Food for the fact-checkers

We’ll throw a penalty flag when we see bad information being spread about issues we cover. Case in point: the Governor’s spin about taxes.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we are nonpartisan and we do not support or endorse candidates for office. Rather, we hope those who do, and the candidates and parties themselves, will conduct their discussions on a foundation of fact.

When they do not, we just might throw a penalty flag. Our work is public policy research and analysis, to help people see what is fact and what is not, and to introduce context where it is missing. This is not always easy with complex issues, and there are gray areas. Where bad information is being spread, that interferes with the mission of our work, so we will do what we can to keep that record straight.

Very early in Wednesday’s debate between Governor Kim Reynolds and businessman Fred Hubbell, the Governor made at least two clearly unsupportable claims about taxes. These are issues we cover constantly.

First, the 2018 tax overhaul not only was costly, but overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply unsupportable, using data provided by the Iowa Department of Revenue in May before the bill passed. Those supporting the bill knew this would be the impact, and those writing it drew it that way.

According to the department, the legislation will mean either no change, or an actual tax increase, to nearly a quarter of resident taxpayers — 23.3 percent — in tax year 2019. For those who receive cuts, the average cut for millionaires was projected to be $20,021; for someone between $60,000 and $70,000 adjusted gross income, the cut was projected to be a tiny sliver of the benefit compared to millionaires — $232.

This flatly negates the Governor’s comment that, “In 2019, virtually every single Iowan will see their taxes go down.” This is clearly inaccurate. Further, as the law is phased in, the continuing impact will be that some will lose, some will not. Unquestionably it will affect public services as hundreds of millions in revenues are cut — which means Iowans who depend upon those services, and that is most Iowans, will lose even more.

Second, the Governor in pushing for new corporate tax cuts chose to play to the myths about business taxes promoted by the business lobby to drive down Iowa’s already low business taxes.

Business consultants have exposed the hollow core of this claim, most recently the Anderson Economic Group, which in June ranked Iowa 15th lowest in state and local business taxes (all of which are governed by state policy). Iowa business taxes consistently have been shown to be competitive.

For more information about both the tax legislation and Iowa taxes on business see these resources:

What real Iowa tax reform would look like, Iowa Policy Project “Roadmap for Opportunity” series, August 2018.

Iowa tax overhaul: Sorting facts, key points from spin, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, May 2018

Myth-Buster: Competitiveness no problem for Iowa taxes, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, March 2018
The problem with tax-cutting as economic policy, Peter Fisher, Iowa Policy Project, GradingStates.org
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

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

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

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
Also see:

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