Questions — before the answer comes

Whether it’s your job to sign or veto the property tax limitation bill hatched in back rooms of the Iowa Statehouse, or simply to evaluate it as a citizen watching the process (and ultimately paying the price for it), you should be able to answer these questions.

As Governor Kim Reynolds mulls SF634, the property tax limitation bill, there are many questions anyone would have to consider — questions that did not get an adequate hearing before the rush to passage of a backroom-built bill in the waning hours of the 2019 Iowa legislative session.

1)   Why an arbitrary 2 percent limit on new tax revenues? No matter what increasing costs an individual community may face to provide public services, the bill limits growth in revenues to 2 percent.

2)   Why penalize growth? No matter how much property valuation grows in good times, the revenue limits would restrict the public services needed to service a growing community.

3)   Why penalize recovery from disaster? Reduced property value under tax levy limits will reduce revenue for critical public services in recovery.

4)   Why take local tax decisions out of the hands of locally elected officials? It’s never easy for local officials to raise taxes — taxes they also pay — but the bill substitutes the arbitrary will of state legislators for the judgment of board and council members the voters choose to make local decisions.

5)   Why hinder jobs, encouraging local cuts in public service jobs by putting special levies for employee benefits such as pensions under the new, artificial and arbitrary general revenue cap?

6)   Why encourage a reduction of health benefits for local public service employees by putting those costs under an arbitrary revenue cap?

7)   Why should a “no” vote count twice as much as a “yes” vote? That is the effect of the two-thirds super majority required to go above legislative mandated 2 percent revenue growth. Local officials would have to reach that threshold in many cases with actually more than two-thirds approval: four “yes” votes on a five-member board or council, five if there are seven members — and that is the case even if revenues exceeding 2 percent growth would mean a decrease in tax rates!

8)   Why reward backroom deals in the name of transparency? There was no opportunity for a public debate on this deal hatched in the waning hours of the legislative session. There was no transparency in the process.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Be sure to see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project for more information about the actual property tax trends in the state — trends ignored by proponents of the legislation who offered a false narrative about this issue.

Also see this blog by Peter Fisher.

Water funding exposes shallow commitment

Recent initiative fails to meet needs to improve Iowa water quality

Voters have indicated their support for increasing funding to improve water quality in Iowa, earmarking part of the next sales tax increase for clean water. So far, the protected trust fund for outdoor recreation and water quality remains empty.

Our latest water quality report addresses these issues:

  • What has been the state’s spending commitment to water quality over the past 15 years?
  • How much of state and federal dollars goes to reduce nutrient pollution in Iowa?
  • How much spending is needed to make meaningful water quality progress?
  • How can the state raise adequate revenue to make an impact?

We identified 16 primarily state-level programs that fund water quality improvements. Funding in the most recent year hasn’t even reached 2008 to 2009 levels.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), implemented in 2013, was created to reduce nutrient pollution that creates a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy was advertised as a new commitment by the state to reduce Iowa’s pollution of our own rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the NRS, we find that state water quality spending has dropped off and struggled to return to pre-2008 recession levels.

190424-WQ-Fig1

The Water Resources Coordinating Council is tasked with overseeing NRS progress, and measures the financial resources dedicated to reducing nutrient pollution from the state of Iowa to the Mississippi River system. The most recent NRS report shows $512 million was spent in state and federal dollars on Iowa nutrient reduction in 2017.[1] However, the state is largely riding the wave here; the real money comes from federal funding.

While it was assumed that adopting the NRS would increase Iowa’s commitment to water quality, it did not — though at the same time pollution has increased. Recent research indicates Iowa’s share of nutrient loading into the Mississippi and Missouri river watersheds actually increased between 2000 and 2016.[2]

In 2018, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that appropriates $282 million to water quality efforts over the next 12 years.[3] This gesture compares poorly even to existing — and lacking — government water quality spending. Iowa is nowhere near to what is needed.

How much money does it really take to make a meaningful impact on Iowa water quality? The NRS document, written mainly by Iowa State University, estimated the cost of reducing nonpoint contamination under three scenarios. All were in the billions of dollars.

The Iowa Soybean Association estimates for nutrient reduction costs in just one river basin, the Lime Creek Watershed,[4] implies a statewide need of $1.4 billion a year for about 15 years. These estimates demonstrate the inadequacy of the 2018 spending bill.

Current investments are not resulting in discernible improvements in Iowa’s water quality. Two options available for generating the amount of revenue needed include removing the exemption of fertilizer used in agriculture and taxing it like other commodities.

A second option is fully funding the environmental trust that voters approved in a statewide referendum in 2010. Estimated revenue from either of these sources would bring more than $100 million per year. We need to tap new sources to make our state commitment to water quality equal to the task. Until then, we are only paying lip service to the problem.

[1] Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report. Page 9.

http://www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/documents/NRS2018AnnualReportDocs/INRS_2018_AnnualReport_PartOne_Final_R20190304_WithSummary.pdf

[2] Christopher Jones, Jacob Nielsen, Keith Schilling, & Larry Weber, “Iowa stream nitrate in the Gulf of Mexico.” April 2018. PLOS. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195930&type=printable

[3] Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Reynolds signs water quality bill, her first as governor.” January 2018. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/31/reynolds-signs-water-quality-bill-her-first-governor/1082084001/

[4] Iowa Soybean Association Environmental Programs & Services, “Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Plan: A roadmap for improved water quality, sustained agricultural productivity & reduced flood risk. N.D. https://www.iasoybeans.com/search/?q=lime+creek

 

2018-NV-6w_3497(1)

 

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Courageous words about ‘timid’ funding

Even a farm group may face consequences for daring to challenge Iowa’s poor funding of water quality efforts.

Even farm groups dare not question the timid funding of water quality

Recently the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported a slapdown of the Iowa Soybean Association by the Iowa Legislature.

Thanks to reporting by Erin Jordan of The Gazette, we learn now that a year ago, legislators were angered by comments from Iowa’s main soybean group that Governor Kim Reynolds’ first bill as governor — new money for water quality — was “timid.”

Partly because of that remark, the Gazette reported, legislators stuck back against the group by taking $300,000 in state funds away. Ironically, those funds had gone for research on water quality improvement.

In her article, Soybean group pays price for calling water bill ‘timid’, Jordan reported:

The Soybean Association had received $400,000 a year in state funding for the On-Farm Network, a program that helps farmers gather data to better manage nitrate fertilizer application on their cornfields. More precise application means less money spent on fertilizer and less excess nitrate washing into lakes and waterways.

IPP used some of the data collected by the Iowa Soybean Association in our recent report on water quality funding by the state. We called our paper “Lip Service” since that is about all Iowans are getting from their top leaders in response to widespread concerns about water quality in the state.

The Iowa Soybean Association research was very good. We found it to be the best out there on what improving nutrient pollution from agriculture was likely to cost. Now, that research has been curtailed because that organization had the temerity to tell the truth about the big talk and little money the state gives to improve water quality in the state.

To read our report or a one-page executive summary, visit the Iowa Policy Project website at http://www.iowapolicyproject.org.

David Osterberg is lead environment and energy researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, which he co-founded in 2001.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Perspective for the common good on Tax Day

On Tax Day — and every day — we must ask whether rampant tax breaks, subsidies and tax cuts are wise choices with public dollars from taxpayers.

It is so tempting, as we are seeing on social media over the last several days, to talk about filing your taxes and the fact that you (1) paid more or (2) paid less.

Is that really what matters? Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture — the common good. There are three main points to remember:

1) First, what are taxes for? Schools. Roads. National defense. Health care. Fairness and protection in the workplace. Clean air. Clean water. Recreational opportunities. Libraries. There are more examples you may put out front.

But in any case, none of those services funded now by taxpayers will be provided without taxes. They will not be provided by the private sector, at least on any scale that provides access to all Americans.

Go ahead. Chart a road to opportunity for all that does not include taxes. You cannot do it. It is integral to the mission, which is why tax reform is an essential stop we identify on our Roadmap for Opportunity. Unfortunately, Iowans have not received tax reform, but a doubling down on bad tax policy trends of the last 20 or 30 years.

2) Our Iowa tax code is inequitable. The rich pay less as a share of their income than people who live paycheck to paycheck.

It was already a long-term trend in Iowa (and in many states) and it was worsened by the 2018 tax overhaul. Our state and local tax system is upside down.

3) Cleaning up and restoring balance to our tax code would better assure public money is going to public purposes, rather than subsidizing tax breaks and loopholes for those most politically well-connected.

As we have shown:
•     Tax credits for business already cost more than $300 million a year.
•     Tax loopholes for multistate and multinational corporations already cost between $60 million and $100 million.

On Tax Day — and every day — we must ask whether those choices are the best use of public money, when we know education, public safety and environmental quality are being compromised by short-sighted budget decisions in Des Moines.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

No ‘I’ in sports bets

But is prohibiting bets on individuals enough to assure integrity in college games?

An admitted political compromise would legalize sports betting in Iowa while keeping bets on Iowa student athletes illegal — but only on their individual performance.[1]

Promoters of the plan are betting that this small nod to sports integrity might gain a few votes. However, the compromise in the Legislature shines a light on the integrity issue and to larger weaknesses, which are many.

If legal sports betting were not a threat to sports integrity, no such compromise to the betting bill, HF748, would be needed. The compromise concedes a threat remains to competition outside Iowa that gamblers might influence. Plus, legislative deals made now could be quickly reversed next year once that new betting door is open. I mean, what are the odds?

These are among many points — including fiscal and economic issues — being missed in the rushed drive in 2019 to expand gambling in Iowa with legalized sports betting.

Governing Magazine looked at the revenue states might expect. The magazine cited a Moody’s Investors Service report that noted “sports betting in Nevada accounted for just 2 percent of statewide gambling revenue.”[2] In the first six months of legalized sports betting in New Jersey a mere $3 million in tax revenue was raised from in-casino betting, in a state much larger than Iowa and with a higher tax rate on betting (8.5 percent).[3]

This is not economic development. Sports betting in Iowa is for Iowa residents only; we would not attract any out-of-state spending. And much of the money wagered on sports would come from spending on other forms of entertainment at local businesses, where more of the profits stay in the state.

Casinos want sports betting to entice new customers, who might become regulars at the slot machines and gaming tables.

So for a meager increase in revenue, the state would open up greater opportunities to contaminate sports integrity and create new problems of gambling addiction, along with the attendant family problems and breakups, embezzlement, and job loss.

Already, most families have no savings, or very little. Around half of U.S. families have no or negative net wealth.[4] More than 60 percent don’t have even $1,000 put aside for emergencies let alone for retirement.[5] Having more gambling opportunities keeps people from getting ahead.

Many of these problems are only a matter of time. Any bets on how soon we will see them?

2010-PFw5464Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

 

[1] The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, March 19, 2019, “Compromise advances sports betting bill in Iowa House,” https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/compromise-advances-sports-betting-bill-in-iowa-house-limits-in-play-prop-wagers-on-iowa-collegiate-sports-20190319, and March 22, 2019, “Betting on college pivotal to gambling debate,” https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/business/iowa-sports-betting-college-sports-20190322.

[2] Liz Farmer. How the Sports Betting Ruling Will Impact State Budgets The Supreme Court outlawed a federal ban on sports betting on Monday, and some states are poised to capitalize. Governing May 14, 2018. https://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-how-legalizing-sports-betting-will-impact-state-budgets.html

[3] The Tax Policy Center, “TPC’s Sports Gambling Tip Sheet.”  https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxvox/tpcs-sports-gambling-tip-sheet.

[4] The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, Vol. 1, May 2016, Issue 2, Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data, Pg. 554. http://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/SaezZucman2016QJE.pdf.

[5] Bankrate’s Financial Security Index, 2018, https://www.bankrate.com/banking/savings/financial-security-0118/.

Charging all taxpayers private tuition

Vouchers are about mandates, forcing everybody to pay for the few, and diverting resources from public schools.

Iowa taxpayers are on the hook for over $65 million in subsidies each year to private schools in Iowa.[1] Nearly all of these schools are religious schools. While only 6 percent of the students in elementary schools in Iowa are in private schools, all taxpayers help pay for their education (and religious training) through the state taxes they pay. And in nearly three-fourths of Iowa public school districts there is no private school option.

Proposals once again making their way through the Iowa Legislature would expand the subsidies to these private schools, and to the parents who choose to send their children there, through the creation of education savings grants. These proposals would end up costing over $100 million per year, and potentially up to $200 million, money that could instead be used to strengthen education in the public schools serving 94 percent of Iowa’s children.[2]

There are 330 public school districts in Iowa. In 242 of those districts there is no private school offering classes in any grade, Kindergarten through 12th. Private schools are concentrated in Iowa’s metropolitan areas. Nearly half of the total private school enrollment in the state is in just 12 school districts, all located in one of Iowa’s nine metropolitan areas.

The map below shows just how scarce private schools are in rural Iowa. While all 21 of the Iowa counties that are part of a metropolitan area (lighter blue in map) have at least one private school, only 38 of the 78 non-metro counties have a private school option. And in 12 of these counties the options are quite limited: a single school with total enrollment ranging from just 20 to 98. (For an interactive version of the map, click on the image.)

[1] http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/181105-IFP-pvtschools-bgd.pdf

[2] http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/181105-roadmap-vouchers.pdf

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

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

For starters, issues to watch in 2019

There are many issues to watch in the new Iowa legislative session. Here is a non-exhaustive list, identifying where policy changes could affect opportunity for many thousands of Iowans.

With the 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature officially underway, the Iowa Policy Project is a dependable source for quality information and analysis on Iowa’s most pressing policy challenges. IPP’s Roadmap for Opportunity project will highlight and clarify many of these challenges as they emerge. Among issues to watch:

Public funds for private schools

Vouchers or “education savings grants” stand to take more money away from public schools and add to the $66 million Iowa taxpayers pay every year to support private education. Funding for Iowa’s public schools has failed to keep up with rising costs. Underfunded schools impact student development and workforce potential. Read more in our Roadmap piece, “Strengthening public education, no new subsidies to private schools” and the accompanying backgrounder, “Taxpayer support of private education in Iowa.”

Unemployment compensation

Unemployment insurance is an important program that supports workers experiencing temporary unemployment and acts as a macroeconomic stabilizer during economic downturn.[1] Because states are granted flexibility in shaping the program, there lies potential to undermine it, as other states have recently. More to come on this issue.

Attacks on public pensions

Maintaining a strong public pension system in Iowa ensures that we are able to attract and retain quality state employees who teach our children and protect our communities. It is important that Iowa wards off attempts to restructure the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) in ways that erode retirement security. For more, read our Roadmap piece, “IPERS works to boost retirees, economy.”

Further tax cuts

During the 2018 session, legislators passed a package of tax changes that largely benefit wealthy Iowans, with 2.5 percent of Iowa earners taking nearly half of tax cuts. The current administration has signaled support for further cuts that would endanger services that promote thriving communities such as education and healthcare. Read more on “What real Iowa tax reform would look like.”

Protecting Iowans’ health

Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system continues to cut off patient care and miss payments to providers. With little hope of returning the program to state control anytime soon, we must ensure that cost savings are achieved by increasing innovation and efficiency, not by undercutting health care providers or denying services to the sick and disabled. We should also stay away from Medicaid work requirements, which lead to disenrollment and additional barriers for elderly and disabled Iowans without meaningfully improving employment.[2] For more, read out Roadmap piece, “Restoring success of Iowa Medicaid.”

As noted above, this is not an exhaustive list — only a start. Stay up to date on our analysis through Facebook, Twitter, and our email newsletter.

[1] Chad Stone and William Chen, “Introduction to Unemployment Insurance.” July 2014. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/12-19-02ui.pdf

[2] Center for Law and Social Policy, “Medicaid Works: No Work Requirement Necessary.” December 2018. https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/medicaid-works-no-work-requirement-necessary

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org