Mission accomplished — no cuts needed

What if Iowa promoted our low business taxes, rather than run us down?

Tax-cutters are in hog heaven in Iowa these days. They soon assume the levers of power at the State Capitol and they are planning to use them — no matter the consequences.

But if they truly believed their own mantra about the economic glories of low taxes, they would be shouting “Mission Accomplished” from the top of the Capitol dome. For all their talk of making Iowa “competitive,” they would realize we are already there, and have been for many, many years.

Once again, the national accounting firm Ernst & Young has examined the range of state and local taxes affecting businesses in every state plus Washington, D.C., and found Iowa is in the same place it always lands — the middle of the pack.

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Twenty-three states and D.C. tax business more heavily than Iowa, which is tied for 25th with six other states including neighboring Minnesota. Even South Dakota, despite a low-tax image trumpeted by western Iowa politicians, is slightly higher than Iowa.

That is because responsible tax policy demands a comprehensive look at the impact of all pieces of the tax structure, as Ernst & Young does. Cherry picking only one tax that appears high — appears being the key word because this can be complex — ignores other offsets in the tax code.

Yet, the post-election rhetoric has been a lot about tax cuts — tax cuts we cannot afford.

To the extent state and local taxes matter in business decisions — and there is considerable evidence that they do not, despite the political spin — Iowa already is well-situated. In other words, the concept of “competitiveness” can be overstated easily. A tax structure would have to be markedly different from others, producing high-tax results that we certainly don’t see in Iowa, to make a difference in business expansion and location decisions.

As we pointed out in 2014, Iowa is a low-tax state. This remains so. Why aren’t our elected officials promoting that if it is so important to them?

Having already implemented what the Governor promoted as the largest tax cut in Iowa history with massive property tax giveaways benefiting big-box retailers in 2013, and recognizing state revenues are coming in more slowly than expected, our leaders need to take a deep breath.

We cannot afford new tax cuts for business. For stronger economic growth, let’s turn the page and look at things that matter.

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

Oversight on the overseers of tax credits

These interim legislative meetings put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

You might have heard about a big meeting at the State Capitol today.

No, not that one, about whose portrait will hang in the Iowa House and Senate behind the presiding officer.

The meetings where there’s always some mystery are the annual reviews of selected tax credits. Only a few credits are reviewed each year by a panel of legislators. One meeting was in November; the other is today.

One tax giveaway — er, tax credit — on the agenda for today is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC.
No such review since these sessions started has produced meaningful reform, but the exercise does put information on the table and does put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

What we already know from previous evaluations and annual reports about the RAC is that it is costly — over $50 million a year — and that routinely at least two-thirds of the cost (and usually over four-fifths) goes to companies as so-called “refunds.” These are not refunds of taxes owed, but of tax credits the companies didn’t need because they owe so little, or no, corporate income tax.

Remember that when you hear the Iowa Taxpayers Association and others bleating about Iowa’s corporate taxes, which are actually low.
For perspective on the RAC, the $42 million given away in tax credit refunds under this program in 2015 would have paid for about 1 percent more in school aid, at the same time schools were told we didn’t have the money for it. Of course we did. Our legislators just chose to give it away, mainly to huge, profitable corporations.
In Room 103 of the State Capitol, 1:15 p.m., the public and legislators can hear from the Department of Revenue about the Research Activities Credit. And the session that follows at 2:15 on the Earned Income Tax Credit may be worth listening to as well, for contrast, as the EITC is a demonstrated boost to the economy while the RAC has never been demonstrated to be more than a drain on revenue.

You never know what legislators at the table will have to say about these issues, but we may get some insights.
As for that other meeting, we all now how it will come out.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen
Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Project Director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership
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

A new baseline: Drop in number of uninsured Iowans

The new census numbers set a baseline to evaluate the effects of Iowa’s move this year to privatize Medicaid. After sharp declines in Iowa’s uninsured population, it will be interesting to see if declines continue.

Nineteen out of 20 Iowans are now covered by health insurance, thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act and Iowa’s Medicaid expansion. The latest census data, released today, show that the percent of Iowans who were uninsured dropped from 8.1 percent in 2013 to just 5.0 percent in 2015. While 248,000 Iowans were without insurance in 2013, by 2015 the number had dropped to 155,000.

Only four states have a lower percent of the population without health insurance: Massachusetts, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont, plus the District of Columbia.

Across the country, the gap has widened between states that expanded Medicaid and those that did not, as shown below. Twenty-eight states, including Iowa, chose to expand Medicaid eligibility in 2014 or 2015 to families with income up to 138 percent of the poverty level. The uninsured population has declined faster in the last two years in the states that chose to expand.

In Iowa, the 2015 census numbers establish a baseline for evaluating the effects of Iowa’s Medicaid privatization, which took place early this year. It will be interesting to see if the uninsured population continues to decline in 2016.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

For more on this issue, see:
Census Data Show States Not Expanding Medicaid Falling Further Behind, by Matt Broaddus, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Fix both ‘cliff effect’ and low minimum wage

Past failures to improve both the minimum wage and child care eligibility should not end up as an excuse to fix neither.

As the debate over a Polk County minimum wage continues, the so-called “cliff effect” is being cited as a reason to limit the increase in the wage. This is unfortunate. Capping the wage at a low level would hurt thousands of families, including many with burdensome child care costs.

cliffs3The “cliff effect” results from the design of Iowa’s Child Care Assistance program (CCA), which pays a portion of the cost of care for low-income families. Iowa has one of the lowest eligibility ceilings in the country: 145 percent of poverty. When a family’s income hits that level ($29,120 for a single mother with two children), benefits disappear.

While most work support programs, such as food assistance, taper off gradually, with CCA you just fall off a financial cliff — the “cliff effect.”

We do need to fix that program. But the failure of state lawmakers and the governor to address the CCA cliff effect is not a good reason to forgo needed wage increases for thousands of working families. An estimated 60,000 workers would benefit from an increase to $12 an hour in Polk County; 88,000 by an increase to $15 (phased in over several years).

Of those who would benefit from a higher minimum, 36 to 38 percent are in families with children. To put the CCA cliff in context, recognize:

•     Thousands have high child care costs and incomes below 145 percent of poverty but do not receive CCA. A 2007 study estimated that only about 1 in 3 Iowa families eligible for CCA were actually receiving it. The two-thirds with low wages but without assistance still need higher wages.

•     Second, a low wage cap would not help many families barely above 145 percent of poverty, but still facing child care costs of $4,000 to $5,000 a year per child. These families, in many cases married couples with one or both working at a low wage, can’t make ends meet.

•     Third, the other 62 to 64 percent of low-wage workers do not have children, and many families whose children are older do not need child care. A cap on the minimum wage hurts all of them.

Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the cliff is not as sudden as it appears. Because Iowa moved to one-year eligibility, a family whose income rises enough to push them above 145 percent of poverty can continue to receive assistance for another year. In that time, they may find ways to adjust, such as quitting the second or third job or reducing hours or overtime, to stay eligible for CCA but have more time with their children. This is surely a benefit from a higher minimum wage.

Policies that move families toward self-sufficiency are widely supported. We want workers to increase their earnings by furthering their education, finding higher paying jobs, gaining experience that earns them promotions — and have time to care for their families.

Yes, we should fix our child care assistance program, which can penalize all of those efforts. But we should also fix a minimum wage stuck at a level well below what even a single person needs to get by. Past failures to fix one problem should not end up as an excuse to fix neither.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Related:

“Reducing Cliff Effects in Child Care Assistance,” Peter Fisher and Lily French, Iowa Policy Project, March 2014, PDF

A squeaky wheel is heard — but not fixed​

The weak House attempt to satisfy Davenport on school funding inequities is a sign that a squeaky wheel is being heard. But the whole statewide axle is rusty.

Davenport has been the squeaky wheel on school funding inequity in Iowa, and the Iowa House this week tried to apply a drop of oil. Problem is, the whole axle is rusty, and cracked.

By law, 164 school districts — about half of Iowa’s 330 districts — are held $175 below the maximum per-pupil spending amount used to set local school budgets. In fact, almost 84 percent of school districts in the state are $100 or more below the maximum (graph below).

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On Tuesday, the House passed an amendment, H8291, that dealt only with the squeakiest wheel — Davenport — and only for a one-year fix.

Davenport is not buying. In a Quad-City Times story, Davenport lawmakers were not happy. Their school superintendent, Art Tate, called it “no help at all,” and for good measure, put the focus where it needs to be.

Wrote Tate in an email to the Times: “It does not address the moral imperative to make every student worth the same in Iowa.”

The larger question, given that moral imperative, is why more districts aren’t more active on this issue. One reason could be that Iowa’s inequities, while real, do not rise to the level of what might be found in other states.

Another reason might be that just fighting for basic school funding is hard enough, when the Legislature is setting a seven-year pace of funding growth below 2 percent despite faster growth in district costs, strong state revenues and approval of more business tax breaks.

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We’re in the closing days, perhaps the closing hours, of the 2016 legislative session, with exceedingly few successes for education and working families. It’s too late in this session to expect real reform of the school funding system, pleas for which have come for many years — and focus on more than the per-pupil cost. There are other equity problems, the largest of which is in funding transportation services.

The weak House attempt at a one-year fix for Davenport, however, is a sign that the squeaky wheel is being heard. Think of what might happen if more wheels squeaked.

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

Sensible context on school aid growth

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

There are many ways to measure Iowa’s lagging commitment to public schools. One is a comparison of growth in school aid to growth in state revenues.

As K-12 schools are a significant share of the state budget, it seems sensible that we would expect at least similar numbers of growth in one vs. the other.

Basic RGBThat is not the case.

While not a perfect comparison — there are moving parts with both figures — you can get an idea of the general trend in the accompanying graph. Net General Fund revenues have been coming in with average yearly increases around 4 percent,* while the key school-aid number, for Supplemental State Aid, has averaged about half that.**

The numbers below are taken from the latest Revenue Estimating Conference report, available here: https://dom.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016/03/rec-projections-2016-03-16.pdf

  • The actual ending balance for FY2015 (the budget year ending last June 1) showed a net over-the-year revenue change from FY2014 of 5.1 percent. For that same period, schools had 4 percent Supplemental State Aid — the only year that high since FY2010.
  • For the current year, the most recent official revenue estimate is for a 3.3 percent state revenue increase, while schools are operating on budgets reflecting 1.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2017, the estimate is for a 4.4 percent state revenue increase, and the deal just hatched at the Statehouse — 13 months late — is for schools to see 2.25 percent per-pupil growth.
  • For FY2018, for budgets to be approved a year from now, the state is expecting 4.1 percent revenue growth. The school aid number for FY2018 by law was to have been set a month ago so school districts could properly plan their budgets when enrollment counts are set this fall, and to negotiate staff contracts without big uncertainties. That number has not been set and apparently will not be during this legislative session, as neither the House nor the Governor is interested.

Understand, the revenue growth number is held artificially low by the growing and incessant demand for business tax breaks that undermine revenues. So the net revenue number would be much higher if legislators wanted it. Instead, they continue to give away hundreds of millions of dollars before they even reach the state treasury.

If the Legislature were to curtail business tax credits even slightly, plenty of money would be available to properly fund education and other actual public priorities that are the traditional and best-focused business of state government.

Alas, that is not the political world in which we live.

*The average growth for general fund revenues includes both actual results for FY11 through FY15, as well as projections by the Revenue Estimating Conference for FY16 and FY17.
**Supplemental State Aid — which is a percentage for per-pupil cost growth that districts must use in building an enrollment-based budget — includes the recent deal approved by the Senate and House and expected to be signed by Governor Branstad.
Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
Mike Owen is a former journalist in Iowa and Pennsylvania. He covered state government for the Quad-City Times from 1980-85 and was editor and co-publisher of the West Branch Times from 1993-2001. He is serving his third term on the West Branch Board of Education, and is a member of the Professional Advisory Board of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communications.