Curtains for tax reform

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched.

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched, then rammed through the Legislature without sufficient public vetting.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix is quoted in media that a tax plan is coming in the next two weeks. It’s staying under wraps until then — a terrible disservice to the responsible setting of public policy. Senator Dix should pull back the curtains, right now.

But, since the senator is not going to let the rest of us in on his big secret tax plan, we should all go into this recognizing at least two major points at the start:

(1) Iowa taxes are in the middle of the pack or below average by any responsible measure, something the business lobby and far-right ideologues never want to acknowledge; and

(2) any discussion of tax changes should take a comprehensive approach that should be grounded in widely accepted principles of taxation.

Point 2 is something that is always a problem in Iowa. The typical approach is to target one tax, cut it, and move on to the next one. Meanwhile, the impact on the overall adequacy and fairness of the tax structure (two of the important tax principles), and on the critical public service that the tax system supports, is left to a “let the chips fall” mentality.

Take the curtains away, Senator Dix. It’s the business of all Iowans, right now. A late-session rush job to make a major overhaul of Iowa taxes is not only wrong from a civics-textbook standpoint, but it is bound to create problems that its authors cannot predict.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A spotlight, not a floodlight, on business breaks

Iowa’s business tax credits will have grown by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

A bill in the Iowa House, HSB187, would cut a range of Iowa tax credits, eliminating refundability and capping overall spending on credits. There is significant opposition, because people like their tax breaks. But the issue is suddenly in the spotlight because these and other giveaways are responsible for Iowa’s serious revenue challenge.

There are solutions to the state’s rampant and often unaccountable spending on tax credits and other tax breaks. It is interesting that an interim committee that meets every year to examine a rotating set of tax credits has not produced any reforms. It’s not because reforms are not necessary. Rather, it’s a lack of resolve.

One of several strong recommendations in January 2010 by a Special Tax Credit Review Panel appointed by then-Gov. Culver in the wake of the film credit scandal was for a five-year sunset on all tax credits. This would require the Legislature to re-approve every tax credit.

That would be a start. Another option: Instead of eliminating refundability for all credits, which affects even credits where refundability makes sense (Earned Income Tax Credit), limit it where it does not. The Special Tax Credit Review Panel recommended eliminating refundability for big recipients of the Research Activities Credit (companies with gross receipts over $20 million). Another option would be to cap refundability for all credits at $250,000, which would not harm small players, either businesses or individuals, and would reduce the excessive checks to big businesses.

The scrutiny and demand for a return on investment on these credits would be too much for many of these special arrangements to withstand. Eliminating or capping wasteful credits would free up revenues for other priorities; some would invest more here or there — education, or public safety, or the environment — and some would simply use it to reduce overall spending. But either way, we would have the opportunity for a debate.

There is a danger in putting everything on the table at once. It presents a false equivalency of tax credits — that they are somehow all the same. It ignores the fact that some are for private gain and some for the common good, and some are a mixture. Some work, and some do not.

Some meet the purpose for which they were advertised (the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, which benefits low-income working families), and some miss the mark with tens of millions of dollars every year (the Research Activities Credit, where most of the money goes to huge, profitable corporations that pay little or no income tax instead of to small start-ups as envisioned).

Iowa’s business tax credits will have risen by half from 2011 to 2021 under current official projections. That is where the spotlight needs to be.

Challenging all credits at the same time gets everyone’s backs up. That is a recipe to assure continued unwillingness to take on any of it. And that will not serve Iowa very well.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Policy choices are about quality, not quantity

Iowa is on record that we will not ask the wealthy and well-connected to do more. Sometimes, not passing something says as much about legislative priorities as passing it.

The headline on my doorstep today says, “Legislature continues trend of passing fewer bills.” That lead story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette notes that for the fourth straight year, a divided Iowa Legislature has passed fewer than 150 pieces of legislation.

Ah, numbers. Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em. But in this case, they don’t make a lot of difference.

What matters are the words and the policies embodied in those 150 or fewer bills. It’s about quality, not quantity.

What have those bills included in recent years? Here are some key points:

  • A commercial property tax overhaul that is tainted by big benefits to huge out-of-state retailers that need no help and pay too little in Iowa tax as it is.
  • An expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that improves tax fairness for low- and moderate-income working families across Iowa.
  • Funding to assure a tuition freeze remains for a second year in regents institutions.
  • A small boost in child care assistance for working students, making them eligible for the benefit so they can get skills for better paying jobs to sustain their families.

What have those bills not included in recent years? Here are some noteworthy omissions:

  • No overhaul of the personal income-tax system to better balance tax responsibilities for all taxpayers regardless of income, or to assure revenues are kept adequate to meet costs of critical services.
  • No greater accountability on spending that is done through the corporate tax code, outside the budget process.
  • No increase in the minimum wage, stagnant at $7.25 for over six years now.
  • No broad expansion of child care access for struggling families who don’t make enough to cover costs, but make too much to receive assistance.
  • No move to battle wage theft, which we have estimated to be a $600 million annual problem in Iowa’s economy — not including the $60 million lost in uncollected taxes and unemployment insurance.
  • No long-term answers for funding of education at all levels, violating the promise of law for K-12 schools, and leaving a legacy of debt for many college students and their families.

Those are not exhaustive lists, but a statement of priorities established by agreement, stalemate or inertia. We covered some of these points in our end of session statement. Some will like the overall product of recent years, some will not. Few will ask how many bills were passed.

At least one theme weaved by this record cannot be disputed: Iowa is on record that we will not ask the wealthy and well-connected to do more. We pretend more often than not that we can meet our obligations to the citizens of Iowa without investing in the public services they require, that if we just keep cutting taxes all will be well. Every now and then we’ll say something about opportunity for all and mean it, but we’re not ready to make that a long-term commitment.

Sometimes, not passing something says as much about legislative priorities as passing it.

Owen-2013-57   Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

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

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Budget balance can mix responsible tax reform with smart investments. A $750 tax credit for all is neither.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

This session of the Iowa Legislature offers a tremendous opportunity to move the state forward with a balanced approach — including responsible, fair tax reform and investments in critical needs that have gone unmet, in education at all levels, in environmental quality and public safety.

The proposal for a blanket $750 tax credit to couples, regardless of need and blind to the opportunity cost of even more lost investments, does not fit that approach. To compound a penchant to spend money on tax breaks is fiscally irresponsible to the needs of Iowa taxpayers, who will benefit from better services, and to the promise that we would return to proper investments when the economy turned up, as it has. Furthermore, to give away Iowa’s surplus when uncertainty remains about the impact of federal budget decisions on our state’s tax system and services is tremendously short-sighted.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has established, cutbacks in higher education funding have caused costs and debt to rise for students and their families, not only at the Regents institutions but community colleges as well. While Iowa voters, through a statewide referendum, have expressly called for new revenues to go toward better environmental stewardship, lawmakers have not taken action. The surplus we now see should be used responsibly for the future of Iowans, who patiently endured budget austerity for the day when we could once again see support for critical services. This is no time to be forgetting our responsibilities.

Iowa can do better by returning to the basics of good budgeting, crafting budget and tax choices that keep a long-term focus on the needs of young and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the foundations we leave them.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant 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

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