Historically poor commitment to schools

The only “historic” note in the latest school-aid deal is the defiance of Iowa’s tradition of commitment to education.

To put the House-Senate agreement on school aid in perspective, take a step back for a better view.

The legislative agreement is for 2.3 percent Supplemental State Aid (SSA), or growth in the per-pupil spending figure that Iowa school districts use to build their budgets, which are based on enrollment.

As the graph below shows, for the decade of FY2002 through FY2011, that per-pupil figure fluctuated some but rose by an average of 3.1 percent per year (shaded area, left side of graph).

For the next decade, from FY2012 to the FY2021 SSA agreed to this week, the plan will provide average growth of only 1.8 percent per year (shaded area, right side of graph).

Iowa’s commitment to public education in the 10 years from 2002 to 2011 stands in stark contrast to that of the most recent 10 years.
Notably, that earlier period provided more sustainable funding despite the deepest recession in the United States since the 1930s.Also notably, one reason for that was the state’s wise decision to use one-time funding from the federal Recovery Act — known to many as “stimulus” — to hold schools harmless as much as possible, bridging the recessionary gaps in revenues that would have forced slower growth or even cuts in per-pupil funding.

The contrast in SSA over time puts in perspective the political chatter around school funding from those who have held education lower than what is necessary for schools to keep up with costs, let alone to tap students’ potential to reach for greater achievement.

As for “historic” levels of funding — of course even a $1 increase provides a new record. You don’t have to see an actual cut to know you are being underfunded. If growth isn’t enough to keep up with costs, and it has not been for many years now, the only “historic” note is the defiance of Iowa’s tradition of commitment to education.
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. He served on the West Branch Community School Board from 2006-2017.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Cutting revenues, holding back schools

As the Senate goes low on school funding, the governor promotes a tax plan that would make improvements even more difficult.

It is worth noting that as the Iowa Senate passed an exceedingly meager 2.1 percent growth in per-pupil spending for Iowa’s K-12 public schools, Governor Reynolds’ tax bill offers a net reduction in revenue.

But even the governor has proposed more for FY2021 — 2.5 percent — than the Senate approved Monday. As shown below, the governor’s plan keeps Iowa on a long-term downward trendline (in red) for school funding growth. The Senate plan goes lower.

200115-SSA-shaded-roadmap6

 

The governor’s tax shift proposal trades a sales-tax increase for income-tax cuts: a bad deal both for tax fairness and adequate revenues. In doing so, she has chosen to pit education advocates against environmental advocates — who would see much less in funding for water quality and trails than voters directed in 2010 in a constitutional amendment. And, she would make our overall tax system tilted even more heavily to the wealthy than it is now.

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Poor and inequitable funding of public schools and other critical public services are directly related to an inequitable tax system that relieves those most able to pay — the wealthiest — of that responsibility.
The governor is demanding that the package of tax changes actually cause a net loss of revenue. This is not only a severe twisting of voters’ intent in 2010 in approving use of the next sales tax increase to raise funding for environmental and recreational enhancements, but a mathematical guarantee that other services will be held down or even cut.
If we are going to adequately fund programs to improve environmental quality and educational achievement, it starts with protecting all of those programs and promoting equity and fairness in how the revenues are raised.
M
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Reining in business tax breaks

Real reform of Iowa business tax subsidies is needed now more than ever.

It has become a familiar story: Tax breaks and tax expenditures growing at a pace that spending on traditional state priorities cannot match. This growth continues on autopilot, year after year, with little scrutiny and often with weak justification.

The cost of business tax credits under the income tax grew from $214 million in Fiscal Year 2015 to $244 million in FY19, and is projected to be $287 million for FY20.[1] The commercial and industrial property tax cuts enacted in 2013 have added significantly more to that estimate. The business property tax credit enacted in that legislation, which will remain at $125 million every year, will bring the overall state cost of business tax credits to more than $400 million by FY20. In other words, business tax credits in total will have about doubled in six years. (See graph.)

Related business breaks would drive total spending on subsidies to business much higher.

      • Iowa in recent years has spent $152 million annually to backfill local public revenues lost when commercial and industrial property assessments were rolled back to 90 percent of actual value, a tax break to business.[2]
      • Revenue losses from the state’s failure to enact combined reporting to plug loopholes in the corporate income tax amount to an estimated $200 million.[3]
      • The state also spends nearly $60 million annually backfilling the loss of tax base to school districts as a result of city and county use of tax increment financing, much of which reduces the costs of business development.[4]

The total cost of business subsidies, in other words, approaches $800 million, even without other so-called tax expenditures, such as the state’s use of single-factor apportionment.

Tax credits have the same impact on the state’s bottom line as any other spending. Such spending comes outside the normal budget process where agencies, advocates and constituents make proposals that lawmakers vote up or down, on the record. Tax credits, with few exceptions, cause spending outside that competition.

State spending on business subsidies necessarily comes at the expense of other budgetary priorities, including education, health, and public safety. Investments in education and infrastructure, the building blocks of a strong economy, suffer when the annual budget debates start out with a billion dollars already committed to business incentives.

Real reform is needed now more than ever.

See our Roadmap for Opportunity two-pager on this topic.

 

 

 

[1] The following tax credits listed in the Iowa Department of Revenue Contingent Liabilities Reports are included in our analysis as business tax credits: Enterprise Zone Programs, High Quality Jobs Program, Historic Preservation, Industrial New Job Training Program (260E), Research Activities, Targeted Jobs, Venture Capital, Accelerated Career Education, Redevelopment, Renewable Chemical Production, Renewable Energy, Wind Energy Production, Biodiesel Blended Fuel, E15 Gasoline Promotion, E85 Gasoline Promotion, Ethanol Blended Gasoline, Ethanol Promotion. With the exception of Historic Preservation, this list is in line with credits classified as “business incentives” by the Iowa Department of Revenue in their most recent tax expenditure study. https://tax.iowa.gov/reports/2010-iowa-general-fund-tax-expenditures-excel.

[2] Legislative Services Agency, Summary of the Governor’s Budget Recommendations FY2021. Jan. 16, 2020, page 212.

[3] Iowa Department of Revenue, 2017.

[4] Legislative Services Agency, FY 2018 Annual Urban Renewal Report, February 15, 2019, p. 24. About 15 percent of TIF erxpenditure in FY18 went directly for business projects; it is not known how much of the 63 percent that went to property acquisition, roads, bridges, utilities, and water or wastewater treatment plants was associated with business development.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

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.

Tax credits: Just review them!

Iowa lawmakers are making the issue of tax credit reform much more difficult than it needs to be.

Put another way, consider tax credit reform as a different task: If we were setting out to design the first wheel, no cars would be on the road today.

The latest foot-dragging came in late October, with the first meeting of a so-called “Tax Credit Review Committee,” which if not for the delay was a rare, promising nugget in an ill-conceived, expensive and inequitable income-tax cut bill in 2018.

It was 10 years ago this fall that a scandal in the Iowa Film Tax Credit program led Governor Chet Culver to order a review of all state tax credits. A special panel of state department heads went through the credits and offered a set of reforms in January 2010.

Virtually nothing was done in response. Tax credits, particularly those for business, have gone merrily along, rising to a projected $434 million for this budget year. Of that, about 7 out of every 10 dollars, or $314 million, is for businesses. State revenue analysts expect under current law for these numbers to be similar through FY2024.

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While the tax credits themselves can be complicated, the fundamental issues are not.

  • Tax credits are expensive.
  • Tax credits are regularly and extensively analyzed by the Department of Revenue, making plenty of information available.
  • Tax credits, like any spending of public money — and this is, in fact, spending ordered outside the budget process — demand accountability and a demonstration of a public benefit.
  • The Legislature creates these exceptions to our tax code; thus, it falls to the Legislature to review them to determine if they meet their expected purpose.
  • Even if a given credit may benefit the public, it must be shown to be a better public expenditure than something else, like education or health care services.

As it is, the 2020 legislative session will open without anything serious being done about a review ordered two years before.

Truly it is easier not to do anything, to keep the gravy train running for the corporate lobbyists who benefit from these credits. But if you’re going to talk the talk about accountability in public spending, you should walk the walk.

The low-hanging fruit that could start lawmakers on that path is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC is a refundable credit, which means that if you have more credits than you owe in taxes, you get a check from the state for the balance. The annual cost of the RAC is about one-fifth of the cost of all business and family tax credits.

As we have shown repeatedly — using data from an annual state report by the Department of Revenue — most of the RAC is paid as so-called “refunds,” not of taxes owed, but of tax credits not needed, and most of the benefit goes to very large firms.

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DOR evaluations — here and here as examples — provide evidence that is at best sketchy on whether the RAC promotes significant new research in the state. Companies that benefit from the RAC have to do the research anyway, just to be in business, or they wouldn’t bother with it.

In the case of a small startup firm, a credit for some period of time might help the firm get established. For multinational corporations with hundreds of millions or billions in profit, good luck proving the need.

Think of it this way: You could reduce or even eliminate the refundability of the RAC and not raise taxes on a single company or individual. But you’d have $40 million more available to put into public schools, or clean water projects, or any number of public priorities.

Incoming House Speaker Pat Grassley said tax credit reform “is kind of a long process.” But if one never starts, one will never design that wheel.

These are budget choices, ultimately. Why are legislators so afraid to even start on them?

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Transparency: Corporations see; we don’t

The transparency on tax breaks that we get in Iowa is merely a tease for the taxpayer, and for the folks who lobby the Legislature each year for their causes.

It’s not enough to really let Iowans compare the choices being made on the spending of public dollars.

Advocates for public-focused priorities push lawmakers to apply an adequate share of the state budget to real responsibilities: to educate children and young adults, care for those without the means to do so on their own, and to keep their natural environment clean and their streets safe.

They have to make a case, that a public investment is not only needed, but a responsible use of funds that benefits the greater good in Iowa.

Some in the lobby can afford to advocate differently. In the “We Got Ours” huddles of big-business advocates in the lobby, the high stakes business of protecting their special breaks, and expanding them, is often only evident in the results.

A Cedar Rapids Gazette story shows we can expect more of this for an expensive and unaccountable program long on the books, the Research Activities Credit, or RAC. The RAC, unlike most tax credits, often does not affect taxes at all, but is a straight and automatic subsidy provided to huge companies that pay little — and often nothing — in Iowa corporate income taxes. (Remember that next time you hear their  complaints about Iowa’s corporate tax rates.)

Much of the story offered weak defenses of this program by the state’s economic development director, Debi Durham, and a spokesperson for the biggest recipient of these subsidies. Neither of those two people offered a shred of evidence of a public return on the $60-plus million annual cost.

You see, we know the cost, because there is an annual report that lawmakers required for this program. (The lobby fought that requirement hard when it passed in 2009.) But what the report cannot show is how much of the subsidized research would have happened anyway.

RAC table ... large claims
The Research Activities Credit was set up to help small, entrepreneurial businesses get going. Instead, as official state reports have shown, very large companies with RAC claims above $500,000 account for between 80 and 90 percent of the cost every year.

In a deliberative budget process, everything is on the table — funds available, a clear and understandable process to apportion them, and the public benefit evident. But when $300 million in business credits are on autopilot, a large chunk of those funds is taken off the table before the rest of us even get to sit down.

Peter Fisher, IPP’s research director, notes in The Gazette story that the system gives all the advantages to the corporations.

“The corporations hold all the cards, which is why I think states and localities routinely spend way more than they need to,” Fisher told The Gazette. “It’s like playing poker where the other players know your hand but you don’t know theirs.”

To learn more about the RAC, see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership piece.

M

 

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

mikeowen@iowapoicyproject.org

Better target senior tax breaks

Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and many other states.

Also see Iowa Fiscal Partnership news release

A new paper about state tax breaks for seniors shows one reason pre-2020 chatter about new tax breaks in Iowa is a bad idea.

Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes in her report Wednesday that special income-tax breaks for seniors cost states 7 percent on average in 2013, a figure that will rise with growth in the population over 65.

As McNichol notes, “The senior tax breaks are poorly targeted because of their design: most states provide them regardless of the recipient’s income or savings.”

Put another way: Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and — as McNichol notes — in many other states as well.

It is a point Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner have made in Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) analysis over the years about Iowa’s special breaks for pension income, and as legislators phased out what had already been a limited tax on Social Security income.

Already, Iowa has freshly passed, costly and inequitable tax cuts scheduled to be phased in over the next few years, yet state legislators just last week were talking about bigger cuts in 2020. Given attempts to expand senior breaks in 2018, but not adopted in the final package, there is a danger that new income-tax cuts in 2020 could include the new senior breaks.

Among changes considered in 2018 was an expansion of Iowa’s already generous pension exclusion from $6,000 (single) and $12,000 (couple) to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively.

McNichol’s paper notes Iowa is one of 28 states that already completely exempts Social Security income from tax, and one of 26 that exempts at least some pension income.

Iowa, in short, is already quite generous to retirees. Also as McNichol notes, for some this might make sense — seniors at low incomes. But not all.

“A large share of these costly breaks go to higher-income seniors who need them the least. States should reduce this expense by better targeting relief to seniors with low incomes,” she wrote.

Bruner and Fisher noted this problem in their IFP paper last year:

Iowa has adopted a number of special provisions benefiting seniors. While the elderly and disabled property tax credit is available only for those with low income, the other tax preferences are not based on ability to pay:

•   All Social Security benefits are exempt from tax.

•   The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.

•   Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.

•   While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis of tax policy and tax proposals is always grounded in fundamental principles of taxation, among them fairness: Similarly situated taxpayers should be treated similarly in tax policy.

What matters more to measure a taxpayer’s ability to pay is the amount of income, rather than its source. To tax income from wages at a higher rate than retirement income violates that principle.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org