We don't need budget advice from Tim Pawlenty

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was in Iowa this weekend to headline an event organized by Iowans for Tax Relief. The crowd cheered the future presidential candidate after Pawlenty blasted the Obama administration and proposed one bad idea after another.

Pawlenty’s “economic bill of rights” includes requiring Congress to balance the budget every year. Freezing or reducing federal spending every time revenue drops is great if you like turning recessions into depressions, but basic economic facts won’t stop Pawlenty from pandering to the “Party of Hoover” set. I wonder whether Pawlenty’s proposed balanced budget amendment still includes “exceptions for war, natural disasters and other emergencies.”

Pawlenty also wants line-item veto powers for the president. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that unconstitutional at the federal level, and it’s unlikely Congress would ever approve a constitutional amendment on this matter.

In addition, Pawlenty favors extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Those tax cuts didn’t prevent the most severe economic recession since World War II, but they did manage to massively increase our national debt and deficit while delivering most of the benefits to the top few percent of the population.

But wait, there’s more to Pawlenty’s wish list: “He also called for requiring a supermajority of Congress to raise taxes or the debt ceiling.” Unfortunately, that would exacerbate our budget problems. When the Pew Center on the States examined state fiscal problems last year, a common feature of the states deemed “most like California” was a supermajority requirement for tax increases or budget decisions.

By the way, Iowa received higher overall marks than Minnesota in that Pew Center on the States report, which looked at six indicators to determine each state’s fiscal health.

Speaking to the Iowans for Tax Relief crowd, Pawlenty bragged about getting Minnesota out of the top 10 states for taxes but glossed over other aspects of his record as governor. Iowa Republicans have hammered Democrats for supposedly “overspending,” even though our state leaders have kept our budget balanced without depleting our state’s reserve accounts. What would they say if they knew about Pawlenty’s record?

During Pawlenty’s first year as governor, the state drew down its reserves and relied too heavily on one-time revenue to address its budget problem.  As a result, the state lost its Aaa bond rating from Moody’s Investors Service; the state has yet to regain its Aaa rating from Moody’s.

The 2009 report of the bi-partisan Minnesota Budget Trends Study Commission has recommended that the state build up its budget reserves and cash flow account in response to an increasingly unstable revenue outlook.  All members of the Commission, including the five appointed by Governor Pawlenty, endorsed this recommendation.

Pawlenty and state legislators couldn’t agree on an approach to balance the Minnesota budget. As a result, last year “Minnesota’s [projected] budget gap was the largest in the nation on a per capita basis.” Pawlenty can bash President Obama, but his state desperately needed the roughly $2.6 billion it received through the federal stimulus bill to help cover the shortfall. Even with the stimulus money, Minnesota was still billions of dollars short. So, in addition to some spending cuts, Pawlenty proposed “a bond issue that would be paid for by existing and forecast revenues from the tobacco settlement-a one-time fix disliked by some because it aimed to use long-term borrowing to pay for current state operations.”

To be clear: Pawlenty wanted the state of Minnesota to borrow money to pay its bills. In contrast, Iowa’s state borrowing program (I-JOBS) is funding capital investments in infrastructure. Last summer, Iowans for Tax Relief in effect ran the Republican campaign for a special election in Iowa House district 90. During that campaign, the Republican candidate made false and misleading claims about Iowa’s state budget and borrowing. How ironic that the Iowans for Tax Relief crowd gave a standing ovation to a panderer with a much worse record of fiscal management.

Not only did Pawlenty want Minnesota to borrow money to pay its bills, he also decided that underfunding local governments and forcing them to draw down their own reserves was a good way to control spending for the 2010-2011 budget period. Yes, Pawlenty decided in 2009 that cutting aid to local governments by hundreds of millions of dollars was a good way to balance the state budget:

“Many [cities], if not all, have reserve funds, or rainy day funds, and they should use them,” Pawlenty said.

He also talked of the option cities have of raising property taxes to make up for any LGA [local government aid] cuts.

One of the Republican talking points against Iowa Governor Chet Culver is that his midyear budget cuts supposedly forced local governments to raise property taxes. Yet Pawlenty gets a free pass from his Iowa Republican friends. Culver’s across-the-board budget cut last October wasn’t popular, but it did keep state government from overspending. In contrast, late last year Minnesota’s cash flow was so poor that state officials considered short-term borrowing to meet budget obligations.

“It’s a bad sign,” said former state Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison, now chief financial officer with Minneapolis public schools. “It signals you didn’t have good fiscal discipline.”

Minnesota has muddled through without borrowing money to pay bills so far, but prospects for later this year are dicey:

State budget officials updated lawmakers [April 12] on Minnesota’s precarious cash-flow situation. They all but ruled out short-term borrowing for the 2010 budget year that ends June 30.

Budget director Jim Schowalter says “deep cash problems” loom for the 2011 fiscal year. Barring law changes, spending cuts and upticks in revenue, he says the state might have to take out short-term loans to meet its obligations.

The Minnesota Budget Bites blog takes a more detailed look at the state’s “troublesome” picture for fiscal year 2011. BulliedPulpit posted a good rebuttal of “TPawnomics” at MN Progressive Project.

The last thing our country needs is budget advice from Tim Pawlenty.  

Continue Reading...

Don't believe everything Republicans tell you about I-JOBS

Iowa Republicans have been throwing around misleading talking points about the I-JOBS program since the Iowa legislature approved the infrastructure bonding initiative last spring. I’m still waiting for Republicans to address some basic questions, like where would they have found $45 million for flood recovery efforts in Linn County without I-JOBS? What was their plan for repairing ten flood-damaged structures at the University of Iowa, if they didn’t want to issue $100 million in state bonds to leverage $500 million in federal funds to rebuild the campus?

Some Republicans have called for delaying infrastructure projects until we have enough cash to pay for them up front, but Iowa’s worst-ever flooding hit the state during the most severe national recession since World War II. There was no realistic way to pay for flood recovery efforts without state borrowing. Even David Yepsen, a notorious skeptic about state spending, could see that. During the summer of 2008, Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson pointed out, “When you borrow money, that allows you to fix things as quickly as possible,” he said. “You can’t move as quickly on a ‘pay-as-you go’ basis.” Yet every Republican in the legislature voted against borrowing money to repair the damage from the devastating 2008 floods.

In addition to the flood recovery funds allocated to Linn County and the University of Iowa, the I-JOBS program included $118.5 million for “reconstruction of local public buildings and flood control prevention,” to be awarded by competitive grants. It wasn’t enough to fully meet local infrastructure needs across the state; requests for that portion of the I-JOBS money totaled $333.6 million. But it was a good start.

Republicans recently seized on a new talking point: some I-JOBS money is supposedly being spent on projects unrelated to disaster recovery. By way of example, State Representative Pat Grassley mentioned the community center in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights. I contacted Windsor Heights City Manager Marketa George Oliver about this allegation, and she forwarded a copy of a letter from Mayor Jerry Sullivan to Grassley. You can view the whole letter here, but the small print is hard to read, so here’s the relevant excerpt (emphasis in original):

The City is currently constructing a new Community Center. The structure that used to be in [Colby Park] at this location was originally built in a flood plain and was repeatedly flooded. It sustained flood damage year after year and flood after flood. The new structure is being built out of the flood plain and protected from any future flooding, mitigating the effects of a natural disaster. The Center, once finished, will be a heating/cooling facility in the event of prolonged power outages, which is much-needed in our region. In the event of natural disasters, it will also be available as temporary housing. […]

The I-Jobs program gave us the ability to make a substantial investment in mitigating and responding to natural disasters. The program was also able to support our efforts in a timely manner, unlike many other grants programs.

Oliver explained to me that a heating/cooling center is a place residents without power can go during a cold spell or dangerous heat wave.

Republicans will continue to attack the I-JOBS program during this year’s campaigns for governor and state legislature. Democrats need to be ready to defend these infrastructure investments, because journalists will sometimes pass along ill-informed claims like Grassley’s without providing context or an opposing view. In addition, some Republican candidates may falsely suggest that I-JOBS pays for ongoing spending programs instead of capital projects, like bridge and sewer repairs. Maybe they are thinking of Republican Terry Branstad, who borrowed money to solve the state’s cash flow problems in 1992.

Continue Reading...

Analysis of Fong's first radio ad

Republican gubernatorial candidate Christian Fong is introducing himself to Iowans with a 60-second radio ad (audio here). Like Fong’s campaign website and early media interviews, this ad focuses on restoring “the Iowa dream” his family has lived.

Fong reads the script himself, beginning with a few details about his father’s life. Fong says, “After tax cuts in ’61, the U.S. was booming. Nelson Fong, a Christian in Hong Kong, was drawn by the promise of freedom to the United States in ’63.” By the way, tax rates after those 1961 cuts were still substantially higher than today’s rates, which didn’t slow down the U.S. economy during the 1960s. But I digress.

About halfway through the ad, Fong shifts from his family’s story to how he sees the American dream slipping away. Echoing the false talking point we hear from other Iowa Republicans, Fong claims, “We have a state government that borrowed almost a billion dollars to pay its bills.” Of course, the I-JOBS bonding initiative was for infrastructure projects, not for ongoing government programs. Like national credit analysts and institutional investors, Fong should understand the difference between borrowing for capital investments and borrowing to pay bills.

Fong then promises that as governor, he would “end the use of taxpayer money to fund lobbyists and veto any budget that is not balanced.”  

The first point refers to a recent Des Moines Register report showing that  government (“state agencies, municipalities, county agencies and associations where member dues are paid by taxpayers”) spent approximately $1.8 million of at least $13.7 million paid to lobby the Iowa Legislature during the past year. A lot of that expense is for state employees who answer legislators’ questions about various proposals. Republicans would be happy to let business groups spend unlimited amounts lobbying the legislature, with no opportunity for state agencies to discuss the broader implications of industry wish lists. Sounds to me like a prescription for more giveaways like Iowa’s new nursing home law.

Fong obviously doesn’t want anyone to view him as the moderate in the GOP field. This ad ends with a female voice saying, “Paid for by Iowans for Christian Fong, conservative Republican for governor.”

UPDATE: Iowa Democratic Party chair Michael Kiernan called on Fong to take down this “materially false and misleading” ad. I’ve posted Kiernan’s statement after the jump.

Continue Reading...

Christian Fong dusts off Obama's playbook

Given Barack Obama’s Iowa caucus breakthrough and convincing general-election victory here, it was only a matter of time before someone else built an Iowa campaign around his strategy. I didn’t count on a Republican being the first person to try, though.

Enter Christian Fong, who made the Republican race for governor a lot more interesting last week.

Some early impressions of Fong’s personal narrative, political rhetoric and electoral prospects are after the jump.  

Continue Reading...

Borrow money for infrastructure, but fix what we have first

The highlight of Governor Chet Culver’s “condition of the state” address yesterday (video here and prepared text here) was a proposal to issue state bonds to borrow up to $700 million over the next few years:

Thousands of new jobs will be created, Culver said. Every $100 million spent on highway construction alone means more than 4,000 new jobs, he said.

“We’re cutting back on the day-to-day expenditures of state government,” Culver said in his Condition of the State speech this morning. “But, at the same time, we will be investing in bricks and mortar – to create jobs and keep our economy going.”

Culver said Iowa won’t need to raise taxes to pay for the plan. The state is in the position to issue bonds, which is essentially borrowing money. Existing gaming revenue would repay the bonds, he said.

Predictably, road industry lobbyists like the spending plans while expressing some doubts about the borrowing plans.

Republicans also don’t seem to like the bonding proposal, while statehouse Democrats think it’s a good idea. State Auditor David Vaudt, who may be a Republican candidate for governor in 2010, said he needed to study the details before expressing an opinion, but noted, “What we’ve got to remember is we’ve got to dedicate and set aside a piece of revenue stream to pay that principal and interest.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal made a great point:

Gronstal deflected Republican criticism by pointing out that [Senate Minority leader Paul] McKinley, in his opening day speech, talked about a business he once owned.

“He borrowed every nickel he could and leveraged himself as far as he could because he believed in his future. I believe in Iowa’s future. I believe it makes sense now to borrow money and move this state forward,” Gronstal said.

He added: “This is probably one of the best times in our history to go out and borrow money with a dedicated repayment stream. Do you own a home? Did it make sense for you to borrow money? Or did you just pay cash?”

Gronstal is absolutely right. Iowa has a triple-A bond rating, interest rates are fairly low, and creating jobs is essential to bringing the economy back. Two-thirds of our economy depends on consumer spending, and good jobs generate the money people then spend at businesses in their communities. Construction jobs tend to be good jobs too.

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, who is usually a deficit hawk, also likes the infrastructure bonding idea:

The money will be borrowed over the next few years, supervised by an oversight board and repaid with gambling profits, so no tax increases will be necessary. (If we have to have all this gambling in Iowa, wouldn’t it be nice to see something tangible in return?)

It will be the modern-day equivalent of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which built infrastructure we still use today, such as dams, sewers, parks and shelters. Previous American generations left us wonderful systems of interstates, canals, railroads, river locks and dams. What are we leaving our kids? Potholes, bridge collapses and sewers that pollute river ways.

Iowans are a frugal people. Perhaps we are too frugal. According to state Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald’s office, Moody’s Investors Service says Iowa’s per-capita level of public debt ranked 48th in the country last year. Iowa has $98 of state public debt per person. The national average of state debt is $1,158. You could double Iowa’s $98 of per-capita state debt to $200, and we would then rank 46th.

Culver should have told us that. Clearly, most other states saddle their citizens with more debt than is proposed here. And many are more attractive places to live, too, as our children attest when they leave for the better jobs and brighter lights elsewhere.

It’s funny to watch all these Republican legislators, who borrow all sorts of money to buy, expand or repair homes, businesses and farms, now turn prune-faced when Culver suggests doing the exact same thing in state government.

The Des Moines Register explained how Culver’s plan would work:

* Borrow $700 million in 20-year tax-exempt state revenue bonds

* Secure the bonds with about $56 million a year in gaming tax revenues

* Create a Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Authority to issue the bonds. It will be overseen by a five-member board.

* The authority would be administered and staffed by the Iowa Finance Authority.

How money will be spent:

housing

trails

highways

roads

bridges

mass transit

railways

airports

water quality and wastewater treatment improvements

flood control improvements

energy infrastructure

disaster-relief infrastructure

public buildings

Projects will be judged on:

Whether they are ready to proceed

How quickly the project can be started and completed

Number of jobs to be created by the project

Contribution to sustainability

On the whole, I support the idea. My main concern is that infrastructure money be spent on fixing what we already have, not on building every new road on developers’ wish lists. In the past, our legislators and state officials have focused too much on funding new roads instead of a balanced transportation policy.

The housing slump is likely to continue for at least two more years, and there is no reason to spend large sums to build new highway interchanges and major new roads through undeveloped farmland now. We should spend the money to fix stretches of existing major roads and highways and crumbling bridges, as well as on modes of transit that allow alternatives to driving. These projects will improve the quality of life for large numbers of Iowans while also creating jobs.

As for airports, I would only support spending money on needed repairs and improvements to existing airports. This is not the time to start building a bunch of small regional airports that would benefit a handful of corporate executives.

Culver emphasized that he did not plan to raise taxes, but Gronstal indicated that raising the state gas tax is still on the table.

I would like to hear more lawmakers talk about closing various tax loopholes that mainly benefit wealthy Iowans. The Iowa Policy Project has documented this and various other flaws in our current tax policies.

If you’ve got the time and the inclination, the governor’s official website has a video Culver showed during his address, called “In Deep Water: The Flood of 2008.” Iowa Public Television has House Minority leader Kraig Paulsen’s response to Culver’s address.

Continue Reading...

Selling the Iowa Lottery should be off the table

Iowa voters handed Democrats the keys to run the state in 2006 and expanded the Democratic majority in the legislature this year. Now we have to prove that we are capable of governing well. Like almost every other state, Iowa is facing a deteriorating revenue base while demands for government services rise in a tough economy. Governor Chet Culver has already imposed two rounds of budget cuts, and more difficult choices will need to be made during the upcoming legislative session.

There is no perfect solution to the budget problem, but some proposals are so bad that they should be ruled out immediately.

Selling the Iowa Lottery is a terrible idea on every level.

I don’t often agree with Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, but he is right about this:

Why would anyone want to sell their seed corn? And why would Iowa want to do something that may lead to expanded gambling? […]

We should privatize those governmental functions that cost the taxpayers, not the ones that make them a profit. […]

Since 1985, the Iowa lottery has netted state government $1 billion. Why would we turn some of those profits over to the gambling industry? It’s short-term thinking to give up $50 million in annual lottery profits for a lump sum now.

Also, this idea breaks faith with the promise made to Iowans when we started down the path of expanded gambling: If Iowa was going to get into legalized gambling, it was going to be heavily regulated.

Now we’re going to invite casino owners and others in the gambling industry to run our lottery? I’m sorry; the history of the gaming industry is just too checkered to put people from it in charge.

I have never bought a lottery ticket, and I hate to see the state encouraging people to throw their money away on the lottery. But now that Iowa has a lottery, we should keep the profits in state hands. Selling the lottery would bring in cash this year, but we’d need to replace the lost revenue in future budgets. It wouldn’t solve the problem, and it would make Democrats look incompetent.

By the way, State Auditor David Vaudt described the idea as “a very short-term Band-Aid approach.” The plan he described would involve

a lease of the lottery for up to 50 years in exchange for a lump sum payment of $200 million and some annual lease fee.

The lottery generates more than $50 million a year in profits for the state’s budget, and Vaudt predicted the lump sum would quickly evaporate.

Of course it would.

Vaudt may be the Republican nominee for governor in 2010, and he was warning about budget problems long before Culver and the Democratic leadership in the legislature started talking about budget cuts. Do we want to hand him another talking point on Democrats’ alleged fiscal irresponsibility?

If selling the lottery is bad policy and bad politics, why would anyone consider it? Here is Yepsen’s theory:

[T]he fact that Culver is entertaining sale of the lottery is an example of how big gambling money and influence slosh around Iowa politics.

The delegation that called on him to promote the idea included former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, who is a longtime friend, adviser and donor of Culver’s, and Jeff Link, a leading Democratic campaign strategist who also runs referenda campaigns for gambling interests.

Culver will need to show how selling the lottery is a good deal for taxpayers and not just his cronies and campaign contributors on the gambling industry’s payroll. Watch to see how much gambling money starts showing up in Culver’s re-election warchest – and in those of Democratic legislative leaders.

Democrats helped gambling interests last session by putting an unjustified exemption for casino floors into the smoking ban bill. If we care about workers’ health, why should casino employees be less protected than those who work in restaurants and bars?

Handing over the lottery would play right into Republican talking points about “special interests” controlling the Democratic Party.

Culver, House Speaker Pat Murphy and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal should nip this speculation in the bud by ruling out any plan to sell the lottery for short-term gain.

What else, if anything, should be “off the table” in the context of balancing the budget? I agree with Culver that going into debt should be considered.

I also believe that shared sacrifice requires some kind of action on the revenue side, such as closing tax loopholes that primarily benefit the well-off. When middle-income and lower-income Iowans bear the brunt of cuts in services, wealthier Iowans should also be asked to help bring the budget into balance. Some economists have shown that during an economic downturn, raising taxes on the wealthy does less harm to the economy than cutting government spending.

I understand the political arguments against raising taxes in any form now. There will be plenty of time to debate that later. For now, Democrat leaders should make the easy call: keep the Iowa Lottery in state hands.

Continue Reading...
View More...