Ten years and counting: Iowa’s inaction on the minimum wage

170118_capitol_170603-4x4It was the first bill Chet Culver signed into law as Governor of Iowa: an increase in the minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25 in two steps, to be fully in force Jan. 1, 2008.

“This is a historic occasion,” Culver said, Todd Dorman reported in the Waterloo Courier.

A historic occasion, and falling fast into history. Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, marks the 10th anniversary of that day. Low-wage workers have waited for an increase, through five state legislative campaigns and two gubernatorial elections.

They’ve heard promises and spin, facts and nonsense, and it all comes out the same: Iowa’s official policy is that businesses can get away with paying hard-working people, sometimes in unpleasant working circumstances, a measly $7.25 an  hour.

And the facts remain the same: Hundreds of thousands of Iowa workers would benefit from a minimum wage increase — over 300,000 from an increase to $10.10, over 400,000 from an increase to $12 — and there is no guarantee that they will even see a vote this year.

Perhaps the only reason they might is that four counties had the courage to take on the issue. The wage is now $10.10 in Johnson County, with Linn, Wapello and Polk counties following Johnson by approving increases that when implemented will set minimums from $10.10 to $10.75.

That is, if the Legislature permits them to stand. Governor Terry Branstad and the business lobby want a uniform wage — with no real indication whether that means an increase — and this could result in repeal of the local increases.

Understand: We do not have a monolithic statewide labor market. It makes perfect sense for local officials to respond as best suits their communities. And it is nonsense that seeing different requirements in different counties is a problem for businesses — other than the fact that they might not want to pay more.

Someday, we may see a statewide minimum wage set at a meaningful level, and indexed to inflation. There is no guarantee from this Legislature or this Governor — in fact, history shows it is unlikely.

So, as we mark the 10th anniversary of the signing of our piddling minimum wage, one that leaves Iowa behind 29 states and a growing number of cities and counties around the nation, we might want to consider how long we want Culver’s action in 2007 to be the historic one.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project.

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly.

Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Iceberg ahead — but how big?

When the decisions come to cut health care to Iowans, Governor Branstad won’t be around to make the tough choices. Is that what state legislators signed up for?

060426-capitol-swwThe Des Moines Register disclosed Wednesday afternoon in a copyright story that the private, for-profit companies now running Iowa’s Medicaid program are finding big problems in the first year.

With big policy decisions ahead on the future of Medicaid, not only in Iowa but in Washington with a new administration, it is reasonable to wonder if Governor Terry Branstad’s go-it-alone Medicaid privatization is only the tip of the iceberg — and how big the iceberg may be.

Besides the great uncertainty for health-insurance coverage for millions if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement, there is the idea that Congress might block-grant Medicaid. The goal would be to save the federal government money — not to assure health care for the most vulnerable as Medicaid now provides.

A block-grant approach means states would be allotted a share of funds for Medicaid, and when it is gone, that’s it — services would be cut. In that scenario, the decisions would be made in the states. As noted by Edwin Park of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Such a block grant would push states to cut their Medicaid programs deeply.  To compensate for the federal Medicaid funding cuts a block grant would institute, states would either have to contribute much more of their own funding or, as is far more likely, use the greater flexibility the block grant would give them to make draconian cuts to eligibility, benefits, and provider payments.

Maybe someone can provide the campaign literature from the 2016 legislative races that illustrates successful candidates’ thoughts on whose coverage would be the first to go. Who gets cut off? Someone will have to decide that if we go to a block-grant program.

It probably won’t be Governor Branstad making that tough decision, by the way. The new ambassador-to-be will be off doing diplomatic stuff in China when these hard decisions are made.

Is that what these new legislators signed up to do when they put their names on the ballot? But they could check in with Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst to find out if Iowa Statehouse job descriptions might change in the months ahead.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

An opportunity for a productive, fair agenda

A good place for the new governor to start is establishing transparency and accountability with reforms of tax credits and other tax expenditures.

Congratulations to Governor Terry Branstad on his nomination as ambassador to China and to Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds for her coming role as Governor of our state.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the new Governor to start marking her clean slate with a productive and fair agenda that advances opportunity for children and families, protects the vulnerable and enhances our quality-of-life assets of clean air, clean water, and cultural enrichment.

A good place to start is establishing a new regime of transparency and accountability in state spending with a reform agenda for tax credits and other tax expenditures — something she may embrace as a former county treasurer. Important decisions are being made in the shadows in the Iowa State Capitol. Our incoming Governor has an opportunity to bring them out into the open.

With this type of reform, we may find there are in fact adequate revenues to again cultivate Iowans’ long-held commitments to education, to our safety net, to our environment, and to fairness and safety in the workplace.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we welcome inquiries from the new Governor and her staff about our research. May they — like Iowans around the state — find it to be a credible and reliable resource to better understand our public policy choices.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Of course the $33 million matters, Governor

The Governor’s rose-colored glasses on Medicaid privatization do not obscure the very real cost of an extra $33 million out the door to private companies.

It seems no Governor Branstad costume is complete without rose-colored glasses, even after Halloween.

For on the final day of October, as goblins prepared to venture out to neighbors’ houses for treats, the Governor offered news on his unilateral decision to privatize Medicaid: It will cost the state an extra $33 million this fiscal year, payments to private companies not previously anticipated.

But he’s telling us not to worry about that spending. For example, the Des Moines Register story prominently noted reassurances from the Governor and his chief of staff, Michael Bousselot:

But the situation will not negatively impact the state budget because Medicaid cost savings will exceed $140 million when compared to the old Medicaid program, they said.

 

Hmmm. So, we’re going to spend $33 million more — $33 million we weren’t planning to spend — and that doesn’t “negatively impact” the state budget?

That is not what we’re told when it’s $33 million for schools, or cracking down on polluters or businesses that deliberately stiff their employees for wages owed. For those things, we just don’t have the money.

Think of it this way: Last month, the Revenue Estimating Conference projected that the state would take in $72 million less in FY2017 than it had estimated in March. That means those funds will not be coming in and may affect what can be spent. Now, we learn of an extra $33 million charge. Already, some $100 million less for the current year.

Of course the $33 million matters. There is an impact on the budget bottom line, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Budget projections are always a difficult thing. But from the start of the Governor’s decision to privatize Medicaid, without legislative consent, we have been asked to accept optimistic assessments of what to expect. And if the optimism is misplaced? Education funding and other general-fund priorities inevitably lose.

Medicaid privatization already has scared a fair number of Iowans about their access to health care. Those fears are not resolved. Neither are concerns about the fiscal side of this issue.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Finding closure on the job count

Not only are the actual job increases about half of what the Governor had hoped — but even his own “gross” counting method leaves him short, at 184,000.

For years, we had to watch Governor Branstad’s bogus job count tracked on the official nonfarm jobs spreadsheets provided by Iowa Workforce Development.

Basic RGBYou might remember: The Governor set a goal for 200,000 new jobs in five years. We didn’t come close — 104,500 net new jobs from January 2011 through January 2016. Everyone wants new jobs, but it was clear for a long time the goal was unrealistic.

And it was a distraction for those of us who work with such data carefully, as we do each month in our Iowa JobWatch report.
Nevertheless, the Governor’s people concocted a way to count jobs that no elementary arithmetic teacher would sanction — leave out the job losses. So IWD added a line to the official sheet, for “Gross Over-the-month Employment Gains.” And that way, the Governor claimed, he made it with a couple of months to spare.

In fact, at IWD’s budget hearing in November, the Governor asked IWD Director Beth Townsend to back up her slideshow to bolster the claim with the media present.

A few months later, it looks like we should back up that slideshow once again. The jobs data have now gone through their regular annual review, and the numbers show something different.

Not only are the actual job increases about half of what the Governor had hoped — but even his own “gross” counting method leaves him short, at 184,000.

Yes, we all want more jobs in Iowa, better jobs, more sustained job growth. But we also want the facts treated properly. Is it too much to ask for the Governor or IWD to acknowledge publicly that the “mission accomplished” claims were wrong?

When we see the news release, we’ll be sure to pass it along.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Building blocks of inequity

it is not a Davenport issue, but an Iowa issue, and a failure of public policy.

Iowa’s school funding process is broken.

Consider:

  • The Legislature repeatedly violates the law by failing to set state aid in time for districts to adequately plan their budgets.
  • The levels of funding lawmakers set — averaging less than 2 percent growth over the last six years — are routinely below the growth in costs that schools face.

As if those two things are not bad enough, inequities grandfathered into the school funding formula have not been corrected. While the four-decades-old formula was designed to reduce inequities between districts of higher and lower property values by augmenting property tax revenues with state aid, a gap persists.

Long and short: There is a $175 range in the “cost per pupil” that school districts must use as the building block of their annual budgets. While the minimum cost for this year is set at $6,446 per student, six districts are as high as $6,621.

The inequities have been known for some time. When combined with chronic underfunding, these inequities are magnified. In one case, Davenport school officials are defying state limits on use of their own resources to make sure their students have the same opportunity as students in other districts.

For example, as school budgets are based on enrollment, a district with 1,000 students and operating at the minimum — the state cost per pupil — is losing out on $175,000 per year in comparison with a district at the maximum. In a district the size of Davenport, that’s about $2.8 million a year.

What many Iowans might not realize is that their own school district may be in a similar situation to that of Davenport.

Few districts (only six) are at the maximum per pupil cost; most districts (84 percent) are $100 or more below the maximum per pupil cost. Nearly half of all districts (164 of 336) are at the minimum.*

Basic RGB

The more you look at this, you can see it is not a Davenport issue, but an Iowa issue, and a failure of public policy.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

 

*Iowa Department of Management, www.dom.state.ia.us/local/schools/files/FY16/DistrictCostPerPupilAmountsAllFY2016.xls