It’s Tax Day in Iowa, and many thousands of families are benefiting from the newly expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit.
Almost unnoticed as Iowans file their state income taxes today is that many thousands of families are benefiting from a newly expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
Iowa legislators last year passed and Governor Branstad signed an expansion of the working family credit, doubling it from 7 percent of the federal EITC to 14 percent for 2013, and bumping it to 15 percent for this year. The increase was barely mentioned by the Governor when he signed it as part of a larger package of tax changes. Yet, as we noted recently — the boost is “arguably the most important legislation he signed last year.”
New data from 2012, compiled by the Brookings Institution, sort out by legislative district the number and percentage of tax filers who benefit from the federal EITC, on which the state credit is based. We have put that information into a new Iowa Fiscal Partnership backgrounder; the two-pager is available here. In the map below, the golder and greener the district, the greater its constituents use the EITC. In the green areas, over 20 percent of filers use the EITC.
Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit is an important tool in making work pay for low-income households. We have shown how a further expansion could better fill the gap between low-wage income and a basic-needs household budget, as well as improve Iowa’s tax treatment of low-wage families.
Many forget that in Iowa, the pressure for a minimum-wage increase has been building longer than it has nationally.
The question is an old one. Sadly.
Every few years, the pressure builds enough that we finally get a discussion about raising the minimum wage. We seem to finally be reaching that stage. The president supports a $10.10 minimum, up from the current and outdated $7.25 per hour, as Senate Labor Chair Tom Harkin of Iowa proposed last February. And it’s grown in popularity, if not in paychecks of the working poor.
A Washington Post poll finds two-thirds of Americans support a minimum wage increase, and a firm majority — 57 percent — believe federal policy should be used to reduce the wealth gap between rich and poor.
Iowa actually beat the feds to the punch in 2007, raising the state’s minimum wage to $7.25 in January 2008, a full year and a half ahead of the federal wage increase. That means six full years have eroded the buying power of those at the minimum wage — effectively, a 60-cents-per-hour wage cut.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette, while not totally sold on the merits many economists see in a minimum wage increase, argued for an increase in an editorial today. Wrote the Gazette:
“The ultimate goal should be to make the minimum wage less political and more predictable, both for workers and for businesses owners charting costs. Neither should have to guess which way the political winds and whims will blow their livelihood.”
Given the lack of assurance of this being addressed in Washington, and even less of it being done in a nonpolitical manner, raising and indexing the wage to inflation as the Gazette suggests would be an effective way of ending these periodic squabbles that leave pay for the working poor to “political winds and whims.” Can our Governor and Legislature begin to look at the issue that way?
The increase would put Iowa into the top tier among the 22 states and the District of Columbia that offer an EITC.
Today, the Iowa Senate sent a Valentine to thousands of working Iowa families, voting unanimously to approve an increase in Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
Whether the Valentine is ultimately delivered depends on the Iowa House and Governor Terry Branstad, who twice vetoed a smaller increase last year.
The Senate-passed bill would boost Iowa’s EITC, which is refundable, from 7 percent of the federal credit, to 13 percent for this year, then to 15 percent in 2013 and to 20 percent in 2014. The initial boost, to 13 percent, is expected to cost about $26 million in 2013 and $23 million each of the next three years.
In the case of those corporate subsidies, through the Research Activities Credit, there is little or no evidence of a direct benefit to Iowa’s economy nor a demonstrated need for the subsidy. The EITC, on the other hand, is shown in study after study to produce economic benefits for both local communities and working families who struggle to make ends meet in low- and moderate-wage jobs.
The increase would move Iowa from one of the lowest EITCs into the top tier among the 22 states and the District of Columbia that currently offer an EITC. Only seven states and the District of Columbia have higher credits under current law than the proposed 20 percent for Iowa. This table in a recent report by the Iowa Department of Revenue illustrates what various states offer for an EITC.
The budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context.
Following last year’s prolonged legislative session, legislators and the governor congratulated themselves for a budget that fully funded programs and reduced reliance on what they called “one-time funds.”
It is true that state services, systems and structures were funded to a large degree through a stable source, the General Fund (where income and sales taxes are pooled). And funding levels increased generally, especially in comparison to the recession-affected budgets of FY10 and FY11, when many state services and programs took severe cuts.
But the budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context, as we do in a new report.
First, the use of “one-time funds” proved to be the right choice at the time. Because of the recession, state revenues declined precipitously, which led to a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut. One-time funds now derided by some were used precisely as intended. State “rainy day” funds, reserved for economic emergencies, and the federal Recovery Act (ARRA) combined to fill budget gaps and save services. ARRA provided billions of dollars to Iowa to finance K-12 education, higher education, and health care programs for children, the elderly, Iowans with disabilities and low-income Iowans who had no other access to health insurance.
Second, consider how funding for state services and programs compares to pre-recession funding levels. Even as revenues have bounced back, and funding for many services has stabilized, it is unclear if present levels are adequate to met needs. For instance, state funding for community colleges in FY12 will reach about $164 million, up from FY10 and FY11 levels, but still remain below pre-recession levels. At the same time, community colleges are serving more Iowans than ever, with enrollment reaching 106,000 in FY11, up from 88,000 students in FY08.
Iowa’s other public higher education system, the Board of Regents, this year is working under a 3 percent reduction in funding from FY11. Even with the governor’s proposed FY13 increase, Regents funding would still be below recession levels, to say nothing of pre-recession levels. Students pay the price, with continually increasing tuition costs.
Other programs, such as the Early Childhood Iowa initiative, which provides preschool tuition subsidies and parental education; Child Care Assistance, which helps low-income working parents cover the cost of child care; and the Family Investment Program, which helps the lowest-income families meet basic needs and prepare for employment, all have seen large cuts in funding since before the recession. Even into economic recovery, some programs are still being reduced.
Improving upon last year or the year before is good, but the long-term question asks if we are adequately funding programs to meet Iowans’ needs and to adequately invest in Iowa’s future. Judicious use of public funds is not as simple as cutting services to bring down expenses, but taking a balanced approach that assures adequate funding for services that position Iowa for the future.
Iowa has made a huge effort in recent years to expand health insurance coverage to children. Those efforts are paying dividends to the newly covered children and their families, of course, but also to the state.
The 2009 Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (CHIPRA) gave states new tools to make insuring kids easier. Many of these tools meant a reduced workload for state enrollment officials, and made it easier for families to obtain coverage for their children. CHIPRA also provided cash bonuses to states that implemented the tools and excelled in enrolling children in public health insurance programs.
In addition to streamlining the Medicaid and hawk–i (Healthy and Well Kids in Iowa — the state’s CHIP program) enrollment process, Iowa has also increased enrollment beyond a baseline level, further increasing the size of the bonus. In November 2011, more than 34,000 children were enrolled in hawk-i, with 248,000 enrolled in Medicaid, compared to 22,300 and 219,000, respectively, in July 2009, just months after CHIPRA passed.
Undoubtedly, the effect of thousands of Iowa parents losing their jobs and health insurance has contributed to enrollment increases. Nonetheless, the tools CHIPRA made available, as well as Iowa’s implementation of many of them, made the process of enrolling kids in public health insurance programs less onerous for many parents at a time they most needed assistance.
Anyone hoping for a reprieve from rising health insurance costs — everyone, in other words — won’t like the results of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual “Employer Health Benefits Survey.”
Heck, even those of us who were just hoping for premium growth near the inflation rate are disappointed.
The survey, in which more than 2,000 businesses are interviewed about the health insurance plans they offer (or in some cases, do not offer) to employees, revealed that premiums for singles increased by 8 percent while family premiums increased by 9 percent in 2011. The average premium for single coverage passed $5,400, while family coverage costs averaged $15,000.
Fifteen-thousand dollars. That’s more than the federal poverty level for a family of two. It is more, as Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman noted, than the cost of a small car.
Stagnant wages give this spike even more sting. Increases in income are not offsetting these increases, and employers are requiring their employees to contribute more and more toward premiums as they continue to rise.
So, is there any end in sight? How long will premiums keep rising, and how high can they go?
It’s hard to say. Health care costs are driven by a number of factors and, as the Kaiser report illustrates, remain difficult to predict.
The health reform law, the Affordable Care Act, offers some hope for relief: Small businesses that offer health insurance to employees can receive tax credits, low- and middle-income households that do not receive insurance through an employer will be eligible for premium assistance, and the law features a number of pilot programs aimed at reducing costs.
Like any policy, however, it will require constant monitoring and occasional tweaking to meet its goals: making health care affordable and accessible for all.
The report found rural Iowans rural were more likely to skip routine doctor visits, leave prescriptions unfilled or switch to higher-deductible health plans to save on medical costs. Exchanges under health reform can better meet their needs.
We’ve all heard of a neighbor or friend’s difficulty finding or keeping quality, affordable health insurance. A recent study confirms what we all know, and shows that it is an even bigger problem than we may have realized.
The report, authored collaboratively by Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence (HWCE) at the University of Iowa College of Public Health and two private firms, David P. Lind & Associates and the State Public Policy Group — found that while all Iowans are feeling the pinch of growing insurance costs, rural Iowans were more likely to skip routine visits to the doctor, not fill a prescription or cut back on their dosage, or switch to higher-deductible health plans or those with fewer benefits to save on medical costs.
The report notes that “unless substantial changes are made in the way Iowans receive health insurance and health care, their financial future is untenable — especially for small employers and those living and working in rural counties.”
Iowa’s lawmakers have the opportunity to make those substantial changes, as they create the structure and rules to govern new health insurance marketplaces (also known as an exchange; see our one-page backgrounder for more information) created by the new health reform law.
The Affordable Care Act allows each state to create and run a health insurance marketplace. This will stop insurers from denying coverage and varying premium price on anything other than age and smoking status. Additionally, each plan sold in the exchange will offer a complete list of benefits mandated by the law. Consumers earning below 400 percent of the federal poverty rate ($89,400 for a family of four in 2011) will receive sliding scale premium assistance through advanced federal tax credits. Small businesses, the self-employed and families who do not receive insurance through employment will be immediately eligible in 2014 to purchase insurance through these marketplaces.
However, for consumers to fully benefit from the health law, state policymakers must act before January 1, 2013, (though the marketplaces will not be operational until 2014) and do so in the interest of consumers. The most recent legislative session saw two exchange or marketplace proposals, both of which ultimately failed; one contained strong consumer protections, while the other sacrificed the needs of Iowa health consumers to the insurance broker industry. That leaves Iowa legislators with one more complete legislative session to create a strong marketplace that will benefit Iowa consumers.
All Iowans, and especially owners and employees of small businesses and those in rural areas, need Iowa’s lawmakers to put health insurance needs above the interests of the insurance companies and insurance brokers.