Positive options for the 2020s

The failures of the 2010s spotlight how we can use public policy to make Iowa more equitable, inclusive and sustainable in the 2020s.

iowacapitol-rotundaWe would be remiss at the end of 2019 not to note the positive lessons of the last 10 years.

We have plenty of room to raise the minimum wage, now 12 years old at $7.25 an hour. Had the minimum simply kept up with inflation, it would be 22 percent higher, at $8.83 — but of course still short of a living wage. IPP research shows a single parent needs about $20 to $22 an hour working full time just to make a bare-bones household budget.

We can require polluters to stop ruining Iowa’s water, by putting some teeth in the so-called Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is rendered meaningless by requiring nothing of polluters. Even the good actors in the ag community should be able to see their efforts are eroded like unprotected soil when neighbors’ farm practices contribute to nutrient pollution.

Without raising tax rates, we can raise significant revenue for education and other shortchanged services, by curtailing or ending research tax-credit checks for corporations that pay no income tax ($40 million), and by closing tax loopholes ($100 million). Instead, we have seen an average increase of less than 2 percent in permitted per-pupil K-12 spending in Iowa over 10 years. We see rising college tuition because of poor state support.

We can make our tax system more fair by shifting our increased reliance on sales taxes to revenue sources such as income tax. Our four-decade trend toward sales tax (and against income tax) may continue in 2020 with the push for environmental quality and recreation as directed by voters in 2010, but it can be paired with moves to make the overall system more fair. Note: That approach demands no new tax cuts for the wealthy.

That list is hardly exhaustive. Queue up child care assistance, wage theft enforcement, restoring and protecting collective bargaining rights, making pensions more commonplace instead of attacking workers who have them. We could even step up efforts to protect vulnerable communities in advance of the next flooding disaster,

The common theme: Since we’ve done nothing or virtually nothing meaningfully positive in 10 years in these areas, even small steps will look good in comparison. And, because of the pent-up frustration of those who would have been satisfied five years ago with small steps, visionary and dramatic steps might be possible.

But this is not a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” refrain like you would hear after a near-miss in a ballgame. For all their theme of decline, retrenchment and a “can’t-do” mindset, the failures of the 2010s really spotlight what we can do through public policy to work together for a stronger, more equitable, more inclusive, more sustainable Iowa in the 2020s.

This is a moment to start a rebound.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we have used solid information and years of perspective to spotlight challenges and ways to make life in Iowa better, next year, five years, even 10 years from now.

So, bring on 2020!

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

The Iowa Policy Project is a 501c3 nonprofit organization funded by individual donations, organizations and foundation grants. Tax-deductible contributions may be made online at this link.

Ag Gag: Never a good idea

Restoring Iowans’ rights with the strikedown of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law is an important step forward. Next, someone needs to test the Iowa law reducing neighbors’ rights to sue big hog facilities.

pigs-matrixThe Iowa Legislature and our former governor just got a spanking by the courts. The “ag-gag” law they created in 2012 is unconstitutional because it violates free speech.

As Trish Mehaffey reported last week in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the law “threatened up to a year in jail for those individuals who use undercover means or provide false identities to document or report on activities in the agricultural animal facilities.” In other words, the law — now overturned — had criminalized actions by a whistle blower.

Another law passed and signed in 2017 needs similar testing by the courts. This one restricted nuisance suits by neighbors against large animal production facilities, as IPP reported in March 2017.

The source of both laws was the ag industry, which has successfully lobbied legislators to avoid better approaches to livestock production, with scare tactics about the survival of the industry. Their claims are nonsense.

For evidence, look to Denmark — like Iowa, a big and thriving producer of hogs, but with many more restrictions. Rather than making it a crime to report on abuse of animals, Denmark requires that:

“All Danish pigs are produced within independently monitored assurance schemes, which also require a monthly visit by the local veterinarian. In addition, the Danish authorities run an annual programme of ‘unannounced’ visits to ensure that all welfare legislation is being complied with.” [1]

In other words, whistleblowing would be encouraged.

Denmark has other rules in its promotion of a strong industry that considers animal welfare and protection of human health:

  • Required “showering systems for all pigs over 20kg weight to enable them to regulate their body temperature in hot weather.
  • A 2015 ban on the use of fully slatted flooring systems allows pigs a more comfortable lying area. [2]
  • Reducing antibiotic use in all animals by 49 percent from 1994 through 2016, while production of food animals actually increased by 15 percent. [3] The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only a voluntary program to reduce antibiotic use in animal agriculture and this effort has yet to show decreases in total amount of antimicrobials. [4]

In Iowa, ways have been shown to raise hogs other than in confinements that are outside the public eye or contrary to neighbors’ concerns. Hoop houses offer one such alternative. Among environmental advantages, hoop houses remove one problem because manure produced is mixed with straw or other materials. That manure can be applied to land with much less danger of running off into streams, a problem with liquid manure from confinements.

Restoring Iowans’ rights with the strikedown of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law is an important step forward. Next, someone needs to test the Iowa law reducing neighbors’ rights to sue big hog facilities.

[1] Agriculture and Food.co.uk. Providing Information on the Danish Pig industry. Overview https://agricultureandfood.co.uk/welfare/overview

[2] Ibid.

[3] Statens Serum Institut, National Veterinary Institute, National Food Institute. “DANMAP 2016.”

[4] United States, Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine. “Guidance for Industry #213.” December 2013, https://tinyurl.com/ybkn2uk5.

2016-osterberg_5464 David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and a state legislator from the 1983 through 1994 sessions of the General Assembly, is the lead environmental researcher for the Iowa Policy Project. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Listen to Osterberg’s interview on this topic with Michael Devine of KVFD, 1400AM in Fort Dodge.

Remembering Dave Hurd

David Hurd believed that people and the environment deserved protection. In all his charitable work, he sought to make this state better.

Dave Hurd supported many Iowa organizations. He had an essential role in our creation of the Iowa Policy Project. In 2001 Joyce Foundation offered our new policy organization a large grant but my grant officer said she wanted to see diverse in-state support. Dave wrote a letter on our behalf to several of his friends who he thought would endorse the work we were beginning at IPP. The amount raised from him and others who responded to that letter gave us the match we needed.

Dave continued to donate to IPP as did many of those who responded to that first fundraising letter. He liked especially our work on water quality but supported our reports documenting the needs of low-income Iowans and our data on fair taxes. He believed that people and the environment deserved protection. In all his charitable work he sought to make this state better. We will miss this great man.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project

Too few inspectors to assure clean water

Rules need adequate enforcement. DNR does not appear to have enough staff.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently seeking public comments on proposed rule changes required by the Iowa Legislature that would bring Iowa’s requirements for concentrated animal feeding operations into agreement with federal regulations.

The changes would also satisfy the terms of a work plan signed by the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rules need enforcement and the agency — by its own admission — has not maintained enough inspectors. Even the recent changes since the agency was reprimanded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 have not replaced enough employees to get the number of inspectors back to the level that existed in 2004.

Originally in answer to U.S. EPA complaints, the department envisioned a 13 staff-person increase that would only bring numbers back to approximately the 2004 staffing levels — before the addition of many more confinement operations. However, the Governor and General Assembly did not even authorize this number.

Let me repeat, rules need adequate enforcement. DNR does not appear to have enough staff.

See this passage from a DNR 2011 report on manure on frozen and snow-covered ground:

“The scope and complexity of confinement program work increased disproportionately beginning with legislation in the late ’90s. With this, public awareness of environmental issues also grew, resulting in a significant increase in local demand for education, compliance assistance and compliance assurance. To address these needs, animal feeding operations field staffing gradually increased to a high of 23 by SFY 2004.* In SFY 2008, four staff people were shifted into a newly established open feedlots program. Then in the fall of 2009, as General Fund expenditures declined, confinement staffing was reduced again. This reduced staff numbers from 19 to 11.5. Further reductions leave the total of field staff for confinement work at 8.75 full time equivalents. This reduction means that the DNR will not be able to maintain an adequate level of compliance and enforcement activity in confinements.”**

*State Fiscal Year 2004
**http://www.iowadnr.gov/Portals/idnr/uploads/afo/2011%202011%20DNR%20Manure%20on%20Frozen%20Ground%20Report%20FINAL.pdf

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

Earth Day: Making policy matter

With good information, local citizens and policy makers can do a better job evaluating a new industry and preparing for its impacts. These efforts will enable the county to protect itself and the tourism industry that Allamakee County residents have nurtured over the years.

It’s good to see public officials looking for sensible policy solutions. When it is Earth Day and the policy is designed to protect the environment, it is especially rewarding.

As Iowa Policy Project research has described, frac sand mining poses environmental, aesthetic and economic threats to one of Iowa’s most picturesque regions. Local officials in Allamakee County are attempting to respond. See this Cedar Rapids Gazette/KCRG-TV story.

Basic RGBThe Allamakee County Planning and Zoning Commission has proposed a very restrictive ordinance to govern any frac sand mining in the county. The county passed a moratorium on any new mining 14 months ago and the P&Z has used the time to gather data to write a new ordinance. A first look at the P&Z proposal includes ideas also found in the IPP report issued in January, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining. The IPP report suggested local governments in Iowa could use a Minnesota Environmental Quality Board toolkit to consider appropriate local ordinances.

The proposed Allamakee ordinance, among other restrictions, features two important ideas from that resource: setbacks from sinkholes and careful analysis of potential impact of mining given the geology of the area. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette/KCRG story, the ordinance would:

  •    forbid mining within 1,000 feet of a sinkhole;
  •    forbid mining within a mile of a stream or river; and
  •    require that a mining firm must survey the impact of its operations on the geology of the area before any mining can begin.

Citizen involvement brought this proposal to its current stage, a step closer to adoption, with approval still required by the county Board of Supervisors.

With good information, local citizens and policy makers can do a better job evaluating a new industry and preparing for its impacts. These efforts will enable the county to protect itself and the tourism industry that Allamakee County residents have nurtured over the years.

Policy makers have not jumped into a new economic endeavor without making sure the new will not hurt the old.

 

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

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Click here for an executive summary and a link to the full IPP report, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining, by Aaron Kline and David Osterberg. Kline is an IPP intern from the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Osterberg, IPP’s environmental director, is co-founder and former executive director of IPP.

Hear interview with David Osterberg by KVFD’s Michael Devine on The Devine Intervention, April 24, 2014.

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Budget balance can mix responsible tax reform with smart investments. A $750 tax credit for all is neither.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

This session of the Iowa Legislature offers a tremendous opportunity to move the state forward with a balanced approach — including responsible, fair tax reform and investments in critical needs that have gone unmet, in education at all levels, in environmental quality and public safety.

The proposal for a blanket $750 tax credit to couples, regardless of need and blind to the opportunity cost of even more lost investments, does not fit that approach. To compound a penchant to spend money on tax breaks is fiscally irresponsible to the needs of Iowa taxpayers, who will benefit from better services, and to the promise that we would return to proper investments when the economy turned up, as it has. Furthermore, to give away Iowa’s surplus when uncertainty remains about the impact of federal budget decisions on our state’s tax system and services is tremendously short-sighted.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has established, cutbacks in higher education funding have caused costs and debt to rise for students and their families, not only at the Regents institutions but community colleges as well. While Iowa voters, through a statewide referendum, have expressly called for new revenues to go toward better environmental stewardship, lawmakers have not taken action. The surplus we now see should be used responsibly for the future of Iowans, who patiently endured budget austerity for the day when we could once again see support for critical services. This is no time to be forgetting our responsibilities.

Iowa can do better by returning to the basics of good budgeting, crafting budget and tax choices that keep a long-term focus on the needs of young and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the foundations we leave them.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Talk is cheap

We need a strategy that recognizes the serious water quality problem we have and offers a realistic approach to addressing it. This must be more than a goal — but a guarantee to all Iowans.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

There are three principal problems with the Governor’s proposed Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and they can be summed up in three words: Talk is cheap.

Solutions to this problem start with enforcement, and that takes money. The state of Iowa shortchanges water quality, underfunding it even compared to what we did a decade ago. Our March 2012 report, Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, found that this water-quality funding decline came despite greater needs for water protection and public willingness to fund it.

Second, inadequate enforcement of environmental rules for Iowa’s livestock industry has resulted in the state’s censure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and this threatens our ability to write permits and otherwise enforce our obligations under the Clean Water Act. The strategy bases enforcement on voluntary acceptance of state rules. This has not worked.

Finally, it says much about Iowa’s commitment to water quality — or lack of commitment — when the state proposes a major nutrient reduction strategy and offers no new money to get the job done. The strategy proposes nothing to make sure Iowa does better in assuring clean water for its residents, for states downstream, and the future.

In short, we need a strategy that recognizes the serious water quality problem we have and offers a realistic approach to addressing it. This must be more than a goal — but a guarantee to all Iowans.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Policy and pollution: We have options

“It’s not like we don’t have options. We do. Public policy can make a difference in protecting the environment.”

Iowa’s deteriorating water quality is a lingering problem that never seems to make it to the front burner of political campaigns or elected leaders’ agendas in the State Capitol. The Des Moines Register’s editorial today asks — and answers — the fundamental questions:

Why is our water so dirty? The state’s agricultural businesses, including 7,000 animal feeding operations, is a significant reason. Why do they do so much damage to the environment? Elected officials let them.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

It’s not like we don’t have options. We do. Public policy can make a difference in protecting the environment, through tough and effective regulations that recognize the air and water belong to all of us, and by helping folks do a better job with targeted incentives.

Unfortunately, as the Register suggests, elected officials in Iowa have passed up opportunities in both the regulatory and incentive arenas to enhance Iowa’s water quality. The Iowa Policy Project through the years has noted many of the issues and presented constructive policy options. Here is a selection of those reports:

IPP also showed this year how environmental protection funding has waned in Iowa — even when voters specifically told lawmakers with a referendum in 2010 that environmental protection is an area where they want to see funding directed. As we found:

While legislators and other elected officials will always proclaim their commitment to clean water, they have not over the past decade demonstrated that commitment through the state budget. In fact, once inflation is taken into account, funding for many programs the state relies upon to monitor, protect and improve waterways has dropped by 25 percent or more. …

Over time, this slow erosion in the purchasing power of these programs is likely to contribute to deteriorating Iowa water quality, if it has not already done so. When funding is scaled to FY13 appropriations, the slow decline in spending on water programs becomes more evident.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Tax-cutters’ unbalanced focus undermines self-government

What we have in Des Moines is a leadership problem and a governing problem.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

Cut taxes, starve schools. Cut taxes, starve environmental protection. Cut taxes, … well, I think you’re getting the idea.

“The-tax-cuts-are-my-only-priority” legislators now have enough power to keep eroding our ability to meet our needs.

As I pointed out Sunday in a guest opinion in The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, this drive to underfund education is the root of recent decisions to close Polk Elementary School in Cedar Rapids and the Price Lab School at the University of Northern Iowa.

What we have in Des Moines is a leadership problem and a governing problem. Leaders find a way of matching revenues to our needs. The rejection of this kind of responsibility by a large enough number of our elected officials is the problem.

And the facts — as we have demonstrated in Iowa Policy Project reports — are clear. Most recently, we showed Iowa’s decline in support for the regents’ universities over the last 10 years. For the University of Iowa alone, it meant 40 percent less in actual spending power than the state provided in 2000, and a shift of costs to tuition-paying students and their parents.

A week before, we showed similar results with water-quality funding.

Even now, there is no greater cry than to cut commercial property taxes — even when most of the cuts would go to firms like WalMart and McDonald’s. It doesn’t matter. It’s a tax cut, period.

Ironically, even those who some elected officials are attempting to appeal to need the services they are cutting. Rockwell Collins needs trained engineers, and can better retain employees when rivers are clean and people have places to recreate.

Voters who want their kids educated and their rivers clean need to recognize that it doesn’t happen without state funding. More tax cuts don’t get us there.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Will Iowa ever put taxpayers’ dollars where their voices are?

The only thing that is self-evident is that Iowa lawmakers are not putting taxpayers’ money where their voices are: toward more and better water-quality initiatives.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

The Des Moines Register editorial staff has produced some excellent perspectives about budgets in recent days, about budget cutting run amok, and budget cuts affecting the courts and human services (including accountability and oversight). Noted The Register:

It’s unlikely you will hear a politician say state government is too small. But at some point, it is.

You could certainly make the same case about environmental quality programs, particularly in water quality, as we showed in a report last week. In Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, IPP’s Will Hoyer, Brian McDonough and David Osterberg noted:

In a state with almost 90 percent of its land worked for agriculture, it should be of stark concern to Iowa policy makers that the water running through both our agricultural lands and urban landscapes contains excess nutrients, toxic chemicals, and sediments. These pollutants end up in Iowa’s rivers and streams. The impacts upon public health, fishing and other recreational activities, and cleanup and water treatment costs show up not just in Iowa, but all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. There, the nutrients from cornbelt farm fields are creating the area of hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions known as the “Dead Zone,” where sea life cannot live. …
 
Iowa voters demonstrated strongly that they favor additional efforts to protect Iowa waterways when 63 percent voted in 2010 to approve the Water and Land Legacy amendment, so one might expect the state to increase its commitment to protecting its water. While funding by itself is not an indicator of performance, it is a necessary ingredient in the fight to protect and improve Iowa’s water resources. This report looks at funding for several key state water programs over the last decade and finds that, from a fiscal perspective, the state’s commitment to water protection programs is woefully lacking. (emphasis added)

Among the IPP analysts’ findings is that for most of the period from FY2002-12, inflation-adjusted totals for 10 critical water programs hovered at just over $20 million, and that there were significant drops from those funding levels in FY03 and FY11, with little rebound from the latter in FY12. See the figure below (Figure 3 in our report).

Recent Drop in Water Quality Funding in Critical Programs
Figures in thousands
Table1

At the same time of these funding trends, we have learned that more and more waters in Iowa were impaired. One might expect greater awareness to produce greater attention to remediation, but clearly we are not seeing it. In fact, the Legislature would have to restore $5 million in state water-quality funding just to move to what it had been during the previous decade — as if those earlier levels were enough, something that is not self-evident.

The only thing that is self-evident is that Iowa lawmakers are not putting taxpayers’ money where their voices are: toward more and better water-quality initiatives.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director