The weekend Iowans fool themselves

Think about it: How often do you rush off to a ‘7-percent off’ sale?

It’s here again — the weekend when Iowans buy into some really bad political spin, but leave happy about it because they don’t pay tax on the purchase.

Today and Saturday are the dates of Iowa’s sales tax holiday, which we have noted many times — including here, here and here — is a shopping bag full of nonsense.

As IPP’s Peter Fisher noted in 2014, the third link above, “Who’s to say a retailer, with this officially sanctioned ‘holiday’ marketing, won’t bump prices by 10 percent or call off a 20 Percent Off sale that might have been in place?” Instead of revenue for schools, it’s a recipe for a retailer’s windfall.

Iowa media quite often play along, with rarely a discouraging word challenging the notion of the break, questioning whether any break actually results, and, importantly, how much it costs public services. (It was $1.6 million in its first year, 2000, and by 2015 the break was valued at $3.6 million lost to services.)

Neither does the Iowa Department of Revenue shed light on these issues, which are at least as important as a list it offers of what you can and cannot buy tax-exempt on these hallowed anti-tax days.

Certainly, the sales tax is one that disproportionately hits lower-income people harder than high-income people. The evidence is clear on that. And reducing the impact of the sales tax year-round would be a sensible step if paired with an income-tax increase affecting higher-income people — same revenue, fairer approach.

But this break goes to anyone, so those very wealthy Iowans who are the largest beneficiaries of the income-tax cuts passed in 2018 also get an extra break here.

And there we have the two largest problems with Iowa tax policy: It is inequitable, and it is based on political spin that ultimately harms the public services we depend upon.
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A University ‘for’ Iowa, or just ‘in’ Iowa

If the University of Iowa is serious about its strategic plan, it would recognize that jewels like the Labor Center demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution.

There are lots of good reasons not to shutter the University of Iowa’s Labor Center.

For starters, any such move would be rash, shortsighted, and wasteful. The Labor Center’s core continuing education mission teaches labor leaders about workers’ rights, about civil rights in the workplace, and about occupational health and safety. Those who have benefited from these courses over the years credit the Labor Center with helping them — and their local unions — sustain workplaces which are safer and more equitable.

For the pittance in state funds (about $500,000) devoted to the Center, the returns the state — in fewer harassment claims, fewer workers’ compensation settlements, fewer cases of wage theft — are incalculable.  Closing the Labor Center, in this respect, is like taking down the stoplights at an intersection: you could claim savings in signage and electricity as a result, but at what cost?

In turn, the threat to the future of the Labor Center — the only academic center in the Regents system devoted to work and workers in Iowa — sends a terrible message to the state’s working families. In an era of spiraling inequality, when the combination of stagnant incomes and rising tuition are putting a college education increasingly out of reach, do we really want to harden the perception that the state’s universities only serve the interests of the upper classes? There are about 1.6 million wage earners in Iowa, a quarter of whom do not earn a wage sufficient to climb above the poverty line.  These Iowans — as citizens, voters, taxpayers, and parents — should know that the state’s public institutions are for them too.

And finally, the University’s claim that the Labor Center is peripheral to its academic mission is simply not true. The University’s current strategic plan sits on three pillars: student success, research, and engagement. The Labor Center contributes on all of these fronts, and especially on engagement and outreach to the rest of the state. On this score, the strategic plan argues that the University should “enhance UI’s statewide visibility and increase access to UI expertise,” “support the translation of intellectual work into applications to enhance economic development,” and “create lifelong learning opportunities that broaden UI’s reach across Iowa.”

The Labor Center does all of this and more. It is one of the few arms of the University with a sustained and serious “extension” mission to the rest of the state. If the University is serious about its strategic plan, and about proving its value to those outside Johnson County, its best option is to nurture such forms of engagement with off-campus Iowa constituencies rather than abandon them. It is jewels like the Labor Center that demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution; which demonstrate that UI can and should be The University FOR Iowa and not just a University IN Iowa. 

Colin Gordon is the F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the University of Iowa and a senior research consultant with the Iowa Policy Project. He is the recipient of the Regents Award for Faculty Excellence (2016) and the UI’s Distinguished Achievement in Publicly-Engaged Research Award (2015).

Tight margin — big difference

The two-vote House margin on the Farm Bill would mean big changes for struggling Iowa families if accepted by the Senate.

More Iowans than you might expect have a stake in what happens in Washington in the coming days on the Farm Bill. It’s not just farmers.

While the Farm Bill addresses conservation, commodities, rural development, and crop insurance, among other issues, it also carries reauthorization of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as Food Stamps.

In the 2014 Farm Bill, SNAP constituted 80 percent of spending.[i] That investment makes a big difference to about 1 in 9 Iowans — and to the local stores where they use their SNAP benefit. About 350,000 Iowans received SNAP assistance in April of 2018.[ii]

The Senate proposal, which may come to a vote next week, differs markedly from the House bill, which passed 213-211 despite bipartisan opposition. The House bill would cut SNAP for 1 million households, imposing new and unnecessary work requirements on households where people are already working, or unable to work.[iii]

Robert Greenstein, president of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, summarized the challenge for low-income working people under the House bill:

Robert Greenstein,
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Among those likely to lose food assistance are a considerable number of working people — including parents and older workers — who have low-wage jobs such as home health aides or cashiers and often face fluctuating hours and bouts of temporary unemployment that could put their SNAP benefits at risk. In addition, substantial numbers of people with serious physical or mental health conditions, as well as many caregivers, may struggle either to meet the monthly work-hours requirement or to provide sufficient documentation to prove they qualify for an exemption — and, consequently, may be at risk of losing nutrition assistance.[iv]

The Senate bill looks to improve the SNAP job training program by using feedback from local employers on the skills and opportunities needed in the area. It continues to invest in pilot testing of job training programs, while House-proposed work requirements have not been tested in such state-level pilots.[v]

The bill would also focus assistance on underserved populations, fund nutrition education initiatives, and reauthorize SNAP. It reduces verification barriers for elderly and disabled households by extending certification periods for two to three years.

SNAP is critically important for child development, educational attainment, preventing disease, and lifetime earnings.[vi]

The Senate and House Farm Bill proposals offer decidedly different directions for a proven anti-poverty program that already assures that thousands of Iowans receive nutrition assistance.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

 

[i] United States Department of Agriculture, “Projected Spending Under the 2014 Farm Bill.” January 2018. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-commodity-policy/projected-spending-under-the-2014-farm-bill/
[ii] Iowa Department of Human Services, “F-1 Food Assistance Program State Summary – April 2018.” May 2018. http://publications.iowa.gov/27559/
[iii] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill Would Increase Food Insecurity and Hardship.” April 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/chairman-conaways-farm-bill-would-increase-food-insecurity-and-hardship
[iv] Robert Greenstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Greenstein: Partisan House Farm Bill Would Turn Clock Back on Efforts to Reduce Hunger and Hardship.” June 21, 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/press/statements/greenstein-partisan-house-farm-bill-would-turn-clock-back-on-efforts-to-reduce
[v] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Senate Agriculture Committee’s Bill Strengthens SNAP and Avoids Harming SNAP Households.” June 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/senate-agriculture-committees-bipartisan-farm-bill-strengthens-snap-and
[vi] Feeding America, “Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation.” 2009. https://www.nokidhungry.org/sites/default/files/child-economy-study.pdf

New evidence on old water problem: It’s grown, and is getting worse

Vegetative buffers can address the main causes of the worsening algal bloom problem: climate change and nutrient runoff.

The Iowa Policy Project released a new report that brings attention to the harmful algal bloom problem that is not being addressed adequately in the state.

There have been numerous reports and articles that discuss the problem, including an IPP report that was released nearly 10 years ago, but what is different about this new report is that it highlights new science and evidence that indicates that the problem is growing worse.

The 2014 water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, where toxic blue-green algae shut down the water system, was a wake-up call for those responsible for ensuring our drinking water is safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are therefore aware of the looming threat posed by blue-green algae.

Recent studies have shown that the harmful algal bloom problem is more prolific and this is tied to changes in weather and landscapes due to climate change and due to increased nutrient runoff.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a framework that was created to address the runoff issue in Iowa but new evidence suggests that the NRS is not enough to tackle the problem.

One approach endorsed by IPP’s new report may be effective in protecting Iowans from harmful algal blooms: the implementation of mandatory vegetative buffers throughout the state. Minnesota and Vermont already have promulgated such laws for regulations and buffers along waterways —a conservation practice proven to dramatically reduce nutrient runoff.

Buffers also have an added benefit in that they can act as a carbon sink or as carbon storage, thereby helping to curb climate change. In other words, vegetative buffers can address the main causes of the worsening algal bloom problem: climate change and nutrient runoff.

Carolyn Buckingham, an attorney with a background in environmental law and policy, is lead author of a new report for IPP on issues caused by cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Iowa water.

Find the report here.

Too far for a tax-cutter

Home to roost: An advocate for lower taxes in the state Senate, Larry McKibben as a Regent sees an “attack” on higher education funding that will drive tuition increases.

Editor’s Note: This piece ran in the Wednesday, June 13, 2018, Cedar Rapids Gazette as a guest opinion from IPP’s David Osterberg.

The attack on higher education funding by the governor and legislative leadership has gone too far for at least one longtime tax-cutter.

Former state Sen. Larry McKibben, a member of the Iowa Board of Regents, expressed his concern about state support of universities. The regents voted Thursday to raise university tuition rates at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa universities, following $40 million in state funding cuts.

McKibben was forthright in blaming the legislative session for an increase in tuition at the three state universities and the loss of professors to better positions after years of low salary increases. From The Gazette’s story on the regents’ meeting:

“We have lost great folks, and now we are going to have to raise tuition,” McKibben said, noting that will persist “as long as we continue what I believe is, in my time on the board, the worst state government attack on our three public universities that I can ever remember.”

In fairness, the groundwork has been laid for this latest attack over many years. An Iowa Fiscal Partnership report in 2012 showed how spending on the UI, ISU and UNI dropped from fiscal year 2000 through fiscal year 2012.

An Iowa Policy Project analysis by Brandon Borkovec showed that adjusting for inflation, state funding for Iowa public universities has declined since fiscal year 2001 by 40 percent at UI, 42 percent at ISU, and 28 percent at UNI.

As a percentage of university budgets, the state share dropped by almost half from fiscal years 2001 to 2016.

Some of this happened on McKibben’s watch as one of the Legislature’s most powerful lawmakers on tax policy — one who often looked for ways to cut taxes, as he did in 2003 with a proposed flat tax that would have cost more than $500 million.

He did not intervene to rein in the Research Activities Credit, which sends more than $40 million a year to profitable corporations that pay no income taxes to the state.

He turned the other way as corporations raided Iowa’s treasury through tax loopholes at a cost of $60 million to $100 million a year.

As Regent McKibben, his new concern is understandable and his advocacy for college students laudable. He wants Iowa voters to pay attention and ask what candidates will do about severe underfunding that he says will assure more tuition increases. From the story in The Gazette: “I look forward to hearing the candidates say that,” McKibben said. “What are you going to do about higher education and our three great universities?” And what are you going to do to bring them back to level?”

These same trends were happening when McKibben was a legislator. Now, it seems, the governor and state legislative leaders have gone too far, even for him.

David Osterberg is founder and former executive director of Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Comments: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Housing threat to 65,000 Iowans

New proposals would destabilize secure housing for thousands of Iowans, with tremendous impacts on child development including social and emotional well-being, and physical health.

Over 36,000 low-income households in the state of Iowa depend on rental assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)[1] Rental programs are crucially important for the financial security of Iowans who are able to receive benefits. However, 3 of 4 households qualifying for rental assistance are unable to access them due to funding constraints.[2] A proposal from the Trump Administration and a House bill proposed by Rep Dennis Ross seek to further stifle this shrinking program.

Iowans projected to be affected by housing proposals
By congressional district (Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)


In Iowa, the average income of households using rental assistance is just over $12,000. Ninety-seven percent of Iowans using rental assistance fit the category of very low income, meaning they earn 50 percent of the local median income or less. Housing affordability is an issue in both rural and urban areas — 18,700 of Iowa households using rental assistance are in non-metropolitan areas.[3]

The HUD proposal seeks to increase the percentage of a household’s income that they must contribute to rent from 30 to 35 percent. That 17 percent increase is on average a $55 monthly rent increase for families.[4] The changes proposed by the Trump Administration would impact 65,400 Iowans, including 24,600 children. The plan also stands to triple minimum rents for households with a non-elderly or disabled member[5] and eliminate deductions used by the elderly and disabled, and by working families for childcare expenses.

The Ross bill also would eliminate income deductions for eligibility and increase rents for Iowa’s elderly and disabled rental assistance recipients.[6] The bill would impact over 24,400 Iowa households receiving rental assistance; with a 41 percent monthly rent increase for recipients.

Rental assistance encourages work by freeing up household income for work-enabling basic needs such as food, transportation and child care. Secure housing has tremendous impacts on child development including social and emotional well-being, and physical health.[7] These two proposals threaten to destabilize housing for many working low-income households with children, as well as for the elderly and disabled all across the state of Iowa.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. Contact: nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

 

[1] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of 2016 HUD administrative microdata

[2] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Policy Basics: Federal Rental Assistance.” November 2017. https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/policy-basics-federal-rental-assistance

[3] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Assisted Housing: National and Local Dataset.” 2017. https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/assthsg.html#2009-2017_query

[4] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Trump Plan Would Raise Rents on Working Families, Elderly, People with Disabilities.” April 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/blog/trump-plan-would-raise-rents-on-working-families-elderly-people-with-disabilities

[5] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Trump Plan to Raise Minimum Rents Would Put Nearly a Million Children at Risk of Homelessness.” April 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/blog/trump-plan-to-raise-minimum-rents-would-put-nearly-a-million-children-at-risk-of-homelessness-0

[6] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “House Bill Would Allow Sharp Rent Increases on Struggling Low-Income People.” May 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/blog/house-bill-would-allow-sharp-rent-increases-on-struggling-low-income-people

[7] Research and Practice, “US Housing Insecurity and the Health of Very Young Children.” August 2011. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2011.300139

 

 

15 yards, loss of revenue

Governor Reynolds’ remarks about her tax cuts for the wealthy fail any test of accuracy.

It’s time to throw the penalty flag on Governor Kim Reynolds. Her remarks about the tax cuts she signed into law Wednesday for the wealthy fail any test of accuracy. Iowans need to know the facts.

It would be different if she had acknowledged, and made a case for:

•  massive tax cuts for the wealthiest.
•  cutting revenues, assuring continued suppression of education and opportunity, public health and safety and investments in the future of Iowa.
•  continued massive corporate tax giveaways, as business tax credits have doubled in five years.

But those were not her messages — and those messages will not be repeated here. The Governor is (1) deceiving Iowans about some policies she has adopted, and (2) ignoring likely damage to the economy from these tax cuts.

She even put off some forward strides she had suggested but abandoned during the recent legislative session. The concept of “reform” is gone, as the bill does nothing to simplify taxes for at least four years, and leaves in place a system that already was heavily skewed to benefit the wealthy.

Here are a few critical realities:

  The income tax savings to a middle class family next year are only $3 to $4 a week (according to the Department of Revenue) — while the sales tax increase will offset such savings for many.
  Millionaires, on the other hand, will see on average an $18,773 cut for the year.
  Larger tax cuts scheduled to take place in five years might not happen because they are triggered by a revenue target that will be very difficult to meet. (But count on tax-cut proponents to campaign on them.)
  Instead of adjusting taxes in a way that cuts would be paid for, this legislation will actually take $300 to $400 million a year out of the budget. Those dollars could have gone to adequately fund education or public safety or mental health care.
  The bill makes $40 million in corporate income tax cuts.
•  The bill provides an unneeded tax break for wealthy earners of “pass-through” income from business.

Meanwhile, the bill fails to reform business tax credits, which have doubled in five years, to $400 million. And it also fails to raise the standard deduction or eliminate federal deductibility, both of which the Governor had proposed but compromised away.

As reviews and promotions of the tax bill proceed, keep these points in mind. And watch for more information, because the analysis will continue on a bill developed in secret, for signing at an invitation-only ceremony.

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