Transparency: Corporations see; we don’t

The transparency on tax breaks that we get in Iowa is merely a tease for the taxpayer, and for the folks who lobby the Legislature each year for their causes.

It’s not enough to really let Iowans compare the choices being made on the spending of public dollars.

Advocates for public-focused priorities push lawmakers to apply an adequate share of the state budget to real responsibilities: to educate children and young adults, care for those without the means to do so on their own, and to keep their natural environment clean and their streets safe.

They have to make a case, that a public investment is not only needed, but a responsible use of funds that benefits the greater good in Iowa.

Some in the lobby can afford to advocate differently. In the “We Got Ours” huddles of big-business advocates in the lobby, the high stakes business of protecting their special breaks, and expanding them, is often only evident in the results.

A Cedar Rapids Gazette story shows we can expect more of this for an expensive and unaccountable program long on the books, the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC, unlike most tax credits, often does not affect taxes at all, but is a straight and automatic subsidy provided to huge companies that pay little — and often nothing — in Iowa corporate income taxes. (Remember that next time you hear their  complaints about Iowa’s corporate tax rates.)

Much of the story offered weak defenses of this program by the state’s economic development director, Debi Durham, and a spokesperson for the biggest recipient of these subsidies. Neither of those two people offered a shred of evidence of a public return on the $60-plus million annual cost.

You see, we know the cost, because there is an annual report that lawmakers required for this program. (The lobby fought that requirement hard when it passed in 2009.) But what the report cannot show is how much of the subsidized research would have happened anyway.

RAC table ... large claims
The Research Activities Credit was set up to help small, entrepreneurial businesses get going. Instead, as official state reports have shown, very large companies with RAC claims above $500,000 account for between 80 and 90 percent of the cost every year.

In a deliberative budget process, everything is on the table — funds available, a clear and understandable process to apportion them, and the public benefit evident. But when $300 million in business credits are on autopilot, a large chunk of those funds is taken off the table before the rest of us even get to sit down.

Peter Fisher, IPP’s research director, notes in The Gazette story that the system gives all the advantages to the corporations.

“The corporations hold all the cards, which is why I think states and localities routinely spend way more than they need to,” Fisher told The Gazette. “It’s like playing poker where the other players know your hand but you don’t know theirs.”

To learn more about the RAC, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership piece.

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Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

mikeowen@iowapoicyproject.org

Nothing complicated about threatening food

Eliminating BBCE might sound confusing, from the alphabet soup of terms for public programs. But it’s not. It means taking away food from Iowans’ tables.

The Trump Administration aims to threaten important public supports for people who have trouble making ends meet.

The latest challenge is to Food Stamps (formally known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The administration would eliminate something called broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE). It’s not just more alphabet soup, but an effective tool that states can use to set less restrictive asset tests and streamline administration, which curbs costs.[1]

Forty states participate in BBCE, including Iowa, allowing them to set income limits and ensure something like owning a car doesn’t count against SNAP benefits. The Administration seeks to eliminate BBCE on its own, without legislative approval.[2] This would kick 3 million individuals off of SNAP nationwide, including working families, children, people with disabilities, and seniors.

SNAP is a proven work support program for Iowans. It reached nearly 320,000 Iowans in June of 2019, helping working families and those unable to work put food on the table.[3] The program works to improve child development, educational attainment, helps to prevent disease and increase lifetime earnings of Iowans.[4] It helps keep rural grocery stores open, and pumps $35 million into the state economy each month.[5]

These wonky rule changes take food off Iowa tables. The Administration seems to want to keep these changes below the radar. While some might not notice a purely administrative action, the impact of removing BBCE from SNAP — changing the alphabet soup — means real harm for families.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. 

nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

[1] Dottie Rosen, “SNAP’s ‘Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility’ Supports Working Families and Those Saving for the Future.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. July 2019. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/snaps-broad-based-categorical-eligibility-supports-working-families-and
[2] Federal Register, “Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” July 24, 2019, Vol. 84, No. 142, 35570-35581, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/07/24/2019-15670/revision-of-categorical-eligibility-in-the-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.

[3] Iowa Department of Human Services, “F-1 Food Assistance Program State Summary – June 2019.” July 2019. http://publications.iowa.gov/30484/1/FA-F1-2016%202019-06.pdf

[4] Feeding America, “Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation.” 2009. https://www.nokidhungry.org/sites/default/files/child-economy-study.pdf

[5] Iowa Department of Human Services, “F-1 Food Assistance Program State Summary – June 2019.” July 2019. http://publications.iowa.gov/30484/1/FA-F1-2016%202019-06.pdf

How home solar helps everyone

Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity. My own home system shows that.

IPP parody — apologies to Peanuts and the late Charles Shultz

It was a hot and sunny month. … No, this isn’t the opening line of a bad novel; it’s a story about electricity and climate change, and our backyard solar array.

July was indeed hot, which means it was a costly month for electric generation. When the heat index pushes over 100 degrees, and homes and businesses run their air conditioning full tilt, utilities have to purchase more expensive power, from less efficient generating stations, to meet the higher demand. Their costs, and the costs for every consumer, go up.

But here’s the good news. It was a sunny month, which means all those solar arrays at farms and businesses and in people’s back yards were generating power at a great rate. The recently installed array at our home generated 1,749 kilowatt hours of electricity from late June through late July. That was 510 kWh more than we used, for which we received a $14 credit from the utility. (When I use more electricity than I generate, I pay over 12 cents per kWh for the extra; when I generate more than I use, the utility pays me 2.8 cents per kWh.)

But all of that electricity we generated meant that the utility needed to purchase 1,749 kWh less power from the grid, power that was more expensive than average. That savings equates to about the amount of electricity used by two average residential customers in a month.

In the last session of the Iowa Legislature, MidAmerican Energy pushed a bill that would allow them to charge an extra monthly fee to future solar generators, people pretty much like us. That fee would have been enough to make installation of solar unattractive to many, which in turn would have devastated the growing solar installation industry in the state. Their rationale: People like me aren’t paying their share of costs for using the utility’s transmission facilities to sell our home-generated power back to the utility.

Every month I pay a $13.50 “facility charge” regardless of our usage or solar generation. The Iowa Utilities Board, which has to approve all changes in rates proposed by Iowa regulated utilities, is scheduled to undertake a study to see if these kinds of facility charges appropriately reflect the utilities’ cost of accommodating solar generation. But MidAmerican’s proposed bill would have pre-empted the normal rate-setting process with the utilities board and imposed the new fee by legislative fiat before the study was even undertaken to see if any fee was justified.

In pushing their bill, the utility or some unidentified group, sponsored TV advertising to try to get the average Iowan riled up by convincing them that they are subsidizing solar users.

But here’s the thing: Iowa is a summer peaking state. Despite the longer winter heating season, the summer air conditioning season is when electricity usage hits its daily or hourly maximum. All utilities use their most efficient, lower cost generating facilities first, and bring the higher cost facilities on line only when needed. So those high-cost facilities are brought into use just when solar power is doing its thing, when the hours of sunshine are greatest. That reduces the need for that high-cost power, which helps all utility customers.

More importantly, those summer peaks are likely to get worse as climate change worsens. Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity by helping to reverse the trend of global warming. That is good not just for electricity consumers, but for the planet and for our grandchildren.

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

Ignoring still-serious water threat

Last year, we issued a report on toxic algae and three weeks later the city of Greenfield lost its drinking water. Now we see that the Environmental Working Group has found no improvement. How long before another town faces the same problem Greenfield did?

Iowa detail of map in report showing water test results.

About a year ago the Iowa Policy Project released a report on cyanobacteria in drinking water supplies and recreational waters. A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows things have not gotten better.

Microcystin and other cyanotoxins are still not regulated by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Thus, few drinking water systems test for them. These very dangerous natural chemicals are still on EPA’s candidate list for regulated contaminants but they have made it no further.

When it comes to beach monitoring for the same substances, Iowa still does not use the EPA’s recommended action level and prefers to use on more than twice as high, making any notice to beachgoers of the presence of microcystin less likely.

In high amounts cyanotoxins can make you sick and cause serious long term damage to human health. There are many reports of dogs dying after playing in ponds and licking their fur after.

The EWG report also found further evidence of what we reported last year in our report.

“The late summer months are usually the peak of the algae bloom season, though recent outbreaks are starting earlier and lasting longer. Increased rainfall and rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis are exacerbating the issue.”[1]

Later peaks in blooms and toxins means that the beach monitoring system will not see them since it ends in Iowa on Labor Day. True fewer people will be at beaches, but water supplies are vulnerable later into the year and no one is looking for microcystin in October.

Three weeks after IPP released its report in June 2018, the city of Greenfield, Iowa, closed its drinking water system for about a week because microsystin got in finished water. One wonders if in another three weeks after Thursday’s release we might see another town in the same predicament.

[1] Environmental Working Group, Aug. 8, 2019: “Report: Toxins From Algae Outbreaks Plague Hundreds of Lakes in 48 States,” https://www.ewg.org/release/report-toxins-algae-outbreaks-plague-hundreds-lakes-48-states

David Osterberg is former director and currently lead environmental researcher for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

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

Improve water quality funding equitably

Expand existing state programs to improve waters and overall balance in Iowa tax system.

Iowa has an opportunity to advance equity while improving water quality. The constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly passed in 2010 gave us the option to fund water quality programs with the sales tax, but it’s only a starting place, and we need to explore more equitable funding solutions.

The sales-tax option needs to be paired with options that enhance equity in the way we fund all public services. A comprehensive approach adds other sources — even as we recognize that Iowa policy makers have refused the voters’ clearly stated desire for action.

A new IPP report offers policy options to improve water quality in an equitable way. Iowa voters, in a 2010 statewide referendum, showed their willingness to raise the sales tax in order to fund water quality efforts. The trust fund they authorized remains empty today, nine years later.

As we noted in an April 2019 report, Iowa water quality funding is inadequate.[1] Some will claim new water-quality funding passed in 2018, but it was at best window dressing. New programs had no new revenue source and added little to the mainly federal nutrient reduction funding that exists now.

The sales-tax option remains on the table and is promoted by serious advocates for action. The challenge is to find a way to offset the impact of a sales-tax increase on lower- and moderate-income households. Already, those lower-income families pay the most of any income group, as a percentage of their income, on sales tax. This drives the overall regressive nature of Iowa’s state and local tax system.[2] Analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows why a tax on purchases hits lower income families harder (see graph). Lower-income families spend most of what they earn, and they spend a large share of it on goods and services that are subject to the state sales tax. This is less the case the higher you go on the income scale.

Basic RGB

 

How to fix it? We see two immediate options using existing programs: Boost the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to help working families, and expand Disabled and Senior Citizen Property Tax Credit and Rent Reimbursement Program.

How to pay for it? Use at least part of the revenue from a 1-cent sales tax increase. The constitutional amendment directs three-eights of the first cent to the clean water and recreation trust fund. The key is what happens with the other five-eighths.

According to ITEP data, increasing the state EITC to 20.5 percent of the federal credit (from the current 15 percent) would fully offset that average $124 yearly sales-tax increase for a working family eligible for the EITC. The Rent Reimbursement program can contribute for other low-income families. Those two steps — EITC and Rent Reimbursement — would cost an estimated $30 million,[3] only a small share of the “extra” sales-tax revenue from a 1-cent increase

Taxing the polluter is another policy option for addressing a broader equity concern. Fertilizer used in the agricultural sector is the source of the contamination, yet it is exempt from the general Iowa sales tax. Removing the fertilizer exemption would bring a substantial source of water quality funding: about $110 million annually.[4]

In an already tax system favoring the highest earners, raising the sales tax is not a preferred option. But it can be improved and turned into an opportunity to both improve services and the overall balance in Iowa’s tax system. Those interested in both equity and clean water could embrace that opportunity.

[1] David Osterberg and Natalie Veldhouse, “Lip Service: Iowa’s Inadequate Commitment to Clean Water.” April 2019. Iowa Policy Project. http://iowapolicyproject.org/2019docs/190424-WQfunding.pdf

[2] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “Iowa: Who Pays? 6th Edition.” October 2018. https://itep.org/whopays/iowa/

[3] EITC: $124 for each of the 209,000 taxpayers who receive this credit equals $25,916,000. Renters’ credit: $124 for each of the 32,000 who receive the credit equals $3,968,000. Total about $30 million for the two programs.

[4] $1,845,469,000 X 6 % = $ 110,728,140. The total in the 2017 Census of Agriculture was much smaller than the 2012 figure $2,587,059,000.

 

2018-NV-6w_3497(1)

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org