Gambling with workers’ lives

As of mid-November, viral outbreaks in the meatpacking industry have resulted in almost 50,000 COVID-19 cases and over 250 deaths. This tragic and unnecessary toll stems from the attack on meatpacking unions (which weakened worker power in the plants), the collapse of (or failure to enforce) state and local safety standards, the calculated negligence of employers, and the appalling deference of state and federal officials to the industry. The inescapable conclusion: Packing companies were willing to gamble with workers’ lives to keep the line running.

Well, that willingness to roll the dice is no longer just a useful metaphor. A new lawsuit filed against Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Iowa charges that a meatpacking plant manager organized a “cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers” on how many workers at the northern Iowa facility would test positive for coronavirus. (Tyson has denied the allegations, although the supervisors in question have been suspended.)

Tyson’s COVID lottery lays bare the shocking contempt that bosses at the Waterloo plant and throughout the industry have toward meatpacking workers. The lawsuit (which Tyson is trying to have heard in federal court on the grounds that President Trump’s April executive order ordering the packing plants to stay open forced their hand) also details the company’s failure to provide any meaningful social distancing or protective equipment, directives to visibly-ill line workers and supervisors to stay on the job, and even incentives (a $500 “thank you bonus”) for workers who turned up for shifts whether they were sick or healthy.

The U.S. workplace is a tyrannical place, and Tyson bosses have wielded their power in unusually callous and — if these allegations are true — even sadistic ways. But such behavior thrives in part because it is abetted by public policies that neglect to check that that tyranny in any meaningful way.

The suit against Tyson dovetails with a complaint, filed this week by the Iowa ACLU and others, which argues that the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has abdicated its responsibility to protect Iowa workers.

Like many states, Iowa operates its own OSHA plan. The state plan is largely funded by federal dollars and is required to operate “at least as effectively” as the federal program. But as the ACLU complaint details, it has been an exercise in indifference.

Iowa OSHA conducts no “strategic enforcement” of health and safety law, simply fielding complaints.  And that is about the end of it. Of nearly 150 COVID-19 related complaints filed between February and October, Iowa OSHA investigated only five — closing the rest without a second look. As of early October, despite the viral outbreaks in Iowa meatpacking, the industry had received no safety citations (for violations of workplace safety standards), and just one recordkeeping violation — resulting in a paltry $957 fine for an Iowa Premium Beef plant that sickened 338 of its 850 workers and then lied about it to local public health officials.

The pattern and process of handling complaints neatly captures Iowa OSHA’s priorities. For workers, the complaint process is a textbook example of administrative burden, in which access to basic social protections or services is discouraged by unnecessarily onerous or complicated filing procedures.  In 2020, Iowa OSHA’s complaint form is an English-only PDF that must be downloaded, filled in, and mailed back to OSHA.

For employers, in 97 percent of cases, the complaint process looks like this: Iowa OSHA notifies you of the complaint, by phone, and then with a follow-up letter that reads in part: “Our office has received a complaint concerning possible safety and/or health hazards at your worksite. … We have not determined whether the hazards, as alleged, exist at your workplace; and we are not conducting an investigation at this time.  However, since allegations of violations have been made, you should investigate … and make any necessary corrections or modifications … and advise in writing of your findings and the action you have taken.”

Rough translation: One of your workers complained. We don’t believe them and are not going to do anything about it. If you want to pretend to do something about and send us a picture of what you did, you can.

The closing pages of the ACLU complaint bring us back to the Tyson plant in Waterloo. While managers, steering well clear of the plant floor, placed their bets on COVID cases among workers, there was little evident effort to keep those number down. “Some people are wearing homemade masks, some people are wearing bandanas, and some people aren’t wearing anything,” as the Black Hawk County Sheriff observed during a plant visit in April — adding that Tyson “felt like they were doing a good job, and we walked out of their thinking. ‘Oh my goodness, if this is the bare minimum, this isn’t enough.’”

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for Common Good Iowa. He is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and is author of the State of Working Iowa series at CGI and formerly the Iowa Policy Project.

This piece also appeared in Jacobin magazine.

No recovery, but benefits suspended

By Colin Gordon

Unemployment insurance is primarily a state responsibility but, in any severe or prolonged stretch of economic recession, the states rely on federal assistance. 

This can take the form — as in the various provisions of the Families First and CARES Acts — of federally funded expansions or extensions of eligibility, supplemental benefits, or grants to cover administrative expenses. 

A key element of this assistance is the extended benefits (EB) program, which offers an additional 13 weeks of benefits (half paid with federal dollars) and “triggers” on when the state’s insured unemployment rate (the share of the workforce receiving unemployment insurance) is above 5 percent for 13 consecutive weeks. 

The EB “trigger” is a notoriously clumsy tool, but it flipped “on” in almost every state this spring. On Friday, the Department of Labor announced that Iowa’s extended benefits had triggered off — a development that Iowa Workforce Development cheered as evidence of “Iowa’s economic recovery.” The EB will stop paying claims at the end of October, even if recipients have not received the full 13 weeks of benefits. 

Wait, what recovery? While Iowa has ground its insured unemployment rate down under 5 percent, that metric is a pretty dubious indicator that the labor market has rebounded to anything close to normal. The insured unemployment rate is as much a reflection of policy as it is as the health of the economy. It does not count those who applied for benefits but were turned down, those who have exhausted their benefits, or those who — in the face of an unrelenting virus, a lousy job market, and a cascade of familial obligations — have given up looking for work entirely.

Let’s consider the real numbers. In September (the most recent month available), based on the survey data that generates our monthly unemployment measure, about 75,800 Iowans were unemployed. According to the administrative data from the unemployment insurance program itself, in the week of October 17th (the most recent week available) about 46,500 — about 60 percent of the unemployed — were receiving benefits. Surely the actual unemployment rate — and not the share of those that manage to navigate an increasingly tight-fisted claims process — is the better measure of recovery.

Even more dramatic is the collapse in the size of the labor force. While 75,800 Iowans are out of work and looking for a job, nearly twice as many (almost 144,000) have dropped out of the labor force entirely since February. If we include these discouraged workers as effectively unemployed, the state’s unemployment would 12.5 percent — close to its COVID recession peak, and a long way from recovery.

The loss of extended benefits is one more blow for an already beleaguered workforce. The $600 PUC bump in weekly unemployment benefits evaporated in July, the Lost Wages Assistance program cobbled together out of FEMA funds lasted just a few weeks

While the prospect any new federal stimulus program looks slimmer each day, rates of food and housing insecurity in Iowa are climbing. The “insured rate” recovery is a statistical artifact; it’s a measure of the weakness of our social safety net and not of economic security or prosperity experienced by working Iowans. 

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for Common Good Iowa, a new organization created by the merger of two nonpartisan policy organizations, the Iowa Policy Project and the Child and Family Policy Center. Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and a respected analyst on work and economic issues, particularly those facing low-income and marginalized groups in Iowa and the Midwest.

Also from Colin Gordon:

The State of Working Iowa 2020

Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity and Public Policy in the Midwest

Good move on utility relief

Past-due utility bills, like rent and mortgage payments, are a part of family budgets affected by job losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In the summer, Governor Kim Reynolds used federal CARES money to subsidize low-income families’ housing needs. Now, she is improving on it.

Last week, the Governor announced that up to $2,000 for a family can be used to pay past-due electric, natural gas and water bills through a new Residential Utility Disruption Prevention Program. State agency data shows that 185,000 families have overdue utility bills and that the amount of arrearage is nearly $30 million. 

The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) already determines which families might be eligible for such aid. State officials will coordinate the new program with LIHEAP. 

This policy move is overdue, but welcome. Much of the $1.25 billion given to Iowa through CARES has gone to business either in direct payments or to reduce unemployment insurance obligations. 

The latter, in particular, was a poor use of emergency funding because it was not addressing any sort of emergency, while many Iowans have been struggling economically during the pandemic. By contrast, using the funds for the most vulnerable Iowans — as the Governor is doing with this new program — is both a responsible and effective response to help Iowans who without it would be left behind. 

David Osterberg is the senior environment and energy researcher at Common Good Iowa, a nonpartisan policy analysis organization created by the merger of the Iowa Policy Project and the Child and Family Policy Center.

Climate lessons from COVID

Climate change experts at Iowa colleges and universities have for 10 years produced annual statements about Iowa impacts of human-caused changes to the atmosphere. This year’s statement comes at the same time another serious crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, is upon us. We can learn from this, as suggested by the statement title, “Will COVID-19 Lessons Help Us Survive Climate Change?”

Unfortunately, in the face of political polarization, some have taken up the strategy of de-legitimizing science, but this distrust in expert guidance has led to preventable deaths and economic damage to working people and businesses,” said Dave Courard-Hauri, chair of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Drake University. See the news release.

More than 230 teachers and researchers at 37 colleges and universities across the state have agreed to a one-page statement describing how the COVID-19 experience should inform how we deal with climate change.

This thumbnail of the statement notes “three important lessons from the current pandemic that apply to our understanding of climate mitigation and adaptation in Iowa”:

— The best available science as described by professional organizations remains by far the most reliable source of information.

— The cost of late action far outweighs the costs of prevention and preparation.

— Building community resilience against multiple threats is critical, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

Expanding on the third point, the statement notes, “Inequity reduces resilience, leaving poor communities, particularly communities of color, disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate-related natural disasters, just as they are to disease.”

The statement concludes with this sentence: “Our smart investments now will better prepare us for the coming decades when extreme climate events (such as floods, damaging winds, heat, and drought) will become more common and more severe.”

David Osterberg is senior environment and energy researcher at Common Good Iowa.

IPP News: Opportunities to reform policing, community safety in Iowa


New IPP report identifies key data, potential for reform in state, local budgets



IOWA CITY, Iowa (July 22, 2020) — Police spending per capita has grown over the past 30 years and consumes a greater budget share in Iowa’s seven largest cities, while social spending has on average declined, a new report shows.

The May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and other widely documented cases of police brutality have prompted large-scale protests in Iowa and nationally, and have put a fresh spotlight on police spending and police practices.

In their new report, “Policing, public safety and community priorities,” Iowa Policy Project (IPP) authors Colin Gordon and Peter Fisher identify spending trends by state and local governments, not only for policing but other key public services.

Among their findings:
·      Police and corrections make up about 5 percent of all state and local government spending in Iowa, a level largely unchanged over three decades.
·      The share of such direct spending by cities and counties has grown.
·      Larger urban settings in Iowa have a well-documented pattern of disproportionate minority contact.
·      The three state university cities — Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls — spend the least on police among cities of 20,000 or more. This may relate to separate university public safety departments in those communities. But social program funding has shrunk as a budget share in those cities.
·      The share of budgets going to police in suburbs and smaller non-metro cities has varied, while budgets have shrunk for social services in many small cities.
·      Police spending is not directly related to population diversity, regardless of city size.
·      Spending levels tell nothing about how police practices might vary.

“Public budgets represent our values and priorities,” said Fisher, IPP research director. “The average spending share for the seven largest cities in 2017 was 21.6 percent, and averaged over 20 percent for the other cities of 20,000 population or more, except for the university cities. The new focus on policing reform will have an impact across a wide range of priorities.”

Fisher said cities and counties do have options to meet locally identified needs from policing to social services, despite substantial constraints in state law on local control of funding options. The report, however, also pointed out fundamental change in funding of education, social services, and family supports will require state action.

“Cities account for lion’s share of expenditures on policing, but spend little on social services other than housing. Social supports and education, in turn, are largely the responsibility of jurisdictions — states, school districts — that spend little or nothing on policing,” the report stated.

The report notes current “push for change revolves around two arguments with budget and policy implications for police and other public services.

“The first is simply that our system is fundamentally broken,” the report notes. “The starkest evidence on this point is the pervasive and systemic racial inequity woven throughout our criminal justice system.

“The second argument is that a share of the resources we devote to policing could and should be spent more strategically and effectively. In this sense, the question is one of budgetary priorities.”

Gordon and Fisher do not make recommendations about police procedures, but lay a foundation of budget and debate context that Iowans may use as they “re-imagine” public safety.

“As Iowa communities grapple with these issues, it is important to understand the basic elements of proposals, the arguments and evidence behind them, and the policy and budget implications,” said Gordon, senior research consultant at IPP and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

The report states the policy implications are wide-ranging. It specifically notes interest that has grown in one approach, community policing — considered less adversarial and oriented more than traditional policing to reconciliation, relationship development and local trust.

“It is the first priority of the city of Iowa City’s 17-joint response to demands of the Iowa Freedom Riders,” Gordon noted. “People in Iowa communities want to be at the table. This is particularly true for those who have been left out by a structure that has protected wealth and white power, skewing interactions between police and the broader community and people of color.”

The report notes that the state can play an important role in police operations at the local level, as shown by unanimous passage of a bill in June restricting police use of chokeholds, mandates de-escalation training and other measures. However, some lawmakers wanted other steps, including a study of racial profiling practices, and such proposals were left to future legislative action.

Find the report on the Iowa Policy Project website,

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Historically high: Jobless claims vs Great Recession

New unemployment claims are trending down, but still rising and in the latest week were still nearly as high as the worst week of the Great Recession.

The pace of new unemployment claims slowed in Iowa to 13,040 for the week ending May 16, but still nearly as high as new claims in the worst week of the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the running total of new claims since mid-March — at 313,150 — is about 18 percent of Iowa’s entire labor force.

On top of that, Iowa has slowly begun to process claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the federally funded benefits for those ineligible for regular UI. In the week ending May 9, there were 15,219 Iowans on continuing PUA claims and 4,552 new applications.

The PUA has enormous potential for the self-employed, independent contractors, platform or “gig” workers, and new entrants to the labor force. It pays a weekly benefit of between $200 and $590 (depending on earnings and dependents). Once approved, recipients can received up to 39 weeks of benefits — retroactive to early February and running through December. Receipt of PUA benefits brings with it another $600 month in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), the federal top-off that runs through the last week of July.

All of this is funded entirely with federal dollars — making it an important source of economic stimulus for the state as well.

But the rollout of the PUA has been slow. Initial applicants were summarily rejected by Iowa Workforce Development and the first payments did not trickle out until almost two months after the program was put in place. And the number of new and continuing PUA claims in Iowa (just under 20,000) as of this morning is very low given the number of Iowans that could benefit from this program (taken together, those reporting some form of self-employment income and new entrants probably account for about 20 percent of the labor force). Under normal conditions, Iowa pays unemployment claims to only about 41 percent of the unemployed. The PUA could and should extend that coverage dramatically.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Churchill’s words for Iowa’s future

Iowans should take this opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient state that is forward facing and not just rebuilding what came before.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” — Winston Churchill.

Mass government spending and social distancing nearly everywhere is a response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Perhaps we, like Winston Churchill, writing during World War II, might find a silver lining.

There is a sense of national unity or purpose, an outpouring of selfless action by medical professionals, and a renewed sense of national urgency to “Wash your damn hands!” What is intriguing to me is the number of individuals who — if they are still working — are suddenly shifted to a work from home situation and the follow-on effects that this has had.

While not all the “dolphins returning to the canals of Venice videos” are real (sorry!), the reduction of air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in China are observable and documented.[1] European cities are seeing similar reductions in GHG emissions and air pollution. A similar impact may soon be seen in the United States as “shelter in place” directives, which cut driving and factory production, take hold across the nation. The economic slowdown from the spread of COVID-19 could lead to a 9 percent reduction of emissions from the sector that is the largest GHG generator across the nation.

The transportation sector is the largest source of GHG emissions nationwide, and nearly one-third of all miles driven are for commuting purposes.[2] While only 5 percent of Americans regularly work from home today,[3] the Bureau of Labor believes that nearly one-third of Americans could do so.[4] Winston Churchill might ask: How can this be made sustainable?

From recent personal experience, working from home, especially if your partner also is now working from home, requires very few things — a comfy chair, a tub of salted pretzels, and high-speed internet. I am fortunate that I live in an area with access to broadband, but many Iowans find broadband access prohibitively expensive or lack access at any price. My own family members who live in rural areas of Iowa have experienced broadband access problems.

This disparity is well known to Governor Kim Reynolds’ office, which has encouraged the growth of broadband throughout the state through a grants program.[5] Even with this support, much of Iowa remains in a broadband desert, without access to the high-speed internet that allows for teleworking options for Iowans. The blue-shaded areas in the map below indicate areas lacking 25-megabit-per second download speed and 3-megabit upload speed, known as 25/3 broadband, in June 2018.[6]

Similarly lacking in quality are Iowa roads. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives Iowa an overall grade of “C,” with an even lower grade of D+ and D for our bridges and dams.[7] This is also not a new phenomenon, and the old joke of the Midwest having two sessions, winter and construction, points to the constant state of improvements we often find.

With these poor infrastructure grades in mind, how do we make the crisis of COVID-19 not go to waste? The federal government is passing legislation and considering more policy to provide needed financial support for workers, businesses, and the states.

While funds must first go to supporting those who have lost their jobs and for healthcare, infrastructure programs are also a way to quickly inject money into local economies once the crisis has subsided. We can even ensure some workers stay employed as we increase infrastructure construction during these economic lean times.

How? We can super-charge telecommunications investments by the state, either directly or via low-interest loans and grants to existing telecommunication firms. We can use the available public right-of-way that exists on local and state roads to lay fiber for broadband communication capacity across the state while also jump-starting road and bridge repair projects.

When telecom companies are given loans or grants, they should come with price caps to ensure that broadband service extensions are actually used by the rural public. Roads should be rebuilt with an eye less toward peak commuting travel, but more realistic travel demands in a world with expanded telecommuting and reduced motorist traffic.

In short, Iowans should take this opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient state that is forward facing and not just rebuilding what came before. And, they should ensure that fair and prevailing wages are paid for all construction contracts.

This time is one full of heartbreak for families directly affected by COVID-19 and anxiety for those wondering if and when their own family will fall ill. Industries are struggling and the economy may be grinding to a halt by the swift application of painful, but necessary, distancing efforts.

But within these trying times is an opportunity to respond with the future in mind. Like Churchill said, we should not let this crisis go to waste.









Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. He has been an intern at the Iowa Policy Project during the 2019-20 school year.

JobWatch: Tough January, rough 2019


First net job loss over calendar year since Great Recession

IOWA CITY, Iowa (March 16, 2020) — Iowa payroll jobs dropped in January for the third straight month, the latest official numbers confirming a net job loss for 2019.

The nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project released this statement from executive director Mike Owen about the preliminary January numbers reported Monday by Iowa Workforce Development. February numbers are expected later this month.

“Today’s report does not bode well for Iowa jobs or the Iowa economy as we face the two-pronged challenge of public health threats and economic uncertainty with the spread of the coronavirus.

“Iowa had not experienced a full-year job loss since the last recession, and January did not improve that outlook. While the one-month job loss of 900 appears small, the longer look shows it to be part of a decline of 6,400 from January to January.

“For the calendar-year 2019, the total job loss was1,300. We had not seen a net job loss over a calendar year in Iowa since the Great Recession in 2008-09.

“Since January, the Reynolds administration has pushed a tax-cut proposal. The latest job news might change that strategy as this is no time to be reducing revenues. The state must use the funds we have to invest in supports for working families whom we can expect to struggle in the near term.

“Boosting access to health care, food assistance, unemployment benefits and paid sick leave are important components of a plan to invest in those who will determine the quality of Iowa’s future.”

Key Numbers for January 2020

Nonfarm jobs dropped by 900 to 1,584,500, the third straight monthly drop and fifth in six months.
Iowa’s unemployment rate held at the revised level of 2.8 percent, previously reported at 2.7 percent for December. That compares with 2.7 percent in January 2019.
Four of the 11 major job categories showed gains in January, and six showed declines, with no sector showing a change of 1,000 or more. Government showed the biggest gain, only 900, with construction at 800.
Manufacturing was down 800, as was trade and transportation.

Key Trends

Iowa lost a net 6,400 jobs from January 2019 to January 2020.

For the calendar year 2019, nonfarm jobs averaged a 100-job monthly decline. In 2018, jobs declined in only four of the 12 months; in 2019, they increased in only four of the 12 months.

The year was the first since 2009 with a net drop in payroll or nonfarm jobs. Jobs dropped by 15,600 in 2008 and 47,800 in 2009. For calendar 2019, Iowa lost 1,300 jobs.

From January 2019 to January 2020, the “other services” category led gains at 2,200, followed by leisure and hospitality at 1,800 and government at 1,300. Trade and transportation led declines at 4,800, followed by professional and business services at 2,500, manufacturing at 1,300, information at 1,100, and education and health services, also 1,100.

The Iowa Policy Project (IPP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research and analysis organization based in Iowa City. IPP has been tracking Iowa job trends since its founding in 2001 and has regularly provided reflections on official monthly job reports since 2003.


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New tax limits mock transparency

In one bill, lawmakers enshrine minority rule, punish public workers (again), penalize economic growth and hamstring cities recovering from natural disaster.

curtains-tighterMocking transparency for voters, taxpayers

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, while most Iowans slept, the Iowa House enacted a sweeping change to the way city and county governments fund public services, approving a bill that had passed the Senate just the evening before. In this one bill, the Legislature managed to enshrine minority rule, punish public-sector workers (yet again), penalize economic growth, and hamstring cities recovering from a natural disaster. With no apparent sense of irony or hypocrisy, the bill’s supporters argued the purpose was to increase transparency for voters.

Removing democracy in local decisions

The bill would limit the growth of property taxes levied by cities and counties to 2 percent each year. If local officials, elected to set budgets and decide how to finance them, find that the services their constituents are demanding require that revenues exceed that 2 percent, they cannot do so unless two-thirds of the council or board agree. So much for majority rule and local democracy.

Eroding employee benefits and security

How does this bill hurt city and county employees? Under current law, tax rates for the city and county general funds, and the county rural services fund, are limited. But the law recognizes that increases in employee benefits are to a large degree outside the control of local elected officials. The state sets the employer contributions required each year to maintain the solvency of public employee pension funds, while increases in premiums for health insurance are set by the insurance companies.

Both costs have been increasing more than 2 percent annually, often much more.[1] Under current law, a separate property tax levy for employee benefits can be increased to the rate needed to fund those benefits.

No longer. Under the bill just passed, employee benefits must now be financed along with all other public services, under the 2 percent cap. When pension contributions and health insurance premiums increase more than 2 percent, the cost of providing services goes up but the city or county may be unable to accommodate the cost increases without cutting services which means laying off the workers who provide them to keep overall spending 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.

Imposing a penalty on economic growth

The new bill also penalizes local governments for pursuing growth. There were earlier House and Senate bills that sought to limit property taxes, and the fiscal notes explaining those bills and their impact were just released on Tuesday. Both of those bills would have repealed the tax rate limits under current law, replacing them with the revenue growth caps, and would have applied the growth caps only to taxes from the revaluation of existing properties. New construction for a given year, which generates new property tax base that pays for the additional services needed to accommodate growth, would not count against a city’s new limit on property tax revenue. Under those earlier proposals, the taxes generated by new construction would not be part of the revenue increase that is limited.

But on Wednesday evening, the Senate replaced the existing bill with a new one, and then passed it and sent it on to the House. The new version keeps the rate limits in place, in addition to imposing the growth limit, and it does not exempt new construction from the limit. The effect is to severely penalize cities and counties that experience economic growth.

Under the previous versions, a city experiencing annual growth through the revaluation of existing properties at 2 percent or less would not be constrained by the law if they keep the property tax rate the same from year to year, regardless of how fast they grow. But under the new version that passed, a city levying at the maximum $8.10 levy rate and experiencing 2 percent increases in the value of existing properties, but growing from new construction at the rate of 3 percent as well, would see revenues decline by 13 percent within five years compared to current law, or the previous bills. Increase that growth rate to 4 percent, and the penalty becomes 17 percent in five years.

Will cities and counties even want to grow, knowing that they are not going to be allowed to raise the revenue needed to service the new business and new population? Did legislators even recognize that the new bill contained this growth penalty when they voted for it? Or was that the idea — to penalize the growing areas, which are predominantly urban?

Imposing a penalty on economic disaster

At the same time, the bill would hamstring cities trying to recover from a natural disaster, or from a loss in taxable value due to an economic downturn or from the vagaries of Iowa’s assessment rollbacks. Cities and counties now would face two caps: the existing rate cap, and the revenue growth cap. The combination could be devastating. When taxable value declines, say to a loss of property value after a major flood or recession, the rate cap ensures that revenues will decline with the loss in tax base, for any city or county at or near the rate limit. But as the recession ends or the city rebuilds, the new 2 percent revenue cap could now undermine recovery. The reduced revenue becomes the new starting point, so as taxable value increases again, they may be unable to restore revenues even to the previous level because they are constrained to 2 percent increases per year. And this just at a time when extraordinary measures are needed to help the recovery.

[1] The average premium for group health insurance provided by governmental bodies in the Midwest has increased on average 3.5 percent per year for the past three years, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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

Iowa jobs: Where we are

Over a decade later, post-recession Iowa is way behind where it should be in jobs, wages and economic security.

Over a decade since the housing bubble burst in late 2007, and almost nine years since the start of the recovery, we are far from where we should be in job growth, wages, and economic security.

Iowa climbed back to pre-recession levels of nonfarm employment in July 2013. But, as the recovery staggers along, that threshold becomes increasingly meaningless. Since 2007, the state has continued to add to its labor force through immigration, domestic in-migration, and high school or college graduation.

Just to keep pace with growth in the working-age population (about 7 percent since 2007), while sustaining pre-recession rates of employment and labor force participation, we should have added (as of last month) 106,100 net jobs over that span. Instead, we gained back only 67,800 jobs — leaving a jobs deficit of 38,300.  For the latest numbers, see our monthly “JobWatch” report.

In turn, we face another persistent deficit: a shortage of good jobs. In our State of Working Iowa discussion of wages, we underscored remarkably weak wage growth in Iowa despite historically low rates of unemployment.

This partly reflects the lack of worker bargaining power: Without access to collective bargaining and robust, well-enforced labor standards, there is little prospect of winning wage real and lasting gains. And in part, this reflects the changing contours of Iowa’s labor market. Over the last generation, and across the last business cycle, we are steadily trading good jobs for bad.

Two factors are driving the loss of good jobs: the composition of jobs (which sectors are growing or declining), and the quality of jobs (declining wages and standards within sectors or occupations).

During the recession, employment losses were heaviest in middle- and high-wage sectors of the economy — especially manufacturing, which shed nearly 30,000 jobs between December 2007 and June 2009. Early in the recovery, these losses continued and — in Iowa and across the nation — job gains were concentrated in low-wage occupations.


The pattern of gains and losses across sectors in Iowa is summarized in the figure above. As of late 2018, large recessionary losses in manufacturing and information have still not been recovered (indeed, the information sector continued to shed jobs during the recovery).

The largest net gains are in the low-wage leisure and hospitality sector, construction, professional and business services, and education and health services.

In the latter, the job gains are all on the health care side of the ledger. This largely reflects hiring in health care in response to a surge in demand sparked by increased coverage under the Affordable Care Act — something to consider about the consequences of public policy choices on health care.


2015-CG-5464Colin Gordon is Senior Research Consultant for the Iowa Policy Project.

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