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

Iowa: Better sorry than safe

The Iowa DNR says you as a beachgoer have no need to know if toxins in the water might have reached a level that the U.S. EPA believes demands caution.

Iowa environmental officials are taking an unusual position for people charged with protecting the citizens of the state: “Better sorry than safe.”

No, that’s probably not the message you heard from Mom or Dad.

But it is the effect of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) position not to follow tougher rules on water quality to guide warnings to beachgoers.

DNR has decided that if toxins in water reach a risk level suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as right for a warning, that is on a need-to-know basis, and you as a beachgoer have no need to know before you dive in, or before your child or dog splashes around, maybe drinks a little of the lake in the process.

Iowa is sticking with a more relaxed standard, of 20 micrograms of the microsystin toxin per liter, instead of the EPA-recommended 8 microgram level.

The Gazette story by Erin Jordan comes almost a year to the day since an Iowa Policy Project report by Carolyn Buckingham, Mary Skopec and myself showed how little the state is doing to address increasing problems with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Iowa waters. The report noted DNR testing had shown increasing numbers of beach advisories from 2009 through 2016, and increases in the number of lakes with advisories against swimming, due to microsystin levels — 17 of the 39 monitored beaches (graph below). And that was recorded under the weaker standard of 20 micrograms per liter.

Microsystin advisories for Iowa lakes, 2006-16Climate change and increased nutrient runoff contribute to increased algal blooms at the heart of the problem. If the number of advisories and lakes affected were to rise even more because of tougher standards, that likely would drive more Iowans to push for changes in policy to address the causes.

Safe might not be the top priority.

Sorry.

David Osterberg is lead environmental researcher and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Better target senior tax breaks

Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and many other states.

Also see Iowa Fiscal Partnership news release

A new paper about state tax breaks for seniors shows one reason pre-2020 chatter about new tax breaks in Iowa is a bad idea.

Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes in her report Wednesday that special income-tax breaks for seniors cost states 7 percent on average in 2013, a figure that will rise with growth in the population over 65.

As McNichol notes, “The senior tax breaks are poorly targeted because of their design: most states provide them regardless of the recipient’s income or savings.”

Put another way: Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and — as McNichol notes — in many other states as well.

It is a point Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner have made in Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) analysis over the years about Iowa’s special breaks for pension income, and as legislators phased out what had already been a limited tax on Social Security income.

Already, Iowa has freshly passed, costly and inequitable tax cuts scheduled to be phased in over the next few years, yet state legislators just last week were talking about bigger cuts in 2020. Given attempts to expand senior breaks in 2018, but not adopted in the final package, there is a danger that new income-tax cuts in 2020 could include the new senior breaks.

Among changes considered in 2018 was an expansion of Iowa’s already generous pension exclusion from $6,000 (single) and $12,000 (couple) to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively.

McNichol’s paper notes Iowa is one of 28 states that already completely exempts Social Security income from tax, and one of 26 that exempts at least some pension income.

Iowa, in short, is already quite generous to retirees. Also as McNichol notes, for some this might make sense — seniors at low incomes. But not all.

“A large share of these costly breaks go to higher-income seniors who need them the least. States should reduce this expense by better targeting relief to seniors with low incomes,” she wrote.

Bruner and Fisher noted this problem in their IFP paper last year:

Iowa has adopted a number of special provisions benefiting seniors. While the elderly and disabled property tax credit is available only for those with low income, the other tax preferences are not based on ability to pay:

•   All Social Security benefits are exempt from tax.

•   The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.

•   Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.

•   While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis of tax policy and tax proposals is always grounded in fundamental principles of taxation, among them fairness: Similarly situated taxpayers should be treated similarly in tax policy.

What matters more to measure a taxpayer’s ability to pay is the amount of income, rather than its source. To tax income from wages at a higher rate than retirement income violates that principle.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax-cutters’ lack of confidence

Plans for election-year tax cuts expose tax-cutters’ lack of confidence that (1) cuts they already made will deliver prosperity, and (2) they will hold power beyond 2020.

In the confidence game of cutting taxes, where the world is promised to all but delivered mainly to the wealthy, Iowa’s tax-cutters are showing how little confidence they have in their own political talk.

State Senator Randy Feenstra of Hull is backing off his chairmanship of the Senate Ways and Means Committee as he runs for Congress in 2020, leaving the door open to Senator Jake Chapman of Adel.

Both have been big talkers painting the glories of tax cuts while running down Iowa’s competitive tax structure, and they have been successful using that political spin to make big changes — many of which are scheduled but yet to take effect.

Even then, they apparently will waste no time in rushing through new tax cuts, as evidenced by this story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. There, Chapman is quoted that “he expected the Legislature would continue next session ‘to reform income taxes and reduce some of the highest tax rates in the country.’”

Before addressing the fundamental inaccuracy of the senator’s comment, one must wonder at least two things:

•   Are they not confident what they have passed already will not deliver what they promised?
•   Are they not confident they will retain political power through the Statehouse (the House is a much closer partisan split than the Senate) past the 2020 election?

Answering “yes” to either would explain their perceived need to rush more ill-advised tax policy into law.

In a very short span, Iowa lawmakers have eroded revenues with new tax giveaways to the wealthy and powerful, leaving scraps to working families in the middle and below. This has come with changes in personal income taxes, corporate income taxes and property taxes.

As Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner pointed out in an Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis, the income-tax cuts passed in 2018 give almost half of the overall benefit to the highest-earning 2.5 percent of taxpayers — those making $250,000 or more.

Senator Chapman plays games with the term “tax rates” as if the highest tax rate is what anyone ever paid on all their income. It’s an illusion.

The highest rate — already reduced from 8.98 percent to 8.53 percent this year under the 2018 law — is a marginal rate; it is paid on only the highest share of income. The same taxpayer who pays the highest rate on one share of income also pays the lowest rate on the share of income where that rate applies.

In short, it’s a mix of rates — and they are applied to taxable income, which has many adjustments to lower that amount. Most notable among those is Iowa’s unusual provision to allow taxpayers to deduct federal income tax from state taxable income, which benefits higher-income people the most.

The tax-rate myth promoted by Senator Chapman is an old game, but the people who want to reduce public services and investments in the future keep playing it. And why not? They’re getting away with it.

The 2018 legislation includes ongoing rate cuts — if revenues reach high-enough levels. One reason to pass rate cuts again in 2020, before that deadline, is that you don’t expect the revenue targets to be met.

These changes have come at great cost to public services, including poor funding of public education from K-12 through community colleges and universities.

Looking ahead to the future of our state, and beyond the next election, would be the wisest course for Iowa tax policy. That is not what we’re getting.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Dumbing down definition of poverty

The CBPP report illustrates that the Trump plan would magically declare that some people below the current poverty line are no longer poor.

If you wanted to reduce the number of people defined as being in poverty, without reducing poverty itself, what might you do? You could always mess with the numbers.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a solid report out today showing how a Trump administration proposal would do just that. Authors Arloc Sherman and Paul van de Water examine the administration’s proposed alternative to the way cost-of-living adjustments are made to the official poverty guidelines.

The first problem, of course, is that the official poverty guidelines have almost nothing to do with the cost of living. They are an outdated formula — they are a half-century old while, not surprisingly, families’ spending needs have changed. We have shown this regularly at the Iowa Policy Project with our Cost of Living in Iowa research.

Here is what our report, by Peter Fisher and Natalie Veldhouse, noted last year:

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. However, the federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago. The calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food. Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today…. Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 above shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines. In fact, family supporting income even with public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 1.1 to 3.0 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs. Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two-parent family with one worker.

Because the guidelines do matter in the computation of eligibility for work-support programs, it is essential that they are not eroded further to disadvantage low-income families. As the CBPP authors note, not only is the poverty line itself too low to reflect basic needs, but the annual cost-of-living adjustment, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), also is flawed:

Prices have been rising faster than the CPI-U does for the broad categories of goods and services that dominate poorer households’ spending. The poorest fifth of households devote twice as large a share of spending to rent as the typical household, for example, and the cost of rent rose 31 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 17 percent for the overall CPI-U. In addition, recent studies find that low-income households may face more rapidly rising prices than high-income households even for the same types of goods, possibly because low-income households have fewer choices about where and how to shop.

The Trump plan would make that worse, substituting another cost-adjustment measure that slows the pace of upward adjustments in the poverty guidelines. The plan would magically declare that some people below the current poverty line are no longer poor.

Messing with the numbers is never an answer to identifying the challenges one might address with better public policy. Seriously analyzing the relevant ones is essential.

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

Transparent realities of bad law

To be transparent, lawmakers and the governor would admit they are enshrining minority rule, punishing public workers again, and penalizing economic growth and recovery.

curtains-tighterIn the closing nights of the 2019 session, while most Iowans slept, the Iowa Legislature enacted substantial changes to the way city and county governments fund public services.

There was no chance for public input, or for analysis by legislative staff. With no apparent sense of irony, the bill’s supporters argued the purpose was to increase transparency for voters.

On Thursday, Governor Reynolds signed the bill out of the public eye, issuing only a one-sentence statement repeating the same claims and ignoring the real impacts.

In this one bill, the Legislature managed to enshrine minority rule, punish public-sector workers (yet again), penalize economic growth, and hamstring cities and counties recovering from a natural disaster.

The bill will limit the growth of property taxes levied by cities and counties to 2 percent each year. Local elected officials will need a two-thirds vote to do more, if they find that their constituents’ needs demand it. So much for majority rule and local democracy.

The bill threatens city services and the local public workers who provide them. Employee benefits, such as health insurance and contributions to pension funds, until now could be financed by a special tax rate, in recognition that the rising cost of health insurance and fixed pension contributions are outside city or county control. These costs have been increasing more than 2 percent annually, often much more. But now they go under that arbitrary 2 percent cap.

There was much attention — deservedly so — to how various versions of the bill would affect IPERS pension benefits. This ultimately served to distract many from much broader impacts.

When pension contributions and health insurance premiums increase more than 2 percent, the city or county may have to reduce services, cut benefits, or lay off workers to keep overall tax growth under the cap. The bill pits taxpayers against the people who plow their streets, protect their homes, build roads, or maintain parks and libraries.

When services are cut, public employees can be portrayed as the scapegoats, which will be convenient to the forces that have threatened public employee pensions. Turning Iowa’s secure pension programs over to less-secure, privately run for-profit administrators remains a goal for those forces.

The new bill also penalizes local governments for pursuing growth. A last-minute change in the legislation puts revenue from new construction under the 2 percent cap.

As a result, cities and counties experiencing significant growth may be forced to cut rates year after year and will find themselves without the revenue to support the growth if they can’t muster the supermajority. For example, a city growing at 4 percent per year would face a revenue penalty of 17 percent within five years.

Another last-minute change left in place existing levy limits, which would have been abolished under both earlier bills. So now cities and counties face two limits, one on rates and another on revenue growth.

The combination could be devastating in some circumstances. Consider a flood, or a recession causing a loss of property value. The rate cap forces revenues to decline for any city or county at or near the rate limit, which includes the vast majority of localities.

Then, as the recession ends or the city rebuilds, the revenue cap could now undermine recovery. The reduced revenue becomes the new starting point, potentially leaving a city or county unable to restore revenues even to the previous level because of the 2 percent limit on revenue increases. And this just at a time when extraordinary measures are needed to help the recovery.

One has to wonder if more transparency in the process might have helped legislators find a better outcome — or at least helped their constituents to argue for one.

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

Editor’s Note: This post updates and expands upon a previous post about this legislation, prior to the governor’s signing of the bill.