimum tax on overseas profits, which sounds like a good idea, will actually provide an incentive for multinational companies to move American jobs overseas in order to escape the new tax.

Those who want us to believe in the magic of trickle-down economics are trying the oldest tactic in the books: misdirection. Focus on this shiny bauble — a small cut in your taxes in the short run — and this pie-in-the sky promise of jobs and higher wages; pay no attention to the billions of dollars going to corporations and the rich, and the inevitable cuts in programs, from health care to education to Medicare.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

 

[1] U.S. corporation income taxes amount to 2.2 percent of GDP, while other advanced economies (the remaining countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) collect 2.9 percent of GDP in corporate taxes. See “Common Tax ‘Reform’ Questions, Answered.” Josh Bivens and Hunter Blair, Economic Policy Institute, October 3, 2017.

[2] Josh Bivens, “International Evidence Shows that Low Corporate Tax Rates are not Strongly Associated with Stronger Investment.” Working Economics Blog, Economic Policy Institute, October 26, 2017.