A Roadmap for Opportunity: It’s Time to Put Iowa on the Right Path

At this critical juncture, Iowa can take the high road to shared prosperity, or go down a dead end.

181009-roadmap-logoIowa can unlock the potential of each individual and allow all workers to share in the fruits of their labor by making public investments in the foundations of a strong economy. Well-resourced schools, access to higher education, decent wages and protections, economic supports, clean water and renewable energy, and a cleaned-up tax system, all can pave the way to opportunities and broadly shared prosperity that Iowans want.

Unfortunately, policy choices have put us on a road that prioritizes corporate profits over worker wages and corporate tax cuts over the public investments that allow for a strong, sustainable economy. We are at a crossroads and our policy choices today and in the near future can either pave the path to economic opportunity in every corner of our state, or create roadblocks to prosperity for everyday Iowans.

Our people-first roadmap offers the way forward. It lays out the evidence-based, responsible solutions to our state’s most pressing issues, pinpointing several stops along the way that would mark progress for our state, such as:

pinCreating the workforce of our future and ensuring our children reach their potential. Iowa can and should ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need for every child to succeed, no matter where they live. We also must restore our commitment to higher education with more state support, lower tuition, and aid to reduce student debt.

pinBoosting economic security and supports for working Iowans. Giving Iowans’ lowest wage workers a long overdue raise, ensuring workers get paid what they’re legally owed, shoring up our system of compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, and restoring worker rights to collective bargaining can ensure that all Iowa workers are getting a fair deal. Iowans also need a boost in child care assistance, which can make or break the ability of a family to work.

pinRestoring a public commitment to the health and well-being of every Iowan, particularly seniors and people living with disabilities. Reversing the privatization of Medicaid and pursuing cost savings through innovation and efficiency rather than reduced services and worker wages are critical steps to ensuring access to health care for all Iowans — now and in the future.

pinEnsuring clean water and renewable energy for a healthy, sustainable Iowa. We can and must balance the state’s need for clean and abundant water with our agricultural economy by reducing water pollution. Likewise, Iowa should restore its legacy of leadership in renewable and efficient energy in order to create a cleaner, greener state for future generations.

pinCleaning up and restoring balance to the tax code. Right now, Iowa asks the lowest income Iowans to pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than those with the highest incomes. We can fix this by cleaning up corporate tax loopholes that squander precious public dollars that could otherwise be invested in shared opportunity for Iowans.

Iowa is at a critical juncture. We can take the high road that leads to progress and shared prosperity, or go down a dead end. The policies in this roadmap provide a clear route to a stronger Iowa. For more detail on each stop on the roadmap, please click here.

Labor Day: Celebrating what was, and what could be

This Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen in the future, reversing current trends against working families.

As always, Labor Day is a day to celebrate Americans’ work ethic and spirit — things that hold promise for better times ahead.

But it is not a time to celebrate what has been happening in Iowa.

A look at the landscape for working families shows this Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen a year, two years, maybe 10 years from now.

Iowa lawmakers repealed local minimum-wage increases in four counties that acted when state and federal leaders refused. Iowa’s minimum wage is a measly $7.25 an hour and has been held there for 10 1/2 years; some 400,000 workers — and their families — could gain with a raise to $12. (IPP report, 2016) Twenty-nine other states have acted, including all but two of Iowa’s neighbors.

In the middle, Iowa as usual lags the region and the nation, as IPP Senior Research Consultant Colin Gordon showed in a wage update for The State of Working Iowa.

Even at higher wage levels, Iowans are falling short. As Gordon noted:

Colin Gordon

“(T)he wage structure in Iowa is more compressed than it is nationally or in the Midwest. Low-wage workers in Iowa make about the same as low-wage workers everywhere else, but at the higher wages, Iowa workers fall further and further behind. Higher wage jobs are scarcer in Iowa than in most states. And wages in many professions — such as nursing or teaching — trail national and regional peers by wide margins.

“The key point here is not just that wages have stagnated, but they have done so over an era in which the productivity and educational attainment of Iowa workers have improved dramatically.”

If the wage levels weren’t lagging enough already, policy makers have utterly failed Iowa workers by refusing to assure that wages owed are actually paid. Wage theft — refusing to pay wages owed, or violating overtime and employee classification rules — is winked at by a state system that devotes too few resources to enforcement. Lawmakers have refused to act.

Lawmakers deliberately smacked working people with significant legislation in the last General Assembly in at least two other areas:

•   They curtailed collective bargaining rights of public employees, making it tougher for them to organize, and tougher for them to negotiate. In the arena where the state, counties, cities and schools should be leading by example on how to treat employees, the Legislature has chosen to push Iowa toward a race to the bottom. And make no mistake about the impact on the economy: Public-sector jobs are 1 in 6 of all jobs in the state.

•   They also passed legislation to erode workers’ protection and financial security long provided through Iowa’s workers’ compensation law. A study of the effects of one change, reclassifying shoulder injuries, found that the typical worker with such an injury could expect to receive 75 percent less under the new rules.

On top of these, we see the University of Iowa unilaterally acting to eliminate, or eliminate funding for, its own Labor Center that serves thousands and helps Iowans understand what rights they have in the workplace.

And we can count on a continuing assault on Iowa’s strong and accountable public employees’ retirement plans — not to help employees or actually save money, but to feed the ideological drive against public services that is illustrated in examples above. How better to damage those services than to lessen the attraction of jobs that provide them?

Celebrate Labor Day for the people who work to make our nation great. Keep in mind throughout the day that forces are trying to undermine the security of working families — and that Iowans can come together behind policies to support all.

Think of how much better that Labor Day burger off the grill will taste — in some future year — with a side of responsible minimum wage and workplace protection laws, topped off with a stronger economy that will result as more Americans prosper.

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

 

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