Beyond Battelle: Let’s broaden the dialogue of Iowa economic health

The Battelle Report raises only the business perspective on economic development. More Iowans need an invitation to the table.

As Iowa legislators this week start work on a course to a more robust and diversified economy, discussion already has focused on a new privately funded report, Iowa’s Re-Envisioned Economic Development Roadmap.[1]

Produced by Battelle Technology Partnership Practice and commissioned by the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress,[2] the $400,000 report makes some important points and deserves a careful look.

It focuses heavily on the importance of business to promote economic activity, but its core message acknowledges the significant role of public investments in providing the foundations for Iowa’s economy. This includes the education system needed to develop the skills, talents and capacity of the current and future workforce, including those who will become the future entrepreneurs and leaders for the 21st century.

While the report acknowledges the centrality of an educated and skilled workforce and a high quality of life to making Iowa an environment for business to flourish, it places very little focus upon how government can deliver on that role. It falls to government to educate that future workforce — at the early childhood, primary and secondary, and higher education levels.

The report does not adequately address the challenges Iowa faces in creating that higher skill level among its emerging workforce — in particular, the need to address lagging and stagnant educational achievement. To do so takes resources, and the report’s emphasis is to leave in place a business subsidy structure that has increasingly reduced the state’s ability to meet those needs.

The report itself was overseen largely by business leaders and economic development agency staff. However, these are not the only stakeholders in Iowa’s economic future; many others need to engage in the dialogue about Iowa government’s role in economic development.

The Battelle Report raises one perspective on economic development. Lawmakers, the media and the public need to insist that other perspectives and expertise also are fully considered and vetted.

More Iowans need an invitation to the table.

08-Bruner-5464Charles Bruner is executive director of the Child & Family Policy Center, www.cfpciowa.org, part of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, www.iowafiscal.org.

Note: This piece also ran as an “Iowa View” in The Des Moines Register, Jan. 14, 2015.

[1] Technology Partnership Practice, Battelle Memorial Institute, December 2014, “Iowa’s Re-Envisioned Economic Development Roadmap.” http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/battelle
[2] Iowa Economic Development Authority, News release, Dec. 18, 2014, “Governor, IPEP Release Findings of 2014 Battelle Report, a New Economic Development Roadmap for Iowa,” http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/newsdetails/6051

Wind in your Facebook

Most of the “rich incentives” in Iowa’s economic development playbook do not incentivize anything that would not happen anyway. But Facebook shows clean energy does matter, something more companies should consider when choosing where to locate or to keep operations.

This item reported by The Des Moines Register’s Donnelle Eller came as a breath of fresh air to those concerned about the energy demands of big data centers coming to Iowa.

Reported Eller:

Facebook says it will begin operating its new data center in Altoona in early 2015 powered entirely by renewable energy that will come from a new wind project in Wellsburg, Ia. …

Iowa has become home to a growing number of massive data centers in recent years, first Google, followed by Microsoft and Facebook. Experts cite Iowa’s low energy costs — and rich incentives — for attracting the tech companies.

At IPP, our research has covered many areas of public policy, but two strong themes that have emerged are these:

  • Clean renewable energy such as wind and solar can enhance economic growth in our state; and
  • Economic development “incentives” must be designed to pay long-run dividends to the state to truly offer a public benefit.

Iowa won the bidding war with Nebraska not because we gave away more taxes but because we had more wind power. Facebook had a deal with environmental organizations to stop being a dirty energy hog so they came to a place where they could easily get wind power. And all that wind power in Iowa (24.5 percent of the total electricity generated last year was from wind) has not caused our overall electric rates to spike. So other companies like the Iowa environment as well. Clean energy seems to get us more high quality jobs.

Most of the “rich incentives” in Iowa’s economic development playbook do not incentivize anything that would not happen anyway because they are focused on tax breaks for companies that pay little or no taxes in the state to begin with, and in any event are such a small part of business costs that they have little bearing on location decisions.

But clean energy does matter. The promise of renewable energy, such as wind power, rests with the recognition that as we invest in new energy sources to meet demand of the future, we can do so in a way that does not harm our environment and keeps energy costs down over the long term.

In this case, Facebook is following a course, beyond giveaways, that more companies should consider when thinking about where to locate or keep operations.

IPP-osterberg-75 Posted by David Osterberg, Founding Director

Some bad ideas never die

On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Iowa House today proved that bipartisanship is no guarantor of good policy. On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities. So we will be taking money that should be supporting state investments in education, health, the environment, public safety, and other services, and using it to subsidize hotel developers and retail strip malls. All in the name of “economic development.”

Cities already have more than enough ability to divert taxes to development projects through property tax TIFs and abatements. There is no need for additional diversions of revenue from other jurisdictions.

The House bill would authorize any city or county to establish “Reinvestment Districts.” From the date of establishment onward for the next 25 years, 4 cents of the 6-cent statewide sales tax, and all 5 cents of the state hotel-motel tax, from all “new” sales or room rentals would be diverted from the state general fund to the city for use in the district. What uses? Pretty much anything; any building, public or private, could qualify for a subsidy, and there is no limit on how much of the cost of a project can be subsidized.

“New sales” are sales from a business that first got a state sales-tax permit (or hotel-motel tax permit) after the date the district was established. Given the high rate of turnover among retail businesses, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which most of the sales taxes in a district are diverted from the state general fund even though there has been little additional economic activity, or even decline. All that is needed is that old businesses are replaced by new ones, even if that means replacing an Applebees with a pawn shop.

Why will a city ever again be content to finance commercial redevelopment on their own, or with property tax TIFs alone? Why will a developer ever again finance a project entirely from private sources – try to remember, if you can, when that was the norm – when he or she can just ask the city to get the money from the state?

More importantly, what will become of market standards? While every legislator who voted for the bill surely believes in free markets and private enterprise, this measure undermines markets. There was a time, before the incentive wars got out of hand, when a project had to stand on its own – there had to be a sufficient market to support it, and banks had to be convinced that revenues would be sufficient to repay the loans. No more. Now local government officials are determined to force development to happen when it can’t stand on its own, creating oversupply that hurts existing businesses. Or the private sector happily rakes in all the new incentive cash to do something it would have done anyway. Those are really the only two alternatives for a local market activity: either market conditions support it and it can be financed privately, or the market can’t support it, and the city uses taxpayer money to force overbuilding.

We can hope that this bill gets careful scrutiny before it goes any further.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Iowa Development Waters Still Safe for Pirates

Anti-piracy provisions newly incorporated into Iowa’s TIF law need to be implemented for all economic development subsidies.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) just announced that it has awarded $304,000 in state tax incentives to Putco Inc. to move from Story City to a location about 35 miles away in Polk County. The Polk County Board of Supervisors will hear a proposal on Wednesday that the board add $363,000 in tax abatements to the incentive package.

Why is the state helping to finance the piracy of jobs from one place to another in Iowa? This is not economic development for the state, and in fact appears to be counter to any reasonable interpretation of state law.

The Iowa Code, Chapter 15A.1 (2), dealing with economic development, states that “funds should not be used to attract a business presently located within the state to relocate to another portion of the state unless the business is considering in good faith to relocate outside the state or unless the relocation is related to an expansion which will generate significant new job creation.”

According to  The Des Moines Register, the alternative under consideration by Putco, a manufacturer of car and truck accessories, was a new site in the Story City area, not out of state. Furthermore, the IEDA project report shows no “jobs retained,” as there would be if an out-of-state move had been threatened.

And the new jobs to be created? Five. Over the past 10 years, almost 84,000 new jobs were created every year by establishments expanding in Iowa. Against that number, how in the world can five jobs be judged a “significant” addition?

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has argued previously, the “new jobs” exception in Iowa’s anti-piracy statute is so vague as to constitute a loophole large enough to drive a moving van through. In fact, the Iowa Legislature apparently agreed with this assessment. The Tax Increment Financing reform bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor includes an anti-piracy provision devoid of any job expansion loophole; a move is a move.

Firms will still move facilities from time to time, but they need not be subsidized by taxpayers to do so, as was the case with the $18 million or more provided by Coralville to entice Von Maur away from another location in Johnson County. Such moves won’t be subsidized by TIF subsidies anymore.

Unfortunately, the basic anti-piracy statute that applies to all economic development subsidies, quoted above, was not amended, leaving state agencies and local governments free to interpret “significant job creation” as loosely as they please, for any subsidies other than TIF. One wonders what the folks at IEDA feel is the limit. Three jobs? One job? Given the rather wobbly record of firms receiving state incentives in the past — job creation targets are often not met — it is quite possible that in the end this move will result in no net increase in jobs at all, above the 40 currently employed in Story City, or even a loss in jobs if the new facility is more automated and firm sales fail to meet expectations.

So it appears that taxpayer-subsidized piracy is alive and well in Iowa. The restrictions newly incorporated into TIF law need to be made part of the general law on economic development subsidies. If property tax payers should be protected from such abuse of public funds, why not state taxpayers generally?

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director

It’s not theater: ‘The Pirates of River Landing’

Total up-front project cost: $16 million to $17 million plus infrastructure. The city’s share: at least 75 percent. In the economic development world, that is an astounding fraction. That’s even larger than Iowa’s scandal ridden film tax credit.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Coralville City Council recently approved an astounding incentive package to entice Von Maur from Iowa City’s Sycamore Mall to Coralville’s Iowa River Landing project. The city has agreed to build a $9.5 million store for Von Maur. It doesn’t matter how well your store is doing; if someone offers you free rent in perpetuity, that gets your attention.

But the $9.5 million is only half the story. The city also agreed to:

  • give Von Maur the $1.5 million building site for $10,
  • pay $650,000 to buy out the company’s lease at Sycamore Mall,
  • pay all of Von Maur’s expenses of moving from the mall to Coralville, and
  • pay all of the cost of constructing necessary streets, sidewalks, parking lots, landscaping, street lighting, water, sewer and storm sewers associated with or needed by the store.

And that’s still not the end. This was a TIF deal, where the rationale is that you are creating tax base, in the long run.

Well, guess what happens to most of the tax revenue — the city rebates it to Von Maur, with no ending date, because this TIF is in a “blighted area,” which means the TIF goes on forever.

So I guess the day after perpetuity, the schools and the county will start collecting all the taxes normally due them from this project.

The property tax deal caps Von Maur’s liability for property taxes at $150,000 per year (inflated each year by the consumer price index or 2 percent, whichever is less). If you take the building cost and add the land value you get $11 million. Then throw in another $1.0 to $1.5 million for the value of interior improvements made by Von Maur that count as part of the real estate, and you get a taxable value of about $12.2 million. At the current total property tax rate in that area of $36.57 per thousand, that is about $450,000 per year for a total property tax bill.

Under the agreement, Von Maur pays only $150,000, the city pays the remaining $300,000. There is no time limit on the cap. But if we assume that the store will have an economic life of 20 years, we can calculate the present value equivalent of giving them $300,000 a year. It’s about $4.5 million (using a 3 percent discount rate). You could argue about the time frame, or the discount rate, or about how much faster property taxes will go up than the 2 percent limit on the cap (which means the rebate amount will increase).

But you will in the end come to the conclusion that the tax cap is worth a lot — $4 million to $5 million. That is, giving Von Maur $4 million to $5 million up front would be worth about the same as giving the company $300,000 a year for 20 years. That means the total incentive package is worth at least $16 million (9.5 + 1.5 + .65 + 4.5). “At least,” because that figure doesn’t include all of the city infrastructure costs, which will be substantial, or the moving costs. Von Maur, meanwhile, has to come up with just the cost of finishing the interior space to its specifications, an expense that is likely to be in the $3.5 to $4.5 million range, plus $150,000 in property taxes each year, and its share of maintaining the common property (mostly parking lots).

Total up-front project cost: $16 million to $17 million plus infrastructure. The city’s share: at least 75 percent. In the economic development world, that is an astounding fraction. That’s even larger than Iowa’s scandal-ridden film tax credit, which briefly promised “half-price filmmaking” before the program was shut down. In addition to covering three-fourths of the up-front costs, the city will pay two-thirds of the annual property tax bill.

Coralville Council members — perhaps soon to be known as the Pirates of River Landing — apparently think this is a wise use of taxpayer funds. We can hope that the taxpayers of Coralville have a more sensible view of the world.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director