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

A spotlight, not a floodlight, on business breaks

Iowa’s business tax credits will have grown by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

A bill in the Iowa House, HSB187, would cut a range of Iowa tax credits, eliminating refundability and capping overall spending on credits. There is significant opposition, because people like their tax breaks. But the issue is suddenly in the spotlight because these and other giveaways are responsible for Iowa’s serious revenue challenge.

There are solutions to the state’s rampant and often unaccountable spending on tax credits and other tax breaks. It is interesting that an interim committee that meets every year to examine a rotating set of tax credits has not produced any reforms. It’s not because reforms are not necessary. Rather, it’s a lack of resolve.

One of several strong recommendations in January 2010 by a Special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Gov. Culver in the wake of the film credit scandal was for a five-year sunset on all tax credits. This would require the Legislature to re-approve every tax credit.

That would be a start. Another option: Instead of eliminating refundability for all credits, which affects even credits where refundability makes sense (Earned Income Tax Credit), limit it where it does not. The Special Tax Credit Review Panel recommended eliminating refundability for big recipients of the Research Activities Credit (companies with gross receipts over $20 million). Another option would be to cap refundability for all credits at $250,000, which would not harm small players, either businesses or individuals, and would reduce the excessive checks to big businesses.

The scrutiny and demand for a return on investment on these credits would be too much for many of these special arrangements to withstand. Eliminating or capping wasteful credits would free up revenues for other priorities; some would invest more here or there — education, or public safety, or the environment — and some would simply use it to reduce overall spending. But either way, we would have the opportunity for a debate.

There is a danger in putting everything on the table at once. It presents a false equivalency of tax credits — that they are somehow all the same. It ignores the fact that some are for private gain and some for the common good, and some are a mixture. Some work, and some do not.

Some meet the purpose for which they were advertised (the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, which benefits low-income working families), and some miss the mark with tens of millions of dollars every year (the Research Activities Credit, where most of the money goes to huge, profitable corporations that pay little or no income tax instead of to small start-ups as envisioned).

Iowa’s business tax credits will have risen by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

Challenging all credits at the same time gets everyone’s backs up. That is a recipe to assure continued unwillingness to take on any of it. And that will not serve Iowa very well.

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

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Today’s virtual House graphic: minimum wage boosts families

150205-MWgraphic

Often lost in the spin surrounding debates over the minimum wage is the reality of who benefits. As indicated in the graphic above, the typical talking points promoted by the business lobby fall through the cracks — the same way many people attempting to support their families fall through the cracks due to Iowa’s current minimum wage policy. The illustration above outlines the demographic makeup of over 300,000 workers who would benefit if Iowa raised its minimum wage to $10.10. Four counties have moved to go that high, or higher, between now and 2019 under ordinances already passed.

There is no pending legislation to raise Iowa’s paltry $7.25 state minimum wage — and, in fact, choices being made in the Legislature effectively will render that state law meaningless. That is because local minimum wages are targeted for repeal and the Senate majority leader has indicated he will not entertain any legislation to raise the state wage, leaving that issue up to Congress, which shows no sign of action, either.

For more about the minimum wage in Iowa, both statewide and locally, visit this page on the IPP website.

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 we are offering examples. In today’s graphic, we illustrate the impact of a statewide minimum wage increase. Previous “virtual House graphics” illustrate impacts of local minimum wages approved in counties where wages higher than the statewide $7.25 has been approved.

Tax credit reform, yes — but what kind?

Optimism for tax-credit reform must be tempered. There is a great opportunity; there also are pitfalls.

Reform of business tax credits in Iowa is long overdue, so the natural instinct is to welcome with open arms the interest of state legislators in a review of Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits.

Yet, optimism must be tempered. There is a great opportunity; there also are pitfalls.

Fooled us once

Iowa’s last look at tax-credit reform came in the wake of scandal in its film industry tax credit program. Despite a strong report with potentially game-changing recommendations from a special task force of state agency heads in 2010, not much came from the Legislature. As we noted then, legislators acted with fierce caution that no doubt sent the business lobbyists off to celebrate.

That time, the review resulted from a scandal of law and ethics. What remained, and remains today, is a scandal of fiscal ignorance and arrogance. Iowa’s spending on business tax breaks has soared in recent years, and this budget choice has been a contributing factor to the stagnant or declining commitment to public responsibilities: education, the environment, health and public safety.

Fool us twice?

Such skepticism should be understandable not only with the anti-bargaining and anti-worker legislation Iowans have seen in this session, but with comments by legislators. In one shot across the bow, Rep. Pat Grassley stressed legislators would put everything on the table, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which benefits low- and moderate-income Iowans.

Past study already has shown that, unlike Iowa’s most lucrative business tax credit, the Research Activities Credit:

•   the EITC has obvious benefits to the economy and Iowa working families.

•   the EITC benefits only people who need the help, where RAC is unlimited and in fact benefits some of the most profitable companies in the country.

•   the EITC benefits people when Iowa’s regressive tax system is otherwise stacked against them, where the RAC benefits those who already do well by Iowa’s tax code.

Already we know that the individual state and local tax system in Iowa — all effectively governed by state law — demands that people at the bottom of the income scale (actually the bottom 80 percent) on average pay 10 percent of their income in tax. At the same time, the wealthiest and most well-connected pay much less — 6 percent at the very top.

Already we know that Iowa’s total state and local taxes on business — again, all effectively governed by state law — are below the national average and by one national business consultant’s measure are among the lowest in the nation.

In a nutshell, heading into this discussion, beware the false equivalencies and more of the same business-lobby spin that has produced the unaccountable and unfair system that makes it difficult to fund critical public services.

And be sure we do not lose some important pieces now in place, including the transparency we have on the RAC with annual reports from the Department of Revenue.

We have called for reform and better oversight for years. If legislators are serious about it, this could be a good thing. If it is merely cover to further burden the poor, reduce transparency, or heap new breaks on corporations that do not pay their fair share, it could be one more step in Iowa’s low-road march to the bottom.

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

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Less government means ‘less us’

Because government means “us,” less government means “less us.” It almost always means more corporate interest, not public interest … and … more inequality, injustice, and disparity. Worst of all, it means fewer public services.

Imagine new occupants of a large historic building who decide to do a major remodeling project, and they do not take the time to learn how the building was built and what previous structural changes were done to the building. They tear into this column, that wall, or that beam, without thinking that these are indeed load-bearing walls and beams that keep the building standing.

The remodeling fever we are seeing in Washington and the Statehouse involve trashing all things public: public schools, public services, public health, and public employees — the load-bearing foundations of democracy and daily life.

The most meaningful insight I gained from serving on the City Council involved learning the functioning of government at the community scale: police protection, fire protection, water, sewer and inspection services, planning services, utilities, arts and cultural services, a fantastic library, community center, great schools and services for children with special needs. I get up every morning thinking about these public services and the people who make them happen, and I am grateful.

That is why I find it astonishing that so many people continue to fall for the falsehood that “government is bad.” Many of us immigrants have come from countries that have fallen apart in violence and disorder in the absence of a functioning government. Thousands of U.S. troops have died to establish a decent governing process in Iraq and Afghanistan, but here at home, we are told government is bad, private-everything is good, corporations are the greatest, and all things public are bad. Do our troops serving in Afghanistan know about the rush to diminish government at home?

Because government means “us,” less government means “less us.” It almost always means more corporate interest, not public interest, making decisions for us, and invariably leads to more inequality, injustice, and disparity. Worst of all, it means fewer public services. We have heard “government should be small,” but why have we not heard “corporations should be small and their influence on government limited?”

Less self-governance, providing fewer services, has produced results: contaminated eggs sickening thousands and contaminated meats killing children because we have not inspected and protected our food supply. Inspection services supposedly are “too much regulation.” Toxic releases, polluted air, contaminated drinking waters, the national financial crisis are all clear and predictable results of “less regulatory burden,” “less government” and more corporate irresponsibility.

Let us not forget that our properties, our lives, our neighborhoods, and our businesses are richer and better because there is police and fire protection, law, order, a system of fair courts, and regulations. We are better off because we are situated in and are beneficiaries of a publicly organized infrastructure that offers basic services to all, including protecting Iowa’s commonwealth which provide ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water. Public works.

While the process of governing ourselves is not perfect and can be improved, “less government” is no improvement. We are the lucky beneficiaries of many generations before us who gave so much to build this nation, but, as many of us immigrants know, democracy and self governance are highly perishable. They are not something we have, but something we have to make every day and nurture through our involvement. Like a garden, you have to tend it.

kamyar-enshayan5464300Kamyar Enshayan served on the Cedar Falls City Council from 2003 to 2011. Enshayan is director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches environmental studies. He has been a member of the Iowa Policy Project board of directors since July 2016.

Virtual House graphic: Closer look at who gains with local raises

Well over half of those benefiting from local minimum-wage increases are women, workers over age 20, and full-time workers.

Basic RGBAs we have shown, about 85,000 Iowa workers stand to gain from local minimum-wage increases in Linn, Johnson and Polk counties when they are fully phased in as scheduled in 2019. As we show above, the beneficiaries are not who minimum-wage proponents typically attempt to portray in dismissing the importance of the wage.

Well over half are women, workers over age 20, and full-time workers. These are jobs that are essential in meeting household budgets.

Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25, where it has stood for over nine years. Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello counties have passed increases scheduled to reach between $10.10 and $10.75 by 2019.

For more about the minimum wage in Iowa, both statewide and locally, visit this page on the IPP website.

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 we are offering examples. In today’s graphic, we illustrate the impacts of local minimum wages that have been approved in Iowa. We focus on three of the four counties where wages higher than the statewide $7.25 has been approved. In the fourth county, Wapello, the impact has been blunted by the refusal of the city of Ottumwa to go along with it.