Session Recap: ‘Historic’ — not label of pride

Some legislators may boast of a “historic” session. History will mark 2017 as a low point in Iowans’ respect and care for each other.

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4/22/17

IFP Statement: ‘Historic’ session not a label of pride

Legislative session hits working families and traditions of good governance

Basic RGB

Statement of Iowa Fiscal Partnership • Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

To describe the 2017 Iowa legislative session as “historic” is not a label its leaders should wear with pride.

Iowans needed a legislative session that worked to raise family incomes and expand educational opportunity. Iowans had long demanded water-quality improvement measures. Many called for lawmakers to address the lack of fairness, adequacy and accountability in a tax system laden with special-interest breaks and costly subsidies to corporations.

Instead, Iowans got a continued ratcheting down of funding for PK-12 public education. There were significant and serious cuts in post-secondary education that will lead to tuition increases. We saw cuts to early-childhood education and other programs that serve our most at-risk children and neglect of the child-care assistance program that helps working families struggling to get by.

The Legislature continues to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. Their ultimate action on water merely diverts resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety.

Lawmakers largely left the tax issue to the next session. An overture in the House to reform Iowa’s reckless system of tax credits was a welcome acknowledgment that this issue needs attention, but devils in the details make further discussion of this issue during the interim even more welcome.

Perhaps as troubling as the destructive nature of policy content this session, Iowa’s image of adherence to good governance took a big hit. The most controversial policy changes came not through collaborative, public discussion in committee, let alone the 2016 political campaigns, but were often dumped into lawmakers’ laps with little opportunity for amendments.

In what could accurately be called a “session of suppression,” lawmakers achieved:

  • Wage suppression, with a bill to preempt local minimum wage increases while refusing to raise Iowa’s repressive, 9-year-old minimum of $7.25.
  • Workplace suppression, gutting collective bargaining protections for public employees, and making it more difficult for Iowans recover financially from injuries on the job.
  • Health-care suppression, achieved in workers’ compensation legislation while also refusing to reverse Governor Branstad’s disastrous move to privatize Medicaid.
  • Local suppression, whacking at local government control in a variety of areas: minimum wage, legal defenses against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), fireworks sales, and collective bargaining options.
  • Voter suppression, with a bill to make it more difficult for many citizens, particularly low-income and senior voters, to exercise their right to vote.
  • Suppression of children’s healthy development, with additional cuts to Early Childhood Iowa and Shared Visions that will reduce access to critical home visitation, child care and preschool services for some of our most at-risk youngsters.

Some legislators may boast of a “historic” session. History will mark 2017 as a low point in Iowans’ respect and care for each other, a legacy that will not be celebrated when future Iowans look back on this session and the closing act of Governor Branstad’s long tenure in office.

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The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit, Iowa-based organizations — the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. Reports are available at www.iowafiscal.org, and on the websites of the two partner organizations, www.iowapolicyproject.org and www.cfpciowa.org.

Lost legacy of science and research?

You drink the water. You breathe the air. Concerned Iowans may yet save the Leopold Center, but the clock is ticking.

Editor’s Note: The Cedar Rapids Gazette published a version of this piece online Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

While Iowans and others celebrate Earth Day on Saturday with a March for Science, many legislators have already tripped over their own votes.

Besides several cuts to higher education Iowa legislators have taken aim at particular scientific centers at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

With the state’s second largest city and its largest university both almost recovered from massive flooding, they attacked the Flood Center at the UI, which may survive with a 20 percent cut to reward how its data and research have helped citizens of the state.

Certainly as troubling is the pending elimination of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU, and the farming out of duties at the Energy Center at ISU to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. So much for independent research.

One thing lost in these assaults is a sense of institutional memory. Those of us who started the Leopold Center some 30 years ago found agreement to assure Iowans a lasting resource independent of industry control and other research funding. And it has worked.

Much of the research on how to reduce agricultural damage to water quality has been started by the Leopold Center — more than 600 research projects, according to Leopold’s director, Professor Mark Rasmussen.

You drink the water. You breathe the air. Are you comfortable that Iowa’s premier research universities are being blocked from conducting research on topics including water quality, manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development?

In fact, as Rasmussen notes, many practices recommended in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce agricultural pollution — including streamside buffers, erosion control measures, and bioreactors — “were first researched through Leopold Center funding.”

Now, the history of the Leopold Center is being reinvented by lawmakers attempting to erase a three-decade, bipartisan commitment to sustainable funding of independent research. They would eliminate the publicly directed mission and turn it over to businesses.

It is hard to know if these attacks are driven by politics or corporate interest. Maybe it is just Iowa’s version of an attack on science generally.

Either way, the bill eliminating the Leopold Center has passed the Senate and Iowans have only a short time to demand more from their elected officials in the House and the Governor. Voices rising helped to save the Flood Center with only a cut. Concerned Iowans may yet save the Leopold Center, but the clock is ticking.

 

David Osterberg, a state representative from Mount Vernon from 1983-1994, is co-founder and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. Osterberg and fellow legislators Ralph Rosenberg and Paul Johnson were co-authors of the law that created the Leopold Center at Iowa State University.

Look west, or to locals, for leadership

Iowans could take a lesson from leaders in Oregon, who had the courage to look at their residents’ economic challenges. Just repealing local minimums does not meet that test of leadership.

Those concerned about a “patchwork” or “hodgepodge” of minimum wage laws across Iowa might want to take a look west — far west — to Oregon.

In contrast to Iowa legislators’ calls for “uniformity” no matter how inadequate a uniform minimum wage may be, the Beaver State has embraced the idea of different minimum wages.

A 2016 law effectively sets three tiers of minimum wages — one for the Portland area (Metro), one for selected other urban areas (Standard), and one for more rural counties (Nonurban). Currently, the minimums are $9.50 in Nonurban areas, and $9.75 in the Standard and Metro areas. As of July 1, they will be $10, $10.25 and $11.25, respectively.

As the Oregon law moves forward, the three tiers will rise in steps each July 1, ultimately to between $12.50 and $14.75 by 2022. A formula will index those rates starting in 2023.

Quite a contrast from Iowa, where we still sit at $7.25 as a statewide minimum, with five counties (Lee County the latest, on Tuesday) choosing to set a higher minimum for their workers. State officials who have balked at raising Iowa’s statewide minimum have retaliated with legislation to repeal the raises and prohibit future such actions, the bill as of Wednesday morning still awaiting the Governor’s almost certain signature.

Oregon’s hybrid approach of a state policy setting a small range of local minimums may or may not be optimal, but it does recognize the value of a meaningful state minimum reaching to all corners of the state, and the fact that not all labor markets are the same — they differ by locality.

In Iowa, the local option exercised thus far by five counties under their home-rule authority is a middle ground that permits careful judgment when state edicts prevent it.

But Iowans could take a lesson from leaders in Oregon, who had the courage to look at the economic challenges faced by their residents, and to address those challenges in meaningful public policy. Just repealing local minimums does not meet that test of leadership.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Who will attend the signing ceremony?

billsigning-pensYou pass a bill, presumably you’re proud of it, and would like a picture with the Governor signing it. And you even might get a pen.

There are usually plenty of pens.

The Iowa House and Senate have now both passed a bill removing authority of local governments in Iowa to pass minimum wage increases above the state’s meager $7.25. Four counties have done so, and these ordinances will be repealed.

Who wants their picture with the Governor authorizing a pay cut for some 85,000 Iowans? The Governor, who set a campaign goal in 2010 of a 25 percent increase in family incomes (see his website), might think twice about attending himself.

In any event, we can’t make it.

And neither can anyone at $7.25.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Today’s virtual House graphic: Risky fix to non-problem

The proposed constitutional amendment is a gimmick that would hamper Iowa lawmakers’ ability to meet critical needs. If you want lower funding of K-12 education and higher tuition for the Regent universities, this is one way to get there.

Under the radar at the Iowa Statehouse, a significant and dangerous change is being promoted through a proposed constitutional amendment to cap spending in a state where spending is below the U.S. average.

The amendment — approved by the Senate and soon to be considered in the House — is a gimmick rather than real reform. In fact, because the amendment would require two-thirds approval of both legislative changes to prohibit spending more than an arbitrary limit, it would impede elected representatives from making the kinds of public investments in Iowa’s children, the state’s infrastructure, and our environment that the people of Iowa say they want. To learn more about this issue, click here for Peter Fisher’s brief report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Editor’s Note: The Iowa House of Representatives now denies the ability of lawmakers to use visual aids in debate on the floor. To help Iowans visualize what kinds of graphics might be useful in these debates to illustrate facts, on several days this session the Iowa Policy Project is offering examples. In today’s graphic, we illustrate the realities of state spending in Iowa, often inflated in political rhetoric.

Curtains for tax reform

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched.

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched, then rammed through the Legislature without sufficient public vetting.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix is quoted in media that a tax plan is coming in the next two weeks. It’s staying under wraps until then — a terrible disservice to the responsible setting of public policy. Senator Dix should pull back the curtains, right now.

But, since the senator is not going to let the rest of us in on his big secret tax plan, we should all go into this recognizing at least two major points at the start:

(1) Iowa taxes are in the middle of the pack or below average by any responsible measure, something the business lobby and far-right ideologues never want to acknowledge; and

(2) any discussion of tax changes should take a comprehensive approach that should be grounded in widely accepted principles of taxation.

Point 2 is something that is always a problem in Iowa. The typical approach is to target one tax, cut it, and move on to the next one. Meanwhile, the impact on the overall adequacy and fairness of the tax structure (two of the important tax principles), and on the critical public service that the tax system supports, is left to a “let the chips fall” mentality.

Take the curtains away, Senator Dix. It’s the business of all Iowans, right now. A late-session rush job to make a major overhaul of Iowa taxes is not only wrong from a civics-textbook standpoint, but it is bound to create problems that its authors cannot predict.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Repeal of Obamacare: Following the money

Replacing ACA will be costly to many Iowa families, particularly older and rural Iowans.

Congressional Republicans have proposed replacing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, with the American Health Care Act, or AHCA. To understand why, suppose we follow the money — who loses, who gains?

On the losing side are thousands of Iowans who would find themselves facing higher costs for health insurance. Consider a married couple with two young children, and with $40,000 annual income. In Iowa’s metropolitan counties, this family’s tax credits for the purchase of health insurance would fall by $3,469 annually. In rural areas, where health insurance is much more expensive, the same family would face nearly an $8,000 reduction in credits — in other words, an $8,000 increase in the cost of health insurance. For couples in their late 50s or early 60s, the jump in costs is much higher: $11,300 in urban areas, over $17,000 in rural counties. (See an earlier IPP report for details.)

The much greater impact on rural Iowans is because the Republican plan gives everyone the same credit, whether they are in a high-cost or low-cost county. While the credit rises with age,  the credits for older Iowans cover a far smaller share of their much higher insurance costs. Overall, the average Iowa family currently receiving subsidies for the purchase of insurance would see a $2,512 drop in the subsidy.[1]

But who are the winners? The Republican plan includes tax cuts primarily for the wealthiest Americans, as well as drug and insurance companies. The 400 highest-income taxpayers nationally would get annual tax cuts averaging about $7 million each. These taxpayers, whose annual incomes average more than $300 million, would receive tax cuts totaling about $2.8 billion a year.[2]

We now know how two of these cuts, amounting to $31 billion a year, would impact Iowans. The Affordable Care Act was financed in part by these two new taxes. One is the Net Investment Income Tax, the other the Additional Medicare Tax. Both fall primarily on the wealthiest. Repeal of these two ACA taxes would shower $116.7 million in tax cuts each year on just 1.9 percent of Iowa taxpayers. A full 92 percent of those tax cuts would go to the richest 1 percent of Iowa taxpayers — those making $444,000 a year or more, and with an average income of $1.17 million. Those taxpayers would receive on average $7,004 a year.[3]

Basic RGB“Follow the money” is good advice. But what you find when you get there is often not a pretty picture.

[1] Aviva Aron-Dine and Tara Straw. House Tax Credits Would Make Health Insurance Far Less Affordable in High-Cost States. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 9, 2017.

[2] Chye-Ching Huang. House Republicans’ ACA Repeal Plan Would Mean Big Tax Cuts for Wealthy, Insurers, Drug Companies. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. March 8, 2017. http://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-tax/house-republicans-aca-repeal-plan-would-mean-big-tax-cuts-for-wealthy-insurers

[3] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Affordable Care Act Repeal Includes a $31 Billion Tax Cut for a Handful of the Wealthiest Taxpayers. March 2017. http://itep.org/itep_reports/2017/03/affordable-care-act-repeal-includes-a-31-billion-tax-cut-for-a-handful-of-the-wealthiest-taxpayers-5.php

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org