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

Why Governor Reynolds is wrong

If the Governor cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

As it has become clear that Iowa state leaders need to be more engaged publicly on the national health care debate, it was surprising to see Governor Kim Reynolds’ take on it.

“I’m focused on the things I can control.”

Well, if that is the standard for where the Governor should speak up, lock the office door and throw away the key. That’s not the way government works — or is supposed to work — in our American and Iowa tradition.

The Governor in our system has an important and powerful role, but rarely a controlling one.

What the Governor is not acknowledging, though she surely knows to be the case, is that her position is perhaps the best pulpit in the state of Iowa for speaking up on behalf of Iowans, to our elected representatives in the House and Senate in Washington, and to the President of the United States.

If she cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

What is clear from the debate thus far in Washington is that more than 200,000 Iowans will lose health insurance if the current Affordable Care Act is repealed without a meaningful replacement.

In fact, the latest estimate from the Urban Institute finds 229,000 fewer Iowans would be insured in 2022 than if the ACA were kept in place — but the state would spend $29 million more as federal spending dropped by 28 percent.

The Governor’s comments to reporters repeated inaccurate talking points about ACA, avoiding both the state’s own role in undermining the individual insurance marketplace, and the principal way Iowans would lose insurance: the loss of the Medicaid expansion. That one piece of the ACA covers 150,000 Iowans now and is projected to grow to 177,000 in two years, but goes away under the Senate and House plans.

So, whether Governor Reynolds likes it or not, what is now a federal issue will become a state issue.

Right now, the things she has more direct influence upon are state budget choices, many of which already are difficult.

Imagine how much more difficult those choices become with 200,000 more people uninsured. What will the state do to make up for it? What budget control — or families’ control over their health care options — would be lost? Some members of the Legislature already are calling for a state-run program to step into the void.

If Governor Reynolds is uncomfortable with any of these possibilities she could call her friends Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst, or gather the microphones and cameras and raise awareness about the stakes for all Iowans.

Again, there are members of the Legislature weighing in on that score as well. Perhaps they recognize that persuasion, and pushing for a critical mass of support behind an idea, is where “control” emerges.

 

owen-2013-57Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Why not a special session?

Now is the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and that might make a special session useful, sooner rather than later.

Long-term impacts could be decided in short order;
Might not our state lawmakers want to weigh in?

If anything has been clear about the current health-care debate in Washington, it is that little is clear — except the likelihood that (1) people will lose insurance coverage and thus access to health care, and (2) this will pose new challenges for state government.

That being the case, it seems a good time for the Legislature to return to Des Moines and sort it out, sooner rather than later. It will be easier for legislators to talk to their federal counterparts about all this before legislation passes than afterward.

Because of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Medicaid expansion serves about 150,000 Iowans, and would serve an estimated 177,000 Iowans in 2019 if preserved. But those Iowans — and some 55,000 more — would be in jeopardy of losing insurance under legislation pending in the Senate. If the enhanced federal share of funding for Medicaid expansion is reduced or eliminated under any legislation to come — and both the House and Senate bills currently would do this — states would have a choice: Fill in the gap or let people go uninsured.

Oh, and if you’re going to choose to fill in the gap, go ahead and plan now on what will have to be cut to compensate for it. K-12 education, perhaps? Even more cuts to the regents institutions? Child care? Water protection? Law enforcement and corrections?

Already, legislators and Governor Kim Reynolds are facing those kinds of questions amid a looming fiscal shortfall and speculation about a possible special session.

In The Des Moines Register this week, columnist Kathie Obradovich suggested Governor Reynolds “is prudent to wait until fall to make a decision on a special session but that doesn’t mean she should avoid talking about it. Now is the time to be speaking frankly with Iowans and individual legislators, identifying the causes and consulting on potential solutions.”

Now is also the time to be speaking frankly about the longer-term impacts of health care policy — and for that reason, waiting until fall might be too late. Legislative leaders and the Governor right now could be bringing in experts for a special session to discuss the potential impacts, and reach out to the congressional delegation, before decisions are made that restrict state budget choices for many years to come.
Unless, of course, they want to see budget crunches and special sessions more frequently.
Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

KanOwaSin: Low-road neighbors, together?

Think carefully about snake-oil pitches to follow the lead of Kansas and Wisconsin, putting Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

Here we sit in Iowa, nestled between two political petri dishes where experiments have gone wrong, and wondering if our elected leaders may let the mad scientists loose on us as well.

Some politicians would like to turn Iowa into another Kansas, another Wisconsin, where tax-cut zealotry already has driven down economic opportunity.

Welcome to KanOwaSin. In the anti-tax ideologues’ world, we’d all look the same. Why not ​share a name?


​Before someone squeezes another drop of anti-tax, anti-worker snake oil on us, let’s get out the microscope.Our friends in Wisconsin tell us: Don’t become Wisconsin. Our friends in Kansas tell us: Don’t become Kansas — and Kansans already are turning off the low road.A couple of researchers in Oklahoma are telling us: Listen to those folks. From the abstract of their working report:

“The recent fiscal austerity experiments undertaken in the states of Kansas and Wisconsin have generated considerable policy interest. … The overall conclusion from the paper is that the fiscal experiments did not spur growth, and if anything, harmed state economic performance.”

 

Their findings are among the latest exposing the folly of tax-cut magic, particularly with regard to Kansas, which IPP’s Peter Fisher has highlighted in his GradingStates.org analysis that ferrets out the faulty notions in ideological and politically oriented policies that tear down our public services and economic opportunity.

Iowa has long been ripe for tax reform, due to a long list of exemptions, credits and special-interest carve-outs in the income tax, sales tax and property tax. These stand in the way of having sufficient resources for our schools, public safety and environmental protection.

Each new break is used to sell Iowans on the idea that we can attract families and businesses by cutting  — something we’ve tried for years without success, as Iowa’s tortoise-like population growth has lagged the nation.

On balance, this arrangement favors the wealthy over the poor. The bottom 80 percent pay about 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes that are governed by state law. The top 1 percent pay only about 6 percent. Almost every tax proposal in the last two decades has compounded the inequities.

For the coming 2018 legislative session, and for the election campaigns later that year, we are being promised a focus on income tax. Keep in mind, anything that flattens the income tax — the only tax we have that expects a greater share of income from the rich than the poor — steepens the overall inequity of our regressive system.

Thus, as always, the devil is in the details of the notion of “reform.” If “reform” in 2017 and beyond means more breaks for the wealthy, and inadequate revenue for traditional, clearly recognized public responsibilities such as education and public health and safety, then it is not worthy of the name.

So, when you hear about the very real failures of the Kansas and Wisconsin experiments, stop and think about what you see on your own streets, and your own schools. Think about the snake oil pitches to follow their lead, and whether you want Iowa on a fast track to the bottom.

That is the promise of Kansas and Wisconsin for Iowa.

Or, if you prefer, KanOwaSin.

—-

Dan S. Rickman and Hongbo Wang, Oklahoma State University, “Tales of Two U.S. States: Regional Fiscal Austerity and Economic Performance.” March 19, 2017. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/79615/1/MPRA_paper_79615.pdf
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org