IPERS defenses are ‘care tactics’

Concerns about IPERS changes stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.

IPERS, the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, has come under attack in recent years for no substantive reason — only ideology and politics. Understandably, IPERS members, who number well over 10 percent of the population of Iowa, are concerned.

So, some folks are engaged in what might be called “care tactics,” to make sure the stakes on that issue are well-understood. People who care want good information, and are asking for it.

These efforts and concerns are being dismissed by those who claim there is no threat to IPERS. Political scare tactics indeed are part of the 2018 campaign on several issues — primarily taxes, as illustrated by the hair-on-fire ads on television that do more to distort than inform.

But it’s hard to make that case about pension concerns, which stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.

Those now dismissive of pension concerns point to recent campaign-season comments by Governor Kim Reynolds. Yet not so long ago Reynolds herself raised the prospect of some change in IPERS’ actual pension structure to a “defined contribution” or 401k-style structure for new employees.[1] Her predecessor, Terry Branstad, had made similar comments.[2] Legislation was proposed in 2017 in the Senate.[3] All of this remains fresh in the minds of those who are worried, as do efforts by others to undermine IPERS.

IPERS critics have promoted that riskier “defined contribution” structure, needlessly scaring Iowa taxpayers about Iowa’s secure IPERS system. The Des Moines Register has run such scare pieces, by Don Racheter of the Public Interest Institute[4] and by Gretchen Tegeler of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa.[5]

Neither the media nor IPERS critics have been able to explain how a separate system based on a 401k style structure — “defined contribution” — could be introduced for new employees without undermining existing and promised IPERS benefits for current members.

Contributions plus Interest investments equal Benefits plus Expenses in administration of the system— this is what is required for full funding of IPERS. If you reduce that first item, contributions, by setting new employees apart in a different plan, clearly that matters. It’s math.

In fact, it affects more than those new employees. Reducing contributions by diverting those from new employees reasonably means lower benefits — for current members!

The media and all policy makers should be asking more about this. It’s not enough to accept a “nothing to see here” argument from someone who in the recent past declared herself open to a change — especially when activists have pushed for it, and legislation has been proposed. The dismissal — not exposing it — is the “scare tactic.”

Let’s stay away from the “scare tactics,” and focus on the “care tactics.”

 

[1] Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times, “Reynolds says state looking at IPERS task force,” Jan. 26, 2017. https://qctimes.com/news/local/government-and-politics/reynolds-says-state-looking-at-ipers-task-force/article_bf76d410-c70b-5300-951c-ad1cb6bced3f.html

[2] William Petroski, The Des Moines Register, “IPERS cuts key target; unfunded pension liabilities up $1.3 billion,” March 24, 2017. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/24/ipers-cuts-key-target-unfunded-pension-liabilities-up-13-billion/99600866/

[3] O. Kay Henderson, RadioIowa, “Democrats accuse GOP of plotting that IPERS be dismantled,” December 11, 2017. https://www.radioiowa.com/2017/12/11/democrats-accuse-gop-of-plotting-that-ipers-be-dismantled/

[4] Don Racheter, Public Interest Intitute “Replace IPERS with defined-contribution plan,” The Des Moines Register, May 27, 2016. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/abetteriowa/2016/05/17/replace-ipers-defined-contribution-plan/84492576/

[5] Gretchen Tegeler, Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, “Don’t minimize Iowa’s public pension debt,” The Des Moines Register, January 16,2018, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2018/01/16/iowas-public-pension-debt-eclipses-other-public-debt/1035979001/; also “Public retirement systems are not ideal for young, mobile employees,” The Des Moines Register, December 8, 2016, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/12/08/public-retirement-systems-not-ideal-young-mobile-employees/95148216/

 

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

 

 

 

Food for the fact-checkers

We’ll throw a penalty flag when we see bad information being spread about issues we cover. Case in point: the Governor’s spin about taxes.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we are nonpartisan and we do not support or endorse candidates for office. Rather, we hope those who do, and the candidates and parties themselves, will conduct their discussions on a foundation of fact.

When they do not, we just might throw a penalty flag. Our work is public policy research and analysis, to help people see what is fact and what is not, and to introduce context where it is missing. This is not always easy with complex issues, and there are gray areas. Where bad information is being spread, that interferes with the mission of our work, so we will do what we can to keep that record straight.

Very early in Wednesday’s debate between Governor Kim Reynolds and businessman Fred Hubbell, the Governor made at least two clearly unsupportable claims about taxes. These are issues we cover constantly.

First, the 2018 tax overhaul not only was costly, but overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply unsupportable, using data provided by the Iowa Department of Revenue in May before the bill passed. Those supporting the bill knew this would be the impact, and those writing it drew it that way.

According to the department, the legislation will mean either no change, or an actual tax increase, to nearly a quarter of resident taxpayers — 23.3 percent — in tax year 2019. For those who receive cuts, the average cut for millionaires was projected to be $20,021; for someone between $60,000 and $70,000 adjusted gross income, the cut was projected to be a tiny sliver of the benefit compared to millionaires — $232.

This flatly negates the Governor’s comment that, “In 2019, virtually every single Iowan will see their taxes go down.” This is clearly inaccurate. Further, as the law is phased in, the continuing impact will be that some will lose, some will not. Unquestionably it will affect public services as hundreds of millions in revenues are cut — which means Iowans who depend upon those services, and that is most Iowans, will lose even more.

Second, the Governor in pushing for new corporate tax cuts chose to play to the myths about business taxes promoted by the business lobby to drive down Iowa’s already low business taxes.

Business consultants have exposed the hollow core of this claim, most recently the Anderson Economic Group, which in June ranked Iowa 15th lowest in state and local business taxes (all of which are governed by state policy). Iowa business taxes consistently have been shown to be competitive.

For more information about both the tax legislation and Iowa taxes on business see these resources:

What real Iowa tax reform would look like, Iowa Policy Project “Roadmap for Opportunity” series, August 2018.

Iowa tax overhaul: Sorting facts, key points from spin, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, May 2018

Myth-Buster: Competitiveness no problem for Iowa taxes, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, March 2018
The problem with tax-cutting as economic policy, Peter Fisher, Iowa Policy Project, GradingStates.org
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Reality on Iowa teacher pay

Serious analysis shows Iowa doesn’t rank as high on teacher pay as the Governor and some media are reporting.

The experience of Wisconsin school districts in the years following Governor Walker’s gutting of collective bargaining for public workers does not bode well for Iowa. School districts are reportedly having difficulty finding teachers. Teachers have been leaving the state, not just for higher pay but because they want to work where their efforts are appreciated and they are respected.[1] Some left for Iowa, and are now wondering where they should go next, as Iowa repeats the folly of Wisconsin.

If we are to keep the best college grads in the state, and attract them here from elsewhere, a good starting salary is part of the picture, even though the prospect of raises down the road seems much dimmer with the end of serious collective bargaining here. So how does Iowa stand in terms of starting salary?

The average starting salary in Iowa for the 2016-17 school year was $35,776. That was good enough to rank Iowa near the middle of the pack — 32nd when compared with other states and the District of Columbia. But some have argued that Iowa has a low cost of living compared to other states, so we don’t need to pay as much. Fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) produces a cost of living index for each state. They recommend using that index to make wage comparisons across states, to reflect differences in purchasing power.

The BEA index for Iowa was 90.3 in 2015, the most recent year available. That means it costs Iowans 9.7 percent less than the national average to live. The starting salary of $35,776 would then be equivalent to $39,608 in a state with an average cost of living. Comparing all states in terms of the starting salary properly adjusted for cost of living differences, Iowa ranks 21st.[2]

What about the overall average salary? Unfortunately, the Governor has been citing a bad statistic. A recent NPR report focused on how states ranked on teacher pay when you take into account the cost of living in each state. But they did it wrong. Instead of using the standard cost of living index produced by the BEA, NPR asked a company called EdBuild to do the analysis, and EdBuild used a proprietary index — the Cost of Living Index produced by the Center for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) — that is not reliable and produces sometimes dramatically different cost of living indexes. For example, their index for 2013 (according to EdBuild) had Iowa with an above-average cost of living[2], while for 2015 it was 11 percent below the national average.

What happens if we use the correct adjustment for the cost of living? Iowa’s average teacher salary ranks 15th in the nation[3], not eighth as EdBuild calculated and as NPR reported. NPR is looking into the issue; we await their correction.

[1] David Madland and Alex Rowell. “Attacks on Public-Sector Unions Harm States: How Act 10 Has Affected Education in Wisconsin.” November 15, 2017. Center for American Progress.
https://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/economy/reports/2017/11/15/169146/attacks-public-sector-unions-harm-states-act-10-affected-education-wisconsin/

[2] IPP calculations using the National Education Association starting salary data for 2016-17 and the BEA Regional Price Parities for 2015.
[3] Average starting pay of $33,226 was adjusted downward to $33,120, meaning that the cost of living in Iowa was lower than average. http://viz.edbuild.org/maps/2016/cola/states/#salary
[4] IPP calculations using the average salary data for 2015-16 cited in the NPR report and the BEA Regional Price Parities for 2015.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Why Governor Reynolds is wrong

If the Governor cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

As it has become clear that Iowa state leaders need to be more engaged publicly on the national health care debate, it was surprising to see Governor Kim Reynolds’ take on it.

“I’m focused on the things I can control.”

Well, if that is the standard for where the Governor should speak up, lock the office door and throw away the key. That’s not the way government works — or is supposed to work — in our American and Iowa tradition.

The Governor in our system has an important and powerful role, but rarely a controlling one.

What the Governor is not acknowledging, though she surely knows to be the case, is that her position is perhaps the best pulpit in the state of Iowa for speaking up on behalf of Iowans, to our elected representatives in the House and Senate in Washington, and to the President of the United States.

If she cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

What is clear from the debate thus far in Washington is that more than 200,000 Iowans will lose health insurance if the current Affordable Care Act is repealed without a meaningful replacement.

In fact, the latest estimate from the Urban Institute finds 229,000 fewer Iowans would be insured in 2022 than if the ACA were kept in place — but the state would spend $29 million more as federal spending dropped by 28 percent.

The Governor’s comments to reporters repeated inaccurate talking points about ACA, avoiding both the state’s own role in undermining the individual insurance marketplace, and the principal way Iowans would lose insurance: the loss of the Medicaid expansion. That one piece of the ACA covers 150,000 Iowans now and is projected to grow to 177,000 in two years, but goes away under the Senate and House plans.

So, whether Governor Reynolds likes it or not, what is now a federal issue will become a state issue.

Right now, the things she has more direct influence upon are state budget choices, many of which already are difficult.

Imagine how much more difficult those choices become with 200,000 more people uninsured. What will the state do to make up for it? What budget control — or families’ control over their health care options — would be lost? Some members of the Legislature already are calling for a state-run program to step into the void.

If Governor Reynolds is uncomfortable with any of these possibilities she could call her friends Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst, or gather the microphones and cameras and raise awareness about the stakes for all Iowans.

Again, there are members of the Legislature weighing in on that score as well. Perhaps they recognize that persuasion, and pushing for a critical mass of support behind an idea, is where “control” emerges.

 

owen-2013-57Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Why not a special session?

Now is the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and that might make a special session useful, sooner rather than later.

Long-term impacts could be decided in short order;
Might not our state lawmakers want to weigh in?

If anything has been clear about the current health-care debate in Washington, it is that little is clear — except the likelihood that (1) people will lose insurance coverage and thus access to health care, and (2) this will pose new challenges for state government.

That being the case, it seems a good time for the Legislature to return to Des Moines and sort it out, sooner rather than later. It will be easier for legislators to talk to their federal counterparts about all this before legislation passes than afterward.

Because of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Medicaid expansion serves about 150,000 Iowans, and would serve an estimated 177,000 Iowans in 2019 if preserved. But those Iowans — and some 55,000 more — would be in jeopardy of losing insurance under legislation pending in the Senate. If the enhanced federal share of funding for Medicaid expansion is reduced or eliminated under any legislation to come — and both the House and Senate bills currently would do this — states would have a choice: Fill in the gap or let people go uninsured.

Oh, and if you’re going to choose to fill in the gap, go ahead and plan now on what will have to be cut to compensate for it. K-12 education, perhaps? Even more cuts to the regents institutions? Child care? Water protection? Law enforcement and corrections?

Already, legislators and Governor Kim Reynolds are facing those kinds of questions amid a looming fiscal shortfall and speculation about a possible special session.

In The Des Moines Register this week, columnist Kathie Obradovich suggested Governor Reynolds “is prudent to wait until fall to make a decision on a special session but that doesn’t mean she should avoid talking about it. Now is the time to be speaking frankly with Iowans and individual legislators, identifying the causes and consulting on potential solutions.”

Now is also the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and for that reason, waiting until fall might be too late. Legislative leaders and the Governor right now could be bringing in experts for a special session to discuss the potential impacts, and reach out to the congressional delegation, before decisions are made that restrict state budget choices for many years to come.
Unless, of course, they want to see budget crunches and special sessions more frequently.
Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Closing the books — why real math matters

Now that ​Governor Branstad has left office, the latest (and preliminary) job numbers are in, and they effectively close the books on the goal. We did not come close. Through six years and four months, Iowa jobs stood little over halfway to the five-year goal.

Or: How Governor Branstad claimed to reach his jobs goal but did not come close

As it all turned out, the job-growth goal set by former Governor Terry Branstad was at best ambitious, and never realistic.

With four previous terms behind him, and 12 years out of office, Branstad came back in 2010 with a goal of 200,000 new jobs in five years.



Nothing wrong with setting lofty goals. The biggest problem with this one was the way the longtime Governor decided to measure progress toward it. If the goal was never realistic, the counting method was never math.

Iowa’s economy produced 106,900 new jobs — the net job increase — through the Governor’s second round in office.

As late as April, the last jobs report released in Governor Branstad’s tenure, the official report from Iowa Workforce Development bore an extra line, ordered by someone, for “Gross Over-the-month Employment Gains,” from January 2011. And that line would, magically, put the state over the 200,000 mark — a year late, but more on that later.

There was no explanation with the report on how this special line was computed, but analysis showed the administration cherry-picked job gains to come up with the “gross” figure. Job categories that showed a loss in a given month were simply ignored.

It was as if a business reported its sales but not its expenses, or a football team counted its own touchdowns but not those it gave up. The number, then, was literally meaningless as an indicator of anything happening in the economy.
 

Last week, IWD released its first report on monthly job numbers since Governor Kim Reynolds took office, and the “gross” gains line was gone from the official spreadsheet.

So, for the sake at least of history, a little context:
— Through the five years of the Governor’s goal, Iowa produced 92,100 new jobs.

— Through the end of the Governor’s tenure, Iowa produced 106,900 new jobs.

In fact, we didn’t reach 200,000 under even the Governor’s counting gimmick until January of this year, a year late. Meeting the goal would have required 60 months averaging over 3,300 net new jobs a month. Instead, we have seen far less:



The slow pace of recovery should not have been a surprise to anyone. Iowa and the nation had just come out of a shorter and less severe recession in 2001. The pace of that recovery — up until the Great Recession hit — was quite similar to what we have seen over the past six years before even the latest pace slowed down.

The actual job numbers and what they may illustrate remain more important than Governor Branstad’s spin on them. It would be a mistake to devote undue further attention to the fake numbers.
Likewise, it would be a mistake to attribute any general job trends — positive or negative, even legitimately derived with actual math — principally to state efforts. Much larger forces are at work. Plus, overselling the state role feeds poor policy choices, namely to sell expensive and unaccountable tax breaks, supposedly to create jobs, at the expense of the public services that make a strong business environment possible and make our state one where people want to raise families.
Iowa needs more jobs and better jobs. To understand whether we’re getting them
requires responsible treatment of data, and honest debate with it.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project