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.