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

County Minimum Wages Spread their Benefits Widely

Clearly, any action by the Iowa Legislature to roll back county minimum wages would harm workers and local economies in many of Iowa’s most populous counties.

It’s not just four counties that benefit from the higher local minimum wages that go into effect this year. Those four counties — Polk, Linn, Johnson and Wapello — account for a third of all private-sector jobs in the state. And a large number of people holding those jobs live in neighboring counties.

Polk, Linn and Johnson counties are the hubs of metropolitan areas, surrounded by counties where a sizeable share of the workforce commutes to the hub. Those commuters earn higher wages thanks to the county supervisors in the three counties. And they come home to spend those higher wages at local gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and other retail shops. They hire local plumbers and builders and electricians. In all, at least 12 counties in addition to Polk, Linn and Johnson will see a substantial increase in resident incomes and local purchases as a result of those three county minimum wages.

The map below shows the percentage of lower wage workers in each suburban county who are employed in the hub county with the higher minimum wage.[1] Clearly, any action by the Iowa Legislature to roll back county minimum wages would harm the workers and the local economies in many of the state’s most populous counties.

Iowa 03-BLUE-counties

[1] Lower wage is defined as earnings of $3,333 per month or less. Restricting it to those earning $1,250 or less results in very similar percentages; the lower figure, however, would represent a wage of even less than the current minimum for someone working full time, whereas the county minimums when fully phased in will benefit all those earning under $10.10 (Johnson) to $10.75 (Polk), and some workers above those levels. These earnings cutoffs were the only ones provided in the Census data.

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

pfisher@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

Enriching the minimum wage discussion

History shows the minimum wage was meant to be a meaningful policy tool to help working families, not limited to “entry level” work or teens. In fact, efforts to establish the wage came as policy makers were trying to remove young teenagers from the workforce.

The spin against any minimum wage increase — or even having a minimum wage — has become predictable. This should surprise no one. Policy makers since President Franklin D. Roosevelt have battled the same stuff.

A little relevant history might be just what is needed as Iowans consider the arguments for a national, state or even local increase, which passed in Johnson County.

History shows the minimum wage was meant to be a meaningful policy tool to help working families, not limited to “entry level” work or teen wages. In fact, efforts to establish the wage came at the same time policy makers were trying to remove young teenagers from the workforce.

The U.S. Department of Labor website has an interesting paper published almost 40 years ago by a DOL historian, Jonathan Grossman: Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage In it, Grossman relates a story about a young girl’s note to Roosevelt, telling of pay being cut from $11 a week to between $4 and $6 a week. 

To a reporter’s question, the President replied, “Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages.”

“Starvation wages” are your concern if you expect the wage to be meaningful to a household budget.

Interestingly, Iowa Policy Project research shows what is needed for a household budget. In Linn County, where a very low $8.25 has been suggested by a split task force, a single parent needs to make between $21 and $25 an hour to support a household on a bare-bones, basic-needs budget without public supports. In Polk County, it takes between $22 and $27 for a parent in similar circumstances.

IPP and Economic Policy Institute analysis also show this issue is scarcely about teens. Statewide, more than 4 out of 5 workers affected by an increase to $12 are 20 years old or older. A quarter of them have children. Over half of them work full time. On average, they account for over half of their family’s total income.

County supervisors in Johnson County have taken the baton across generations from FDR, to assure families have a chance. They acted last year to raise the local wage in three steps to $10.10 by next January 1, and they have already taken two steps, to $9.15.

Discussions are moving ahead in Polk County, Linn County and Lee County. Passing a local wage is a significant signal to state leaders that they are through waiting for action. Any county must consider whether the content of its action is significant as well — however bold it may seem to pass local law on this issue, the amount does matter.

And for those who say, “Let the market handle it,” just wake up. Clearly, it does not. As FDR stated in 1937:

The truth of the matter, of course, is that the exponents of the theory of private initiative as the cure for deep-seated national ills want in most cases to improve the lot of mankind. But, well intentioned as they may be, they fail…. (T)hey have no power to bind the inevitable minority of chiselers within their own ranks.

Though we may go far in admitting the innate decency of this small minority, the whole story of our Nation proves that social progress has too often been fought by them. In actual practice it has been effectively advanced only by the passage of laws by state legislatures or the National Congress. [1]

Do we value history? Do we value work? Do we value families? Do we value practical solutions through public policy? We are about to see.

[1] Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Message to Congress on Establishing Minimum Wages and Maximum Hours.,” May 24, 1937. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15405.

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

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Privatizing Medicaid: ‘Why?’ ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ not yet answered

How we assure health care access to low-income Iowans needs to be the central issue here, not an afterthought.

060426-capitol-swwWhy do we have Medicaid? It’s a simple question with a simple answer. We have Medicaid because if we don’t, there are millions of Americans, and nearly 600,000 Iowans, who will not be able to get health care. Private industry will not provide it.

Why, we must ask, would we turn over to private industry a critical part of our public safety net to business interests that operate with a principal purpose of making money?

How do we assure that services are provided, that our responsibilities are met, if the people running the operation are not answerable to us?

As the legislative Health Policy Oversight Committee meets today about the Governor’s privatization edict on Medicaid, we need to remind ourselves of these basic questions.

When the Governor cannot detail the purported savings and our common sense tells us otherwise, we need an assurance that data will be available — and publicly available — to monitor what is happening with a service that has been accountable and efficient in expanding health-care access to Iowans who need it. We need to know Iowa is not setting itself to repeat problems that have been demonstrated in other states.

What will pass for public oversight after we’ve turned over the keys to private industry?

Over three dozen people and organizations filed comments (available here) with the oversight committee for today’s meeting at the Statehouse. Many have a firsthand understanding of the purpose and practice of Medicaid as we know it, and serious questions of their own about the uncertain world where the Governor is taking us, on his own.

Clearly, many fundamental questions have not been fully vetted through the legislative process, nor given a hearing before the decision was made within the Governor’s Office.

How we assure health care access to low-income Iowans needs to be the central issue here, not an afterthought.

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

Don’t take talkers’ comments at face value

What actually occurred is that restaurant and bar jobs grew in the Seattle metro area after the wage was raised.

The shameless way the public debate can be distorted never ends. Case in point: discussion about the minimum wage.

If you were in Eastern Iowa this morning listening to Simon Conway’s program on WMT-AM radio, you would not have an accurate idea of what happened in Seattle, Washington, following that city’s first step — to $11 — toward an eventual minimum wage of $15. Confusion on this issue has occurred in Johnson County, where supervisors have approved a $10.10 minimum wage by 2017.

2010-PF-sq
Peter Fisher
IPP Research Director

What actually occurred, as Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project has pointed out, is that job numbers rose in Seattle after the wage was raised. See his Aug. 25 guest opinion in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Excerpt:

There is also misinformation flying around about Seattle, which took the first step toward raising the minimum wage to $15 in April of this year. What actually occurred is that overall employment in Seattle grew after the wage was raised. … The idea that restaurants closed because of the wage hike turned out to be a myth — the owners of the four restaurants in question reported that wages had nothing to do with their decisions.

New job numbers since then show jobs to be up in Seattle — both overall and in the restaurant and drinking places category — and both over the year and since the first step of the minimum wage increase. While it would be a mistake to suggest the minimum wage is responsible, the leisure and hospitality category alone shows a net gain of 1,100 jobs since the higher minimum went into effect.*

Much number-crunching is yet to be done to enhance understanding about how the Seattle increase is now affecting and ultimately will affect the labor market in that area. But the fact that the scare tactics have had little substance behind them has been pretty clear from early on. See this Seattle Times story. Or this Forbes.com story.

The lesson here is not that the minimum wage increase caused an increase in jobs in Seattle — but that it’s ridiculous to say it hindered jobs.

That is, of course, if you are at all interested in the facts.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project
Learn more about Iowa issues with the minimum wage on our website, www.iowapolicyproject.org
* seasonally adjusted jobs, Washington State Employment Security Department.

Another voice: Subsidizing Server Farms in Iowa

Iowa throws a lot of money at the server farm industry, even though the state’s assets would make it attractive for the industry even without lucrative subsidies.

by Kasia Tarczynska, Good Jobs First

Facebook just announced a third expansion of its $1.5 billion data center in Iowa. This followed a similar move by Google for its server farm in the state. These developments are fruits of the effort by officials to encourage big-name tech companies to locate in Iowa. This private investment, however, does not come free. For example, the $1 billion Google expansion is supported by $19.8 million in state subsidies. Since 2007, Iowa has offered almost $100 million in state tax credits and refunds to Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Google data center facility in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Credit: Google

Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Image via Google

Subsidies to server farms raise a lot of questions and controversy.  A key issue is whether the tech companies should get subsidies at all, given that their location decisions are based primarily on the availability of cheap electricity (preferably renewable), plenty of land, cooler climate, access to water, and lack of natural disasters. These make places like Iowa seem a natural choice.

Because data centers are capital intensive projects, they usually create a small number of jobs and thus per-job subsidies tend to be quite large.

Despite these factors, Iowa still throws lots of money at the industry.  Here is a quick look at Iowa’s subsidies to the three tech giants:

Google, located in Council Bluffs

2007- The company received $1.4 million in state tax credits and $48 million in local property tax abatements. Google was the first big-name tech company to locate a data center in the state.

2013 – The Iowa Economic Development Authority approved another $16.8 million in tax credits for a second Google facility.

2015 – The company received an additional $19.8 million in state sales and use tax refund for an expansion. Google will also pay only 20 percent of local property taxes for 5 years.

Altogether, Google promised to invest $2.5 billion but create just 70 jobs.

Microsoft, located in West Des Moines

Microsoft’s state subsidies started on a small scale, $568,000 in 2008 and $131,242 in 2011.

2013 – The company was awarded $20 million from the state’s High Quality Jobs Tax Credit program for a $679 million investment.

2014 – EDA approved $20.3 million in state tax credits to Microsoft for another round of expansion. The city chipped in $18 million for construction and infrastructure improvements on the site. $3.5 million in Tax Increment Financing was committed to build a water facility that will be used by Microsoft, and others, to cool servers.

Facebook, located in Altoona

2013 – After an intense and secretive competition with Nebraska, Iowa won Facebook’s server farm.  The company was approved for $18 million in tax credits for creating 31 jobs and investing $1.5 billion (the EDA report lists Facebook under Siculus, Inc, a Facebook initiative). The company also enjoys discounted water rates and has received money through Tax Increment Financing.

There is one additional thing that stands out: Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are rich tech companies that easily can afford any costs related to construction and operation of those server farms.  As one journalist put it: “Google needs a tax break like Bill Gates needs food stamps.”

Kasia Tarczynska is a research analyst at Good Jobs First, http://www.goodjobsfirst.org. She has a Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. This blog originally appeared on the Good Jobs First blog at this link.
Good Jobs First is a national policy resource center for grassroots groups and public officials, promoting corporate and government accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families.