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

Iceberg ahead — but how big?

When the decisions come to cut health care to Iowans, Governor Branstad won’t be around to make the tough choices. Is that what state legislators signed up for?

060426-capitol-swwThe Des Moines Register disclosed Wednesday afternoon in a copyright story that the private, for-profit companies now running Iowa’s Medicaid program are finding big problems in the first year.

With big policy decisions ahead on the future of Medicaid, not only in Iowa but in Washington with a new administration, it is reasonable to wonder if Governor Terry Branstad’s go-it-alone Medicaid privatization is only the tip of the iceberg — and how big the iceberg may be.

Besides the great uncertainty for health-insurance coverage for millions if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement, there is the idea that Congress might block-grant Medicaid. The goal would be to save the federal government money — not to assure health care for the most vulnerable as Medicaid now provides.

A block-grant approach means states would be allotted a share of funds for Medicaid, and when it is gone, that’s it — services would be cut. In that scenario, the decisions would be made in the states. As noted by Edwin Park of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Such a block grant would push states to cut their Medicaid programs deeply.  To compensate for the federal Medicaid funding cuts a block grant would institute, states would either have to contribute much more of their own funding or, as is far more likely, use the greater flexibility the block grant would give them to make draconian cuts to eligibility, benefits, and provider payments.

Maybe someone can provide the campaign literature from the 2016 legislative races that illustrates successful candidates’ thoughts on whose coverage would be the first to go. Who gets cut off? Someone will have to decide that if we go to a block-grant program.

It probably won’t be Governor Branstad making that tough decision, by the way. The new ambassador-to-be will be off doing diplomatic stuff in China when these hard decisions are made.

Is that what these new legislators signed up to do when they put their names on the ballot? But they could check in with Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst to find out if Iowa Statehouse job descriptions might change in the months ahead.

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

Oversight on the overseers of tax credits

These interim legislative meetings put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

You might have heard about a big meeting at the State Capitol today.

No, not that one, about whose portrait will hang in the Iowa House and Senate behind the presiding officer.

The meetings where there’s always some mystery are the annual reviews of selected tax credits. Only a few credits are reviewed each year by a panel of legislators. One meeting was in November; the other is today.

One tax giveaway — er, tax credit — on the agenda for today is the Research Activities Credit, or RAC.
No such review since these sessions started has produced meaningful reform, but the exercise does put information on the table and does put a spotlight on spending choices being made outside the budget process.

What we already know from previous evaluations and annual reports about the RAC is that it is costly — over $50 million a year — and that routinely at least two-thirds of the cost (and usually over four-fifths) goes to companies as so-called “refunds.” These are not refunds of taxes owed, but of tax credits the companies didn’t need because they owe so little, or no, corporate income tax.

Remember that when you hear the Iowa Taxpayers Association and others bleating about Iowa’s corporate taxes, which are actually low.
For perspective on the RAC, the $42 million given away in tax credit refunds under this program in 2015 would have paid for about 1 percent more in school aid, at the same time schools were told we didn’t have the money for it. Of course we did. Our legislators just chose to give it away, mainly to huge, profitable corporations.
In Room 103 of the State Capitol, 1:15 p.m., the public and legislators can hear from the Department of Revenue about the Research Activities Credit. And the session that follows at 2:15 on the Earned Income Tax Credit may be worth listening to as well, for contrast, as the EITC is a demonstrated boost to the economy while the RAC has never been demonstrated to be more than a drain on revenue.

You never know what legislators at the table will have to say about these issues, but we may get some insights.
As for that other meeting, we all now how it will come out.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen
Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Project Director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Spin and ideology are no substitute for good policy

The tax-cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content.

Basic RGBBrace yourselves for public policy backed by nothing but spin and ideology in Iowa. A good example: tax policy.

Senator Bill Dix, who will be the new majority leader in the Iowa Senate with a comfortable nine or potentially 10-vote edge, offers a strident approach for the coming legislative session in this story by veteran Statehouse reporter Rod Boshart:

“The states that are growing the fastest today are the ones that have recognized that economic policy and tax policy makes a big difference,” he said. “High income tax punishes people who want to work, save and make investments in our state. We need to recognize that. States that have grown the fastest the last couple of decades across our country today are the ones that have either lowered their rates, broadened their base and kept things simple or moved to no income tax at all.”

The tax cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content. Research is clear. So are the facts, and Senator Dix is missing them.

On IPP’s GradingStates.org website, Peter Fisher sorts out the fact from fiction with so-called “business climate” rankings that are certifiably unreliable. But they get a lot of attention from legislators who want something to back their ideological approach to policy.

Senator Dix is one of three Iowa state chairs for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which peddles much of the nonsense about tax cuts promoting economic growth.

Notes Fisher about the ALEC analysis, “when we can compare states ranked the best by ALEC with states ranked the worst, it turns out that ALEC’s 20 ‘best’ states have lower per capita income, lower median family income, and a lower median annual wage than the 20 ‘worst’ states. ALEC’s ‘best’ states also have higher poverty rates: 15.4 percent on average from 2007 through 2014, vs. 13.8 percent in the ‘worst’ states. The states favored by ALEC include the likes of Utah, North Dakota, and North Carolina, whereas ALEC’s ‘worst’ states include New York, California, and Vermont.”

Even if the prescriptions for lower taxes, etc. were right, they would not apply in Iowa. Our state has repeatedly been shown to be average or below average by any measure on taxes paid. In fact, few states can get below Iowa on corporate taxes, something the business lobby will not admit. So we start the legislative session with competitiveness not an issue for Iowa except in the minds of well-placed lobbyists and certain legislators.

And another angle not on their agenda: accountability on the large number of tax breaks already in Iowa law — something the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted today in an excellent editorial:

Over the years, lawmakers from both parties have given away tax exemptions, deductions and credits to an array of special interests lobbying for a break. Individually, the cuts look small. Added together, they have a significant budgetary impact.

They’re sold as an economic boost, but there’s rarely any follow up to find out if the tax cuts actually delivered on those promises.

And the real path to growth — the path lined with investments in human capital and public infrastructure? We’ll see how many of those demonstrated, positive approaches to prosperity even get a hearing in 2017.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Recruiting minimum-wage jobs?

These folks really need to get their stories straight. Do they want to recruit low-wage employers?

For some time, we’ve seen Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer defend inaction on a state minimum wage increase with the excuse that they’re focused on better paying jobs.

Now, many lawmakers and the business promotion groups of the Iowa Chamber Alliance are zeroed in on making sure no county or city officials should act locally to correct an indefensibly low state minimum wage of $7.25.

These folks really need to get their stories straight. It appears their real interest may be in recruiting low-wage employers.

In Saturday’s Cedar Rapids Gazette, Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance policy strategist Barbra Solberg says “it’s hard for recruiting purposes to tell a company that we have 65 different minimum wages throughout the state.”

Well, which is it? Are we focused on high-paying or at least living-wage jobs, or are we actively recruiting companies that will pay the minimum wage? And how much is the Alliance hoping to give away to those companies with the “full funding” it wants for tax breaks? How much will Iowans pay for low-wage jobs?

While we’re at it, what is this nonsense about “65 different” minimums?

Four counties — not 65 — have embraced the demands of leadership and acted to raise local minimums, phasing in increases to between $10.10 and $10.75 from Iowa’s 9-year-old minimum wage of $7.25.

The Alliance does not even suggest an increase — only keeping it the same statewide “regardless of what it would be,” Solberg says. While the wage has remained stagnant, business tax credits have roughly tripled over that time.

Iowa needs a more responsible statewide wage, but local wage markets can easily justify setting that higher — as elected officials in four counties have determined is necessary to promote their local prosperity.

If uniformity is such a concern, is the Quad Cities Chamber pushing for the state of Iowa to raise the wage to Illinois’ level — $8.25 — or to Nebraska’s $9, since a statewide uniform wage is the Iowa chambers’ goal? Or are the Iowa chambers just happy to compete for the lowest wage jobs and to let Illinois and Nebraska and South Dakota ($8.55) and Minnesota ($9.50) get the better paying ones?

For an illustration of real-world ingredients of prosperity, see the analysis here by Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project: http://www.gradingstates.org/the-real-path-to-state-prosperity/

A smart, high-road approach would start there, and get Iowa off the race to the bottom. Our track is already paved with excessive, costly and unaccountable tax breaks, weak services and increased poverty. We don’t need more of any of that.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

Of course the $33 million matters, Governor

The Governor’s rose-colored glasses on Medicaid privatization do not obscure the very real cost of an extra $33 million out the door to private companies.

It seems no Governor Branstad costume is complete without rose-colored glasses, even after Halloween.

For on the final day of October, as goblins prepared to venture out to neighbors’ houses for treats, the Governor offered news on his unilateral decision to privatize Medicaid: It will cost the state an extra $33 million this fiscal year, payments to private companies not previously anticipated.

But he’s telling us not to worry about that spending. For example, the Des Moines Register story prominently noted reassurances from the Governor and his chief of staff, Michael Bousselot:

But the situation will not negatively impact the state budget because Medicaid cost savings will exceed $140 million when compared to the old Medicaid program, they said.

 

Hmmm. So, we’re going to spend $33 million more — $33 million we weren’t planning to spend — and that doesn’t “negatively impact” the state budget?

That is not what we’re told when it’s $33 million for schools, or cracking down on polluters or businesses that deliberately stiff their employees for wages owed. For those things, we just don’t have the money.

Think of it this way: Last month, the Revenue Estimating Conference projected that the state would take in $72 million less in FY2017 than it had estimated in March. That means those funds will not be coming in and may affect what can be spent. Now, we learn of an extra $33 million charge. Already, some $100 million less for the current year.

Of course the $33 million matters. There is an impact on the budget bottom line, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Budget projections are always a difficult thing. But from the start of the Governor’s decision to privatize Medicaid, without legislative consent, we have been asked to accept optimistic assessments of what to expect. And if the optimism is misplaced? Education funding and other general-fund priorities inevitably lose.

Medicaid privatization already has scared a fair number of Iowans about their access to health care. Those fears are not resolved. Neither are concerns about the fiscal side of this issue.

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

Will local wage laws spark state action?

The question in October is a question for January: Will local minimum wage efforts force a serious debate and action on a meaningful minimum wage for Iowa?

The pressure is building in Iowa for a minimum wage increase.

Polk County last week became the latest county to take matters into its own hands as Iowa lawmakers and Congress have left the state and national minimum wages at $7.25. Four counties have now approved minimum wage increases above $10 per hour by 2019, with one of them — in Johnson County — scheduled to be fully phased in by Jan. 1.

Within several days of that, the Iowa Legislature will convene and the ball will be in state lawmakers’ court.

In the meantime, Iowans tired of the nine-year wait for an increase may keep acting locally to boost prosperity for low-income working families — which is critical as about 1 in 5 Iowa do not earn enough for a basic-needs household budget.

Here is the current local minimum-wage lineup in Iowa:

Johnson County is currently at $9.15 in the second step of its three-step increase to $10.10 on Jan. 1, indexed to inflation after that.
Linn County has approved an increase to $10.25 by 2019 (three $1 steps, Jan. 1, 2017-19).
Wapello County will move to $10.10 by 2019 (three 95-cent steps, Jan. 1, 2017-19).
Polk County approved a wage of $10.75 by 2019 (three steps: $1.50 April 2017, $1 more in January 2018 and 2019), indexed to inflation afterward. Includes exception for workers under age 18.

There has been discussion or interest in a similar move in at least four other counties: Lee, Woodbury, Des Moines and Black Hawk. For some, this has become a county supervisor campaign issue.

The question in October is a question for January: Will the pressure of these local efforts, which are growing, be enough to force a serious debate in the Legislature on a statewide increase? And if it is, will that effort produce a wage that pushes Iowa closer to a cost of living wage? (Hint: Even $10 an hour is nowhere close.)

Stay tuned.

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