Give thanks for what we do and do not have

Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, but it could be worse.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

My job here at IPP requires me to think a lot about water. Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, and there are certainly plenty of threats, but it could be worse. As Thanksgiving approaches here are a few things I’m thankful for:

1) We don’t have companies extracting natural gas using unknown chemicals and potentially fouling our groundwater like Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and other states do.

2) We have adequate water (for the most part). You don’t have to go too far to find areas where water quantity is a serious concern, like in Nebraska and Wisconsin. Travel further, to places like Florida and the American southwest and the issues get even more serious. Certainly increased chances of drought in the Midwest are recognized as a possibility with climate change, but to date we’ve avoided drought for a few decades.

3) We don’t (yet!) have major oil pipelines running across our state. It just so happens that they rupture occasionally like this one did in Michigan. A few years ago, Wisconsin had an oil pipeline break, too. And now there’s a pipeline proposed that would cross Nebraska.

4) While we’ve seen our fair share of flooding in parts of the state, we’re not going to see the problems that coastal cities will as sea levels rise.

5) We don’t have acutely toxic groundwater like this city in California does.

We in Iowa are plenty busy working on polluted runoff, CAFOs, emerging contaminants and seasonal flooding, among other things. That’s plenty for now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Legacy vote message: clean air, water, land

The message from the vote last week is that voters want environmental quality and outdoor recreation initiatives to thrive. How will policy makers respond?

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Amid all the sorting of implications from the November 2 election, one message should not be missed: Iowa’s land, air and water are important to the state’s residents.

Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment passed with over 60 percent of the vote — a margin that surely understates the support for environmental programs. The constitutional amendment creates a dedicated trust fund that will be funded upon the next state sales tax increase.

Overwhelming approval of the trust fund must be seen as a “floor” for support of water quality improvements, soil protection, state parks, recreational trails and better wildlife habitat. Support no doubt is much greater than the vote last week reflects. That’s because the trust fund is tied to a potential sales-tax increase that many more environmental proponents would oppose on various philosophical grounds — objecting to any tax increase, or that type of tax increase, or earmarking funds outside the legislative process by constitutional amendment.

Rather, the vote recognizes that longtime budget trends are shortchanging environmental quality efforts. Such programs largely have been dependent upon gambling revenue and have been underfunded for years.

Clearly, Iowans care about the environment and want increased funding for programs that protect our air and water and add additional outdoor recreation opportunities. And a vast majority favored the Legacy Amendment approach. Still, it depends upon a sales-tax increase that faces significant political challenges.

The message from the vote last week is that voters want environmental quality and outdoor recreation initiatives to thrive. Improvements to our natural resources can help attract economic development for Iowa cities and towns. How, policy makers must ask themselves, will they meet that firmly stated desire of Iowa voters?

Many eyes will be watching.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Public-sector jobs matter

Debates over public spending should not avoid the clear economic consequences.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Decisions about tax cuts and public spending inevitably affect the economy.

Sept 2010 Iowa Nonfarm Jobs pie chart
One in six Iowa nonfarm jobs in September 2010 — 17 percent — was a government job. (Source: Iowa Workforce Development)

One out of every six jobs in Iowa is a government job. (See chart.) IPP’s monthly Iowa JobWatch summaries have been showing how cuts in public-sector jobs is affecting Iowa’s overall job picture.

When you start whittling away at those jobs — as you do every time you lay off a teacher, or a custodian in a public building, or someone fixing streets or policing neighborhoods, it has an economic impact.

Suddenly, that person is having a harder time making ends meet at home, and spends less in the local grocery store, or puts off repairs or improvements to their car, home or clothes.

Baby needs new shoes? We’ll see. Car running rough? Well, let’s wait a little longer until something really goes wrong. Enough decisions like that, and the next family down the street is making the same decisions, and the next, and so on.

Debates over public spending — which often inaccurately reflect reality on budgets and taxes anyway — should not avoid the clear economic consequences of the decisions on the table.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Implementing Health Reform: Early Successeses

A number of health-reform provisions already have taken effect, and are showing results.

Andrew Cannon, research associate
Andrew Cannon

The new health reform law is already helping thousands of Iowans and small businesses.

Though the major provisions of the health reform law won’t be implemented until 2014, a number of provisions have already gone into effect.

The new law provides tax credits to small businesses that offer health insurance to their employees. The rapid growth of premiums over the past decade have made insurance provision extremely difficult for small businesses. According to the Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research’s Medical Expenditure Survey, In Iowa, just 28 percent of firms with 10 or fewer offered insurance to employees, compared to 92 percent of firms with 100 or more employees.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Janet Adamy reported Tuesday that the percentage of small businesses with three to nine employees offering health insurance to employees has increased significantly over the past year — from 46 percent to 59 percent. Researchers at Bernstein Research attribute that growth to the health reform law’s small business tax credits.

In addition to small businesses, health reform is helping Iowa prepare for full implementation of the law and helping Iowa’s seniors. The state received a $1 million grant to plan for a Health Insurance Exchange, one of the key components of the overhaul.

Though Medicare recipients gained prescription drug coverage through Medicare Part D in 2003, the law had a $2,000 gap in coverage — often called the “donut hole.” Early implementation of health reform lessens that gap, by providing a $250 tax-free rebate to Medicare recipients. In Iowa, 17,774 Medicare beneficiaries have received the rebate.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Why is Iowa government smaller?

Iowans might be surprised to learn that sensible measures indicate Iowa government actually has declined.

Andrew Cannon, research associate
Andrew Cannon

Calls for smaller government carry a number of distortions. Our roads, schools and public health, to name just a few publicly financed services, often operate with the bare minimum financing as it is.

The primary distortion, however, involves concepts about the size of our state government.

Iowans might be surprised to learn that sensible measures indicate Iowa government actually has declined.

Iowa’s General Fund spending as a share of the economy has decreased by more than 26 percent since the early 1990s.

When measured by personal income — all the income generated each year by all Iowans — General Fund spending peaked in Fiscal Year 1997, at 6.4 percent. In FY10, General Fund spending was just 4.7 percent of Iowans’ personal income.

And that is not just a result of the recent Great Recession and the 10 percent across-the-board budget cut by Governor Culver. In FY09, spending as a share of personal income was 5.5 percent — nearly a full percentage point lower than the high-water mark of the late 1990s.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Figure 1 from IFP brief, "Getting Public Value Out of Our Public Dollars"
Figure 1 from IFP brief, "Getting Public Value Out of Our Public Dollars"

Tough choices look at total budget

Iowans rely on many publicly funded services.

Andrew Cannon, research associate
Andrew Cannon

It’s easy to forget all the publicly funded services on which Iowa businesses, health and personal lives rely.

Funding for education — our public universities, community colleges, and state aid to local schools — consumes more than 60 percent of Iowa’s budget. Realistically, there simply is no way to reduce General Fund spending without touching education.

We expect and rely on safe, well-maintained roads and highways. We need water that is clean and drinkable. We enjoy parks that are kept neat and safe by public funds.

Budgeting requires tough choices, even when the economy is thriving. Balancing a budget in tough times — when needs are greater than usual — is even more difficult.

Iowa has cut quite a bit already. Further reductions would come at a price that might not be so apparent on a sheet of paper. But they would become clear as Iowans move about their daily lives.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Farm fields or lawns? New report on water pollution

The quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

How many of you have been in a conversation about Iowa’s water quality that went something like this?

  • Person 1:  Iowa’s waters really are filthy.
  • Person 2: They sure are. I know a lot of that is because of our state’s agriculture and all the fertilizers that farmers use.
  • Person 1: That’s probably true, but you know what is really a problem?  The fertilizers my neighbors are always putting on their grass. They put so much on all the time and sometimes even in the rain. Why? For a lawn that they never use?
  • Person 2: You’re probably right. I just drove across the river downtown and it was so gross. And I saw several lawn chemical companies out this morning.

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably heard people downplay the role of agriculture in degrading our waters and shift the focus to our urban areas. I recently had dinner with a small group of environmentally aware citizens and a conversation much like the above occurred.

I asked the group what percentage of the applied fertilizers in Iowa are put on farm fields and got responses ranging from 50 to 80 percent. It just so happened that I knew the real answer and it was way higher than the guesses I heard.

IPP’s latest report focuses only on the chemical fertilizers that are applied to the state’s farm fields, lawns and golf courses. It conclusively shows that the quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses. It isn’t even close. Roughly 98% of the nitrogen and phosphorus applied in fertilizers goes on the state’s farm fields.

On average the pounds applied per acre of these fertilizers are higher on lawns and golf courses but the total area that receives treatments is so miniscule relative to the acres of corn and beans in this state. In addition, these fertilizers are applied to areas that have plants that can immediately use the nutrients, whereas many fertilizers are applied to crop fields that do not.

This is not to say that lawn fertilizers in urban areas are blameless. Indeed, in some urban watersheds they may be a significant source of the nutrient pollution entering Iowa’s waters, but overall it’s safe to say that agriculture is where the vast majority of the nutrients that start as applied fertilizers originate. Throw in manure applications and the relative contribution of agriculture gets even larger.

Can that be changed? With cover crops, perennial crops, better cropping practices, and improved nutrient management plans among other things, that gap can be narrowed.  Narrowing that gap will bring with it improved water quality. That is something we can all celebrate.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate