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.

For starters, issues to watch in 2019

There are many issues to watch in the new Iowa legislative session. Here is a non-exhaustive list, identifying where policy changes could affect opportunity for many thousands of Iowans.

With the 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature officially underway, the Iowa Policy Project is a dependable source for quality information and analysis on Iowa’s most pressing policy challenges. IPP’s Roadmap for Opportunity project will highlight and clarify many of these challenges as they emerge. Among issues to watch:

Public funds for private schools

Vouchers or “education savings grants” stand to take more money away from public schools and add to the $66 million Iowa taxpayers pay every year to support private education. Funding for Iowa’s public schools has failed to keep up with rising costs. Underfunded schools impact student development and workforce potential. Read more in our Roadmap piece, “Strengthening public education, no new subsidies to private schools” and the accompanying backgrounder, “Taxpayer support of private education in Iowa.”

Unemployment compensation

Unemployment insurance is an important program that supports workers experiencing temporary unemployment and acts as a macroeconomic stabilizer during economic downturn.[1] Because states are granted flexibility in shaping the program, there lies potential to undermine it, as other states have recently. More to come on this issue.

Attacks on public pensions

Maintaining a strong public pension system in Iowa ensures that we are able to attract and retain quality state employees who teach our children and protect our communities. It is important that Iowa wards off attempts to restructure the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) in ways that erode retirement security. For more, read our Roadmap piece, “IPERS works to boost retirees, economy.”

Further tax cuts

During the 2018 session, legislators passed a package of tax changes that largely benefit wealthy Iowans, with 2.5 percent of Iowa earners taking nearly half of tax cuts. The current administration has signaled support for further cuts that would endanger services that promote thriving communities such as education and healthcare. Read more on “What real Iowa tax reform would look like.”

Protecting Iowans’ health

Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system continues to cut off patient care and miss payments to providers. With little hope of returning the program to state control anytime soon, we must ensure that cost savings are achieved by increasing innovation and efficiency, not by undercutting health care providers or denying services to the sick and disabled. We should also stay away from Medicaid work requirements, which lead to disenrollment and additional barriers for elderly and disabled Iowans without meaningfully improving employment.[2] For more, read out Roadmap piece, “Restoring success of Iowa Medicaid.”

As noted above, this is not an exhaustive list — only a start. Stay up to date on our analysis through Facebook, Twitter, and our email newsletter.

[1] Chad Stone and William Chen, “Introduction to Unemployment Insurance.” July 2014. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/12-19-02ui.pdf

[2] Center for Law and Social Policy, “Medicaid Works: No Work Requirement Necessary.” December 2018. https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/medicaid-works-no-work-requirement-necessary

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

IPERS defenses are ‘care tactics’

Concerns about IPERS changes stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.

IPERS, the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, has come under attack in recent years for no substantive reason — only ideology and politics. Understandably, IPERS members, who number well over 10 percent of the population of Iowa, are concerned.

So, some folks are engaged in what might be called “care tactics,” to make sure the stakes on that issue are well-understood. People who care want good information, and are asking for it.

These efforts and concerns are being dismissed by those who claim there is no threat to IPERS. Political scare tactics indeed are part of the 2018 campaign on several issues — primarily taxes, as illustrated by the hair-on-fire ads on television that do more to distort than inform.

But it’s hard to make that case about pension concerns, which stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.

Those now dismissive of pension concerns point to recent campaign-season comments by Governor Kim Reynolds. Yet not so long ago Reynolds herself raised the prospect of some change in IPERS’ actual pension structure to a “defined contribution” or 401k-style structure for new employees.[1] Her predecessor, Terry Branstad, had made similar comments.[2] Legislation was proposed in 2017 in the Senate.[3] All of this remains fresh in the minds of those who are worried, as do efforts by others to undermine IPERS.

IPERS critics have promoted that riskier “defined contribution” structure, needlessly scaring Iowa taxpayers about Iowa’s secure IPERS system. The Des Moines Register has run such scare pieces, by Don Racheter of the Public Interest Institute[4] and by Gretchen Tegeler of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa.[5]

Neither the media nor IPERS critics have been able to explain how a separate system based on a 401k style structure — “defined contribution” — could be introduced for new employees without undermining existing and promised IPERS benefits for current members.

Contributions plus Interest investments equal Benefits plus Expenses in administration of the system— this is what is required for full funding of IPERS. If you reduce that first item, contributions, by setting new employees apart in a different plan, clearly that matters. It’s math.

In fact, it affects more than those new employees. Reducing contributions by diverting those from new employees reasonably means lower benefits — for current members!

The media and all policy makers should be asking more about this. It’s not enough to accept a “nothing to see here” argument from someone who in the recent past declared herself open to a change — especially when activists have pushed for it, and legislation has been proposed. The dismissal — not exposing it — is the “scare tactic.”

Let’s stay away from the “scare tactics,” and focus on the “care tactics.”

 

[1] Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times, “Reynolds says state looking at IPERS task force,” Jan. 26, 2017. https://qctimes.com/news/local/government-and-politics/reynolds-says-state-looking-at-ipers-task-force/article_bf76d410-c70b-5300-951c-ad1cb6bced3f.html

[2] William Petroski, The Des Moines Register, “IPERS cuts key target; unfunded pension liabilities up $1.3 billion,” March 24, 2017. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/24/ipers-cuts-key-target-unfunded-pension-liabilities-up-13-billion/99600866/

[3] O. Kay Henderson, RadioIowa, “Democrats accuse GOP of plotting that IPERS be dismantled,” December 11, 2017. https://www.radioiowa.com/2017/12/11/democrats-accuse-gop-of-plotting-that-ipers-be-dismantled/

[4] Don Racheter, Public Interest Intitute “Replace IPERS with defined-contribution plan,” The Des Moines Register, May 27, 2016. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/abetteriowa/2016/05/17/replace-ipers-defined-contribution-plan/84492576/

[5] Gretchen Tegeler, Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, “Don’t minimize Iowa’s public pension debt,” The Des Moines Register, January 16,2018, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2018/01/16/iowas-public-pension-debt-eclipses-other-public-debt/1035979001/; also “Public retirement systems are not ideal for young, mobile employees,” The Des Moines Register, December 8, 2016, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/12/08/public-retirement-systems-not-ideal-young-mobile-employees/95148216/

 

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

 

Labor Day: Celebrating what was, and what could be

This Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen in the future, reversing current trends against working families.

As always, Labor Day is a day to celebrate Americans’ work ethic and spirit — things that hold promise for better times ahead.

But it is not a time to celebrate what has been happening in Iowa.

A look at the landscape for working families shows this Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen a year, two years, maybe 10 years from now.

Iowa lawmakers repealed local minimum-wage increases in four counties that acted when state and federal leaders refused. Iowa’s minimum wage is a measly $7.25 an hour and has been held there for 10 1/2 years; some 400,000 workers — and their families — could gain with a raise to $12. (IPP report, 2016) Twenty-nine other states have acted, including all but two of Iowa’s neighbors.

In the middle, Iowa as usual lags the region and the nation, as IPP Senior Research Consultant Colin Gordon showed in a wage update for The State of Working Iowa.

Even at higher wage levels, Iowans are falling short. As Gordon noted:

Colin Gordon

“(T)he wage structure in Iowa is more compressed than it is nationally or in the Midwest. Low-wage workers in Iowa make about the same as low-wage workers everywhere else, but at the higher wages, Iowa workers fall further and further behind. Higher wage jobs are scarcer in Iowa than in most states. And wages in many professions — such as nursing or teaching — trail national and regional peers by wide margins.

“The key point here is not just that wages have stagnated, but they have done so over an era in which the productivity and educational attainment of Iowa workers have improved dramatically.”

If the wage levels weren’t lagging enough already, policy makers have utterly failed Iowa workers by refusing to assure that wages owed are actually paid. Wage theft — refusing to pay wages owed, or violating overtime and employee classification rules — is winked at by a state system that devotes too few resources to enforcement. Lawmakers have refused to act.

Lawmakers deliberately smacked working people with significant legislation in the last General Assembly in at least two other areas:

•   They curtailed collective bargaining rights of public employees, making it tougher for them to organize, and tougher for them to negotiate. In the arena where the state, counties, cities and schools should be leading by example on how to treat employees, the Legislature has chosen to push Iowa toward a race to the bottom. And make no mistake about the impact on the economy: Public-sector jobs are 1 in 6 of all jobs in the state.

•   They also passed legislation to erode workers’ protection and financial security long provided through Iowa’s workers’ compensation law. A study of the effects of one change, reclassifying shoulder injuries, found that the typical worker with such an injury could expect to receive 75 percent less under the new rules.

On top of these, we see the University of Iowa unilaterally acting to eliminate, or eliminate funding for, its own Labor Center that serves thousands and helps Iowans understand what rights they have in the workplace.

And we can count on a continuing assault on Iowa’s strong and accountable public employees’ retirement plans — not to help employees or actually save money, but to feed the ideological drive against public services that is illustrated in examples above. How better to damage those services than to lessen the attraction of jobs that provide them?

Celebrate Labor Day for the people who work to make our nation great. Keep in mind throughout the day that forces are trying to undermine the security of working families — and that Iowans can come together behind policies to support all.

Think of how much better that Labor Day burger off the grill will taste — in some future year — with a side of responsible minimum wage and workplace protection laws, topped off with a stronger economy that will result as more Americans prosper.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan 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