A view of IPP research, from a researcher

Molly Fleming
Molly Fleming

As I begin my final year at the University of Iowa’s graduate program for Urban and Regional Planning, I have been fortunate to join the Iowa Policy Project as a part-time research assistant. This opportunity allows me to integrate my interest and experience in public policy with fact-based research and analysis. Given public confusion and misperception regarding such critical issues as health care, taxes and the environment, objective research is vital to ensure government accountability and citizen engagement. I am very pleased to be able to assist in this important work.

As a volunteer at the Iowa Policy Project last spring, I helped former research associate Beth Pearson to determine the benefits of home weatherization for low-income Iowans. Additionally, I helped to compare how alternative versions of climate change legislation could promote or harm public welfare. The research skills I gained from this experience have been invaluable, and I hope to build upon them throughout the coming year.

Under the guidance of Peter Fisher and other members of the wonderful IPP staff, I will look at the effects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Iowa’s economy. I also plan to take a hard look at Iowa’s budget allocations throughout the year and the rising cost of living within our state. It is my hope that this research will help to spark good ideas and influence important public policy. As the challenges and prospects facing Iowans evolve during this time of economic uncertainty, the Iowa Policy Project’s work is more important than ever. I am both honored and excited to be a part of the IPP at such an exciting time, and I look forward to my year here.

Posted by Molly Fleming, Research Assistant

Beyond the shouting — understanding reform

Andrew Cannon
Andrew Cannon

Vigorous debate between proponents and opponents on the merits of congressional health reform proposals has, in recent weeks, descended into shouting matches. Unfortunately, understanding of the proposed reform has not always been as deep as the passion on the topic.

Recent discussions have brought attention to a provision deep within the proposal regarding end-of-life counseling for Medicare recipients. Opponents have suggested that the provision opens the door to euthanasia.

A closer look at the actual provision, however, shows that these concerns are overblown. The critical language in the proposal produced by the House Energy and Labor, Education and Labor, and Ways and Means committees reads:

“[T]he term ‘advance care planning consultation’ means a consultation between the individual and a practitioner … regarding advance care planning … Such consultation shall include the following:

“(A) An explanation by the practitioner of advance care planning, including key questions and considerations, important steps, and suggested people to talk to.

“(B) An explanation by the practitioner of advance directives, including living wills and durable powers of attorney and their uses.

“(C) An explanation by the practitioner of the role and responsibility of a health care proxy.

“(D) The provision by the practitioner of a list of national and State-specific resources to assist consumers and their families with advance care planning …

“(E) An explanation by the practitioner of the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services and supports that are available under this title. …”

The provision would allow Medicare to reimburse medical professionals for voluntary end-of-life consultations with Medicare patients. Such consultations would allow Medicare enrollees to make medical decisions before being incapacitated by an illness, or allow the patient to transfer the medical decision-making power to a loved one (a “health care proxy”).

As Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, pointed out, this provision actually protects Medicare enrollees and their families:

“[T]he most money spent on anyone is spent usually in the last 60 days of life and that’s because an individual is not in a capacity to make decisions for themselves. So rather than getting into a situation where the government makes those decisions, if everyone had an end-of-life directive or what we call in Georgia ‘durable power of attorney,’ you could instruct at a time of sound mind and body what you want to happen in an event where you were in difficult circumstances where you’re unable to make those decisions.”

The “practitioner” described in the legislation is carefully defined and limited as being only a physician, a nurse practitioner, or a physician’s assistant. The relationship between a patient and his or her care provider is in no way disrupted by government officials or an anonymous “panel.”

The provision would block reimbursement for counseling promoting euthanasia as an option. Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide remain illegal in the majority of states, including Iowa, and this provision does nothing to alter that.

Though the recent discussion of the end-of-life counseling provision in the health reform proposal has brought a considerable amount of disinformation and heated rhetoric, it has brought attention to a service that has been long overlooked.

Jon Radulovic of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization told Kaiser Health News that that the discussion is “providing the end-of-life care community with an opportunity to talk about what good care is and the services that are available.”

While the subject of vociferous and inaccurate protests, the end-of-life consultation provision has been endorsed by a number of advocacy and medical groups, including the AARP, the American College of Physicians, and Consumer’s Union, among others.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Everything on the table? Really?

Back in January, Governor Culver asked lawmakers to “agree that everything’s on the table with respect to balancing the budget and finding cost savings in state government.”

Today, on Ryan Schlader’s WMT-AM radio talk show, State Rep. Nick Wagner, responding to a question about state employee retirement benefits, opined that “I don’t think we should just write anything off the table.”

Both quotes sound good. Do they mean it?

The evidence may come during the next legislative session. Budget policy fell short of the concept in 2009. Otherwise, abuses of Iowa’s tax code would not have been allowed to continue when lawmakers were choosing among services to be cut as revenues declined.

This is not a partisan thing — or it should not be.

Can’t all Iowans agree that any spending by state and local government should (1) carry a demonstrable public benefit, and (2) be subject to regular scrutiny to allow legislators and the public to determine that it does have that benefit?

The Legislature took a small but important first step in 2009 by passing legislation toward the transparency that would allow scrutiny of one of Iowa’s most wasteful programs: the Research Activities Credit (RAC). The RAC is a virtually open-ended business entitlement that results in multimillion-dollar secret checks being sent to big companies that don’t pay any income tax in Iowa.

Ultimately, the law passed this year may begin that process toward better scrutiny.

That’s why the Big Business lobby in Iowa will continue to fight transparency and protect its sweetheart tax breaks while lawmakers make other budget choices that will cut teachers in classrooms, drive up tuitions in community colleges and state universities, and continue to shortchange public safety, environmental quality and recreational assets.

If everything is on the table, it has to include wasteful spending on special-interest tax breaks for companies that don’t pay income taxes.

By Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Education pays in Iowa

Lily French
Lily French

Give people access to higher education and a myriad of benefits will surface for individuals and the state of Iowa.

Our new report on the return on investment of workforce education shows the benefits and potential benefits from such investments.

At each level of education beyond high school, Iowans work and earn more. For example, those with a bachelor’s degree earn on average $7.26 more an hour than those with only a high school diploma. Families headed by a parent with a college education are also much less likely to live in poverty — and better set to recover in hard times from a job loss.

So, whether you look at unemployment rates, wages, or poverty, it is undeniable that education pays for Iowans. It also pays for the state, because better-educated people on balance earn more, and pay more in taxes, which benefits the state budget.

Our analysis finds that investing in postsecondary education for low-income adults returns tax revenue more than double the state’s program costs. The return: $3.70 in increased tax revenue for every dollar invested in an associate’s degree for low-income adults, and $2.40 for every dollar invested in a bachelor’s degree.

Other strong reasons support investments now in workforce education:

  • First, the declinine in wages for less-educated workers means more Iowa families are struggling to cover basic living expenses;
  • Second, Iowa will face a labor shortage in the future due to our state’s slow population growth and the impending retirements of the baby boom generation; and
  • Third, employers in Iowa had already identified a shortage of a skilled workers as a problem before the recession, and the top 10 fasting growing occupations in our state all demand workers with postsecondary education.

To summarize, Iowa needs an increase in skilled workers to grow our economy after the recession ends and families in Iowa need higher wages to fully support themselves.

With forward-thinking policy moves now, Iowa can increase education and training opportunities for low-income adults, improving their futures and those of all Iowans who will benefit from a stronger economy.

Posted by Lily French, Research Associate

Watch step in talking about Iowa jobs

This month, high-school seniors step onto stages across Iowa, accept a diploma and a handshake, and leave as graduates. Iowa’s job picture shows more than ever that they had better watch their step as they do.

When Iowa’s unemployment rate hit 5.2 percent in March, it was at its highest place in over 21 years.

News reports in recent days noted that rate fell in April — but it was only to 5.1 percent. It’s certainly better than the alternative, but let’s take a breath. While that rate seems low in comparison to the national rate of 8.9 percent, rates above 5 percent are high for Iowa — again, higher than at any point since these new grads were born.

IPP has been tracking job trends in Iowa every month since 2003. Our “JobWatch” project, as well as our “State of Working Iowa” publications, have attempted to inject some important historical perspective in the examination of job numbers.

While we all want to be hopeful for a better economy and better opportunities, we need to watch our path. No one should miss the larger implications of a one-month drop in the unemployment rate from 5.2 percent to 5.1 percent, or a smaller nonfarm job loss — 1,600 — compared with many times that in three of the previous four months. Those implications: The unemployment rate is high for Iowa, and in a very short time we have lost the meager gains achieved in nonfarm jobs in recent years.

As our latest JobWatch release points out, nonfarm jobs have declined in seven of the last eight months. Those jobs were down 32,800 over 12 months, almost two-thirds of the decline coming in manufacturing. Large drops in December 2008, February and March totaled over 28,000 lost payroll jobs. All figures are seasonally adjusted.

If we, too, watch our step in determining the importance of a statistic here or there, we might help our new grads watch their future steps a little better as well.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

IPP Open House packs ’em in

Christine Ralston
Christine Ralston

Wow, what an event. Friday afternoon, the Iowa Policy Project hosted an open house and FRIENDraiser at our new office in Old Brick.

We packed the office with friends and supporters. Guests had the opportunity to meet and talk with IPP staff, old IPP staff greeted longtime friends and new staffers were able to meet many of IPP’s friends and supporters.

The event was an opportunity for IPP to show off our new, spacious office. The organization has increased from five to nine staff members in just two years, so our old space was getting a bit cozy.

Our new space has several private offices, a research room and a separate conference room which was dedicated in honor of IPP co-founder Mark Smith.

Mark helped found IPP in 2001 in collaboration with IPP’s Executive Director, David Osterberg. Mark is perhaps best known as former president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. For 34 years, Mark worked tirelessly in education, organizing and advocacy for Iowa’s working families.

A short presentation included remarks by David about IPP history and Mark’s contribution to the organization as well as Mark’s remarks about the founding, work and expansion of the Iowa Policy Project.

David Osterberg speaks at IPP's Open House
David Osterberg speaks at IPP's Open House

The event was open to the public. Attendees included past and present members of the IPP board, friends and supporters of IPP’s work and several of our nearby elected officials: Congressman Dave Loebsack, State Senator Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, State Representative Nate Willems of Mount Vernon, and Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan.

Many, many thanks to those of you who took the time to come and speak with us, see our new offices and make donations in support of our work. We truly appreciate it.

Posted by Christine Ralston, Research Associate

Federal deductibility: the reality

The word of the month in Iowa tax discussions is “federal deductibility.” It means you can deduct your federal income tax from your state income at filing time. Only a handful of states let their residents do it.

Iowa is one of only three states that permit taxpayers to deduct the full amount of federal income taxes paid.

Make no mistake: Federal deductibility is a benefit targeted for Iowa’s highest-income families. Some others benefit, but mostly, it is those at higher incomes.

The last, best analysis of this we have shows that the wealthiest 20 percent of Iowa taxpayers receive 80 percent of the tax benefit from federal deductibility (2002 figures). For the other 80 percent of Iowans, the tax cut amounted less than half of 1 percent of their income. Using those 2002 numbers, by the way, the dollar amount of the average tax cut for the top 1 percent of taxpayers was about $13,900 — more than the income of people in the bottom 20 percent.

To understand why wealthier people get the greatest benefits under federal deductibility, consider this: You have to pay federal income tax to get the Iowa deduction. Many Iowans at moderate and low incomes simply do not make enough money to pay income tax to the federal government — but Iowa law still makes them pay income tax. some provisions in the tax-reform bill in the Iowa Legislature make that situation better for low-income families.

Remember these perspectives when someone defends “federal deductibility” as something to help low- or middle-income working families. For most of them, it’s just not so.