Budgeting in context

The budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context.

Andrew Cannon
Andrew Cannon

Following last year’s prolonged legislative session, legislators and the governor congratulated themselves for a budget that fully funded programs and reduced reliance on what they called “one-time funds.”

It is true that state services, systems and structures were funded to a large degree through a stable source, the General Fund (where income and sales taxes are pooled). And funding levels increased generally, especially in comparison to the recession-affected budgets of FY10 and FY11, when many state services and programs took severe cuts.

But the budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context, as we do in a new report.

First, the use of “one-time funds” proved to be the right choice at the time. Because of the recession, state revenues declined precipitously, which led to a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut. One-time funds now derided by some were used precisely as intended. State “rainy day” funds, reserved for economic emergencies, and the federal Recovery Act (ARRA) combined to fill budget gaps and save services. ARRA provided billions of dollars to Iowa to finance K-12 education, higher education, and health care programs for children, the elderly, Iowans with disabilities and low-income Iowans who had no other access to health insurance.

Second, consider how funding for state services and programs compares to pre-recession funding levels. Even as revenues have bounced back, and funding for many services has stabilized, it is unclear if present levels are adequate to met needs. For instance, state funding for community colleges in FY12 will reach about $164 million, up from FY10 and FY11 levels, but still remain below pre-recession levels. At the same time, community colleges are serving more Iowans than ever, with enrollment reaching 106,000 in FY11, up from 88,000 students in FY08.

Iowa’s other public higher education system, the Board of Regents, this year is working under a 3 percent reduction in funding from FY11. Even with the governor’s proposed FY13 increase, Regents funding would still be below recession levels, to say nothing of pre-recession levels. Students pay the price, with continually increasing tuition costs.

Other programs, such as the Early Childhood Iowa initiative, which provides preschool tuition subsidies and parental education; Child Care Assistance, which helps low-income working parents cover the cost of child care; and the Family Investment Program, which helps the lowest-income families meet basic needs and prepare for employment, all have seen large cuts in funding since before the recession. Even into economic recovery, some programs are still being reduced.

Improving upon last year or the year before is good, but the long-term question asks if we are adequately funding programs to meet Iowans’ needs and to adequately invest in Iowa’s future. Judicious use of public funds is not as simple as cutting services to bring down expenses, but taking a balanced approach that assures adequate funding for services that position Iowa for the future.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Quality of life — the path to good jobs and schools

A whopping 63 percent of Iowans voted in 2010 for a constitutional amendment that would dedicate funding to improve Iowa’s waters and land. Now, that is a mandate.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer


Governor Branstad wants Iowans to focus “like a laser beam” on jobs and education. If we are to do so, he must get us to examine how we’re managing our precious land and water. He cannot expect to achieve his job goals without those important parts of the picture.

What happens when people don’t want the jobs that are available because the air is so dirty that people get sick? What happens when well-educated, highly qualified job candidates pass up Iowa for another state that demonstrates a commitment to clean water and air? A variety of aspects make Iowa a desirable place to bring a business or a family. Most focus on quality of life.

If our children are educated in world-class schools they will have job opportunities everywhere. Companies across the country and across the world will be clamoring to hire hard-working, well-educated Iowa kids and those kids will have choices. Will they want to live in a state that demonstrates a commitment to clean air and clean water? Will they want a place that invests in parks and recreational opportunities? Absolutely.

As The Des Moines Register has pointed out, Iowa consistently ranks near the bottom in per-capita spending on recreation and conservation.

Politicians often talk of a “mandate” when they win an election with 52 or 53 percent of the vote. Why, then, can they not look back on the November 2010 election and recognize that a whopping 63 percent of Iowans voted for an amendment that would dedicate funding to improve Iowa’s waters and land? Now, that is a mandate.

Nobody will argue against creating jobs or improving education. It is a mistake to assume we can do either without other things that attract new people to Iowa and keep them here.

We educate smart people. If a smart Iowa-educated college grad can choose between a job in an Iowa town where the smell of a large hog confinement or industrial grain processor pollutes the air, or where nobody feels safe getting in the river water that runs through downtown, and a comparable job outside Iowa where clean air and water are the norm, we know what the choice will be.

We must invest in children’s education here in this state but we also must invest in protecting the environment so those children grow up healthy. We must invest in creating good jobs where people can work eight hours a day but we must also invest in protecting the environment where those workers live 24 hours a day.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Stewardship, community and freedom

The assault on our public structures by convenient, slick, political messages of the day defies American values of stewardship and community.

Today America faces a daunting task: finding a way to reduce deficits and debt while not crashing the economy and still maintaining the critical services that are only, or best, provided by the public sector.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we have the opportunity to work with many similar state and national organizations — nonpartisan, nonprofit, issue-focused and fact-based analysis at the heart of their missions and their work. One of these colleagues, Michael Lipsky, distinguished senior fellow at Demos, recently wrote a column in The New York Times about a hiking trip in the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington state, near the Canadian border.

In his excellent piece, “A Well-Regulated Wilderness,” Lipsky wrote that, even there, he found himself thinking about government. “Not that there was much of it in sight,” he remarked. He continued:

There were no rangers to check our reservations, no posted rules telling us where and how to set up camp.

Michael Lipsky, distinguished senior fellow, Demos
Michael Lipsky, Demos

If anything, the Pasayten seemed to prove that we don’t need government, that humans can be self-regulating: per the unofficial rules of backpacking, most of our campsites had been reused repeatedly, to minimize damage to the environment, and litter was rare.

On reflection, however, this nursery of freedom spoke directly to the role of government in shaping our world. It was thanks to decades of effective lawmaking that we could enjoy four days in the open country, fixing meals, hiking and spending family time together. … Americans once feared the wilderness and sought to tame it. Now we seek it out as redemptive. …

In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which set aside 9.1 million acres of public land as places where people would be visitors but not leave any marks; today some 108 million acres are protected under the act.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Michael Lipsky’s perspective is spot-on. Let’s look at it another way: Would Exxon have done this? Or Microsoft? Or Wal-mart? Would it even make sense for them, or their stockholders, to do so? To whose mission, then, do such responsibilities fall? Does it not make sense that this would fall to the federal government? Would you not say the same about basic economic safety-net programs? Infrastructure such as roads and bridges? Workplace safety? Clean water and clean air protection? Civil rights and education? National security?

The assault on our public structures by convenient, slick, political messages of the day not only disregards, but defies, what in our hearts and minds we know are the American values of stewardship and community that are the thrust of what government does.

We’re all concerned about deficits and debt and the impact on our children and grandchildren, but we also must be challenged to address the impact on those future generations of a failure to accept the mantle of responsibility of maintaining and nurturing the structures that have sustained us, when “self-regulation” is not enough. For if we do fail on that score, it will be every bit as much a debt as one of dollars.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

More drainage and water quality benefits, too? Maybe

Can more drainage paired with wetlands improve water quality and farmers’ profits? Let the research proceed, and until then, let’s withhold judgment.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

We’ve all heard about the area of hypoxia, or the so-called “Dead Zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of all the rain and flooding this year and the amount of water flowing down the Mississippi, scientists are expecting the Dead Zone to be the largest ever recorded.

It’s starting to appear that these rain events are becoming the “new normal” just as climate modelers have predicted. Therefore it is becoming even more imperative that we take steps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are leaving Iowa fields and keep them from flowing downstream. The Wetland and Drainage Initiative that we write about in our latest report is an attempt by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to study one potential way for doing just that.

At the heart of it the concept behind the Initiative, which some know as “the Iowa Plan,” is the idea that enlarging the subsurface drainage(or “tile”) capacity will allow fields to dry faster thus increasing crop yields. The additional profits from the higher yields could then pay for the construction of nitrate removal wetlands that would be built at the outlets of the tiles. The larger tile capacity would mean more nitrate leaving the fields but the nitrates would be removed by the wetlands. That’s the theory — but it needs to be tested. That’s what IDALS is doing, in partnership with other agencies and groups, at several sites in north central Iowa.

map showing Des Moines Lobe
The Des Moines Lobe is the focus of the IDALS initiative.

We really don’t know for sure if this Initiative will work as touted and there are lots of questions, questions that hopefully will be answered with rigorous, transparent monitoring of the pilot sites. Rightly or wrongly there is a lot of skepticism among some groups regarding anything IDALS does and so the onus is on IDALS to demonstrate that these pilot projects, were they to be expanded across the tile-drained parts of the state, would actually have water quality and crop yield benefits and would not have unintended negative consequences.

A lot of research underlies the Initiative, and with thorough monitoring of the pilot sites scientists will probably know a lot more in five years. It’s possible that these treatment wetlands will be playing a much bigger role in the next few decades in Iowa, Illinois and other tile drained parts of the country, but in five years the data may also show that the concept just does not work. We’ll see.

  • We should avoid a situation where farmers are putting in larger tiles with no way of removing the extra nitrogen and therefore contributing even more to downstream water problems.
  • We should avoid subsidizing farmers’ installations of larger tiles.
  • We should avoid draining the few remaining wetlands we have left.
  • We should avoid putting scarce public dollars into programs that may not have benefits.
  • We also should avoid putting all of our eggs in one basket. It’s going to take more than just these nitrate removal wetlands to get Iowa water quality to where it needs to be and there are lots of other steps that can be taken and existing programs that could use more resources in the meantime.

In short, this is a message to catch our breath and let the research tell us what’s happening. This Initiative combining enhanced drainage and nitrate-removal wetlands shows promise to benefit both farmers and water quality but until we see the numbers in a few years we will withhold judgment.

By Will Hoyer, Research Associate

What smaller government looks like

Maybe you won’t notice cuts like those Lande announced Wednesday. Then again, maybe you want to take the kids to the lake this summer.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

It was a previous Department of Natural Resources director who delivered the warning.

“I have gotten I don’t know how many complaints from legislators and small business owners about, ‘You used to do this and now you don’t any more,’” then-Director Rich Leopold told The Des Moines Register last year. “[Y]ou want smaller government, this is what it looks like.”

Now, for a fresh look.

On Wednesday, the Register’s Perry Beeman reported that current DNR Director Roger Lande informed his staff that the agency would eliminate more than 100 jobs. The excuse? Lack of funds.

This, at the same time Lande’s boss, Governor Terry Branstad, and state lawmakers are haggling over how much in tax breaks can be built not just into the FY2012 budget beginning July 1, but for the year after that, and structurally in the budget for years beyond.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has pointed out, Iowans value many services that would not be available but for the public structures created by our tax dollars — education, law enforcement, safety-net services, and, yes, environmental quality. When Iowa already has substantially cut services and shown almost no restraint in its giveaways to corporations, some of which are subsidized not to pay any tax, should the DNR cuts be a surprise?

Maybe you won’t notice cuts like those Lande announced Wednesday.

Then again, maybe you want to take the kids to the lake this summer.

According to the Register article, the agency’s stream monitoring coordinator said remaining employees “will struggle to monitor lake and river pollution after the cuts.” So, take the kids — but maybe you’ll be jumping in the lake at your own risk.

Not a bad idea, perhaps, for some folks other than your family.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

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Hiding behind averages — soil erosion problems in Iowa

The EWG report illustrates the problems with averages. In some parts of the state a single 2007 storm led to over 100 tons per acre of topsoil eroding into rivers and streams in some parts of the state.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

This week the Environmental Working Group released a report that shows that the rate of soil erosion in parts of Iowa is way worse than most people could have imagined.

Using data from the Iowa Daily Erosion Project, headed by agronomist Rick Cruse at Iowa State University, EWG’s report shows that Iowa’s statewide erosion rate of 5.2 tons per acre* can be very misleading and hides the fact that in some parts of the state a single 2007 storm led to over 100 tons per acre of topsoil eroding into rivers and streams in some parts of the state.

This illustrates the problem with averages. Sure, large parts of the state (the flatter parts of north-central Iowa, especially) might not be losing much soil at all, but other, hillier parts of the state are not doing so well.

And in some years, erosion might not be much of a problem because the storms just are not very severe, but as a report from earlier this year points out, climate change is driving more frequent and severe storms in Iowa — the kind that lead to catastrophic erosion.

Many current policies and practices are not helping the situation. When we speak in statewide averages we might think that those policies and practices are working better than they actually are.

Be sure to watch the 5 minute video that goes along with the report.

*In Iowa the “tolerable” soil loss amount, or “T,” is five tons per acre per year. This T value has been around for years and was theorized to be the rate at which soil was regenerated. Many experts question the validity of a T value of five and think that a truly sustainable soil loss limit would be significantly smaller

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Here comes the sun

No matter how much solar power is tapped, the sun will always come up tomorrow. Solar should top Iowa’s list of energy choices.

Teresa Galluzzo

Now is the time for Iowa to go solar. Developing solar power in Iowa will create thousands of jobs and bring millions into our economy. A new report from the Iowa Policy Project and three other organizations — the Iowa Environmental Council, Environmental Law & Policy Center and Vote Solar Initiative — details the economic benefits.

Increasing our solar-powered energy and reaping these benefits is something Iowa can easily do with good state policy and private investment. Here are some reasons why:

— We have enough sun. Iowa has more solar resources than Germany, the world’s solar energy leader. [1]

— Iowa has experience leading with clean energy from developing wind power. Iowa went from under 250 MW of wind in 2000 to more than 3,500 MW in 2010. We now rank second nationally in installed capacity. [2]

— Twenty-two Iowa businesses manufacture, install or maintain solar systems. More Iowans are being trained in solar technology at community colleges and workshops across the state.

— Iowans have proved solar works. For example, Allsteel, a national workplace furniture company headquartered in Muscatine, installed panels last year to power production lines at its seating manufacturing plant. [3]

— Our competition has begun to encourage the industry. While California and New Jersey are the national leaders, our neighbors, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, have recently set solar energy goals. [4]

— Prices for solar keep dropping. Panels cost 30 times less than they did in the 1970s. [5]

— Installing solar would have only a modest impact on electric rates. If Iowa were to install 300 MW over the next five years, and all was brought on by investor-owned utilities, the average customer’s rates would only increase by $1.70 a month.

— Solar is safe. It doesn’t need to be exported from other countries and there are no harmful byproducts.

— Sunshine is an inexhaustible resource. The more we use oil or coal, the higher the price will go. No matter how much solar power is tapped, the sun will always come up tomorrow.

For these reasons and more, solar should top Iowa’s list of energy choices.

Posted by Teresa Galluzzo, Research Associate

But what have you done for me lately?

An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them — even as they benefit from government programs.

Source: Suzanne Mettler, "Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era," via Sara Robinson, Campaign for America's Future

This NYTimes blog post is interesting enough, but what really caught my attention was a table from a recent academic political science paper that has made its way from liberal bloggers to a former Reagan economic advisor.

An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them, even as they benefit from government programs.

 

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Renewable energy and Iowa schools

We’re asking for your help as we seek to better understand where and why schools are choosing to invest in renewables and whether they are seeing benefits.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Almost five years ago IPP put out a report on Iowa schools that were using (or were considering using) wind power to generate electricity. We’re thinking about doing a followup report that might look at not only wind, but solar energy as well.

Do you know of schools around you that have solar panels on their property? Are any thinking about installing solar panels? Are solar panels or wind turbines being used in science classes or other parts of the curriculum in schools in your town? Has the installation of renewable energy generation impacted the way people think of renewables? We’re asking for your help as we seek to better understand where and why schools are choosing to invest in renewables and whether they are seeing benefits.

One example of a school that recently installed a small solar array on it is the Oak Ridge Middle School in Marion, Iowa.  A generous donation from the Linn County REC allowed the school to install 20 solar panels totaling 2.6 KW of capacity.  The solar array has been integrated into class work and is a valuable learning aide.  Real-time data about the system’s output is available online.

Iowa schools are expected to graduate students with a knowledge base that will serve them in the future. Clearly wind and solar power are a part of that future and students who grow up around renewable energy will likely be more comfortable with and accepting of the role renewable energy can and should play across Iowa.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

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