Public hearing: Public concerns distracted

Iowa can have responsible tax reform that does not lose money needed for traditional, critical public services that benefit all Iowans. Our focus should be there.

If the goal of a “tax reform” public hearing Monday was to distract Iowans from the massive impact the Governor’s $1.7 billion tax cut would have on their lives, it succeeded.

The media attention on the hearing in the old Supreme Court Chamber in the State Capitol focused heavily on the perennial fight between banks and credit unions — one that won’t be settled whatever happens in 2018, and not the most important issue to be settled in 2018. Therefore, we won’t link to those stories here and add to the distraction.

But, those folks on both sides of the bank-credit union fight took many of the limited speaking slots, so the media focus followed. For their part, House Ways and Means Committee members listened politely, asked no questions and let 30 or so people — including this writer — have their say in three-minute chunks.

It was the public’s only chance thus far to speak on a bill that was introduced two months ago … that may barely resemble what House leaders actually plan to pass … with no disclosure about which of the public speakers may be getting more than three minutes behind closed doors as well.
We should all have been brought to the table long before this, and attention directed to what is really on that table about the future of our state.

Iowans need to focus on the very real threat to public services, from education to law enforcement to water quality to human services that have gone lacking as our state has increasingly directed subsidies and tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, neither of whom need help.

One good resource for all lawmakers, advocates and the public at-large is a series of concise, fact-based two-pagers in the 2018 Tax Policy Kit from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership. Find those pieces here.

If they were listening closely, lawmakers on Monday will have gleaned some important perspectives on the monumental tax changes that are being contemplated without sufficient review.

Lawmakers still have an opportunity to do this right — to steer Iowa’s tax system to a more stable, accountable and fair system that assures giant companies are paying their fair share and the poor are not penalized for their low incomes. Iowa can have responsible tax reform that does not lose money needed for traditional, critical public services that benefit all Iowans. Our focus should be there.

Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org
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A poisoned process

As early as today, a bill may be debated in the Iowa Senate to drastically slash revenue for public services — phased in at a cost of over $1 billion a year, or about one-seventh of the state’s General Fund.

The Senate bill, as does any legislation with a fiscal impact, comes with a “fiscal note.” This analysis by the Legislative Services Agency, using Department of Revenue data, was made available sometime late Tuesday. The legislation itself was introduced a week ago today, and passed out of subcommittee and full committee the following day.

The legislation is so complex that it took the state’s top fiscal analysts a week to put together their summary, which includes four pages of bullet points in addition to tables of data about various impacts. The nonpartisan analysis finds that the wealthiest individuals and most powerful corporations once again are the big winners.

The timing of the official fiscal analysis was only the latest example of cynical approach to public governing that has slapped brown paper over the windows of the gold-domed sausage factory in Des Moines.

This General Assembly was elected in 2016. It is an understatement to suggest that this legislation could easily have been developed through the 2017 legislative session or the months leading up to this session. The public who will be affected, and advocates across the political spectrum, could have weighed in, and independent fiscal analysis considered.

Many have tried to educate the public about what is at stake for Iowa — including the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, which among other activities brought in experts from Kansas last year to show what has happened there with similar tax slashing. IFP also offered a reminder in October of what real tax reform could include, and later about both open government and the folly of Kansas’ course. Last week, we warned about the fiscal cliff ahead.

Everyone knew the legislative leadership and Governor wanted to do something to cut taxes, but no specifics were available, just a couple of hints with no real context. The session opened in the second week of January, and it wasn’t until most had left the building on the second-to-last day of February that a fiscal analysis magically appeared.

With a more transparent and deliberate process, everyone — including and especially the legislators who will be voting on it — would have had a chance to get full information about its impacts.

Instead, it is being rammed through. Regardless of whether the legislation itself is good or bad, the process has poisoned it. And perhaps it has poisoned governance in Iowa for years to come.

There are elements of the commentary defending and opposing this legislation that show general agreement on two key points of what meaningful, responsible tax reform would entail. On both sides, there is recognition that:

•  removing Iowa’s costly and unusual federal tax deduction would enable a reduction of top tax rates that appear higher than they really are; and

•  corporate tax credits are out of control and costing the state millions outside the budget process, while education and human services suffer.

The process, however, has shielded from public view a clear understanding of how the specifics of this legislation would affect two principles central to good tax policy: (1) the purpose of raising adequate revenues for critical services, and (2) raising those revenues in a way that reflects ability to pay — basic fairness of taxation, where Iowa (like most states) has a system that shoves greater costs on low-income than high-income taxpayers.

It also has raised to the altar of absurdity a ridiculous image of the competitiveness of Iowa taxes, which independent business consultants’ analysis has shown to be lower than half the states and in the middle of a very large pack that differs little on the state and local business taxes governed by state policy. (chart below)

Ernst&YoungFY2016

As the process moves from the Senate to the House, these concepts of good governance need to be central to timely debate, not just fodder for editorial pages afterward.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and project director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint initiative of IPP and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Rest/best/worst of the story

redink-capitol

Senator Joni Ernst is using Facebook to gin up support for the new tax bill. It is a one-sided picture, to say the least.

So, what does it really mean for Iowans that the tax bill is law?

  • Middle and low-income Iowans will see temporary ​tax cuts in the short term that are ​drastically smaller​​ than those high-income taxpayers will see — and these will be taken away or turned into tax increases by 2027 to help pay for permanent tax cuts for corporations.
  • Millions of people nationwide will lose health insurance coverage as elimination of the individual mandate drives up costs for all.
  • The wealthy will keep more millions of dollars that have never been taxed due to further exemptions in the estate tax.
  • The Child Tax Credit will be extended to affluent families who do not need assistance, while 86,000 children in working families in Iowa receive a token increase of $75 or less — both expansions to evaporate after 2025.
  • Businesses will get enormous, permanent tax breaks with no requirements to create jobs.

Some might recall a longtime radio commentator, Paul Harvey, and his “Rest of the Story” pieces. The points above are the “rest of the story” that you might not hear from backers of the latest tax giveaway in Congress. You might be OK with them and call them the “best of the story.”

Or, you might be concerned about the impact they will have on U.S. and Iowa families, on national debt and new challenges they bring to the safety net, and call them the “worst of the story.”

But they are the real story, and they should not be forgotten as the spin continues.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Careful backpedaling on estate tax, Senator

Contrast Senator Grassley’s current statements with his 2005 thought that “it’s a little unseemly” to suggest repealing the estate tax “at a time when people are suffering.” The tax bill promises suffering.

One of the problems with backpedaling is if you don’t do it well, you trip. Somebody catch Senator Chuck Grassley.

As has been widely noted across social media — a good example is this post in Bleeding Heartland — The Des Moines Register quoted Iowa’s senior senator that estate tax repeal would reward “people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.

Ironically, while promoted as a pullout quote in the packaging of the story, the “booze or women or movies” comment came quite low in the piece. More substantive problems with the Senator’s rationale for opposing the estate tax were presented higher: specifically his continued insistence that this has something to do with the survival of family farms.

It. Does. Not.

10-30-17tax-factsheet-f1Senator Grassley has promoted this unsupportable justification for his position for many years. This New York Times piece from 2001 includes it.

And he renewed it again Monday in claiming his “booze or women or movies” comment was out of context, taking the opportunity to promote his spin again — and again getting wrong the facts behind his fundamental objection: the impact on farms.

There, he claimed in the story that he wants a tax code as fair for “family farmers who have to break up their operations to pay the IRS following the death of a loved one as it is for parents saving for their children’s college education or working families investing and saving for their retirement.”

While only a handful might actually have to pay any tax at all because of the generous exemptions in the estate tax — shielding $11 million per couple’s estate from any tax — no one in the many years the Senator has pretended this is an issue has been able to cite a single farm that had to break up because of the tax.

Contrast his current statements with the one he made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when there was a move afoot to slash the estate tax. And — as shown by the graphs below — even fewer estates in Iowa and the nation are affected by the estate tax now than at that time, when he said “it’s a little unseemly to be talking about doing away with or enhancing the estate tax at a time when people are suffering.”

The tax legislation in Congress will cause millions to suffer, directly through a loss of health insurance, some with actual tax increases even at middle incomes, and over time with a loss of critical services that help low- and moderate-income families just to get by.

Furthermore, any middle-income tax cuts expire in 2026 while high-income benefits and corporate breaks remain in effect. And then, even more will suffer.

Questions we have been asking for years remain relevant today, and each time pandering politicians take a whack at the estate tax:

  • Is it a greater priority to absolve those beneficiaries of the need to contribute to public services — and make everyone else in the United States borrow billions more from overseas to pay for it — or to establish reasonable rules once and for all to assure the very wealthiest in the nation pay taxes?
  • Do we pass on millions tax-free to the heirs of American aristocracy, or do we pass on billions or trillions of debt to America’s teen-agers?

We all shall inherit the public policy now in Congress. As long as the estate tax exists, it remains the last bastion assuring that at least a small share of otherwise untaxed wealth for the rich contributes to the common good, or at least toward paying the debt they leave us. Fear not for their survivors; they still will prosper handsomely.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Iowa City. Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Editor’s Note: This post was updated Dec. 6 with the graphs showing the decline in Iowa estates affected by the estate tax.

The Case of the Missing Middle-Class Tax Cut

If you’re looking for a real middle-class tax cut in the Senate plan, you’d better put Sherlock Holmes on the job.

If Sherlock Holmes were a United States Senator, he’d be on it: “The Case of the Missing Middle-Class Tax Cut.”

We’ve all heard about the suspicious tax cut. It’s been in all the papers, all the social media posts, anywhere the spin merchants can find a way to promote the idea that the proposed massive and permanent tax-cut giveaway to millionaires, billionaires and corporations is somehow a “middle-class tax cut.”

Puh-leeze.

No reliable information can justify the billing. Middle-class and lower-income taxpayers ultimately will — on average — pay more as a result of this legislation if it becomes law.

In Iowa, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has shown that despite some minor benefits upon enactment, the bill when fully phased in will actually result in a tax increase, on average, for the bottom 60 percent of Iowa taxpayers. Higher up the income scale, tax cuts will remain. (In the graph below, average tax changes for the bottom three quintiles of Iowa taxpayers are shown as increases, above the line.)

Someone in Iowa making $1.5 million in 2027 would get about a $4,800 benefit under the ITEP analysis — not a lot to people at that income, maybe a good payment on luxury box rent at the ballgame.

But that break for the top 1 percent would total about $68 million — a hit to services on which the money could be spent on behalf of all.

Millions of Americans — an estimated 13 million — would lose health insurance under this bill, a large share of those not giving up insurance voluntarily, but because they could no longer afford it.

Billion-dollar estates that already have $11 million exempt from tax under current law would see a doubling of that exemption, as if the first $11 million free and clear is not enough while the millions of working families struggle to get by, some at a $7.25 minimum wage that has not been raised in over eight years (in Iowa, 10 years).

A Child Tax Credit designed to help working families with the costs of raising children would be extended to families earning $500,000 a year — as if those families need the extra help, when families making $30,000 get little from the deal. By the way, that is one of the changes billed as a middle-income break, and even it would expire in 2025.

There is no expiration, meanwhile, on the estate-tax break or on new giveaways to corporations.

If you’re looking for a real middle-class tax cut in this legislation, you’d better put Sherlock Holmes on the job. Even then, anything you find has an expiration date, plus tax increases. And the millionaires’ cuts that remain will clamp down on resources for the essential things that government does to protect and assure opportunity for us all, and our nation’s future.

You cannot afford to do both — provide critical services and also cut resources to pay for them.

It’s elementary.

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

Another reason to support IPERS

How bad might this identity theft case have been for retirees with their IPERS benefits in one of any number of privately managed accounts?

An estimated 103 beneficiaries of the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) were recent victims of identity theft — about 0.09 of 1 percent of all retirees receiving IPERS benefits. The system reacted quickly and transparently to support its retirees.

IPERS is cautioning all beneficiaries to make sure their October payments were made properly, and has issued new payments to those affected by this theft, in which criminals used personal information to redirect payments for a group of retirees.

All of this leaves a burning question for 2018: How bad might this have been without the IPERS system looking out for these retirees?

Put another way, what if all 115,000 of IPERS retiree beneficiaries and 350,000 IPERS members overall had been forced to private retirement plans, instead of the traditional pensions they have, as some lawmakers and hard-right activists would do with the future of IPERS?

By early news coverage, IPERS appears to have reacted very quickly to handle this security breach. IPERS had the backs of its beneficiaries, funds recovered and benefits on track to those counting on them, according to these early accounts.

It is unfortunate that this is not the emphasis of such stories. It should be. Identity attacks and threats are commonplace, and how the retiree’s account is protected is a critical issue.

Could you count on the manager of your private retirement account, such as a 401k, to respond so quickly, and with such accountability? Maybe. 

The new story about this identity theft assault on IPERS beneficiaries is one more reason — along with the positive performance of IPERS investments and retirement security offered by the program — to be putting the brakes on any attempt to rush through major changes to IPERS.

Privatization advocates make ideological arguments. In practical terms proposed changes would allow private outfits to profit unnecessarily from comparatively unaccountable management of public workers’ retirement investments, causing extra costs to employees and perhaps to the state.

So-called “reforms” have never been about making retirements more secure for those whom we as taxpayers employ to provide essential public services. This security, not private profit, is fundamental to the purpose and commitment of IPERS.

Mike Owen, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Minimum wage sinking — not ‘stuck’

New analysis from the Economic Policy Institute illustrates just how much we underestimate the impact of inaction on the minimum wage when we talk of it being “stuck,” “frozen,” or “held down,” at $7.25.

In reality, as EPI’s David Cooper shows, the wage actually declines year by year, because its buying power doesn’t keep pace with inflation. The $7.25 national minimum wage that took effect in 2009 would be $8.29 in today’s dollars. Put another way, the value of the minimum wage has declined 12.5 percent since Congress last raised it.

For Iowa, the situation is even worse, because the Iowa Legislature passed and Governor Chet Culver signed a $7.25 minimum wage that took effect a year and a half before the national increase. When the Legislature returns in January, it will have been 10 years since the last minimum-wage increase, while costs to families have kept rising.

EPI also points out that at its high point in 1968, the federal minimum wage was equal to $9.90 in today’s dollars. Tie it to increases in average wages, and the figure is $11.62. Tie it to productivity, and the figure is $19.33.

Click the link below for an interactive version of the above graphic:
http://www.epi.org?p=132305&view=embed&embed_template=charts_v2013_08_21&embed_date=20170802&onp=132309&utm_source=epi_press&utm_medium=chart_embed&utm_campaign=charts_v2

It seems settled in the current political environment that our minimum wage is stuck — there’s that word — at $7.25. There is no movement in either Des Moines or Washington to raise it, even though 29 states currently are above that level, including all but Wisconsin among our neighbors.

In fact, the state of Iowa forced repeal of local minimum wages where counties and cities demonstrated leadership that our legislative leaders could not, as those state leaders pandered to ideological myths and political talking points from an entrenched and bullying business lobby.

A $7.25 minimum wage is indefensible. Businesses paying at or near that wage benefit from the economy that taxpayers support through public services, not the least of which are law enforcement, fire protection and streets, let alone an educated work force. Yet they insist that we ask nothing in return, while their workers toil at wages so low they need other public supports — in food, health care, housing and energy assistance, all threatened by the current administration in Washington — just to keep their families going.

Think you’re done hearing about the minimum wage? Not if we can help it.

Mike Owen, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org