Tax credits: Just review them!

Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be.

Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today.

The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018.

It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010.

Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024.

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While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.

  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.

As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before.

Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk.

The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits.

As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms.

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DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it.

In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need.

Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities.

Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel.

These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them?

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

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Health care premiums are taxes

Do not let people mislead you by focusing just on taxes, leaving out the services those taxes pay for and the other costs those taxes replace.

Guest post: Ted Boettner, West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy

(Note: This piece also appeared in the Charleston, W.V., Gazette-Mail)

While the United States is a low-tax country compared to most industrialized nations, for a majority of Americans it doesn’t feel this way. That’s largely because private health insurance companies receive a large portion of our income every month. If we sent our money to a publicly run health insurance plan (e.g. Medicare) instead, almost all of us would save thousands of dollars each year while guaranteeing comprehensive health coverage for everyone.

The United States is unique in that we pay for a large part of our health care costs through an employer-based system. It is a creature of World War II, when we had price controls on wages and everything else to stamp down on inflation. Instead of increasing wages, employers offered health insurance. No other modern industrialized nation finances most of its health care system this way, because it does a terrible job of controlling costs, it’s highly regressive and it causes job lock, where people stay with a job just to receive health insurance.

For private-sector workers in West Virginia, the average health insurance premium was nearly $21,000 for family coverage in 2018. While employers typically cover most of these payments, it is widely recognized that employers consider the payments as part of an employee’s total compensation. Large increases in health insurance premiums have downward effects on workers’ wages.

The Economic Policy Institute finds that the rapid growth in employer-sponsored insurance premiums since 1979 had crowded out almost $390 billion in potential cash-wage increases for American workers by 2016, with employer-based family premiums now comprising over half of most worker’s wages.

A 2019 University of Pennsylvania study found that workers in West Virginia had the fourth-highest health care cost burden (family premiums as a share of median household income) in the nation in 2016. So employee compensation is going up, due to health insurance getting more expensive, but the money is going to private health insurance companies, leaving employers less likely to increase wages.

Since paying health insurance premiums is basically mandatory for most workers (employers with 50 or more full-time workers must enroll them in a health insurance plan), insurance premiums paid by employers act just like a tax — but a tax paid to private insurance companies, instead of the government.

If you include these payments as a tax on labor, U.S. workers are taxed higher than those living in most European countries. The insurance premium payments are also highly regressive, falling harder on those with smaller incomes. And this doesn’t even take into consideration out-of-pocket spending, such as co-pays or deductibles, which have also grown considerably over the years.

This is a terrible to way to fund health care. Setting up a universal system, such as Medicare for All, would give the vast majority of workers the biggest take-home pay raise they’ve ever seen. Instead of paying private health insurance companies, it would be financed publicly by enacting a combination of higher taxes on the wealthy and big corporations, implementing costs savings (e.g. lower prescription drug prices and administration costs) along with a flat payroll tax similar to Social Security and Medicare.

While the naysayers of universal health care like to talk about Medicare for All being a huge tax increase, it’s actually a massive tax cut for most Americans. Here’s an illustrative example. Suppose we have a privately owned and poorly run water utility in Kanawha County that charges everyone $50 a month despite frequent leaks and boil water advisories. One day, this utility shuts down and the county decides to take it over and charge everyone an annual “tax” of $500. Would you be outraged that you have to pay $500 in a new tax or be happy that you will now save $100 on your water bill each year?

(Hint: Ask a resident in Morgantown if they would prefer to pay Charleston rates for water or the lower amount to their publicly owned water utility).

While opponents of Medicare for All like to scare people with big numbers, saying it will cost $32.6 trillion over the next 10 years, this is actually about $2 trillion less in total national projected health spending over this period. Estimates show Medicare for All would reduce total U.S. health expenditures by $5.1 trillion over 10 years relative to current projections under our existing system.

The moral of this story is do not let people mislead you by focusing just on taxes, leaving out the services those taxes pay for and the other costs those taxes replace. Like clean water, we all need affordable health care coverage and today our premiums are taxing us harder than ever. Solutions like Medicare for All can reduce overall health spending while ensuring we all have access to health care anytime we need it. Untying health premiums from overall compensation gives us not only more money in our pockets, but the freedom to start a new business, avoid bankruptcy, lower stress, improve productivity and live longer and healthier lives.

The Center, like the Iowa Fiscal Partnership of the Iowa Policy Project and the Child and Family Policy Center, is a member of the State Priorities Partnership.

Full-time work not enough

Iowans are faced with limited economic opportunity despite their hard work.

Many Iowa families are unable to afford groceries, car maintenance or prescription refills, even though there is at least one full-time worker in the household. This presents a double bind, where Iowans are faced with limited economic opportunity despite their hard work.

The Iowa Policy Project’s 2019 Cost of Living report delves into these issues, finding work does not provide 1 in 5 Iowa working households enough to meet basic needs.

IPP constructs basic needs budgets that reflect a frugal standard of living — including food, health care, child care, household expenses, and transportation, then uses Census data to calculate the number of working households that make less than a wage that meets these basic requirements. These budgets leave no room for Netflix, student loan debt, vacations or eating at restaurants.

A majority of single-parent working households are unable to meet basic needs in Iowa. Our analysis shows that a wage of at nearly $20 per hour is needed just to afford basic expenses for single-parent families. This is consistent with research showing higher poverty rates among single-parent households, due to single incomes, child care expenses, generally lower educational attainment and low wages.

Evidence-based policymaking can address the reality that many working Iowans do not make enough to afford basic expenses. Policies that increase the minimum wage and adjust it to the cost of living, provide paid family leave, and boost Child Care Assistance will serve to ensure Iowans are able to just get by and hopefully get ahead.

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

Illusory and elusive economic strength

The hard work of Iowans ought to be celebrated through public policy that raises wages to meet worker productivity and the cost of living, protects workers on the job, and ensures dignified retirement.

This Labor Day we celebrate the successes of the labor movement and workers across Iowa. In that spirit, let’s look at how our economy is doing a decade after the Great Recession. Why doesn’t this feel like an economic recovery? And, isn’t it a bit late to call this a recovery?

Wages

In terms of wage growth, only high-wage earners (making $41.53 hourly) have seen meaningful wage growth over the past 10 years. We see disparities in Midwest median wages by gender and race: Women make $4 less per hour than male peers, and Latino and African American workers make $5 less per hour than their white peers. As we will demonstrate in an upcoming report, these disparities are driven by structural factors like discrimination before and after hiring and the loss of unionized manufacturing jobs.

 

Jobs

Job growth in Iowa has been slow this year compared to monthly averages from 2011 to 2014. A low unemployment rate shrouds the reality that many Iowans have low-paying jobs without benefits, with some cobbling together multiple part-time jobs. We are almost 40,000 jobs short (graph below) of what is needed for a full recovery from the last recession when considering population growth.

Family Security

Many working Iowa households are unable to meet basic needs despite having one or more full-time worker in the house. For example, IPP’s Cost of Living in Iowa analysis shows 6 in 10 single-parent working households are unable to make ends meet on their earnings alone. When companies aren’t paying enough, these households need public assistance (work supports) for food, housing and other necessary items.

Taxes

Iowa’s tax system is upside down with low-income Iowans paying a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than the richest Iowans. Large corporations can reduce their state corporate income tax to zero and even receive a refund through Iowa’s Research Activities Credit. That results in so-called “refunds” — checks to companies that had more tax credits than they needed to pay their taxes — totaling $42 million in 2018 and $44 million in 2017. Those “refunds” to companies not paying Iowa corporate income taxes cost about the same as a 1 percent increase in State Supplemental Aid to public schools.

Public Investments

Iowa state and local spending as a share of personal income has remained virtually unchanged over the past 12 years, contrary to standard political rhetoric at the Capitol. State K-12 funding has not kept up with costs of educating children. Public spending on private schools continues to rise. The Iowa private scholarship subsidy cap doubled in nine years.

The hard work of Iowans ought to be celebrated through public policy that raises wages along with worker productivity. This would allow wages to keep up with the cost of living. Better public policy would protect workers on the job, and ensure a dignified retirement.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Nothing complicated about threatening food

Eliminating BBCE might sound confusing, from the alphabet soup of terms for public programs. But it’s not. It means taking away food from Iowans’ tables.

The Trump Administration aims to threaten important public supports for people who have trouble making ends meet.

The latest challenge is to Food Stamps (formally known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The administration would eliminate something called broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE). It’s not just more alphabet soup, but an effective tool that states can use to set less restrictive asset tests and streamline administration, which curbs costs.[1]

Forty states participate in BBCE, including Iowa, allowing them to set income limits and ensure something like owning a car doesn’t count against SNAP benefits. The Administration seeks to eliminate BBCE on its own, without legislative approval.[2] This would kick 3 million individuals off of SNAP nationwide, including working families, children, people with disabilities, and seniors.

SNAP is a proven work support program for Iowans. It reached nearly 320,000 Iowans in June of 2019, helping working families and those unable to work put food on the table.[3] The program works to improve child development, educational attainment, helps to prevent disease and increase lifetime earnings of Iowans.[4] It helps keep rural grocery stores open, and pumps $35 million into the state economy each month.[5]

These wonky rule changes take food off Iowa tables. The Administration seems to want to keep these changes below the radar. While some might not notice a purely administrative action, the impact of removing BBCE from SNAP — changing the alphabet soup — means real harm for families.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. 

nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

[1] Dottie Rosen, “SNAP’s ‘Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility’ Supports Working Families and Those Saving for the Future.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. July 2019. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/snaps-broad-based-categorical-eligibility-supports-working-families-and
[2] Federal Register, “Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” July 24, 2019, Vol. 84, No. 142, 35570-35581, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/07/24/2019-15670/revision-of-categorical-eligibility-in-the-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.

[3] Iowa Department of Human Services, “F-1 Food Assistance Program State Summary – June 2019.” July 2019. http://publications.iowa.gov/30484/1/FA-F1-2016%202019-06.pdf

[4] Feeding America, “Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation.” 2009. https://www.nokidhungry.org/sites/default/files/child-economy-study.pdf

[5] Iowa Department of Human Services, “F-1 Food Assistance Program State Summary – June 2019.” July 2019. http://publications.iowa.gov/30484/1/FA-F1-2016%202019-06.pdf

Common good vs. common blame

When leaders defy a “common good” standard in decisions, the ultimate price becomes a “common blame,” because government actions represent us all, even if they do not serve us all.

The Chris Godfrey case is only the latest example of a state leadership that — with no meaningful check on its authority — will do whatever it wants regardless of the consequences. They can, so they will.

And, for now, a jury has given the taxpayers of Iowa the consequences: a $1.5 million judgment against the state because of then-Governor Terry Branstad’s discrimination against a gay state official. Godfrey was state workers’ compensation commissioner when Branstad pressured him to resign, then cut his pay when Godfrey refused.

Branstad maintains the decision had nothing to do with Godfrey being gay. A jury disagreed. Either way, the totality of the case is disturbing.

When our state leaders defy a “common good” standard in making decisions, the ultimate pushback or price becomes a “common blame,” because the government actions represent us all, even if they do not serve us all.

We already see it in the issues surrounding Iowa’s poor water quality and the refusal of Iowa’s leaders to use public policy effectively to correct it. The voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not a strategy at all, but rather our imaginary friend who assures us we’ll do the right thing. Or our farmers will. Someday. But no one will make either us, or farmers, do the right thing unless already inclined to do so.

We see it when exorbitant tax breaks or subsidies go to corporations without a discernible return to the public, while services that benefit not only the corporations but all Iowans — such as a strong PK-12 and post-secondary education system — are held back or even cut.

And we see it here, in the Godfrey case. As the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Todd Dorman pointed out in a column today:

The jury found Branstad was in the wrong. Now, of course, if the verdict stands, it will be you and I who likely pay the freight. Maybe those captains of industry Branstad tried so hard to please by bullying Godfrey could pass the hat.
And of course those “captains of industry” would have to pass the hat if they are to contribute, because we don’t tax them enough. We keep giving away subsidies and tax breaks like candy.

But this is about more than taxes. As our senior research consultant, Colin Gordon, noted in a blog yesterday, Branstad’s own defense — effectively that he did not discriminate against Godfrey but wanted him out because of what he had heard from business owners — is a problem in itself. It is something that Iowa’s leaders need to recognize as a problem and if they cannot, the voters need to. The state is not here as a service center for corporations, but to serve all Iowans. When individual Iowans are injured on the job, they need someone enforcing the law, as Godfrey was doing.

By his own admission, Governor Branstad was taking his cues from his business cronies. And if you read the transcript of his deposition in the case under questioning by attorney Roxanne Conlin, you can see he didn’t investigate beyond the anecdotal whining he was hearing from selected business people.

And Branstad won’t be held accountable for it. The people of Iowa will be, in our common blame.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Price of discrimination, business influence

Just as damning as our former governor’s pattern of discrimination is the defense he offered, that he targeted the workers’ compensation commissioner because business interests told him he had to go.

When Terry Branstad returned to the Governor’s Office in 2011, one of his first acts was to ask for the resignation of Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey, who is openly gay. When Godfrey declined to resign, Branstad slashed his salary to $73,250 — a pay cut of nearly $40,000, which left Godfrey earning the statutory minimum for the job.

In 2012, Godfrey sued, claiming that Branstad had discriminated against him based on his sexual orientation. On July 15, a Polk County jury agreed — awarding Godfrey $1.5 million in damages.[1] At trial, Branstad claimed he had “always treated everyone, gay or straight, with respect and dignity,” but the jury determined the evidence pointed strongly in the other direction — and now Iowa taxpayers are paying the price.

Just as damning as our former governor’s pattern of discrimination is the defense he offered at trial, and in his pre-trial deposition.[2] By his account, Branstad took aim at Godfrey not because his workers’ compensation commissioner was gay, but because the Iowa business community — and especially meatpacking interests — told him that Godfrey had to go.

So, we have a jury calling out discrimination at the highest level of Iowa government, and effectively an admission from the former governor that the business lobby was calling the shots on a critical issue.

In his November 2014 deposition, Branstad details meetings in 2010 with Eldin and Regina Roth of Beef Products Inc (BPI) who “said they were concerned about the direction that the workers’ comp commission is going in Iowa, that it was driving up the costs of their businesses.” In July 2011, Branstad solicited a long memo from Tyson Foods[3] that offered the Governor a blow-by-blow account of “the negative impact [Godfrey’s] decisions have on Iowa Employers.”

When Branstad took office in 2011, his treatment of Godfrey was callous, petty and discriminatory. When Republicans achieved “trifecta” control of the Statehouse in 2017, the target shifted from the commissioner to the entire workers’ compensation system. At stake here was not just Godfrey’s job but — as we detailed in our report last year on the recent changes to Iowa’s workers’ compensation system[4]a fundamental shift in responsibility and risk for workplace injuries.

[1] Stephen Gruber-Miller, The Des Moines Register, July 15, 2019. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2019/07/15/terry-branstad-gay-official-discrimination-chris-godfrey-workers-compensation-commissioner-verdict/1714302001/

[2] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2644880-Gov-Terry-Branstad-deposition.html

[3] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2644850-Tyson-Foods-Talking-Points-for-Gov-Terry-Branstad.html
[4] Emily Schott, Matthew Glasson and Colin Gordon, The Iowa Policy Project, “Giving Workers the Cold Shoulder: Shifting the Risk Under Iowa’s Workers’ Compensation Law.” http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180920-workers_comp.pdf

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP). A professor of history at the University of Iowa, he is the author of IPP’s long-running State of Working Iowa analysis. Contact: cgordonipp@gmail.com