Tax Day spin: Find refuge in the facts

It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today is, as we all know, “Tax Day,” the deadline for filing our federal individual income tax returns. It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar. You can’t even find refuge on the comics pages.

While the Tea Party folks and others have their spotlight today, take a few minutes to read this masterful year-old blog post from our friends at the Oklahoma Policy Institute: http://okpolicy.org/blog/taxes/classic-reruns-no-tax-day/

Beyond that perspective on the value of taxes in funding essential public services, other useful information also is worth considering today about who pays taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice, in a report this week about tax changes resulting from the recovery, or “stimulus,” legislation signed by President Obama last year, notes the following:

  • 99 percent of working families and individuals in Iowa benefited from at least one of the tax cuts signed into law by President Obama.
  • Working people in Iowa received $1,115, on average, from these breaks.
  • These tax breaks benefited working people at all income levels.

For the full report (3-page PDF) click here and for the Iowa-specific summary (4-page PDF) click here.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post (whose blog links to Jon Stewart’s take of the situation on “The Daily Show”) illustrate that lower-income Americans pay taxes, even if others might not want to acknowledge it.

As Stewart suggests, actually getting the facts about who pays taxes — which also include federal payroll taxes and state and local taxes — might not fit the outrage being pushed at a given moment: “Knowing that doesn’t make you as mad, does it?”

Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports have shown state and local tax impacts are far greater as a proportion of income for low-income Iowans than for higher-income Iowans, while corporate-income-tax loopholes and other tax breaks are draining the state treasury with little accountability, and critical services are being cut.

All food for thought on this day.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Why Should Iowans Pay for Stockholders’ Interests?

If a nuclear feasibility study is needed for Iowa, it should be independently done.

Teresa Galluzzo
Teresa Galluzzo

MidAmerican Energy asked the Iowa Legislature for $15 million of ratepayer money, mine and yours, to explore whether it should build a nuclear plant in Iowa. While I firmly agree that Iowa ought to aggressively pursue options to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, I find it very unsettling that state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved this request.

MidAmerican Energy must put its shareholders’ interests first and thus the company’s feasibility study would necessarily prioritize how a nuclear plant would perform for stockholders before the impacts on rate-paying Iowans.

Even as a leader in wind-powered generation — 17 percent to 20 percent of our electricity production — and energy efficiency, both thanks, in part, to substantial efforts by MidAmerican Energy, Iowa must continue to evaluate its energy future, because we need to do more to address climate change. If it is necessary to study further whether new nuclear plants are a viable part of our generation mix, such research should be done by an independent group and include analysis of how nuclear would impact Iowans’ rates and safety.

Governor Culver should consider this before joining the General Assembly in a giveaway — from utility customers’ pockets — to MidAmerican Energy for a study that could perhaps be done by an independent group at less expense to Iowans.

Action on climate change must consider all citizens

About 1 in 5 Iowans would be eligible for direct consumer relief on energy costs in the House climate bill.

Climate change affects everyone, everywhere.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

Everyone will have to make changes, but for some it will be more difficult than others. Public policy must recognize this disparity.

Recent negotiations in Copenhagen dealt with climate-change policy ideas that hit poor countries differently from rich.

Unless rich countries provide funds to help implement new energy-efficiency and renewable-energy technology, developing countries will not be able to afford a transition to smarter, cleaner, but initially more expensive methods of producing energy.

Within the United States, we’re going to see higher energy prices by making coal and other fossil fuels account for their environmental and health effects, at least initially. It is not avoidable, and without careful design these policies will affect people differently at different income levels.

While a climate-change bill has not passed the full Congress yet, President Obama last year signed economic recovery legislation that takes some steps, helping low-income people who find it difficult to insulate their homes and upgrade furnaces and other appliances to use less energy.

In that so-called “stimulus” package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Community Action Agencies in Iowa and around the nation received a large boost in funds to ensure that homes of the poorest families use much less energy.

Before, that program spent about $15 million per year on weatherization in Iowa. ARRA added $80 million over three years. The work is currently under way, helping people to weatherize their homes and helping the Iowa economy at the same time.

Climate legislation in Congress can and should do more.

The climate-change legislation passed last June by the U.S. House recognized the difference. Where, higher-income Americans can offset the higher costs of a gallon of gas or kilowatt hour of electricity by installing insulation or combining car trips, such efficiency moves are out of the reach of many Americans at low incomes.

About 1 in 5 Iowans — approximately 579,000 at low incomes — would be eligible for direct consumer relief in the House bill. These payments would compensate for higher expenses for energy and energy-intensive goods and services for those households.

A Senate version of the bill does less directly for low-income citizens, but that bill, passed out of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also makes improvements. It’s something that needs further consideration.

At home and abroad, climate-change policy must recognize the disparity in economic ability to make the necessary changes to save our environment, our resources and our planet.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Move now to improve Iowa’s lousy water quality

It is only a matter of political will to set strong water-pollution limits that are enforced, and to try out some innovative programs.

Teresa Galluzzo

A new report researched for us by economics professor Cathy Kling and PhD candidate Subhra Bhattacharjee of Iowa State University documents that Iowa’s water quality is poor, primarily because of agricultural pollution, and evaluates two newer approaches for improving water quality that have been used in the Midwest.

One of the primary findings of this report is that no matter how well we structure our water-quality programs, if they are not backed by tough pollution limits they will not improve water quality.

Governor Culver last week in his Condition of the State message did not mention Iowa’s significant water-quality problems. Obviously, Iowans are suffering from being out of work and being involved in wars abroad, and those issues rightly take precedent.

However over the last several decades, whether or not we are in a bad budget year, Iowa has not taken the measures necessary to improve our water quality.

Given the current poor economic climate, Iowa could take steps to improve water quality without impacting our budget. We could heed one of the primary recommendations of this report and increase our limits on pollution. That would not cost the state anything.

Further, the researchers learned many lessons from the two programs they studied for this report: water-quality trading and wetland banking. They created a significant list of dos and don’ts for how to structure these programs in Iowa and recommended that we establish pilot projects to try out these approaches. Taking such measures would allow us to begin improving water quality at a very small cost to the state.

The point is there are ways to address water quality, even without a significant state expenditure. It is only a matter of political will to set strong water-pollution limits that are enforced, and to try out some innovative programs. Iowa needs to find this will to improve our lousy water quality and thus quality of life and economy.

Posted by Teresa Galluzzo, Research Associate

PDF of full report, 16 pages, or executive summary, 2 pages

We don’t have luxury of avoiding climate change response

Putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution would create a bigger market for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Teresa Galluzzo
Teresa Galluzzo

Challenged by a down economy, two wars, and the need to fix our health care system, Congress might want to push other issues to the wayside. But Congress doesn’t have that luxury. Another very critical issue needs our attention: our action plan to address climate change.

Crafting legislation to reduce our contribution to climate change would also play a role in addressing today’s other immediate needs. Putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution would create a bigger market for renewable energy and energy efficiency. The jobs and industries created for developing clean energy technologies would help get the U.S. and Iowa economy back on track.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recently estimated the climate-change legislation passed by the House would net Iowa 4,000 new jobs in 2020 and nearly 6,000 jobs by 2030.

Likewise, the Center for Rural Affairs looked at the job creation potential of requiring that 20 percent of electricity be generated by renewable energy before 2030. That research found that the wind energy developed in Iowa to meet this standard could create over 9,000 permanent jobs and over 60,000 temporary construction jobs in Iowa.

The benefits reach beyond job creation. Reducing our reliance on foreign fossil fuel sources is critical to national security and preventing future conflicts over energy and those that would result from the human tragedy associated with the worldwide impacts of climate change.

Furthermore, preventing the more frequent occurrence of catastrophic heat waves, flooding and drought anticipated for Iowa — if we continue emitting large amounts of greenhouse gas pollution — would go along way toward improving our health.

Addressing climate change is urgent work and must it stay on Congress’ long to-do list. We can’t continue business as usual for our economy, security or health. We can do better, and responding to the challenge of climate change is the way forward.

Posted by Teresa Galluzzo, Research Associate

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

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