Flush with awareness

While water quality has fresh international attention brought by the enormity of the BP disaster, we also need to be looking at what we’re doing right at home, little by little and day by day.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette editorial spotlights the work of four West Branch Middle School students in illustrating for their community the water-quality impacts of drug disposal.

In West Branch, a small town east of Iowa City, the team of Kara Fountain, Allison Kusick, Gabby Salemink and Megan Tadlock brought awareness to the effects of everyday actions on our environment, actions we take for granted maybe just because of tradition.

Then, when we realize the impacts, we have to find acceptance of that reality, find a way to break old habits and find the willingness to adopt new solutions. Much of public policy works that way.

A couple of reports from the Iowa Policy Project underline the issues examined by the West Branch students. One report, last December, notes that pharmaceuticals are one segment of a class of organic water contaminants that are found from everyday household use and tend to resist traditional wastewater treatment. A previous report, in 2006, noted that Iowa water is not tested for many chemical compounds that had not been considered as contaminants — among them prescription drugs for humans and animals, as well as cosmetics, dyes, preservatives and detergents.

In short, we need a better understanding of what’s going into our water supplies, and what is worthy of concern. While water quality has fresh international attention brought by the enormity of the BP disaster, we also need to be looking at what we’re doing right at home, little by little and day by day.

The West Branch students, under the supervision of retiring science teacher Hector Ibarra, are among those adding to knowledge about these issues for all of us. They worked with the University of Iowa Hygenics Laboratory to look for traces of discarded medicines in processed sewer water. As the West Branch Times noted, they also hosted a day for local residents to bring unused and old pharmaceuticals to be incinerated.

These students are an example for all Iowans, let alone leaders among students, in their willingness to explore and put what they’ve learned into practice.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Governor signs significant boost for Iowa families

Lily French
Lily French

Monday marked the enactment of possibly the largest investment for working families resulting from this year’s legislative session.

Governor Culver signed into law an expansion of the Food Assistance program that will reach 26,212 more Iowans who are struggling to buy enough food, either because they are unemployed, underemployed or simply have too low of wages even while working full-time to meet their day-to-day living expenses.

Not only will this program change help to secure almost $18 million worth of food for Iowans, it will provide a needed boost to local economies throughout the state. In the end, this piece of legislation will generate $33 million in economic activity over the next year and for years to come.  Now, we just have to let people know that new supports are available to help them!

Posted by Lily French, Outreach Coordinator

Jobs in Iowa: Partly Sunny with Scattered Showers

The labor force grew by 2,900 workers last month. This could be a sign of increased confidence in the market, as more Iowans decide looking for work is a worthwhile endeavor.

Christine Ralston

I cannot wait for the day when The Iowa Policy Project’s monthly JobWatch headline reads unequivocally, “Nonfarm Jobs Increase for 12th Consecutive Month and Unemployment Remains Steady at 3 Percent.”

Alas, the forecast is still a bit mixed: Iowa is certainly making headway in nonfarm jobs numbers, but we continue to see high unemployment rates.

The good news is pretty good. The number of nonfarm jobs in Iowa increased by 7,300 to 1,474,200 in March. This increase is heartening, though we do have a ways to go. Iowa is still down 16,200 jobs compared to last March.

Then there is that other number: the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate edged upward to 6.8 percent, from 6.7 percent in February and well above the 5.5 percent we saw this time last year.  The last time the unemployment rate reached 6.8 percent was July 1986, when the state was recovering from the chronically high unemployment of the early 1980s.

As is usually the case, Iowans are fortunate to be better off in terms of unemployment than the rest of the nation. The national unemployment rate remained steady in March at 9.7 percent.

But there are other clues in these numbers. The labor force grew by 2,900 workers last month and is up by 12,700 over March 2009. This could be a sign of increased confidence in the market, as more Iowans decide looking for work is a worthwhile endeavor.

March marks the third consecutive one-month improvement in nonfarm jobs, and the sixth in the last eight months. Iowa has posted an average gain of 5,100 jobs per month for the last 3 months. We are currently down 54,000 jobs from last decade’s high point (1,528,2000 in November 2007). Continuing this trend would be great… and would start to push us closer to that headline I can’t wait to type.

Posted by Christine Ralston

Tax Day spin: Find refuge in the facts

It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today is, as we all know, “Tax Day,” the deadline for filing our federal individual income tax returns. It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar. You can’t even find refuge on the comics pages.

While the Tea Party folks and others have their spotlight today, take a few minutes to read this masterful year-old blog post from our friends at the Oklahoma Policy Institute: http://okpolicy.org/blog/taxes/classic-reruns-no-tax-day/

Beyond that perspective on the value of taxes in funding essential public services, other useful information also is worth considering today about who pays taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice, in a report this week about tax changes resulting from the recovery, or “stimulus,” legislation signed by President Obama last year, notes the following:

  • 99 percent of working families and individuals in Iowa benefited from at least one of the tax cuts signed into law by President Obama.
  • Working people in Iowa received $1,115, on average, from these breaks.
  • These tax breaks benefited working people at all income levels.

For the full report (3-page PDF) click here and for the Iowa-specific summary (4-page PDF) click here.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post (whose blog links to Jon Stewart’s take of the situation on “The Daily Show”) illustrate that lower-income Americans pay taxes, even if others might not want to acknowledge it.

As Stewart suggests, actually getting the facts about who pays taxes — which also include federal payroll taxes and state and local taxes — might not fit the outrage being pushed at a given moment: “Knowing that doesn’t make you as mad, does it?”

Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports have shown state and local tax impacts are far greater as a proportion of income for low-income Iowans than for higher-income Iowans, while corporate-income-tax loopholes and other tax breaks are draining the state treasury with little accountability, and critical services are being cut.

All food for thought on this day.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Why Should Iowans Pay for Stockholders’ Interests?

If a nuclear feasibility study is needed for Iowa, it should be independently done.

Teresa Galluzzo
Teresa Galluzzo

MidAmerican Energy asked the Iowa Legislature for $15 million of ratepayer money, mine and yours, to explore whether it should build a nuclear plant in Iowa. While I firmly agree that Iowa ought to aggressively pursue options to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, I find it very unsettling that state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved this request.

MidAmerican Energy must put its shareholders’ interests first and thus the company’s feasibility study would necessarily prioritize how a nuclear plant would perform for stockholders before the impacts on rate-paying Iowans.

Even as a leader in wind-powered generation — 17 percent to 20 percent of our electricity production — and energy efficiency, both thanks, in part, to substantial efforts by MidAmerican Energy, Iowa must continue to evaluate its energy future, because we need to do more to address climate change. If it is necessary to study further whether new nuclear plants are a viable part of our generation mix, such research should be done by an independent group and include analysis of how nuclear would impact Iowans’ rates and safety.

Governor Culver should consider this before joining the General Assembly in a giveaway — from utility customers’ pockets — to MidAmerican Energy for a study that could perhaps be done by an independent group at less expense to Iowans.

Missing an opportunity for tax-credit reform?

Nothing is objectionable about proposed tax-credit reforms — but much more needs to be done.

Christine Ralston
Christine Ralston

Iowa is missing an opportunity to implement strong transparency measures and to recapture revenue that it has been allowing to slip away for years.

Legislation passed by the Senate and now before the House appears to make only small, cosmetic changes to a serious structural problem. Generous tax credits have been leaking revenue out of the state for many years. Considering the recent scandal in the film tax credit program and the fact that Iowa, like most other states, faces revenue shortfalls of historic proportions, the state very much needs meaningful reform.

The Governor’s Tax Credit Review Panel made promising recommendations, and the Governor supported those recommendations when he issued a call for action in his Condition of the State address. Yet, the legislative package falls far short of the panel’s recommendations. For example:

Table comparing tax-credit reform proposals

It is important to note that lowering a cap is not the same thing as “saving” money. When the sum of all business credit claims is not reaching that cap, then the state is only reducing its potential liability and not saving any actual dollars.

The proposal is also lacking in essential new transparency measures. No additional disclosures regarding tax credits and expenditures are proposed in the plan. Iowans should know who is getting their tax dollars.

And this bill is certainly not good news for the thousands of Iowans who are seeing important safety net programs and jobs disappear during this recession.

Does this bill do something? Yes. Does it do much? No. Nothing in this bill is objectionable when considering the principles of sound tax policy. That said, much more needs to be done to move Iowa forward and to solve Iowa’s budget problems using an approach that is truly balanced.

Posted by Christine Ralston, Research Associate

Despite Job Boost in January, Lower Numbers Than Thought

The new numbers present some reason for hope for job-seekers — but also show Iowa jobs are falling short of demand. An extension of unemployment benefits in this climate would be important, to help struggling families and the economy.

Christine Ralston
Christine Ralston

Iowa nonfarm jobs grew in January, but revised December numbers are far below previous estimates. Nonfarm, or payroll, jobs rose by 4,600 in January to 1,463,400. Though a clear gain, it shows the number of jobs for December was vastly overstated. The January number is 5,400 jobs below the level that had been previously estimated for December.

The unemployment rate showed a slight increase following annual government revisions of employment data, to 6.6 percent from 6.5 percent in December. That December number had previously been reported at 6.6 percent.

The new numbers are the best numbers available, and they do present some reason for hope in what has been a very difficult period for job-seekers.

Over the year, from January to January, we see pretty similar trends to what we’d seen earlier. Iowa lost nearly 40,000 jobs in one year (38,200), and over 40 percent of the loss (16,600) came in manufacturing. These are jobs that traditionally pay better than most and offer health benefits.

It’s always best not to get too swept up in the monthly numbers because they are subject to revision. It’s better to take a step back and view them over time.

What the numbers do illustrate, however, is that Iowa jobs are falling short of demand for work. This yet again emphasizes the need for an extension of unemployment insurance benefits by Congress — both to help families make ends meet when jobs aren’t available and to bolster the economy. Unemployment benefits are spent in local economies, and that helps to create jobs.

Posted by Christine Ralston, Research Associate