Protect Iowa taxpayers from bad spin

Let’s protect taxpayers from thumb-on-the-scale rules that give a minority viewpoint a decided and sometimes insurmountable advantage over the majority.

“Protecting Iowa’s taxpayers,” reads the headline on the newspaper column, but the column contradicts that.

On the pages of major state newspapers this week, Iowans for Tax Relief (ITR) is offering its predictable and tired promotion of tax and spending limitations that are neither necessary nor fair.

Instead of protecting taxpayers who live in Iowa and do business here, these gimmicky limitations promote an ideological agenda that fails to offer prosperity — ask Kansas — and is a poor solution to imagined problems invented by its authors.

The limits advocated by ITR never are necessary or fair, but this is especially so where we see K-12 school spending held below needs, where higher-education spending is cut and tuitions raised, and where worldwide corporate giants are taking bites out of Iowa millions of dollars at a time — over $200 million in the case of Apple last week.

By all means, let’s protect taxpayers from thumb-on-the-scale rules that give a minority viewpoint a decided and sometimes insurmountable advantage over the majority. The big money put behind these ideas make elections less meaningful, and erode Iowans’ ability to govern themselves.

The real path to prosperity for Iowa is a high-road path that rests upon sensible investments in education and public infrastructure that accommodates commerce and sets a level playing field for business and individuals. It means promoting better pay to keep and attract workers who want to raise their families here, and sustaining critical services.

Time and time again, we and others have shown irrefutably that Iowa is a low-tax and low-wage state. We already are “competitive” to the small degree that taxes play a role in business location decisions; even conservative analysts such as Anderson Economic Group and Ernst & Young put Iowa in the middle of the pack on business taxes.

Suffice it to say, you are being peddled a load of garbage by the far right and the privileged, who take what they can from our public structures and policies, and attempt to deny others not only public services, but also a say in the funding of programs that promote opportunity and prosperity for all.

The same suppression mindset prevailed in the Iowa Legislature in 2017 as a majority bullied public workers and decimated workers’ rights. Now they are taking on tax policy in 2018, plus the possibility of new assaults on retirement security and renewed neglect of our natural assets of air and water.

Shake your head at the headlines, throw a shoe through the TV if you must, but only by engaging these issues at every step of the political process will we turn Iowa back from our low-road course.

This is the battle of the 21st century. We are living it. May we survive it.

Mike Owen, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Closing the books — why real math matters

Now that ​Governor Branstad has left office, the latest (and preliminary) job numbers are in, and they effectively close the books on the goal. We did not come close. Through six years and four months, Iowa jobs stood little over halfway to the five-year goal.

Or: How Governor Branstad claimed to reach his jobs goal but did not come close

As it all turned out, the job-growth goal set by former Governor Terry Branstad was at best ambitious, and never realistic.

With four previous terms behind him, and 12 years out of office, Branstad came back in 2010 with a goal of 200,000 new jobs in five years.



Nothing wrong with setting lofty goals. The biggest problem with this one was the way the longtime Governor decided to measure progress toward it. If the goal was never realistic, the counting method was never math.

Iowa’s economy produced 106,900 new jobs — the net job increase — through the Governor’s second round in office.

As late as April, the last jobs report released in Governor Branstad’s tenure, the official report from Iowa Workforce Development bore an extra line, ordered by someone, for “Gross Over-the-month Employment Gains,” from January 2011. And that line would, magically, put the state over the 200,000 mark — a year late, but more on that later.

There was no explanation with the report on how this special line was computed, but analysis showed the administration cherry-picked job gains to come up with the “gross” figure. Job categories that showed a loss in a given month were simply ignored.

It was as if a business reported its sales but not its expenses, or a football team counted its own touchdowns but not those it gave up. The number, then, was literally meaningless as an indicator of anything happening in the economy.
 

Last week, IWD released its first report on monthly job numbers since Governor Kim Reynolds took office, and the “gross” gains line was gone from the official spreadsheet.

So, for the sake at least of history, a little context:
— Through the five years of the Governor’s goal, Iowa produced 92,100 new jobs.

— Through the end of the Governor’s tenure, Iowa produced 106,900 new jobs.

In fact, we didn’t reach 200,000 under even the Governor’s counting gimmick until January of this year, a year late. Meeting the goal would have required 60 months averaging over 3,300 net new jobs a month. Instead, we have seen far less:



The slow pace of recovery should not have been a surprise to anyone. Iowa and the nation had just come out of a shorter and less severe recession in 2001. The pace of that recovery — up until the Great Recession hit — was quite similar to what we have seen over the past six years before even the latest pace slowed down.

The actual job numbers and what they may illustrate remain more important than Governor Branstad’s spin on them. It would be a mistake to devote undue further attention to the fake numbers.
Likewise, it would be a mistake to attribute any general job trends — positive or negative, even legitimately derived with actual math — principally to state efforts. Much larger forces are at work. Plus, overselling the state role feeds poor policy choices, namely to sell expensive and unaccountable tax breaks, supposedly to create jobs, at the expense of the public services that make a strong business environment possible and make our state one where people want to raise families.
Iowa needs more jobs and better jobs. To understand whether we’re getting them
requires responsible treatment of data, and honest debate with it.
owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

Rosy forecasts bring thorny budgets

Odd that Governor Branstad, burned so early in his tenure by overly rosy revenue estimates, would let this happen to his very own lieutenant governor as she took office.

Capitol-DSC_0119-7inA memo from the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) indicates a higher-than-anticipated cost of a special-interest sales-tax break primarily for manufacturers.

We could not afford it when Governor Terry Branstad attempted to implement it by rule in 2015, or when a scaled-back version passed in 2016, and we cannot afford it now.

But it appears likely that the new break is at least part of the reason sales-and-use taxes are flattening out, putting fresh pressure on the budget even after FY2017 cuts and continued reliance of state policy makers to push tax breaks that divert millions from critical services such as education.

There is great irony in this report coming as Governor Branstad was turning over the keys to Kim Reynolds, especially given this comment in the LSA piece by senior fiscal legislative analyst Jeff Robinson:

One potential explanation for the recent sales/use tax downturn is an underestimated fiscal impact of the sales/use tax exemption for manufacturing supplies and replacement parts. For proposed legislation in previous years, estimates of the impact of exempting manufacturing supplies and replacement parts from the State sales/use tax had been much higher.

As Robinson suggests, there was ample reason to think the cost would be “much higher” and that should have been taken into account in revenue estimates and crafting the FY17 budget.

Likewise, the four of us were present in the Iowa House chamber in 1983 when new Governor Branstad proposed a sales-tax increase, just a few months after bludgeoning his election opponent, Roxanne Conlin, with a “tax and spend” refrain. The new Governor inherited a budget shortfall right out of the gate, a product of overly rosy revenue projections by the Ray administration.

To be fair to Governor Ray, the farm crisis was unfolding back then, and the landscape was not necessarily as clear.

This time, the continuing revenue problem is due principally to out-of-control tax giveaways, which have accelerated long since Governor Ray left office. Just this one perk for manufacturing was expected to cost $21.3 million from the state budget.* However, the latest LSA analysis suggests, the cost to the state may be two or three times what was expected.

Odd that Governor Branstad, burned so early in his tenure by optimistic revenue estimates, would let this happen to his very own successor as she took office. Maybe he just forgot.

We did not forget.

 

* That cost figure grows to $25.6 million when including the dedicated revenue for local school infrastructure, and $29.2 million when including lost local-option tax revenue.

Posted by IPP Executive Director Mike Owen, IPP Founder David Osterberg, IPP Board President Janet Carl, and IPP Board Member Lyle Krewson. Owen was the Statehouse correspondent for the Quad-City Times and Osterberg, Carl and Krewson were state representatives from Mount Vernon, Grinnell and Urbandale, respectively — in 1983.

Kansans deliver tax-cut cautions for Iowans

“You have the opportunity to not be like Kansas.”

As part of Moral Mondays at the Iowa State Capitol, Iowa advocates and lawmakers this week heard a cautionary tale from Annie McKay of Kansas Action for Children and Duane Goossen of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.

Annie McKay, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, speaks at the Moral Mondays Iowa event this week at the Iowa State Capitol.
Annie McKay, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, speaks at the Moral Mondays Iowa event this week at the Iowa State Capitol.

At a time when Iowa lawmakers are considering significant tax cuts, McKay and Goossen, who analyze and promote child policies and conduct analysis of the Kansas state budget, traveled to Des Moines to outline the effects of what has become known as the “Kansas experiment,” a set of draconian tax cuts passed in 2012.

At that time, Goossen recounted, Gov. Sam Brownback promised the cuts would bring an economic boom to the state, with rising employment and personal income. People would move to Kansas. It would be, the governor said, “like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of Kansas economy.”

But, five years on, the promised economic boom has not arrived.

“Business tax cuts were supposed to be magic, they were supposed to spur job growth — and they didn’t,” said Goossen, a former Republican state legislator and state budget director under three governors.

In fact, since 2012 job growth in Kansas has lagged behind its Midwestern neighbors, including Iowa. The state has, however, seen years of revenue shortfalls and damaging budget cuts, eroding critical public services like K-12 and higher education, human services, public safety and highway construction.

In this period, the state has depleted its budget reserves, robbed its highway fund to shore up its general fund, borrowed money and deferred payments in order to balance the budget. Kansas has experienced three credit downgrades. Lawmakers have raised the sales tax twice and repealed tax credits that helped low-income families make ends meet.  (In fact, the bottom 40 percent of Kansans actually pays more in taxes today than before the 2012 tax cuts went into effect.)

These actions have real impacts. Last year, Kansas saw the third biggest drop in child well-being among states as documented by Kids Count. Its 3rd grade reading proficiency ranking fell from 13th to 30th.

“What we did in Kansas – there is no proof behind it,” McKay said.

Iowans today are better positioned to stand up to damaging tax cuts than their Kansas counterparts were five years ago, McKay said. “We did not that have same people power in 2012.” She advised Iowa advocates to make crystal clear how all the issues currently generating widespread interest — education, health and water quality among them — are linked to the state’s ability to raise adequate revenue.

“You are ahead of where we were,” she said. “You have the opportunity to not be like Kansas.”

 

annedischer5464Posted by Anne Discher, interim executive director of the Child & Family Policy Center (CFPC).
adischer@cfpciowa.org

McKay and Goossen’s talk Feb. 13 at the Iowa State Capitol was coordinated by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership (a joint effort of CFPC and the Iowa Policy Project) and supported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. CFPC, through its Every Child Counts initiative, is one of more than two dozen sponsors of Moral Mondays, a weekly gathering during session to highlight issues that advance Iowa values like equality, fairness and justice.

State aid up 13 percent — for business breaks

The early scorecard gives business tax breaks the big edge, a 13 percent increase to between 2 and 4 percent for schools.

What do you expect would be the outcry if Iowa’s public schools asked for 13 percent growth in state aid?

Yet few bat an eye when this happens with business tax breaks, as we can expect for FY2017.*

The early scorecard gives business tax breaks the big edge, a 13 percent increase, vs. between 2 and 4 percent for schools.

The Senate approved 4 percent for FY2017 (covering next school year), but the Iowa House on Monday approved 2 percent — even though schools have averaged less than 2 percent for six years, from FY2011-16.

In fact, the Iowa Association of School Boards this year did not even ask for a specific growth number, but rather, that it be set in a timely manner (it’s almost a year late already), and “at a rate that adequately supports local districts’ efforts to plan, create and sustain world-class schools.”

That hasn’t happened for some time. Over the last six budgets, per-pupil growth has been held to 2 percent or below in all but one year. Depending on enrollment trends, some districts even see less.

Basic RGB

Business tax breaks do not face the same budget constraints — ironic, since the cost of those breaks limits what lawmakers permit themselves to spend on services that their constituents demand, not the least of which is education. Other areas — environmental quality, child care, health care and public safety — also are constrained.

A much greater percentage increase in business tax breaks is set in place, as shown below. The total increase of $71 million from this budget year to the one lawmakers are working on now actually may be understated. The $35 million for a new sales-tax exemption for manufacturers is considered a conservative estimate. Even at $71 million overall, however, it represents a 13 percent increase.

160108-IFP-Budget-Fig2FB

Spending on business tax breaks is rarely burdened by the public scrutiny and debate that comes with spending on schools and water programs, which must be approved annually.

Most business tax breaks, once passed, are never touched again unless they are expanded. And as shown by the sales-tax break for manufacturers scheduled to begin this summer, a break may never receive legislative approval but still become law. The Governor is implementing this one on his own, with a split legislature unable to stop him.

Budget choices? Instead of that $35 million in FY2017 for the new sales-tax break, the Legislature could provide about 1 percent growth in per-pupil school funding. We can expect to find another 1 percent in what we’ll spend in checks to companies that do not pay any state income tax, but have more research tax credits than they owe in taxes.

Perhaps one day we will treat all spending the same, whether the spending comes before or after revenues reach the state treasury. Then the wealthy corporations can compete directly for their tax breaks against education for the skilled people they want to work for them.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
Mike Owen is a member of the school board in the West Branch Community School District, first elected in 2006.
* For more about Iowa tax breaks for business, see Peter Fisher’s report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, “Here a tax break, there a tax break, everywhere a tax break.” http://www.iowafiscal.org/here-a-tax-break-there-a-tax-break-everywhere-a-tax-break/

The $54 question

It’s a political parlor trick. Hold down funding for key priorities, then show a surplus and call it an “overpayment.” Does anyone really believe that kind of spin?

Breaking news out of Des Moines is that many Iowa taxpayers will be eligible for an extra $54 tax credit.

This is the result of one of the most short-sighted pieces of legislation passed by the Iowa General Assembly in recent years. Lawmakers created what they called the “Taxpayers Trust Fund,” which we should call the “Giveaway Slush Fund.” It’s a pot of money to dole out to taxpayers and boast about at election time. Chances are, the “givers” won’t give you the whole picture.

Their game is an illusion, a political parlor trick: Hold down funding for key priorities, such as K-12 education, or universities, and then when revenues create a surplus, call it an “overpayment” by taxpayers.

Does anyone really believe their spin? The $120 million to be given away represents easily $120 million in services that could have been provided. For K-12 alone, a little over half of it could have been used this year to fully pay the state’s share of allowable growth at the 4 percent level lawmakers authorized. Instead, state funding only supports half of the state share.

By shortchanging school districts with funding for only 2 percent allowable growth this year despite strong revenues, lawmakers compounded a trend of squirreling away big dollars while claiming poverty. This way, they have given themselves $120 million to spend on dessert — the Giveaway Slush Fund — by choosing not to pay the state’s share of the bill for the meat and potatoes: school aid.

One Iowa columnist who has seen through this is The Des Moines Register’s Rekha Basu, who noted Sunday: “Doling out money piecemeal is a gimmick that may bring smiles to some faces but it can’t take the place of sound and consequential actions.” She’s right.

Is it really worth it to you to receive the $54, instead of putting adequate and appropriate funding back into our education system? Or cleaner water? Or safer streets? Or, well, you get the idea.

Give me a break. On second thought, don’t.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Does Iowa know when to walk away?

You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

There’s Texas Hold ’Em,” and then there’s “Iowa Fold ’Em.”

Wouldn’t you just love to play poker against the folks who run this state?

They never call a bluff. Companies come calling with demands for tax breaks and big checks, or they’ll build somewhere else. And Iowa just happily falls in line with the demands. You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The latest: Today the board of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is scheduled to consider sweetening its already generous offer to Orascom — $35 million to build a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County — to about $110 million with a slew of new tax credits. As The Des Moines Register points out today, that’s $110 million for 165 “permanent” jobs paying on average $48,000 a year, plus construction jobs that will be gone when the project is finished.

The state tax credits are in addition to the enormous benefit the state is providing by allocating federal tax-exempt flood recovery bonds to this project. If the interest rate difference — between taxable and tax-exempt bonds — were 1 percentage point, the company would save $320 million in interest payments over the life of the $1.2 billion bond. That would bring the firm’s total benefits to $2.7 million per permanent job, a truly astounding number. Even without considering the federal interest subsidy, the state tax credits would total $687,500 per job, many times the typical level of subsidy in deals such as this.

There are no estimates available about the potential environmental costs that will be caused by this plant. Since Iowa does a poor job of monitoring for pollution damage, those ongoing costs might be low, but if there is an accident, it could be costly.

The Register also quotes Debi Durham, head of IEDA, that incentives wouldn’t be needed if Iowa were to reduce corporate income tax rates. Nonsense. Research has shown repeatedly that this is a myth, and that in fact, Iowa’s income taxes paid by corporations are competitive with other states. In many cases, giant corporations are paying not a dime in income tax yet getting huge subsidy checks from the state to do things they would do without incentives.

This hand is the one we are dealt from years of unaccountable economic development strategies by Iowa state government.

Time for a fresh deck.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director