Closing the books — why real math matters

Now that ​Governor Branstad has left office, the latest (and preliminary) job numbers are in, and they effectively close the books on the goal. We did not come close. Through six years and four months, Iowa jobs stood little over halfway to the five-year goal.

Or: How Governor Branstad claimed to reach his jobs goal but did not come close

As it all turned out, the job-growth goal set by former Governor Terry Branstad was at best ambitious, and never realistic.

With four previous terms behind him, and 12 years out of office, Branstad came back in 2010 with a goal of 200,000 new jobs in five years.



Nothing wrong with setting lofty goals. The biggest problem with this one was the way the longtime Governor decided to measure progress toward it. If the goal was never realistic, the counting method was never math.

Iowa’s economy produced 106,900 new jobs — the net job increase — through the Governor’s second round in office.
As late as April, the last jobs report released in Governor Branstad’s tenure, the official report from Iowa Workforce Development bore an extra line, ordered by someone, for “Gross Over-the-month Employment Gains,” from January 2011. And that line would, magically, put the state over the 200,000 mark — a year late, but more on that later.

There was no explanation with the report on how this special line was computed, but analysis showed the administration cherry-picked job gains to come up with the “gross” figure. Job categories that showed a loss in a given month were simply ignored.

It was as if a business reported its sales but not its expenses, or a football team counted its own touchdowns but not those it gave up. The number, then, was literally meaningless as an indicator of anything happening in the economy.
 
Last week, IWD released its first report on monthly job numbers since Governor Kim Reynolds took office, and the “gross” gains line was gone from the official spreadsheet.

So, for the sake at least of history, a little context:
— Through the five years of the Governor’s goal, Iowa produced 92,100 new jobs.
— Through the end of the Governor’s tenure, Iowa produced 106,900 new jobs.

In fact, we didn’t reach 200,000 under even the Governor’s counting gimmick until January of this year, a year late. Meeting the goal would have required 60 months averaging over 3,300 net new jobs a month. Instead, we have seen far less:



The slow pace of recovery should not have been a surprise to anyone. Iowa and the nation had just come out of a shorter and less severe recession in 2001. The pace of that recovery — up until the Great Recession hit — was quite similar to what we have seen over the past six years before even the latest pace slowed down.

The actual job numbers and what they may illustrate remain more important than Governor Branstad’s spin on them. It would be a mistake to devote undue further attention to the fake numbers.
Likewise, it would be a mistake to attribute any general job trends — positive or negative, even legitimately derived with actual math — principally to state efforts. Much larger forces are at work. Plus, overselling the state role feeds poor policy choices, namely to sell expensive and unaccountable tax breaks, supposedly to create jobs, at the expense of the public services that make a strong business environment possible and make our state one where people want to raise families.
Iowa needs more jobs and better jobs. To understand whether we’re getting them
requires responsible treatment of data, and honest debate with it.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

Rosy forecasts bring thorny budgets

Odd that Governor Branstad, burned so early in his tenure by overly rosy revenue estimates, would let this happen to his very own lieutenant governor as she took office.

Capitol-DSC_0119-7inA memo from the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) indicates a higher-than-anticipated cost of a special-interest sales-tax break primarily for manufacturers.

We could not afford it when Governor Terry Branstad attempted to implement it by rule in 2015, or when a scaled-back version passed in 2016, and we cannot afford it now.

But it appears likely that the new break is at least part of the reason sales-and-use taxes are flattening out, putting fresh pressure on the budget even after FY2017 cuts and continued reliance of state policy makers to push tax breaks that divert millions from critical services such as education.

There is great irony in this report coming as Governor Branstad was turning over the keys to Kim Reynolds, especially given this comment in the LSA piece by senior fiscal legislative analyst Jeff Robinson:

One potential explanation for the recent sales/use tax downturn is an underestimated fiscal impact of the sales/use tax exemption for manufacturing supplies and replacement parts. For proposed legislation in previous years, estimates of the impact of exempting manufacturing supplies and replacement parts from the State sales/use tax had been much higher.

As Robinson suggests, there was ample reason to think the cost would be “much higher” and that should have been taken into account in revenue estimates and crafting the FY17 budget.

Likewise, the four of us were present in the Iowa House chamber in 1983 when new Governor Branstad proposed a sales-tax increase, just a few months after bludgeoning his election opponent, Roxanne Conlin, with a “tax and spend” refrain. The new Governor inherited a budget shortfall right out of the gate, a product of overly rosy revenue projections by the Ray administration.

To be fair to Governor Ray, the farm crisis was unfolding back then, and the landscape was not necessarily as clear.

This time, the continuing revenue problem is due principally to out-of-control tax giveaways, which have accelerated long since Governor Ray left office. Just this one perk for manufacturing was expected to cost $21.3 million from the state budget.* However, the latest LSA analysis suggests, the cost to the state may be two or three times what was expected.

Odd that Governor Branstad, burned so early in his tenure by optimistic revenue estimates, would let this happen to his very own successor as she took office. Maybe he just forgot.

We did not forget.

 

* That cost figure grows to $25.6 million when including the dedicated revenue for local school infrastructure, and $29.2 million when including lost local-option tax revenue.

Posted by IPP Executive Director Mike Owen, IPP Founder David Osterberg, IPP Board President Janet Carl, and IPP Board Member Lyle Krewson. Owen was the Statehouse correspondent for the Quad-City Times and Osterberg, Carl and Krewson were state representatives from Mount Vernon, Grinnell and Urbandale, respectively — in 1983.

Sales-tax break didn’t add jobs

Whatever can be said about the expensive new sales-tax break for business, creating jobs in manufacturing is not one of them.

Pushes for lower taxes on business routinely come with promises for more jobs. On that score, the more-costly-than-expected manufacturing sales-tax break has not produced for Iowans.

Since the start of the current fiscal year, when the new law took effect, Iowa manufacturing jobs are even lower than where they started. Clearly the new break did not cause the drop — a decline in manufacturing jobs started over two years ago after some recovery from the 2007-09 Great Recession. Iowa lost more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs from the peak in those years and never fully recovered. Manufacturing jobs dipped below 211,000 in April for the third time in six months, to nearly their lowest level in five years.

Thus, whatever can be said about the expensive new sales-tax break for business, creating jobs in manufacturing is not one of them.

It does appear the break is more costly than had been expected. An April memo from the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) has received significant attention in recent days, as sales-tax revenues are on pace to be down about $100 million from what was expected for the fiscal year ending June 30. The cost of the sales-tax break for an expanded list of items used in manufacturing had been projected at $21.3 million for the state.

The LSA analysis suggests that at least part of the unexpected revenue loss might be due to underestimated costs of that special sales-tax break.

It is true that the manufacturing sales-tax break was promoted on larger grounds than just job growth. In a break from its usual promotion of a hodgepodge of inequitable breaks creating a severely unbalanced playing field, the business lobby had promoted this as a fairness issue for businesses. That political strategy worked.

But increasing jobs was the steady drumbeat from Governor Branstad for his economic policies throughout the six years of his return to office in 2011, so it is reasonable to look for any job impacts.

In this case, none are immediately apparent. What we can see is that without the change, and with more careful budget projections, new Governor Kim Reynolds quite likely would not be facing the added revenue challenges she has before her.

owen-2013-57Posted by IPP Executive Director Mike Owen

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Look west, or to locals, for leadership

Iowans could take a lesson from leaders in Oregon, who had the courage to look at their residents’ economic challenges. Just repealing local minimums does not meet that test of leadership.

Those concerned about a “patchwork” or “hodgepodge” of minimum wage laws across Iowa might want to take a look west — far west — to Oregon.

In contrast to Iowa legislators’ calls for “uniformity” no matter how inadequate a uniform minimum wage may be, the Beaver State has embraced the idea of different minimum wages.

A 2016 law effectively sets three tiers of minimum wages — one for the Portland area (Metro), one for selected other urban areas (Standard), and one for more rural counties (Nonurban). Currently, the minimums are $9.50 in Nonurban areas, and $9.75 in the Standard and Metro areas. As of July 1, they will be $10, $10.25 and $11.25, respectively.

As the Oregon law moves forward, the three tiers will rise in steps each July 1, ultimately to between $12.50 and $14.75 by 2022. A formula will index those rates starting in 2023.

Quite a contrast from Iowa, where we still sit at $7.25 as a statewide minimum, with five counties (Lee County the latest, on Tuesday) choosing to set a higher minimum for their workers. State officials who have balked at raising Iowa’s statewide minimum have retaliated with legislation to repeal the raises and prohibit future such actions, the bill as of Wednesday morning still awaiting the Governor’s almost certain signature.

Oregon’s hybrid approach of a state policy setting a small range of local minimums may or may not be optimal, but it does recognize the value of a meaningful state minimum reaching to all corners of the state, and the fact that not all labor markets are the same — they differ by locality.

In Iowa, the local option exercised thus far by five counties under their home-rule authority is a middle ground that permits careful judgment when state edicts prevent it.

But Iowans could take a lesson from leaders in Oregon, who had the courage to look at the economic challenges faced by their residents, and to address those challenges in meaningful public policy. Just repealing local minimums does not meet that test of leadership.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Who will attend the signing ceremony?

billsigning-pensYou pass a bill, presumably you’re proud of it, and would like a picture with the Governor signing it. And you even might get a pen.

There are usually plenty of pens.

The Iowa House and Senate have now both passed a bill removing authority of local governments in Iowa to pass minimum wage increases above the state’s meager $7.25. Four counties have done so, and these ordinances will be repealed.

Who wants their picture with the Governor authorizing a pay cut for some 85,000 Iowans? The Governor, who set a campaign goal in 2010 of a 25 percent increase in family incomes (see his website), might think twice about attending himself.

In any event, we can’t make it.

And neither can anyone at $7.25.

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

Curtains for tax reform

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched.

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched, then rammed through the Legislature without sufficient public vetting.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix is quoted in media that a tax plan is coming in the next two weeks. It’s staying under wraps until then — a terrible disservice to the responsible setting of public policy. Senator Dix should pull back the curtains, right now.

But, since the senator is not going to let the rest of us in on his big secret tax plan, we should all go into this recognizing at least two major points at the start:

(1) Iowa taxes are in the middle of the pack or below average by any responsible measure, something the business lobby and far-right ideologues never want to acknowledge; and

(2) any discussion of tax changes should take a comprehensive approach that should be grounded in widely accepted principles of taxation.

Point 2 is something that is always a problem in Iowa. The typical approach is to target one tax, cut it, and move on to the next one. Meanwhile, the impact on the overall adequacy and fairness of the tax structure (two of the important tax principles), and on the critical public service that the tax system supports, is left to a “let the chips fall” mentality.

Take the curtains away, Senator Dix. It’s the business of all Iowans, right now. A late-session rush job to make a major overhaul of Iowa taxes is not only wrong from a civics-textbook standpoint, but it is bound to create problems that its authors cannot predict.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A spotlight, not a floodlight, on business breaks

Iowa’s business tax credits will have grown by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

A bill in the Iowa House, HSB187, would cut a range of Iowa tax credits, eliminating refundability and capping overall spending on credits. There is significant opposition, because people like their tax breaks. But the issue is suddenly in the spotlight because these and other giveaways are responsible for Iowa’s serious revenue challenge.

There are solutions to the state’s rampant and often unaccountable spending on tax credits and other tax breaks. It is interesting that an interim committee that meets every year to examine a rotating set of tax credits has not produced any reforms. It’s not because reforms are not necessary. Rather, it’s a lack of resolve.

One of several strong recommendations in January 2010 by a Special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Gov. Culver in the wake of the film credit scandal was for a five-year sunset on all tax credits. This would require the Legislature to re-approve every tax credit.

That would be a start. Another option: Instead of eliminating refundability for all credits, which affects even credits where refundability makes sense (Earned Income Tax Credit), limit it where it does not. The Special Tax Credit Review Panel recommended eliminating refundability for big recipients of the Research Activities Credit (companies with gross receipts over $20 million). Another option would be to cap refundability for all credits at $250,000, which would not harm small players, either businesses or individuals, and would reduce the excessive checks to big businesses.

The scrutiny and demand for a return on investment on these credits would be too much for many of these special arrangements to withstand. Eliminating or capping wasteful credits would free up revenues for other priorities; some would invest more here or there — education, or public safety, or the environment — and some would simply use it to reduce overall spending. But either way, we would have the opportunity for a debate.

There is a danger in putting everything on the table at once. It presents a false equivalency of tax credits — that they are somehow all the same. It ignores the fact that some are for private gain and some for the common good, and some are a mixture. Some work, and some do not.

Some meet the purpose for which they were advertised (the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, which benefits low-income working families), and some miss the mark with tens of millions of dollars every year (the Research Activities Credit, where most of the money goes to huge, profitable corporations that pay little or no income tax instead of to small start-ups as envisioned).

Iowa’s business tax credits will have risen by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

Challenging all credits at the same time gets everyone’s backs up. That is a recipe to assure continued unwillingness to take on any of it. And that will not serve Iowa very well.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org