Exploring Paul McKinley's fantasy world

If Iowa Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley believes the spin he serves up to journalists and the Republican Party faithful, he must have an active imagination.

I don’t know which is most detached from reality: McKinley’s take on Iowa’s finances, his views on “state sovereignty” or his election predictions.

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What is Kim Reynolds' plan to prevent teacher layoffs?

Now that State Senator Kim Reynolds is officially the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, it’s time for her political views to receive more scrutiny. On the day Terry Branstad announced he had picked Reynolds, she said this:

We have a projected state budget gap of nearly $1 billion dollars.  And we have seen a dramatic slide in student test scores and teacher layoffs in school districts across the state. We can do better.  We must do better.  And, as Terry Branstad’s running mate, I will dedicate my every waking minute to sharing with Iowans his ambitious goals for our future.

She repeated those talking points in her speech to the GOP state convention on June 26. Republicans never tire of the “projected state budget gap” ruse. Reynolds is talking about projections for the budget year that begins in July 2011. Maybe she forgot that the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a balanced budget for the fiscal year beginning on July 1 despite a projected $1 billion shortfall last November. Reynolds also asserted that Governor Chet Culver has “spent too much, taxed too much, borrowed too much” and dismissed Iowa’s AAA bond rating as irrelevant: “That’s like my husband telling me, our checkbook and savings are empty, but we’ve got $15,000 we can still spend on the credit card.” Not really, Senator Reynolds: Iowa has money left in our state reserve funds (equivalent to a family’s savings account), and independent analysts affirm that our fiscal health is strong coming out of the worst recession since World War II. Many states fully depleted their rainy day accounts in response to an unprecedented drop in state revenues, but Iowa did not.

Like Branstad, Reynolds laments teacher layoffs across the state, and like Branstad, she fails to acknowledge that those education cuts would have been much deeper without the federal stimulus money Iowa has received.

Branstad’s not a numbers guy and hated tough budget meetings when he was governor. Having served four terms as Clarke County treasurer, Reynolds should feel more comfortable talking specifics on state spending. Friends have said she was able to save money as a county treasurer without cutting services. She’s campaigning with a guy who promises to veto any bill that calls for spending more than 99 percent of state revenues collected. Let’s see Reynolds produce an alternative budget for the current year that protects K-12 education without “spending too much.”

Details on the budget for fiscal year 2011 can be found here. All Reynolds needs to do is figure out how to spend no more than 99 percent of state revenues projected for the year. In other words, balance the budget without using the $328 million in federal stimulus money (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds) and the $267 million in reserve funds that Democrats included in the budget Culver signed into law.

If Reynolds is prepared to criss-cross the state bashing Democrats over teacher layoffs, she should be prepared to show us the education budget Iowans could expect under a Branstad administration.

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Show us your balanced budget, Terry Branstad

Republican candidate Terry Branstad claims he learned from his mistakes in handling the state budget and says he will "put the focus back on restoring fiscal responsibility and jobs and education" if elected to a fifth term as governor. Not only will he abide by generally accepted accounting principles, he promises, he will veto any bill that calls for spending more than 99 percent of state revenues collected.

Independent analysts have vouched for Iowa’s strong fiscal condition, but Branstad and other Republicans cry “overspending” because the balanced 2010 and 2011 budgets relied on some money from the federal government and from Iowa’s reserve funds. Never mind that supporting state budgets, thereby reducing the need for big service cuts, was one of the primary goals of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009 stimulus bill). Never mind that unprecedented flood damage in Iowa coincided with the sharpest drop in state revenues in 60 years because of the longest recession since World War II. Branstad claims Iowa should not spend more than 99 percent of state revenues collected in any fiscal year.

Last Friday Branstad used a story on teacher layoffs in Des Moines to score political points, ignoring the fact that education cuts would have claimed far more teachers’ jobs if not for the federal stimulus bill. Click here for more information on ARRA funds allocated to Iowa education programs for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years.

It’s time for Branstad to put up or shut up. He has a well-staffed campaign and a policy director who served in the Iowa House for ten years. Taking the 2011 budget Governor Chet Culver signed as a starting point, Branstad’s team should figure out how to do without the $328 million in federal fiscal aid (ARRA funds) and the $267 million in reserve funds that budget incorporates.

Then Branstad should produce the budget he would have demanded for fiscal year 2011, which would spend no more than 99 percent of state revenues projected for the year. Let’s see how K-12 education, Medicaid, public safety and other services would fare under Branstad’s “responsible” Iowa budget.

Hint: the spending cuts Branstad endorsed during the primary campaign (ending the preschool program, family planning funding, and reducing administrative costs at Area Education Agencies) would not come close to bringing the budget into balance for 2011.

Also keep in mind that the spending cuts Iowa Republican legislators proposed during the 2010 session were padded with wildly inaccurate estimates of how much could be saved on services to undocumented immigrants.

Voters deserve more than platitudes about fiscal responsibility. Let us compare the 2011 budget Iowa Democrats adopted with the one Branstad would have demanded.

The stimulus was the biggest middle-class tax cut in history

I was disappointed by some compromises made to pass the stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) in February 2009. I felt President Obama made too many concessions in the fruitless pursuit of Republican votes, and that too much of the cost went toward tax cuts that would be slower-acting and less stimulative than certain forms of government spending.

That said, the tax cuts in the stimulus will help tens of millions of American families, particularly those with working-class or middle-class incomes. Citizens for Tax Justice has calculated that “the major tax cuts enacted in the 2009 economic stimulus bill actually reduced federal income taxes for tax year 2009 for 98 percent of all working families and individuals. ”

In terms of the number of Americans who benefited, the stimulus bill was the biggest tax cut in history. That is, “the estimated $282 billion in tax cuts [from the stimulus] over two years is more than either of the 2001-2002 or the 2004-2005 Bush tax cuts or the Kennedy or Reagan tax cuts.” George W. Bush’s tax cuts were more costly to the U.S. Treasury over a 10-year period, but as Anonymous Liberal noted last year,

The Bush tax cuts were skewed dramatically toward the wealthy. In 2004, 60% of the tax cuts went to the top 20 percent of income earners with over 25% going to the top 1% of income earners. Those numbers have increased since then as the cuts to the estate tax have taken effect.

Tomorrow is the deadline for most Americans to file their tax returns, and Republicans will try to harness the tea party movement’s anger at what they view as excessive taxes and spending. However, many ordinary people may be shocked to learn how large their refunds are this year. According to the White House, “the average tax refund is up nearly 10 percent this year.”

Democrats should not be afraid to vigorously defend the stimulus bill during this year’s Congressional campaigns. I wish the recovery act had been larger and better targeted, but the bottom line is that Republicans voted against the largest ever middle-class tax cut.

The White House website has this Recovery Act Tax Savings Tool to help people find benefits to which they are entitled. After the jump I’ve posted a fact sheet on this subject, which the White House press office released on April 12. Note: if you have already filed your taxes, you can amend them after April 15 to collect on any credits from the stimulus bill that you missed.

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Unemployment benefits will run out for many today

Although the March jobs report was encouraging, the unemployment rate and the number of long-term unemployed are still at historically high levels. Unfortunately, unemployment benefits for about 200,000 Americans will run out soon because Congress adjourned for its Easter recess before resolving an dispute over extending those and other benefits. The Hill reports:

The interruption in benefits will last two weeks at a minimum, according to Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), since lawmakers return from spring break on April 12.

As the two-week recess began, Congress was at an impasse over how to extend the emergency unemployment insurance program and other expiring provisions, including increased COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, the Medicare doctor payment rate and federal flood insurance.

Senate Republicans said the $9.3 billion, 30-day extension preferred by Democrats should be paid for, while Democrats said the bill’s cost didn’t need to be offset because the program was “emergency spending.”

Under the jobless benefits program that ends Monday, Americans out of work are eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The program, aimed at helping jobless Americans stay afloat when new jobs aren’t readily available, gives an unemployed worker more than the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance normally available. But with the program ending, those out of work for as few as six months will see an interruption in their benefit checks.

I love how Republicans who approved every blank check for war in Iraq and every tax cut for the top 1 percent now demand that unemployment benefits be “paid for.” I don’t expect them to hold up action on unemployment benefits forever, but even if Democrats are able to apply extensions retroactively later this month, a lot of families will experience real hardship in the meantime. Democrats should not have adjourned for Easter before dealing with this issue. I hope they pass a bill to extend the benefits until the end of the year, so these battles won’t recur every month.

In an April 2 statement regarding the latest jobs report, Senator Tom Harkin outlined additional steps needed to help people looking for work:

“First, Congress must overcome the obstructionism that is holding up an extension of unemployment insurance.  This critical safety net expires Monday and will leave nearly 38,000 Americans and 1,200 Iowans without benefits they need while they look for work.  In addition, we must take immediate action to prevent job losses among our nation’s teachers – to protect the quality of education – and we need to pass job creating legislation.  When Congress returns, I intend to move immediately on those efforts.”

UPDATE: Mike Lillis has more on benefits expiring and next steps in the Senate.

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Grassley votes no again as Senate sends small jobs bill to Obama

The U.S. Senate gave final approval to a small jobs bill today by a vote of 68-29. Eleven Republicans and the Senate’s two independents joined 55 Democrats (including Iowa’s Tom Harkin) to pass the bill. The only Democrat to vote no was Ben Nelson of Nebraska (roll call here). The motion to invoke cloture on this jobs bill passed the Senate on Monday by a 60-31 vote, with six Republicans voting with all Democrats but Ben Nelson (roll call here). Senator Chuck Grassley voted with the Republicans who tried to filibuster the bill on Monday and with those who opposed the bill today. From the Washington Post:

The centerpiece of the bill is a new program giving companies a break from paying Social Security taxes for the remainder of 2010 on any new workers they hire who had been unemployed for at least 60 days. Employers would also get a $1,000 tax credit for each of those workers who stays on the payroll for at least one year.

Aside from that program, the measure includes a one-year extension of the law governing federal transportation funding, and would transfer $20 billion into the highway trust fund. The bill also extends a tax break allowing companies to write off equipment purchases, and expands the Build America Bonds program, which helps state and local governments secure financing for infrastructure projects.

Last month the Senate approved a similar jobs measure; Grassley voted no at that time as well. After the House made minor changes to the legislation, the bill had to clear the Senate again before going to the president’s desk.

Most House Democrats support a larger job-creation bill with more money for infrastructure projects, but there may not be 60 votes in the Senate for such a measure.

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