Tax cuts: Already tried, failed

Iowa’s coming tax-cut experiment has been tried before and failed. Research showed the tax cuts appear to have slowed growth, taking money out of the economy.

Former Iowa Department of Revenue official Michael Lipsman discusses tax issues at a public forum last week at the State Capitol as former Senator Charles Bruner, left, and Senators Joe Bolkcom, Janet Petersen and Amanda Ragan listen. The institutional memory of experts such as Lipsman has been lost as legislators have rushed into plans to overhaul Iowa’s tax system, with most discussions taking place outside public view and earshot.

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Twenty-one years ago the Iowa Legislature enacted an across-the-board 10 percent cut in state income tax rates. That tax cut not only failed to spur economic growth, but bears a share of the blame for the under-performance of the Iowa economy in the years following. And it led to recurring revenue shortfalls and budget cuts.

Some in the Iowa Senate aim to repeat the experiment, this time with an 8 percent cut. There is no reason to expect a different result.

A 2004 report by Michael Lipsman, then head of the Tax Research and Program Analysis Section of the Iowa Department of Revenue, explains why the tax cuts of 1997 and 1998 had a negative effect on the economy.[1] That legislation cut all income tax rates by 10 percent, expanded the exemption for capital gains income, increased the pension exclusion, and exempted lineal ascendants and descendants from the state inheritance tax.[2]

The tax cuts were expected to reduce state revenue by $318 million in 2019. But Lipsman estimates that the effect of all these tax provisions was a reduction in revenue exceeding $600 million a year by 2002. Why the larger number? Because not only did the state take a smaller share of Iowans’ income in taxes, but income grew more slowly than it would have without the tax cuts.

This runs counter to the ideology of supply-side economics, which predicts that tax cuts will always spur growth. But Lipsman’s point is that it depends on the nature of those cuts — how much goes to non-residents, how much to high-income residents, where savings are likely to be invested, and where goods are produced.

The Iowa tax rate cuts, the pension exclusion, and the capital gains preference all concentrated their benefits on higher income taxpayers, and over a third of the inheritance tax benefit went to non-residents. The 3 percent of Iowa taxpayers with over $100,000 income got 24 percent of the benefit from the rate cuts, and these are the taxpayers most likely to invest their tax cut rather than spend it locally. It is likely that much of the tax savings was invested outside the state. Furthermore, most of the high-value consumer goods purchased by upper-income Iowans are produced outside the state.

At the same time, the tax cuts reduced state and local revenue, and public-sector employment dropped as a result. State and local government payrolls in Iowa decreased 16 percent from 1997 to 2002, over twice the rate of decline for the country as a whole. And state and local governments spend primarily within the state of Iowa, helping to boost the state economy. Cuts in public sector spending hurt the state economy directly (reduced purchases from local suppliers) and indirectly (reduced local purchases by public sector workers).

The upshot is that the tax cuts appear to have slowed growth, taking money out of the economy that ultimately ended up invested elsewhere, or went directly to non-residents, or was spent on goods produced elsewhere, instead of supporting Iowa businesses. In the five years leading up to the tax cuts, the Iowa economy grew at a rate nearly identical to the national economy: 28 percent. In the five years following the cuts, Iowa’s growth fell to 22 percent, compared to the national rate of 27 percent.

The massive tax cutting experiment in Kansas produced similar results — the Kansas economy slowed rather than accelerated. The experiment was a failure, and was ended by the Legislature.

The latest House tax bill would shower three-fifths of its benefits on taxpayers with income over $100,000, much more skewed to the top than the 1997 legislation. The Senate bill is likely to be skewed as well; it includes a pass-through income loophole that would cost $100 million, four-fifths of that going to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers.

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is not the definition of rational policy making.

[1] Michael A. Lipsman. The Economic Effects of 1997 and 1998 Iowa Tax Law Changes. Tax Research and Program Analysis Section, Iowa Department of Revenue, July 2004.

[2] These are the major provisions, accounting for 90 percent of the cost. The bills also increased the personal credits and the tuition and textbook credit.

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

The need for TIF reform

Economic development types have become addicted to the idea that they can use TIF to do many things without regard to the impacts on neighbors or even the real purpose of TIF.

Peter Fisher speaks at TIF forum
IPP Research Director Peter Fisher speaks at a forum on tax-increment financing as Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, look on.

Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership about the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) painted a picture of a program that has become a monster. I encourage all to find the report on our website, or to view the forum in Coralville hosted by the bipartisan team of Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello.

It takes some folks out of their comfort zone — apparently former Iowa City Council Member Bob Elliott among them in today’s Iowa City Press-Citizen — to see what an otherwise well-intentioned and potentially valuable tool has become due to lax state law. Cities across Iowa have shown an inability to handle the responsibility that goes with the permission to divert other jurisdictions’ tax revenues with TIF. Such projects that are supposed to benefit all whose revenues are being used. Unfortunately, it frequently does not work that way.

The report offers several ideas for reform to rein in abuses; it does not call for elimination of TIF, but for regulation. Perhaps Mr. Elliott missed that, as he states, “For me, an appropriate analogy to the TIF situation would be medical drugs, which can provide great benefit or be dangerously abused. In situations like that, you don’t eliminate it, you regulate against misuse and retain the capacity for beneficial use.” Agreed.

Indeed, the drug analogy is appropriate. Economic development types have become addicted to the idea that they can use TIF to do many things without regard to the impacts on neighbors or even the real purpose of TIF. Fisher’s report offers examples from Johnson County — notably Coralville’s use of property-tax dollars from one school district to create new property-tax base in another, in a project that effectively lured a major department store from Iowa City next door.

If state lawmakers ignore such examples, they will be repeated — in fact, it would give cities tacit approval to consider these practices appropriate. Take that, Clear Creek-Amana school district. Take that, Iowa City.

Fisher’s report is a wonderful example of how a nonpartisan organization that is focused wholly on issues, and not partisan politics, can help people of any political stripe to understand those issues. Iowans use our work and contribute to it because they know they can count on IPP to provide fact-based analysis and relevant research that holds the political spinners accountable. And yes, contributions to our work are welcome. Click here.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

TIF public forum draws out facts, and people

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, hosted the Coralville forum about an issue growing in attention following the release of Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.


The room was packed, but now more people will be able to view the January 4 public forum in Coralville about tax-increment financing.

City Channel 4 — Iowa City Cable TV — will show the forum, which features a presentation by Iowa Policy Project Research Director Peter Fisher and comments by Iowa lawmakers and local officials. Fisher’s recent report, Tax-Increment Financing: A Case Study of Johnson County, was the focus of commentary throughout the hearing.

Hosted by State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and State Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, the forum has drawn much attention including media coverage by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and The Press-Citizen in Iowa City.

The Iowa City cable presentation of the forum will be shown six times in the coming week, beginning at midnight today. The program runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. Here is the full schedule, also found on the Channel 4 website:

Saturday, January 07, at 12:00 a.m.
Saturday, January 07, at 9:30 p.m.
Monday, January 09, at 8:00 a.m.
Tuesday, January 10, at 5:30 a.m.
Wednesday, January 11, at 4:00 p.m.
Thursday, January 12, at 1:30 p.m.

To view slides that Fisher used in his presentation, click here.