A Roadmap for Opportunity: It’s Time to Put Iowa on the Right Path

At this critical juncture, Iowa can take the high road to shared prosperity, or go down a dead end.

181009-roadmap-logoIowa can unlock the potential of each individual and allow all workers to share in the fruits of their labor by making public investments in the foundations of a strong economy. Well-resourced schools, access to higher education, decent wages and protections, economic supports, clean water and renewable energy, and a cleaned-up tax system, all can pave the way to opportunities and broadly shared prosperity that Iowans want.

Unfortunately, policy choices have put us on a road that prioritizes corporate profits over worker wages and corporate tax cuts over the public investments that allow for a strong, sustainable economy. We are at a crossroads and our policy choices today and in the near future can either pave the path to economic opportunity in every corner of our state, or create roadblocks to prosperity for everyday Iowans.

Our people-first roadmap offers the way forward. It lays out the evidence-based, responsible solutions to our state’s most pressing issues, pinpointing several stops along the way that would mark progress for our state, such as:

pinCreating the workforce of our future and ensuring our children reach their potential. Iowa can and should ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need for every child to succeed, no matter where they live. We also must restore our commitment to higher education with more state support, lower tuition, and aid to reduce student debt.

pinBoosting economic security and supports for working Iowans. Giving Iowans’ lowest wage workers a long overdue raise, ensuring workers get paid what they’re legally owed, shoring up our system of compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, and restoring worker rights to collective bargaining can ensure that all Iowa workers are getting a fair deal. Iowans also need a boost in child care assistance, which can make or break the ability of a family to work.

pinRestoring a public commitment to the health and well-being of every Iowan, particularly seniors and people living with disabilities. Reversing the privatization of Medicaid and pursuing cost savings through innovation and efficiency rather than reduced services and worker wages are critical steps to ensuring access to health care for all Iowans — now and in the future.

pinEnsuring clean water and renewable energy for a healthy, sustainable Iowa. We can and must balance the state’s need for clean and abundant water with our agricultural economy by reducing water pollution. Likewise, Iowa should restore its legacy of leadership in renewable and efficient energy in order to create a cleaner, greener state for future generations.

pinCleaning up and restoring balance to the tax code. Right now, Iowa asks the lowest income Iowans to pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than those with the highest incomes. We can fix this by cleaning up corporate tax loopholes that squander precious public dollars that could otherwise be invested in shared opportunity for Iowans.

Iowa is at a critical juncture. We can take the high road that leads to progress and shared prosperity, or go down a dead end. The policies in this roadmap provide a clear route to a stronger Iowa. For more detail on each stop on the roadmap, please click here.

The weekend Iowans fool themselves

Think about it: How often do you rush off to a ‘7-percent off’ sale?

It’s here again — the weekend when Iowans buy into some really bad political spin, but leave happy about it because they don’t pay tax on the purchase.

Today and Saturday are the dates of Iowa’s sales tax holiday, which we have noted many times — including here, here and here — is a shopping bag full of nonsense.

As IPP’s Peter Fisher noted in 2014, the third link above, “Who’s to say a retailer, with this officially sanctioned ‘holiday’ marketing, won’t bump prices by 10 percent or call off a 20 Percent Off sale that might have been in place?” Instead of revenue for schools, it’s a recipe for a retailer’s windfall.

Iowa media quite often play along, with rarely a discouraging word challenging the notion of the break, questioning whether any break actually results, and, importantly, how much it costs public services. (It was $1.6 million in its first year, 2000, and by 2015 the break was valued at $3.6 million lost to services.)

Neither does the Iowa Department of Revenue shed light on these issues, which are at least as important as a list it offers of what you can and cannot buy tax-exempt on these hallowed anti-tax days.

Certainly, the sales tax is one that disproportionately hits lower-income people harder than high-income people. The evidence is clear on that. And reducing the impact of the sales tax year-round would be a sensible step if paired with an income-tax increase affecting higher-income people — same revenue, fairer approach.

But this break goes to anyone, so those very wealthy Iowans who are the largest beneficiaries of the income-tax cuts passed in 2018 also get an extra break here.

And there we have the two largest problems with Iowa tax policy: It is inequitable, and it is based on political spin that ultimately harms the public services we depend upon.
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

15 yards, loss of revenue

Governor Reynolds’ remarks about her tax cuts for the wealthy fail any test of accuracy.

It’s time to throw the penalty flag on Governor Kim Reynolds. Her remarks about the tax cuts she signed into law Wednesday for the wealthy fail any test of accuracy. Iowans need to know the facts.

It would be different if she had acknowledged, and made a case for:

•  massive tax cuts for the wealthiest.
•  cutting revenues, assuring continued suppression of education and opportunity, public health and safety and investments in the future of Iowa.
•  continued massive corporate tax giveaways, as business tax credits have doubled in five years.

But those were not her messages — and those messages will not be repeated here. The Governor is (1) deceiving Iowans about some policies she has adopted, and (2) ignoring likely damage to the economy from these tax cuts.

She even put off some forward strides she had suggested but abandoned during the recent legislative session. The concept of “reform” is gone, as the bill does nothing to simplify taxes for at least four years, and leaves in place a system that already was heavily skewed to benefit the wealthy.

Here are a few critical realities:

  The income tax savings to a middle class family next year are only $3 to $4 a week (according to the Department of Revenue) — while the sales tax increase will offset such savings for many.
  Millionaires, on the other hand, will see on average an $18,773 cut for the year.
  Larger tax cuts scheduled to take place in five years might not happen because they are triggered by a revenue target that will be very difficult to meet. (But count on tax-cut proponents to campaign on them.)
  Instead of adjusting taxes in a way that cuts would be paid for, this legislation will actually take $300 to $400 million a year out of the budget. Those dollars could have gone to adequately fund education or public safety or mental health care.
  The bill makes $40 million in corporate income tax cuts.
•  The bill provides an unneeded tax break for wealthy earners of “pass-through” income from business.

Meanwhile, the bill fails to reform business tax credits, which have doubled in five years, to $400 million. And it also fails to raise the standard deduction or eliminate federal deductibility, both of which the Governor had proposed but compromised away.

As reviews and promotions of the tax bill proceed, keep these points in mind. And watch for more information, because the analysis will continue on a bill developed in secret, for signing at an invitation-only ceremony.

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

A poisoned process

As early as today, a bill may be debated in the Iowa Senate to drastically slash revenue for public services — phased in at a cost of over $1 billion a year, or about one-seventh of the state’s General Fund.

The Senate bill, as does any legislation with a fiscal impact, comes with a “fiscal note.” This analysis by the Legislative Services Agency, using Department of Revenue data, was made available sometime late Tuesday. The legislation itself was introduced a week ago today, and passed out of subcommittee and full committee the following day.

The legislation is so complex that it took the state’s top fiscal analysts a week to put together their summary, which includes four pages of bullet points in addition to tables of data about various impacts. The nonpartisan analysis finds that the wealthiest individuals and most powerful corporations once again are the big winners.

The timing of the official fiscal analysis was only the latest example of cynical approach to public governing that has slapped brown paper over the windows of the gold-domed sausage factory in Des Moines.

This General Assembly was elected in 2016. It is an understatement to suggest that this legislation could easily have been developed through the 2017 legislative session or the months leading up to this session. The public who will be affected, and advocates across the political spectrum, could have weighed in, and independent fiscal analysis considered.

Many have tried to educate the public about what is at stake for Iowa — including the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, which among other activities brought in experts from Kansas last year to show what has happened there with similar tax slashing. IFP also offered a reminder in October of what real tax reform could include, and later about both open government and the folly of Kansas’ course. Last week, we warned about the fiscal cliff ahead.

Everyone knew the legislative leadership and Governor wanted to do something to cut taxes, but no specifics were available, just a couple of hints with no real context. The session opened in the second week of January, and it wasn’t until most had left the building on the second-to-last day of February that a fiscal analysis magically appeared.

With a more transparent and deliberate process, everyone — including and especially the legislators who will be voting on it — would have had a chance to get full information about its impacts.

Instead, it is being rammed through. Regardless of whether the legislation itself is good or bad, the process has poisoned it. And perhaps it has poisoned governance in Iowa for years to come.

There are elements of the commentary defending and opposing this legislation that show general agreement on two key points of what meaningful, responsible tax reform would entail. On both sides, there is recognition that:

•  removing Iowa’s costly and unusual federal tax deduction would enable a reduction of top tax rates that appear higher than they really are; and

•  corporate tax credits are out of control and costing the state millions outside the budget process, while education and human services suffer.

The process, however, has shielded from public view a clear understanding of how the specifics of this legislation would affect two principles central to good tax policy: (1) the purpose of raising adequate revenues for critical services, and (2) raising those revenues in a way that reflects ability to pay — basic fairness of taxation, where Iowa (like most states) has a system that shoves greater costs on low-income than high-income taxpayers.

It also has raised to the altar of absurdity a ridiculous image of the competitiveness of Iowa taxes, which independent business consultants’ analysis has shown to be lower than half the states and in the middle of a very large pack that differs little on the state and local business taxes governed by state policy. (chart below)

Ernst&YoungFY2016

As the process moves from the Senate to the House, these concepts of good governance need to be central to timely debate, not just fodder for editorial pages afterward.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and project director of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint initiative of IPP and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Red ink, inequity and pain

UPDATED NOV. 20*

redink-capitol

To dive into an ocean of red ink for a tax cut that will do little to boost the economy is one thing. To pretend it benefits middle-class families is, at the least, cynical.

It is impossible to view either the Senate or House tax bills moving in Washington as anything but a boost to the wealthy.

Responsible analysis by respected research organizations makes this apparent. The wealthy don’t just do the best in this legislation — they are the clear focus of it.

New data released by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy offer several key illustrations of how the Senate Republican proposal approved last week by the Finance Committee, which includes Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, will affect Iowans:

  • The middle 20 percent of families, people making between $59,300 and $87,080 (average $72,400) receive only 12 percent of the overall tax cut in 2019. Meanwhile, the top 20 percent receive more than half — 62 percent.
  • In 2019, the top 1 percent has a larger overall tax cut than the bottom 60 percent, $483.1 million (average $32,200) to $407.9 million (average $450).
  • In 2027, as the small benefits at the middle phase out and structural changes at the top are made permanent, the bottom three-fifths of Iowa taxpayers will see $58.7 million in tax increases averaging $60, while the top 1 percent will keep an average $4,770 tax cut at a cost to the treasury of $67.7 million.

Those who are promoting this bill should at least have the honesty to call it what it is: a new handout to the wealthy — one that everyone will pay for, to the tune of $1.5 trillion over 10 years, and an almost certain loss of critical services that benefit all.

* Note: The original post from Nov. 14 has been updated with figures from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy analysis of the bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee.

2017-owen5464Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Some bad ideas never die

On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Iowa House today proved that bipartisanship is no guarantor of good policy. On a vote of 87-9, the House approved HF 641, which would authorize a new and wasteful incentive program that would divert money from the state general fund to support hotel and retail projects in cities. So we will be taking money that should be supporting state investments in education, health, the environment, public safety, and other services, and using it to subsidize hotel developers and retail strip malls. All in the name of “economic development.”

Cities already have more than enough ability to divert taxes to development projects through property tax TIFs and abatements. There is no need for additional diversions of revenue from other jurisdictions.

The House bill would authorize any city or county to establish “Reinvestment Districts.” From the date of establishment onward for the next 25 years, 4 cents of the 6-cent statewide sales tax, and all 5 cents of the state hotel-motel tax, from all “new” sales or room rentals would be diverted from the state general fund to the city for use in the district. What uses? Pretty much anything; any building, public or private, could qualify for a subsidy, and there is no limit on how much of the cost of a project can be subsidized.

“New sales” are sales from a business that first got a state sales-tax permit (or hotel-motel tax permit) after the date the district was established. Given the high rate of turnover among retail businesses, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which most of the sales taxes in a district are diverted from the state general fund even though there has been little additional economic activity, or even decline. All that is needed is that old businesses are replaced by new ones, even if that means replacing an Applebees with a pawn shop.

Why will a city ever again be content to finance commercial redevelopment on their own, or with property tax TIFs alone? Why will a developer ever again finance a project entirely from private sources – try to remember, if you can, when that was the norm – when he or she can just ask the city to get the money from the state?

More importantly, what will become of market standards? While every legislator who voted for the bill surely believes in free markets and private enterprise, this measure undermines markets. There was a time, before the incentive wars got out of hand, when a project had to stand on its own – there had to be a sufficient market to support it, and banks had to be convinced that revenues would be sufficient to repay the loans. No more. Now local government officials are determined to force development to happen when it can’t stand on its own, creating oversupply that hurts existing businesses. Or the private sector happily rakes in all the new incentive cash to do something it would have done anyway. Those are really the only two alternatives for a local market activity: either market conditions support it and it can be financed privately, or the market can’t support it, and the city uses taxpayer money to force overbuilding.

We can hope that this bill gets careful scrutiny before it goes any further.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Flat tax plan legalizes cheating on Iowa taxes

You could argue that if the Legislature makes it legal, it can’t be called cheating. But it sure smells like it.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Iowa House of Representatives will soon take up a bill that would legalize cheating on your Iowa income taxes. While that isn’t the intent, it will certainly be the effect, at least for anyone who has an accountant or who can figure out how to do it on their own.

Officially, the bill is HF3, which would create an alternative flat tax of 4.5 percent. The taxpayer could choose between the current system and the flat rate. If you choose the flat rate, you get a standard deduction but cannot deduct federal income taxes, itemize deductions, or take any credits. But if you currently pay a higher rate than 4.5 percent, and don’t have a lot of deductions or federal income taxes, you might come out ahead picking the alternative flat rate.

To see how this opens the door to massive tax avoidance, you need to understand one important feature of Iowa’s income tax: federal deductibility.

Let’s say you earn $75,000 in Iowa adjusted gross income (AGI) for 2013 and you had $5,000 in federal income taxes deducted from your paycheck during the year. You can deduct the $5,000 from your AGI, leaving you with that much less income to pay tax on. But if you also got a refund check from the federal government in 2013 (because you had too much withheld during 2012, and deducted too much federal tax on your 2012 Iowa return), you have to add that back to your taxable income. This ensures that, over the years, you always end up deducting exactly what you actually paid in federal taxes.

HF3 changes the rules — and here’s how any taxpayer could game the system under HF3. Let’s call it, “Follow the 20,000.”

•  First stop, your W-4. During 2013 you file a W-4 to have five times as much federal income taxes withheld from your paycheck as you really need to. (Or, if you are self-employed, pay quarterly estimated taxes five times what is required.) So when you go to file your 2013 Iowa tax in April 2014, you can deduct $25,000 from your income instead of $5,000. This lowers your Iowa tax bill considerably. If you were in the top 8.98 percent bracket, the extra $20,000 deduction would save you $1,796 on your state income tax. So you choose to file under the current system instead of using the flat rate.

•  Why that’s a bad idea now. Under the current system, your strategy would bite you in the back the next year, because now the $20,000 excess withheld in 2013 comes back as a refund check in 2014. The $20,000 refund check from the feds in 2014 would have to be added back to your 2014 income. You have to pay state tax on it.

•  Flat tax changes the game. If you can take the alternative flat tax for 2014, you will see a huge break. While you would not be able to deduct federal taxes withheld during 2014 under that scheme, you don’t have to add back the $20,000 refund check either.

So for 2014, you pick the flat tax alternative, and pay 4.5 percent on “all” your income — but in the state’s eyes, it’s like that $20,000 never existed.

•  An endless payoff. By doing this, you magically avoid ever paying Iowa income taxes on that $20,000. You didn’t pay tax on it the year it was withheld, because that year you filed the old way and took federal deductibility. And you didn’t pay tax on it the next year, either, because that year you chose the flat tax alternative and didn’t have to add in the $20,000 refund check.

You could argue that if the Legislature makes it legal, it can’t be called cheating. But it sure smells like it. That’s a “tax avoidance” strategy useful only to those in the higher tax brackets.

And that strategy can be avoided if HF3 gets no further in the Iowa House.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director