Better target senior tax breaks

Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and many other states.

Also see Iowa Fiscal Partnership news release

A new paper about state tax breaks for seniors shows one reason pre-2020 chatter about new tax breaks in Iowa is a bad idea.

Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes in her report Wednesday that special income-tax breaks for seniors cost states 7 percent on average in 2013, a figure that will rise with growth in the population over 65.

As McNichol notes, “The senior tax breaks are poorly targeted because of their design: most states provide them regardless of the recipient’s income or savings.”

Put another way: Why should a senior retired couple pay less income tax than a working couple with similar or even less income? That can be the situation in Iowa, and — as McNichol notes — in many other states as well.

It is a point Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner have made in Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) analysis over the years about Iowa’s special breaks for pension income, and as legislators phased out what had already been a limited tax on Social Security income.

Already, Iowa has freshly passed, costly and inequitable tax cuts scheduled to be phased in over the next few years, yet state legislators just last week were talking about bigger cuts in 2020. Given attempts to expand senior breaks in 2018, but not adopted in the final package, there is a danger that new income-tax cuts in 2020 could include the new senior breaks.

Among changes considered in 2018 was an expansion of Iowa’s already generous pension exclusion from $6,000 (single) and $12,000 (couple) to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively.

McNichol’s paper notes Iowa is one of 28 states that already completely exempts Social Security income from tax, and one of 26 that exempts at least some pension income.

Iowa, in short, is already quite generous to retirees. Also as McNichol notes, for some this might make sense — seniors at low incomes. But not all.

“A large share of these costly breaks go to higher-income seniors who need them the least. States should reduce this expense by better targeting relief to seniors with low incomes,” she wrote.

Bruner and Fisher noted this problem in their IFP paper last year:

Iowa has adopted a number of special provisions benefiting seniors. While the elderly and disabled property tax credit is available only for those with low income, the other tax preferences are not based on ability to pay:

•   All Social Security benefits are exempt from tax.

•   The first $6,000 in pension benefits per person ($12,000 per married couple) is exempt from tax.

•   Those age 65 or older receive an additional $20 personal credit.

•   While non-elderly taxpayers are exempt from tax on the first $9,000 of income, for those age 65 or older, the exemption rises to $24,000. For married couples, the threshold is $13,500 for the non-elderly, but $32,000 for seniors.

Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis of tax policy and tax proposals is always grounded in fundamental principles of taxation, among them fairness: Similarly situated taxpayers should be treated similarly in tax policy.

What matters more to measure a taxpayer’s ability to pay is the amount of income, rather than its source. To tax income from wages at a higher rate than retirement income violates that principle.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax-cutters’ lack of confidence

Plans for election-year tax cuts expose tax-cutters’ lack of confidence that (1) cuts they already made will deliver prosperity, and (2) they will hold power beyond 2020.

In the confidence game of cutting taxes, where the world is promised to all but delivered mainly to the wealthy, Iowa’s tax-cutters are showing how little confidence they have in their own political talk.

State Senator Randy Feenstra of Hull is backing off his chairmanship of the Senate Ways and Means Committee as he runs for Congress in 2020, leaving the door open to Senator Jake Chapman of Adel.

Both have been big talkers painting the glories of tax cuts while running down Iowa’s competitive tax structure, and they have been successful using that political spin to make big changes — many of which are scheduled but yet to take effect.

Even then, they apparently will waste no time in rushing through new tax cuts, as evidenced by this story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. There, Chapman is quoted that “he expected the Legislature would continue next session ‘to reform income taxes and reduce some of the highest tax rates in the country.’”

Before addressing the fundamental inaccuracy of the senator’s comment, one must wonder at least two things:

•   Are they not confident what they have passed already will not deliver what they promised?
•   Are they not confident they will retain political power through the Statehouse (the House is a much closer partisan split than the Senate) past the 2020 election?

Answering “yes” to either would explain their perceived need to rush more ill-advised tax policy into law.

In a very short span, Iowa lawmakers have eroded revenues with new tax giveaways to the wealthy and powerful, leaving scraps to working families in the middle and below. This has come with changes in personal income taxes, corporate income taxes and property taxes.

As Peter Fisher and Charles Bruner pointed out in an Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis, the income-tax cuts passed in 2018 give almost half of the overall benefit to the highest-earning 2.5 percent of taxpayers — those making $250,000 or more.

Senator Chapman plays games with the term “tax rates” as if the highest tax rate is what anyone ever paid on all their income. It’s an illusion.

The highest rate — already reduced from 8.98 percent to 8.53 percent this year under the 2018 law — is a marginal rate; it is paid on only the highest share of income. The same taxpayer who pays the highest rate on one share of income also pays the lowest rate on the share of income where that rate applies.

In short, it’s a mix of rates — and they are applied to taxable income, which has many adjustments to lower that amount. Most notable among those is Iowa’s unusual provision to allow taxpayers to deduct federal income tax from state taxable income, which benefits higher-income people the most.

The tax-rate myth promoted by Senator Chapman is an old game, but the people who want to reduce public services and investments in the future keep playing it. And why not? They’re getting away with it.

The 2018 legislation includes ongoing rate cuts — if revenues reach high-enough levels. One reason to pass rate cuts again in 2020, before that deadline, is that you don’t expect the revenue targets to be met.

These changes have come at great cost to public services, including poor funding of public education from K-12 through community colleges and universities.

Looking ahead to the future of our state, and beyond the next election, would be the wisest course for Iowa tax policy. That is not what we’re getting.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint effort of IPP and the nonpartisan Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Transparent realities of bad law

To be transparent, lawmakers and the governor would admit they are enshrining minority rule, punishing public workers again, and penalizing economic growth and recovery.

curtains-tighterIn the closing nights of the 2019 session, while most Iowans slept, the Iowa Legislature enacted substantial changes to the way city and county governments fund public services.

There was no chance for public input, or for analysis by legislative staff. With no apparent sense of irony, the bill’s supporters argued the purpose was to increase transparency for voters.

On Thursday, Governor Reynolds signed the bill out of the public eye, issuing only a one-sentence statement repeating the same claims and ignoring the real impacts.

In this one bill, the Legislature managed to enshrine minority rule, punish public-sector workers (yet again), penalize economic growth, and hamstring cities and counties recovering from a natural disaster.

The bill will limit the growth of property taxes levied by cities and counties to 2 percent each year. Local elected officials will need a two-thirds vote to do more, if they find that their constituents’ needs demand it. So much for majority rule and local democracy.

The bill threatens city services and the local public workers who provide them. Employee benefits, such as health insurance and contributions to pension funds, until now could be financed by a special tax rate, in recognition that the rising cost of health insurance and fixed pension contributions are outside city or county control. These costs have been increasing more than 2 percent annually, often much more. But now they go under that arbitrary 2 percent cap.

There was much attention — deservedly so — to how various versions of the bill would affect IPERS pension benefits. This ultimately served to distract many from much broader impacts.

When pension contributions and health insurance premiums increase more than 2 percent, the city or county may have to reduce services, cut benefits, or lay off workers to keep overall tax growth under the cap. The bill pits taxpayers against the people who plow their streets, protect their homes, build roads, or maintain parks and libraries.

When services are cut, public employees can be portrayed as the scapegoats, which will be convenient to the forces that have threatened public employee pensions. Turning Iowa’s secure pension programs over to less-secure, privately run for-profit administrators remains a goal for those forces.

The new bill also penalizes local governments for pursuing growth. A last-minute change in the legislation puts revenue from new construction under the 2 percent cap.

As a result, cities and counties experiencing significant growth may be forced to cut rates year after year and will find themselves without the revenue to support the growth if they can’t muster the supermajority. For example, a city growing at 4 percent per year would face a revenue penalty of 17 percent within five years.

Another last-minute change left in place existing levy limits, which would have been abolished under both earlier bills. So now cities and counties face two limits, one on rates and another on revenue growth.

The combination could be devastating in some circumstances. Consider a flood, or a recession causing a loss of property value. The rate cap forces revenues to decline for any city or county at or near the rate limit, which includes the vast majority of localities.

Then, as the recession ends or the city rebuilds, the revenue cap could now undermine recovery. The reduced revenue becomes the new starting point, potentially leaving a city or county unable to restore revenues even to the previous level because of the 2 percent limit on revenue increases. And this just at a time when extraordinary measures are needed to help the recovery.

One has to wonder if more transparency in the process might have helped legislators find a better outcome — or at least helped their constituents to argue for one.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Contact: pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Editor’s Note: This post updates and expands upon a previous post about this legislation, prior to the governor’s signing of the bill.

Questions — before the answer comes

Whether it’s your job to sign or veto the property tax limitation bill hatched in back rooms of the Iowa Statehouse, or simply to evaluate it as a citizen watching the process (and ultimately paying the price for it), you should be able to answer these questions.

As Governor Kim Reynolds mulls SF634, the property tax limitation bill, there are many questions anyone would have to consider — questions that did not get an adequate hearing before the rush to passage of a backroom-built bill in the waning hours of the 2019 Iowa legislative session.

1)   Why an arbitrary 2 percent limit on new tax revenues? No matter what increasing costs an individual community may face to provide public services, the bill limits growth in revenues to 2 percent.

2)   Why penalize growth? No matter how much property valuation grows in good times, the revenue limits would restrict the public services needed to service a growing community.

3)   Why penalize recovery from disaster? Reduced property value under tax levy limits will reduce revenue for critical public services in recovery.

4)   Why take local tax decisions out of the hands of locally elected officials? It’s never easy for local officials to raise taxes — taxes they also pay — but the bill substitutes the arbitrary will of state legislators for the judgment of board and council members the voters choose to make local decisions.

5)   Why hinder jobs, encouraging local cuts in public service jobs by putting special levies for employee benefits such as pensions under the new, artificial and arbitrary general revenue cap?

6)   Why encourage a reduction of health benefits for local public service employees by putting those costs under an arbitrary revenue cap?

7)   Why should a “no” vote count twice as much as a “yes” vote? That is the effect of the two-thirds super majority required to go above legislative mandated 2 percent revenue growth. Local officials would have to reach that threshold in many cases with actually more than two-thirds approval: four “yes” votes on a five-member board or council, five if there are seven members — and that is the case even if revenues exceeding 2 percent growth would mean a decrease in tax rates!

8)   Why reward backroom deals in the name of transparency? There was no opportunity for a public debate on this deal hatched in the waning hours of the legislative session. There was no transparency in the process.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Be sure to see this Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder by Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project for more information about the actual property tax trends in the state — trends ignored by proponents of the legislation who offered a false narrative about this issue.

Also see this blog by Peter Fisher.

No ‘I’ in sports bets

But is prohibiting bets on individuals enough to assure integrity in college games?

An admitted political compromise would legalize sports betting in Iowa while keeping bets on Iowa student athletes illegal — but only on their individual performance.[1]

Promoters of the plan are betting that this small nod to sports integrity might gain a few votes. However, the compromise in the Legislature shines a light on the integrity issue and to larger weaknesses, which are many.

If legal sports betting were not a threat to sports integrity, no such compromise to the betting bill, HF748, would be needed. The compromise concedes a threat remains to competition outside Iowa that gamblers might influence. Plus, legislative deals made now could be quickly reversed next year once that new betting door is open. I mean, what are the odds?

These are among many points — including fiscal and economic issues — being missed in the rushed drive in 2019 to expand gambling in Iowa with legalized sports betting.

Governing Magazine looked at the revenue states might expect. The magazine cited a Moody’s Investors Service report that noted “sports betting in Nevada accounted for just 2 percent of statewide gambling revenue.”[2] In the first six months of legalized sports betting in New Jersey a mere $3 million in tax revenue was raised from in-casino betting, in a state much larger than Iowa and with a higher tax rate on betting (8.5 percent).[3]

This is not economic development. Sports betting in Iowa is for Iowa residents only; we would not attract any out-of-state spending. And much of the money wagered on sports would come from spending on other forms of entertainment at local businesses, where more of the profits stay in the state.

Casinos want sports betting to entice new customers, who might become regulars at the slot machines and gaming tables.

So for a meager increase in revenue, the state would open up greater opportunities to contaminate sports integrity and create new problems of gambling addiction, along with the attendant family problems and breakups, embezzlement, and job loss.

Already, most families have no savings, or very little. Around half of U.S. families have no or negative net wealth.[4] More than 60 percent don’t have even $1,000 put aside for emergencies let alone for retirement.[5] Having more gambling opportunities keeps people from getting ahead.

Many of these problems are only a matter of time. Any bets on how soon we will see them?

2010-PFw5464Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

 

[1] The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, March 19, 2019, “Compromise advances sports betting bill in Iowa House,” https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/compromise-advances-sports-betting-bill-in-iowa-house-limits-in-play-prop-wagers-on-iowa-collegiate-sports-20190319, and March 22, 2019, “Betting on college pivotal to gambling debate,” https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/business/iowa-sports-betting-college-sports-20190322.

[2] Liz Farmer. How the Sports Betting Ruling Will Impact State Budgets The Supreme Court outlawed a federal ban on sports betting on Monday, and some states are poised to capitalize. Governing May 14, 2018. https://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-how-legalizing-sports-betting-will-impact-state-budgets.html

[3] The Tax Policy Center, “TPC’s Sports Gambling Tip Sheet.”  https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxvox/tpcs-sports-gambling-tip-sheet.

[4] The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, Vol. 1, May 2016, Issue 2, Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data, Pg. 554. http://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/SaezZucman2016QJE.pdf.

[5] Bankrate’s Financial Security Index, 2018, https://www.bankrate.com/banking/savings/financial-security-0118/.

Charging all taxpayers private tuition

Vouchers are about mandates, forcing everybody to pay for the few, and diverting resources from public schools.

Iowa taxpayers are on the hook for over $65 million in subsidies each year to private schools in Iowa.[1] Nearly all of these schools are religious schools. While only 6 percent of the students in elementary schools in Iowa are in private schools, all taxpayers help pay for their education (and religious training) through the state taxes they pay. And in nearly three-fourths of Iowa public school districts there is no private school option.

Proposals once again making their way through the Iowa Legislature would expand the subsidies to these private schools, and to the parents who choose to send their children there, through the creation of education savings grants. These proposals would end up costing over $100 million per year, and potentially up to $200 million, money that could instead be used to strengthen education in the public schools serving 94 percent of Iowa’s children.[2]

There are 330 public school districts in Iowa. In 242 of those districts there is no private school offering classes in any grade, Kindergarten through 12th. Private schools are concentrated in Iowa’s metropolitan areas. Nearly half of the total private school enrollment in the state is in just 12 school districts, all located in one of Iowa’s nine metropolitan areas.

The map below shows just how scarce private schools are in rural Iowa. While all 21 of the Iowa counties that are part of a metropolitan area (lighter blue in map) have at least one private school, only 38 of the 78 non-metro counties have a private school option. And in 12 of these counties the options are quite limited: a single school with total enrollment ranging from just 20 to 98. (For an interactive version of the map, click on the image.)

[1] http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/181105-IFP-pvtschools-bgd.pdf

[2] http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/181105-roadmap-vouchers.pdf

Peter S. Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Eye on the ball: Wages and the cost of living

Public policy debates now and on into 2019 should keep this fact in focus: Working families in Iowa must earn substantially above the official poverty threshold just to get by.

 

 

 

Our 6th edition of The Cost of Living in Iowa finds that roughly 100,000 Iowa working households are unable to make basic needs.[1] Put another way, about 17 percent — or 1 in 6 — households cannot get by on their income alone. It is a critical number that should inform countless public policy discussions for the remainder of 2018 and on into the next legislative session.

Part One of this report details how much working families must earn in order to meet their basic needs, while Part Two estimates the number and proportion of Iowa working households able to earn enough. This latest edition adds new analysis by race, Hispanic origin, and gender.

These pieces provide the foundation for Part Three, which is forthcoming and will connect the dots further illustrate the importance of public work support programs for many Iowans, who despite their work efforts, are not able to pay for the most basic living expenses.

We construct basic needs budgets that represent what it takes to survive rather than thrive in the state of Iowa. These budgets include allowances for rent, utilities, food prepared at home, child care, health care, transportation, clothing and other household necessities. The basic budget does not include savings, loan payments, education expenses, any entertainment or vacation, social or recreational travel, or meals outside the home.

In Part One, we find statewide that a single parent with two children needs to earn a wage of $23.91 per hour in order to meet basic needs. A two-parent household with one child and one parent working need an hourly wage of $13.29, compared to $16.30 for the same family type with two workers. Differences in cost from one county to another can be dramatic. The total annual basic needs budget for a family with two working parents and two children was $10,600 higher in the highest cost county compared to the lowest cost county. No family type is able to meet basic needs on Iowa’s $7.25 minimum wage.

Part Two uses census data to estimate the number of Iowa working households that are able to meet the basic needs without public assistance. In 2018 we find that 17 percent of households or 227,000 Iowans live below this threshold.[2] Broken down further, fully 62 percent of single-parent working households are unable to meet basic needs. For this family type, there is an average gap of $20,000 between after-tax income and basic needs expenses. A larger share of African American (30 percent), Hispanic (28 percent), and female-headed (19 percent) households are unable to meet basic needs in Iowa.

The cost of living in Iowa continues to rise. Working families and individuals in Iowa must earn substantially above the official poverty threshold — in some cases nearly three times the poverty level — to achieve a very basic standard of living in Iowa without the help of public supports. Part Three of The Cost of Living in Iowa 2018 will show the role of work support programs in bridging this gap.

[1] The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2018 Edition, Part 1: Basic Family Budgets. Peter S. Fisher & Natalie Veldhouse, July 2018, the Iowa Policy Project. 

[2] The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2018 Edition, Part 2: Many Iowa Households Struggle to Meet Basic Needs. Peter S. Fisher & Natalie Veldhouse, July 2018, the Iowa Policy Project. 

Posted by Natalie Veldhouse, research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. She and IPP Research Director Peter Fisher are the authors of the latest edition of The Cost of Living in Iowa. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org