Exploring Paul McKinley's fantasy world (part 2, w/poll)

Last week I highlighted the half-truths and misleading arguments that underpin Iowa Senate minority leader Paul McKinley’s case against Democratic governance in Iowa. I wasn’t planning to revisit the Republican leader’s fantasy world until I read the July 16 edition of his weekly e-mail blast. McKinley claims to offer five "big ideas" to "make Iowa again a state where jobs and prosperity can flourish."

His premise is absurd when you consider that CNBC just ranked Iowa in the top 10 states for doing business (again), and number one in terms of the cost of doing business. Many of McKinley’s specific claims don’t stand up to scrutiny either, so follow me after the jump. There’s also a poll at the end of this post.

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Beware of Republican fuzzy math on property taxes

Later today the three Republican candidates for governor will hold their first debate. When discussing state fiscal issues, they are likely to advance two contradictory arguments. First, they will criticize alleged "overspending" by Iowa Democrats, ignoring the good marks our state has received for fiscal management and the fact that severe state budget cuts would be a big drag on the economy. I will address those points in a future post.

Second, the Republican candidates for governor will criticize spending reductions Democrats included in next year’s budget, on the grounds that those cuts will force corresponding increases in property taxes statewide. It’s true that many Iowans will pay more in property taxes because of changes related to the “rollback” calculation, which “determines the percentage of a property’s actual value that will be taxable” in a given year. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Rants explained here why the rollback figure is on the rise. It has nothing to do with the tough choices Democrats made on the 2011 budget.

Rants and other Republicans are wrong to suggest that any cut in state spending will automatically lead to further property tax hikes. (They’ve been making that claim since Governor Chet Culver’s across-the-board budget cut last October.) Here’s just one example of why their assumptions are flawed. The Des Moines Register reported Tuesday on how Des Moines area school districts are coping with budget shortages. All of the districts will receive less from the state in the next fiscal year. Thankfully, the cuts are smaller than the worst-case scenarios floated in February, because Iowa House and Senate Democrats sought to protect K-12 education from severe budget cuts.

Anyway, all Iowa school districts are adapting to the reduction in state funding. But contrary to what Iowa Republicans are telling you, many districts, including the state’s largest in Des Moines, have ruled out property tax increases. Of the 10 central Iowa school districts mentioned in this article, only three are raising property taxes, and one more is considering that step. The others are cutting expenses and in some cases using money from cash reserves to cover the shortfalls in the coming fiscal year.

Some local governments in Iowa will raise property tax rates, but as with school districts, many will get by with spending or service cuts instead. I support additional federal fiscal aid to local and state governments, because the collapse in revenues is the most severe in six decades, and spending cuts could hamper the economic recovery. But naturally, the same Republicans who scream about property tax hikes are against using “one-time federal money” to help balance budgets.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

Steve King has empathy after all (updated)

Representative Steve King doesn’t come across as the most compassionate guy in the world, bragging about opposing aid for Hurricane Katrina victims and questioning the need to stop deporting undocumented Haitian immigrants after last month’s earthquake.

But if you thought King was incapable of feeling empathy, you’re wrong. Over the weekend he spoke to a panel on immigration at the Conservative Political Action Conference:

During his closing remarks, King veered into a complaint about high taxes, and said he could “empathize” with the man who flew a plane into an IRS building last week.

During the question and answer session, the Media Matters staffer asked King to clarify his comment, reminding him of his sworn duty to protect the American people from all sworn enemies, foreign and domestic. In response, said the staffer, King gave a long and convoluted answer about having been personally audited by the IRS, and ended by saying he intended to hold a fundraiser to help people “implode” their local IRS office.

That’s right, King feels empathy for a guy who crashed his plane into a federal building, intending to harm the IRS employees inside. In the process, the man killed a loving family man and longtime federal worker who served two terms in Vietnam.

Following King’s remarks at the CPAC panel, a man with a video camera gave the congressman a chance to clarify his remarks. King dug deeper. (continues after the jump)

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Sorry, Republicans, Iowans don't think state government is too big

Republicans have complained for years about Democrats allegedly spending too much on "big government," but a majority of Iowans think state government is about the right size, according to the latest poll by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register. The poll surveyed 805 Iowa adults between January 31 and February 3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. Respondents were asked, "In general, do you think the size of state government is too big, about right, or too small?" 52 percent said "about right" and only 39 percent said "too small."

The Des Moines Register poll also indicates that Iowans would rather tap into the state’s tax reserves, raise fees and perhaps even raise taxes than impose massive service cuts or lay off hundreds of state workers.

The poll tested eleven options for balancing the budget and asked whether that option should be considered, strongly considered or taken off the table. The largest majority (76 percent) said consolidating some state government services should be considered or strongly considered. The Iowa legislature will pass a government reorganization bill this session, but the savings won’t be large enough to avoid other painful budget decisions.

The next largest majority (61 percent) supported considering taking up to $200 million from the state’s cash reserves. But even that probably wouldn’t be enough to balance the 2011 budget.

The other three options that at least half of respondents said should be considered were “increase fines, license fees and other user fees” (53 percent), expand gambling by allowing casinos to host large poker tournaments (51 percent) and raise the sales tax by 1 percent (51 percent).

The Register reported that several political observers found the sales tax numbers most surprising. I was more surprised to see the public evenly divided on raising the income tax. Some 48 percent of respondents said “lawmakers should consider raising state income taxes by a half percentage point; 50 percent said that idea should come off the table.”

The Register’s poll found much less support for “cutting services to thousands of Iowans” (just 33 percent favored considering that option, while 60 percent said it should be taken off the table). Only 42 percent favored considering laying off hundreds of state employees or consolidating school districts. Only 43 percent said legislators should consider eliminating all business tax credits. Just 45 percent said reducing the number of Iowa counties should be on the table.

My point is not that politicians should put blind faith in the wisdom of crowds. I don’t agree with every finding in this poll. I’d rather reduce the number of counties and scrap many business tax credits than raise the sales tax, and I find Iowans’ support for the film tax credit baffling.

The larger message from this poll is that Iowa Democrats should not cower in fear when Republicans bash “big government.” Offered a range of choices for balancing the state budget, most Iowans would prefer not to see services slashed. The Register’s November 2009 poll pointed to the same conclusion, finding broad support for spending increases Democrats have adopted in recent years.

Republicans will be cheered by the portion of Selzer’s latest poll that found one-third of Iowans called themselves supporters of the “tea party” movement, and a majority believe state government is spending too much money. To me that suggests the framing of the budget issue will be critical for this November’s elections. Democrats need to convince voters that they did all they could to find efficiencies in state government without cutting priority areas. If Republicans object, for instance, that the state could have saved tens of millions of dollars by ending the preschool initiative started in 2007, Democrats must point out that doing so would have cut off early childhood education for about 13,000 Iowa kids.

First criminal charges filed in film tax credit scandal

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office filed the first criminal charges in connection with the film tax credit scandal today.

Tom Wheeler, who stepped down in September as manager of the office, faces a charge of non-felonious misconduct in office. Wheeler, 41, is accused of failing to verify the eligibility of applicants for the state’s film tax credit program.

Also charged is Wendy Weiner Runge, who was executive producer of a 2008 film, “The Scientist.” Runge is charged with first degree theft and is accused of taking property belonging to the state of Iowa by unlawfully reporting inflated values on applications for tax credits.

UPDATE: A later version of the Des Moines Register story noted that charges have also been filed against “Matthias Alexander Saunders, another business owner and photography director; and three limited liability corporations tied to the movie [“The Scientist”].”

The Attorney General’s Office press statement is here, and on that page you can download documents related to the charges filed. Governor Chet Culver fired Wheeler shortly after the scandal broke last September. Iowa Department of Economic Development Director Mike Tramontina and deputy director Vincent Lintz both resigned.

It sounds as if Wheeler’s attorney will be Gordon Fischer, a name familiar to many Iowa Democrats. WHO-TV journalist Dave Price posted a statement from Fischer at the Price of Politics blog. Excerpt:

We are disappointed with the Attorney General’s decision to file criminal charges under the facts and circumstances of the situation as we know them. The state has decided to pursue a novel theory of criminal liability and it is our position that their decision is a mistake that is not supported by the facts or the law. However, because they have chosen this path, Tom’s focus must now necessarily shift from trying to help the state develop a functional, and economically beneficial, tax incentive program to defending against the criminal charges. Because of this shift in focus, we will need time to review the state’s charging documents before anyone can make specific comments about the facts underlying the Attorney General’s allegations.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register published more comments from Wheeler’s advocate:

Gordon Fischer, whom Wheeler hired shortly after a multi-agency investigation began in September, said the state was making Wheeler the fall guy for poor oversight of a program overrun with applications.

“It’s really, really disappointing that they made the decision to try to criminalize this,” Fischer said. Wheeler, he said, “continually raised to his supervisors that the workload was very heavy (inside the firm office), and he was doing the best he could with limited resources.”

The Iowa legislature is likely to eliminate the state film tax credit this session. Last week Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson wrote a good column at InsiderIowa.com about why this program was flawed from the start:

An ad hoc cabal of arts boosters, state and local economic developers, impressionable legislators, and an uncritical me-too response to other states’ attempts in this extremely iffy arena led to what was proudly billed as half-price film making in Iowa.  That is, incredibly, 50 percent of qualifying in-state film-making expenditures could be claimed as state income tax credits.  And even if you didn’t generate enough economic activity to use the credits, you could sell them on the secondary market to some other Iowa company that wanted to lower their state taxes.

It was a fiasco on three fronts. First, the grant of a fully-refundable credit on 50 percent of costs was fiscally unsustainable, legislatively irresponsible, and set the stage for the documented abuses that occurred. Second, Iowa does not have the population, talent, geography, climate, visual amenities, and the whole array of agglomerations that would support a meaningful and sustainable year-round film industry. It never will. And third, the creative economy, as in arts and entertainment, will not be a leading driver of the Iowa economy because they all had it backwards:  arts and entertainment clusters of the kind described by Mr. [Richard] Florida [author of The Rise of the Creative Class] are a result of other economic growth not the cause.

Iowa does not have a Hollywood, Nashville, Taos, Santa Fe, Austin, Memphis, or even Branson to build from.  Iowa is farms, biotechnology research and development, manufacturing, finance and insurance, health care, and universities.  Those are Iowa’s key industries, and the creative content of many of those industries is quite high.  They are full of biologists, agronomists, actuaries, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, and other physical, medical, and social scientists.  That is Iowa’s creative economy, and that is the portion of the state that will drive most job growth and innovation in the next decade.  It has art and cultural centers, but no art and cultural centers that are driving regional or statewide growth in other industries.

The film tax credit will end up costing Iowa taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. It’s a costly reminder that consensus ideas aren’t always good ideas.  

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Culver launches new campaign ad

While you’re waiting for tonight’s election returns, check out the television commercial Governor Chet Culver’s campaign launched today:

Like the commercial Culver ran last month, this ad emphasizes that the governor cut spending and his own salary in order to balance the state budget during this recession without raising taxes. I think the ad is well-crafted in terms of script and visuals, but like Bleeding Heartland users IowaVoter and dricey, I am concerned when Democrats rely heavily on Republican anti-tax messaging. Culver may be reinforcing conservative frames and limiting his future policy options if he does win re-election.

Kathie Obradovich highlighted another potential problem not long ago:

Gov. Chet Culver vowed to balance the state budget without raising taxes. And yet a third or more of Iowa school districts might end up raising property taxes as a direct result of the cut to state school aid ordered by Culver.

Is the governor breaking his promise? Well, no. And yes.

When Culver talks about avoiding a tax increase, he really means income and sales taxes – the two major revenue streams for the state. He’s referring to tax increases that he would have to sign into law. In that sense, he hasn’t raised taxes.

But he acknowledges that property taxes are a concern. Culver says he’ll ask the Legislature next year to require school districts to use their cash reserves before raising taxes.

Republicans are already blaming Democrats for the property tax increases many Iowans will experience next year. Their outrage is hypocritical, because the state cuts affecting education and local governments would have been far more severe if not for the federal stimulus bill, which included aid to state governments. Of course, Republicans denounced the stimulus package and bashed Culver for using these federal funds for their intended purpose: to help backfill the 2009 budget.

In any event, Democrats should be wary about staking next year’s campaign on “we didn’t raise your taxes during this recession.” That won’t be a comforting message to Iowans who have to pay a larger property tax bill in September 2010.

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