How to make Iowa’s tax system more unfair

Iowa’s tax system takes a larger share of the income of people at low incomes than at higher incomes. HF3 would compound this inequity, focusing benefits on people at higher incomes.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

How odd that a new proposal to make Iowa’s tax system more regressive and unfair comes out just when new evidence shows it already is unfair. HF3 would make the Iowa income tax rate flat where it needs to reflect ability to pay. Since higher income people pay more in income tax, and because they are expected to pay a greater percentage as their income rises, moving to a flat or flatter income tax is a reward to them. It does not help low- and moderate-income people.

As shown in the recent “Who Pays?” report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), the poorest pay the highest portion of their income in taxes. (See graph.) The sales tax is much steeper as a share of income from low-income Iowans than it is from high-income Iowans, and the property tax is marginally more expensive to low-income people as a share of income than it is to those with high incomes. The income tax is the only progressive element of Iowa’s state and local tax system.

graph of Who Pays Iowa taxesTo flatten the only progressive feature of Iowa’s tax system would make the overall tax system more regressive. That would be the inevitable effect of HF3.

The problem with Iowa’s tax system is not that it’s too progressive. In fact, it is regressive — taking a larger share of the income of people at low incomes and middle incomes than of people at the top. HF3 would compound this.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

EITC boost would help families who need it — and economy

An EITC increase would raise the threshold at which Iowa families start to owe income taxes — putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most and encouraging them to spend that money in their local communities.

Heather Gibney, Research Associate
Heather Gibney

If you imagine a packed Kinnick Stadium on game day you have an idea of how many Iowans were kept out of poverty from 2009 to 2011 thanks to two refundable tax credits.

A new state-by-state analysis from the Brookings Institution finds that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 71,123 Iowans out of poverty, over half of them children.

The Governor’s Condition of the State speech Tuesday missed an opportunity to discuss the value of Iowa’s own Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to Iowa families and prospects for an expansion — something he has twice vetoed on grounds that he wanted more comprehensive tax reforms.

The Brookings analysis uses a new way of looking at poverty: the Supplemental Poverty Measure, an updated approach to the calculation of whether an Americans household is in poverty. So it’s a valuable look that we haven’t seen for state-level figures.

The EITC is designed to encourage work when low-income jobs don’t provide enough for a family to make ends meet. So, as a family earns more income, they become eligible for a larger credit; as their income approaches self-sufficiency the EITC gradually phases out.[1]

At the state level, Iowa families who are eligible for the federal EITC also qualify for the state EITC, which is set at 7 percent of the federal credit. Proposals in the past would take that higher, to 10 percent or even 20 percent. It can be an important break for lower-income working families because Iowa already taxes the income of many who don’t earn enough to pay federal income tax. Currently, a married couple with two incomes and two children who qualifies for the federal EITC doesn’t have to start paying federal income taxes until their incomes reach $45,400. That same family would have to pay Iowa income taxes when their incomes reached $22,600.[2]

The EITC is the the nation’s largest and most successful anti-poverty program, largely because it encourages and rewards working families. With Iowa’s 85th General Assembly under way, discussions about raising Iowa’s EITC above 7 percent may once again emerge after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last year.

An EITC increase would raise the threshold at which Iowa families start to owe income taxes — putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most and encouraging them to spend that money in their local communities.

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Remaking ‘Blazing Saddles’

“Stop right there or I’ll sabotage my own business.” It appears the angry mob is ready to call the bluff.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

Some of the arguments against raising tax rates on the richest 2 percent of Americans back to the level that prevailed during the boom years of the 1990s bring to mind Mel Brooks’ classic, Blazing Saddles. In the film, new Sheriff Bart is surrounded by an angry mob. He draws his gun, points it at his own head and warns he’ll shoot if someone makes a move. The mob freezes and Bart escapes to safety.

In the current remake of the film, Bart is being played by the wealthy businessmen claiming they will have to lay off workers if we raise the tax rate on their profits by 3.6 percentage points.

We can reasonably assume those workers are currently productive, earning enough for the owner to cover their wages and add something to the bottom line. If not, they would have been laid off long ago. So these owners would have us believe that an increase in the tax on profits would lead them to lay off these productive workers. That, in turn, would mean the business is producing less, earning less profit before taxes.

So the owners are actually saying, “If you raise my taxes, I will show you a thing or two — I’ll deliberately sabotage my business so you have less profit to tax.”

A business owner whose objective is to maximize after-tax profits will always be better off producing more, with more workers, and earning more before-tax profit, no matter what percent of those profits end up going to pay income taxes. On the other hand, making a political point may be so important to these owners that they are willing to shoot themselves in the foot, if not the head, to do it. If they are rich enough to afford that symbolic gesture, I guess we can’t stop them.

Fortunately, in the remake of Blazing Saddles, it appears that the angry mob is ready to call their bluff. They recognize that the “job-killing tax increase” is no such thing. It is simply an effort to reclaim for the average American a share of the increased wealth generated by workers in this economy in recent years that has been captured almost entirely by the richest among us.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Better understanding the 47 percent

Make no mistake: Working Iowans pay taxes.

Heather Gibney, Research Associate
Heather Gibney

The current political environment has set off a firestorm of confusion about who does and who does not pay taxes in America — and unfair criticism of many working families and others.

It’s true that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay taxes. In fact, almost two-thirds of the 47 percent are low-income, working households who are paying payroll taxes to help finance Social Security and Medicare, and many pay federal excise taxes on things like gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes.[1] These households are also paying a large percentage of their income in state and local sales and property taxes.

Many working Americans are exempt from the income tax because of features Congress added to the tax code — with overwhelming bipartisan support, in an effort to enable people to care for themselves and their children while encouraging them to work. Some of these features include the Earned Income Tax Credit, a Ronald Reagan era anti-poverty program that enables low-wage working families with children to meet their basic needs while promoting employment. In addition, the child tax credit gives families a tax credit through the form of a refund check even when they don’t owe federal income taxes.[2]

The other one-third of the 47 percent — those households that aren’t paying either major federal tax — includes those who are unemployed, low-income senior citizens who paid taxes during their working years and aren’t currently taxed on Social Security benefits, students, those who have disabilities or can’t work due to serious injury and people who don’t meet the income tax obligation because their wages aren’t high enough.

Often missed in the focus on those who are not currently paying income taxes is the errant assumption that all those people have never paid taxes and never will. Just because a household doesn’t owe income tax one year, doesn’t mean they won’t pay income taxes over their lifetime. For many, a career change, the loss of a job, a disability or injury, or low wages can lead to incomes too low to pay taxes.

Iowa households who aren’t paying federal income tax are still paying a large percentage of their incomes to state and local taxes. As the Iowa Policy Project reported in (2009), moderate-and low-income Iowans pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the rich do. [3] [4]

whopays2009As the graph at right shows, Iowa’s regressive tax system takes a larger share of the incomes from those who have the least, and a smaller share from those who have the ability to pay a larger percentage of their income. Make no mistake: Working Iowans pay taxes.

For more on this issue, see our two-pager, “Better understanding the 47 percent.”

Iowa’s holiday from taxes — and reality

Make no mistake, Iowans are being sold a bill of goods — but at least it’s tax-free!

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Oh, boy! It’s sales-tax holiday weekend in Iowa.

We’re talking about a “7 percent off” sale, folks — on only a limited list of items. When’s the last time that brought you into a store? At any other time of year, it would not draw customers, but guffaws. Seven percent? Really?

As IPP’s Andrew Cannon pointed out last year at this time, these gimmicks “drain revenue, and feed unfairness in a state tax system.” They are found, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue (DOR), in 17 states, and take various forms.

Of course the folks in the malls will say they’re great — anything to get someone in the door. But think about it. We’re literally talking about a few bucks off a pair of jeans, about $5 off a $70 pair of shoes. You could do a heck of a lot better on a regular sale at a store even when you’re paying sales tax.

And when you’re paying the tax, you’re not stiffing the school that your child will be attending in a few weeks in new jeans and shoes.

There is a price to public services any time we chip away at revenues. Whether the cost is around $3 million — as this gimmick appears to cost, according to a 2009 report from the DOR — or $40 million in some business tax credit program, it all adds up. Money not brought in due to exceptions in the tax code costs the bottom line every bit as much as money spent by a state agency.

Make no mistake, Iowans are being sold a bill of goods — but at least it’s tax-free!

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

House vote: Thumbs up or thumbs down for 86,000 Iowa families?

Simply put, the House bill would undo the good work of 2009; the Senate bill would keep it, on behalf of working families and the economy.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Iowans would stand to lose much under a proposal this week in the U.S. House of Representatives. Citizens for Tax Justice offered a striking analysis last week highlighting the impact of the 2009 improvements in the refundable tax credits for low-income working families in Iowa.

Simply put, the House proposal would undo the good work of 2009 and increase tax inequities, while a Senate-passed bill would keep the good stuff.

One of the 2009 improvements is an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), an issue we have covered extensively at IPP and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Any attempts to weaken the EITC at either the state or federal level will harm low- to moderate-income working families in our state. More than 1 out of every 7 federal tax filers in Iowa claims the EITC (about 15 percent). But under H.R. 8, the tax proposal being offered by the House leadership, the EITC improvements from 2009 would be lost.

H.R. 8 also would fail to extend the improvements made in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in 2009, and in the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education expenses.

It is impossible to find balance in the approach of H.R. 8, which would end these provisions above for 13 million working families with 26 million children, while extending tax cuts for 2.7 million high-income earners.

The state numbers from CTJ (full report available here):

  • 86,321 Iowa families with 190,553 kids would lose $62.5 million ($724 per family), if 2009 rules on EITC and the Per-Child Tax Credit are not extended;
  • 17,503 Iowa families with 28,179 kids would lose $32 million if the Per-Child Tax Credit earnings threshold does not remain at $3,000, compared to $13,300 as proposed by H.R. 8.
  • 59,159 Iowa families with 139,806 kids would lose $30.5 million if the two 2009 expansions of the EITC — larger credit for families with three or more children, and reducing the so-called “marriage penalty” — are not extended in 2013.

These “Making Work Pay” provisions of the tax code are almost exclusively of help to working families earning $50,000 or less at a time of stagnant wages and a difficult job market in which the Iowa economy is shifting toward lower-wage jobs.

To address our nation’s serious deficit and debt issues, a balanced approach should do nothing to increase poverty or income inequality. The Senate bill passed last week would keep the EITC and CTC improvements from 2009, and follows that principle. The bill that has emerged in the House does not.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

The Tax Foundation’s indefensible mish-mash

What the “State Business Tax Climate Index” offers is, at its core, an indefensible mish-mash of “Stuff the Tax Foundation Doesn’t Like,” which should be the title.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

The Tax Foundation’s 2012 State Business Tax Climate Index is out, and not much has changed — including the political talk about it.

What this annual release offers is, at its core, an indefensible mish-mash of “Stuff the Tax Foundation Doesn’t Like,” which should be the title. Instead, the group slaps the term “State Business Tax Climate Index” on it, adds its slick logo and pretends the whole thing has meaning. For an ideological message, it may, but for decisions on business locations and expansions, not so much.

Problems with the methodology of this “index” are outlined in my 2005 book, Grading Places, published by the Economic Policy Institute. Much of the latest Tax Foundation (TF) report reads verbatim from earlier versions.

The Tax Foundation rests on contradictory messages. First, it claims that taxes paid make a difference in business decisions or growth, selectively citing literature to back the claim, despite a preponderance of evidence that taxes matter little. Then, it produces an “index” that has little relation to what businesses actually pay. In some cases, lower taxes actually produce a worse score on the index.

Rather than measuring what businesses actually pay, TF instead focuses on selected characteristics of the tax code while ignoring significant features. Results differ wildly from a ranking based on what businesses pay in many cases. This is because of the TF emphasizes rates of tax, without considering the base to which those rates apply. This feature penalizes Iowa, which in fact is a low-tax state for business; according to Ernst & Young, only 18 states have lower overall state and local taxes on business.

In other words, if a state — like Iowa with its single-factor apportionment formula — holds down the base on which tax rates apply, the Tax Foundation ignores the impact on actual taxes paid because it doesn’t like the rate structure.

Ironically, the report penalizes states that offer tax credits, which TF views as harmful to the business climate, a defensible position because it creates an uneven playing field for competing businesses, and jeopardizes critical public services that benefit businesses and their employees. But tax credits have strong lobbies in the Legislature. When the anti-tax politicians crow about Iowa’s low ranking in this report, something tells me that is one part of it they will not mention.

Like the Tax Foundation, they will stick with anything that backs the message they want to share, rather than examine the real issue of effects on business.

Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director