IPP News: Scant progress against Iowa water pollution


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Scant progress against Iowa water pollution
New report examines water quality in Iowa and Mississippi River Basin

IOWA CITY, Iowa (Nov. 17, 2016) — Despite voluntary conservation efforts under Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, progress against nutrient pollution remains elusive.

“All Iowans want to see progress in meeting our goals to improve water quality,” said Sara Conrad, research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP) and lead author of a new report. “Not only do Iowans want cleaner water, but we deserve more accountability than we are getting for our state’s efforts to date.”

The new report from Conrad and David Osterberg of IPP and Michael Burkart, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher and Iowa State University professor, “Water Quality in Iowa and the Mississippi River Basin,” is available at www.iowapolicyproject.org.

Osterberg noted billions of state and federal dollars have been spent to improve water quality.

“The nation is demanding more progress,” Osterberg said. “The Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico are being damaged by continued nutrient pollution by nitrogen and phosphorus. This is a problem of land management, and no one is requiring the managers of the land to do better.”

The report examines progress toward goals of the 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), Iowa’s voluntary approach to the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution.

The report found:

  • No improvement in the size of the hypoxic zone — or “dead zone” — in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Progress is overstated in the latest annual report for the NRS, with insufficient focus on long-term trends in conservation reserve acreage and instances where producers have abandoned conservation practices.
  • While the use of cover crops has expanded, the 400,000 acres in cover crops in 2015 represents less than 2 percent of the 24 million acres in harvested row crops.
  • Iowa farmers, in the Iowa State University Rural Life Poll, show more awareness of the NRS, but not necessarily of their need to participate in solutions.
  • Monitoring for particulate and dissolved phosphorus in Iowa lakes and reservoirs has been stagnant, though river and stream monitoring has increased.

“Monitoring nutrient loads in watersheds is critical to accurately reporting trends to both the taxpayers paying for conservation and farmers implementing them,” said Burkart.

Conrad said “the science is clear.”

“Iowa must continue efforts to reduce nutrient levels in Iowa watersheds to improve water quality in not only Iowa’s streams and rivers but also the overall Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico,” she said.

The NRS report noted the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) shows increased acreage over the last five years. The IPP researchers said that isn’t the whole story.

“In fact, the longer-term trend is less positive,” Osterberg said. “Even with that recent improvement, Iowa remained a half million acres below the 2 million acres it once had in CRP.”

Researchers also noted farmers’ investment in conservation. In Iowa State University’s Farm and Rural Life Poll, 51 percent of farmers reported spending nothing on conservation in the 10 years prior to the 2011 survey. This improved by 2014, but even then, more than 40 percent of producers spent less than $5,000 over the previous 10 years, or less than $500 per year.

Moreover, the researchers pointed out, nearly half of farmers surveyed reported they were not certain their farms contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf.

“Clearly, awareness of the NRS is not enough to assure good practices are adopted voluntarily, and maintained.” Conrad said.

“Iowa’s efforts under the NRS show minimal if any progress on the health of the Gulf of Mexico, let alone Iowa’s waters. At best, we can say Iowa has not increased nutrient levels in streams. We need to actually reduce those levels to substantively reduce the size of the Gulf hypoxic zone and improve the health of Iowa water systems.”

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization based in Iowa City. Reports are available at www.iowapolicyproject.org.

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We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the McKnight Foundation and the Fred and Charlotte Hubbell Foundation, which made the preparation of this report possible. While these funders support the research that went into this report, they may not necessarily agree with policy recommendations that are included. Policy recommendations are solely the perspective of the authors and the Iowa Policy Project.

The hope for nonpartisan dialogue to practical strategies on issues

Editor’s Note: This post ran on Charles Bruner’s blog as “Light at the end of the party conventions.” Bruner is a former co-director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, the fiscal policy analysis collaboration of the Iowa Policy Project and the Child and Family Policy Center, two Iowa-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations.

By Charlie Bruner

America needs every one of us to lend our energy, our talents, our ambition to making our nation better and stronger —where you can get a good job and send your kids to a good school, no matter what zip code you live in, where all our children can dream, and those dreams are within reach.

When I am President, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally and protected equally. Every action I take, I will ask myself: Does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Detroit, in Ferguson who have in every way the same right to live out their dreams as any other child in America?

There is an old saw that says: “I went to a hockey fight and, lo and behold, a game broke out.” I watched much of both political party conventions – and, lo and behold, amidst all the partisan rhetoric and campaigning, at least one common “issue/concern” was raised.

The above are direct quotes from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as they accepted their party’s nomination for President. The first paragraph is from Clinton’s speech, the second from Trump’s. Taking them at face value, the challenge is now for a public dialogue to “break out” that begins to build consensus around responses.

The common sentiments these statements express require actions that cannot be achieved by whoever is elected President, through the power of that office alone. Ultimately, as an electorate and as stewards of our future, we need to insist on a dialogue that goes beyond expressing these sentiments to developing practical and proximate strategies — public and private, professional and voluntary — that will enable us to realize them.

In such a dialogue, Democrats may stress the need for public responses that provide additional income and service supports and a proactive government that ensures a living wage to reduce material poverty. Republicans may stress the need for greater personal responsibility and community initiative based upon indigenous leadership that fosters more points of light within poor communities to enhance personal efficacy. In the end, the solution (for reasons of achievable politics and most effective policy) is not a matter of either/or, but of both/and.

These statements should be seen and used as an opportunity for us to insist on further, deliberative dialogue — dialogue that goes beyond sound bite proclamations mapping out a partisan political position. It is incumbent, for our children and our nation, that this dialogue does “break out” in ways that lead to that action, not only at the Presidential campaign level but in our states, communities, and neighborhoods.

At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

08-Bruner-5464 Charlie Bruner is Director Emeritus of the Child and Family Policy Center, which he founded as he completed 12 years as an elected Iowa state legislator. Prior to that, he received his Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University and has had different stints at both teaching and research. Thus, he brings three dubious backgrounds — academic, politician, and advocate — to his current work as a co-principal investigator for the Learning Collaborative on Health Equity and Young Children (see: childequity.org for his website).

Join us Sept. 15 to celebrate IPP’s 15th anniversary

The Iowa Policy Project is 15 years old and we’re having a party. Join us for our anniversary reception and help us move forward to the next 15!

Bill Stowe on clean water • Peter Fisher on work supports •
and more!


Hors d’oeuvres, cash bar — 6 p.m. • Program — 6:45 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $50 per person • Sponsorships available • RSVP TODAY!

Featuring: Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works
Hear from the CEO and General Manager of Des Moines Water Works, one of Iowa’s most prominent advocates of clean water stewardship.

Sneak Preview: The Cost of Living in Iowa Part 3 — Work Supports
IPP Research Director Peter Fisher will offer a peek at upcoming analysis of how Iowa can enhance eligibility for child care assistance so that working families are not penalized if they work more or achieve a slight boost in pay.

Special recognition by co-founder David Osterberg of early IPP supporters
Mark L. Smith, G. David Hurd and Fred and Charlotte Hubbell

And a silent auction you won’t want to miss!

RSVP today — download this response form to order tickets or become a sponsor.

INDIVIDUAL TICKETS: $50 per person

LOOPHOLE CLOSER — $1,000 and above
POLICY WONK — $500 to $999
JOB COUNTER — $200 to $299

PIE ENLARGER — $5,000 and above
PLAYING FIELD LEVELER — $2,500 to $4,999

Give us a call at (319) 338-0773 for more information. Thank you!

ALEC Lauds Tax Cutting States

Once again ALEC is pushing its discredited notion that tax cuts are a potent tool to promote state economic growth, defying the preponderance of serious research.

Once again the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is pushing its discredited notion that tax cuts are a potent tool to promote state economic growth. While the preponderance of serious research indicates that cuts to a state’s income tax or its business taxes have little positive effect on a state’s economy, and may well prove harmful to the long term prospects for growth and for increased prosperity, ALEC continues to push its anti-tax anti-government agenda. The latest effort is its State Tax Cut Roundup for the 2015 legislative session.

ALEC lays out in this report its principles of good tax policy, based for the most part on standard economic principles of taxation (transparency, simplicity, neutrality, fairness, reliability, and revenue adequacy), plus the need for balance between state and local governments, and its favorite: pro-growth policies, or economic competitiveness. As in other ALEC reports on tax policy, however, the discussion here is exclusively on ALEC’s notion of pro-growth tax policy — tax cuts of pretty much any variety. It is, after all, the Tax Cut Roundup, but there are no corresponding ALEC reports called the “State Tax Fairness Roundup” or the “State Tax Revenue Adequacy Roundup.”

The recent experience of Kansas should be caution enough against tax cutting as economic policy. For advocates of income tax cutting, Kansas was to be the poster child. Governor Sam Brownback signed legislation in 2012 slashing income taxes and cutting the state budget by over 13 percent. The tax cuts had been pushed by Stephen Moore and by Arthur Laffer, author of ALEC’s Rich States, Poor States, who argued they would provide an “immediate and lasting boost” to the economy. But instead of boosting the economy, Kansas GDP actually declined by 1.1 percent in 2013, the first year of the tax cuts, while nationally GDP grew at 1.3 percent. In 2014, Kansas growth once again lagged the nation, 1.4 percent versus 2.2 percent. Estimates for 2015 show the trend continuing, with state GDP growth expected to be just half of the national rate. Read more.

That the underlying ALEC agenda is to shift taxes from upper to lower income groups becomes clear when one contrasts its statement of tax fairness in the State Tax Cut Roundup with the tax policies ALEC actually favors. The principle stated by ALEC is: “The government should not use the tax system to pick winners and losers in society, or unfairly shift the tax burden onto one class of citizens. The tax system should not be used to punish success or to ‘soak the rich,’ engage in discriminatory or multiple taxation, nor should it be used to bestow special favors on any particular group of taxpayers.”

So how do ALEC’s policy prescriptions stack up against the concept of fairness? A state tax system that did not alter the distribution of income, as ALEC supposedly favors, would be a proportional system: It would take the same percentage of income from every income group. However, most state tax systems are regressive: They take a larger percentage of income from lower income groups, because they are dominated by sales, excise and property taxes, and an income tax generally of only modest progressivity.

Yet ALEC invariably applauds income tax cuts, which would make a state’s system more regressive, moving the state further from the goal of neutrality with respect to income distribution. Apparently shifting taxes from upper to lower income groups is the fair thing to do according to ALEC.


2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Peter Fisher is professor emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa. A nationally recognized expert on economic development issues and tax policy, he authored two “Grading Places” books that examined business climate rankings by various organizations, including ALEC. From this research, Fisher and the Iowa Policy Project have developed a new website, Grading the States, at gradingstates.org, to permit timely tracking of such studies and offer context to those wishing to review them. The post above is a version of a recent post by Fisher on the Grading the States website.

School money: Big deal (not really)

Finally, after these many months — 13 months past the legal deadline — Iowa lawmakers have decided what schools are going to receive for the next budget year.

A Des Moines Register story on the deal included this:

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, added this will be the sixth year in a row that schools have received an increase in funding.

Big deal. As if there’s any question that there should be an increase every year. As if any increase, no matter how small, is something schools should celebrate. Especially when you recognize that not all schools receive an increase.

This deal leaves Iowa at around 2 percent per-pupil spending growth, on average, for the last seven years. Understand that a 2.25 percent “Supplemental State Aid” number does not mean all schools get even that meager amount of growth.

For many districts that have declining enrollment, the increase will not keep their budgets where they stood for this year. That means property tax increases. This, from the folks who tell you throughout their legislative campaigns and at Saturday morning coffees that the sun rises and sets on the idea that we have to cut property taxes. These very same legislators are forcing property tax increases for dozens of school districts.

Education is underfunded in Iowa. Education is not the priority, even if it is the greatest share of spending, because it is not funded in a way that reflects any strategic thinking.

If it were, education funding would be the first item determined in the legislative session — for the following budget year, as the law requires.

As it stands, the new number is coming less than one month before school districts certify their own budgets (they don’t get a pass on their April 15 deadline). And the number for FY2018, which was supposed to have been set a month ago, remains an open question and may well not be determined during this legislative session.

Once again Iowa lawmakers have decided that the first priority that needs their attention is figuring out who gets tax breaks. Education then has to fight for what is left over.

It’s not enough to keep up with the bills, and it’s not enough to make sure that we are paying what is necessary to assure we can keep great teachers in the profession, and attract potentially great teachers to the profession.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
Mike Owen is a former journalist in Iowa and Pennsylvania. He has been a member of the West Branch Community School Board since 2006.
What it looked like last year:

Budgeting in the dark — April 13, 2015

Coupling — singling out the winners

And guess who they are? Not schools

We always seem to have money for a business tax break, but not for schools. Last year legislators approved just a 1.25 percent increase for schools, a move made a little more responsible by the addition of $56 million in one-time money for this fiscal year. But the Governor vetoed the $56 million because it was one-time money.

Fast forward to this week: the Legislature just approved $98 million in retroactive tax breaks, most of it for businesses, coming out of this year’s budget surplus — the same source of one-time money that the Governor claimed couldn’t be used for schools. The Governor has said he agrees with the tax breaks.

The $98 million would be the cost of “coupling,” which means the state would go along with selected changes in the federal tax code. It would do some sensible things, but others — not so much, and not for the reasons being promoted.

In the end, this is just one more giveaway to business. Cynically, one legislator pronounced this as a move for “fair tax policy.”

In fact, coupling was agreed to as a condition to set school funding already 13 months past the legal deadline. Those talks may now resume.

There has not been a move to enhance fairness for working families in the Iowa tax code since passage of an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit in 2013, and all general changes in Iowa’s income-tax structure over the last 20 years have been heavily weighted toward the wealthiest.

As to the merits of the “tax coupling” legislation, the spin runs very hot and heavy.

One senator claimed this bill is designed to let taxpayers “make the decision on where to best invest their dollars.” No, it’s not.

Businesses already made their decisions last year on where best to invest their dollars, without benefit of the tax break. All the bill does is give them a subsidy after the fact for decisions already made on their own merits, rather than for tax reasons.

We know this because the federal changes, on which the new state breaks are based, were not approved until December of 2015. If any small business made a decision to buy a big piece of equipment in, say, April or October of last year, they could not have assumed they would have a state tax break for it. The funds for the state break were not budgeted. Governor Branstad didn’t plan on it last year, and neither did the House or Senate.

Perhaps the most disingenuous defense of the coupling bill is that it is needed to help thousands of public school teachers who have to purchase their own supplies. The most any teacher could get out of this bill is $22. Is there any teacher in Iowa who would prefer $22 to adequate funding of schools?

We elect a Legislature to make choices with public money about spending on public priorities. It’s part of being a statewide community.

Now it’s $98 million for “coupling.” It’s not hard to see that education could have had this funding all along as part of the regular budget formula. And $98 million is equivalent to about 2 percent in supplemental state aid for schools, which has been held below 2 percent on average over the last six years.

Once again, we see the ascendancy of business tax breaks above what has long received lip service as the first priority of state government: education.

Posted by Mike Owen and Peter Fisher

Owen-2013-57Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project. A former journalist, he has been a member of the West Branch Board of Education since 2006. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

2010-PFw5464Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project. He is professor emeritus in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Another voice: Subsidizing Server Farms in Iowa

Iowa throws a lot of money at the server farm industry, even though the state’s assets would make it attractive for the industry even without lucrative subsidies.

by Kasia Tarczynska, Good Jobs First

Facebook just announced a third expansion of its $1.5 billion data center in Iowa. This followed a similar move by Google for its server farm in the state. These developments are fruits of the effort by officials to encourage big-name tech companies to locate in Iowa. This private investment, however, does not come free. For example, the $1 billion Google expansion is supported by $19.8 million in state subsidies. Since 2007, Iowa has offered almost $100 million in state tax credits and refunds to Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Google data center facility in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Credit: Google

Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Image via Google

Subsidies to server farms raise a lot of questions and controversy.  A key issue is whether the tech companies should get subsidies at all, given that their location decisions are based primarily on the availability of cheap electricity (preferably renewable), plenty of land, cooler climate, access to water, and lack of natural disasters. These make places like Iowa seem a natural choice.

Because data centers are capital intensive projects, they usually create a small number of jobs and thus per-job subsidies tend to be quite large.

Despite these factors, Iowa still throws lots of money at the industry.  Here is a quick look at Iowa’s subsidies to the three tech giants:

Google, located in Council Bluffs

2007- The company received $1.4 million in state tax credits and $48 million in local property tax abatements. Google was the first big-name tech company to locate a data center in the state.

2013 – The Iowa Economic Development Authority approved another $16.8 million in tax credits for a second Google facility.

2015 – The company received an additional $19.8 million in state sales and use tax refund for an expansion. Google will also pay only 20 percent of local property taxes for 5 years.

Altogether, Google promised to invest $2.5 billion but create just 70 jobs.

Microsoft, located in West Des Moines

Microsoft’s state subsidies started on a small scale, $568,000 in 2008 and $131,242 in 2011.

2013 – The company was awarded $20 million from the state’s High Quality Jobs Tax Credit program for a $679 million investment.

2014 – EDA approved $20.3 million in state tax credits to Microsoft for another round of expansion. The city chipped in $18 million for construction and infrastructure improvements on the site. $3.5 million in Tax Increment Financing was committed to build a water facility that will be used by Microsoft, and others, to cool servers.

Facebook, located in Altoona

2013 – After an intense and secretive competition with Nebraska, Iowa won Facebook’s server farm.  The company was approved for $18 million in tax credits for creating 31 jobs and investing $1.5 billion (the EDA report lists Facebook under Siculus, Inc, a Facebook initiative). The company also enjoys discounted water rates and has received money through Tax Increment Financing.

There is one additional thing that stands out: Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are rich tech companies that easily can afford any costs related to construction and operation of those server farms.  As one journalist put it: “Google needs a tax break like Bill Gates needs food stamps.”

Kasia Tarczynska is a research analyst at Good Jobs First, http://www.goodjobsfirst.org. She has a Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. This blog originally appeared on the Good Jobs First blog at this link.
Good Jobs First is a national policy resource center for grassroots groups and public officials, promoting corporate and government accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families.