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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Grassley votes no as Senate passes bill extending various benefits, tax credits

Yesterday the Senate approved HR 4213, the Tax Extenders Act of 2009, by a 62-35 vote. Tom Harkin voted for the bill, as did all but one Democrat. Chuck Grassley voted against the bill, as did all but six Republicans (roll call here). Harkin’s office summarized some of the $140 billion bill’s key provisions:

o    Extend the current federal unemployment benefits program through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the federal funding of the state share of Extended Benefits through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend eligibility for the temporary increase of $25 per week in individual weekly unemployment compensation through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the 65 percent subsidy for COBRA coverage through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the Medicare payment fix for doctors.

o    Extend FMAP, the federal share of Medicaid payments, to give state budgets some relief.

Last week, Congress passed a 30-day extension of the federal unemployment benefits program (through April 5th) and the extension prior to that continued unemployment benefits for 2 months (from Dec 2009 to Feb 2010).

The Hill reported that about $80 billion of the bill’s cost “goes toward prolonging increased levels of federal unemployment aid and COBRA healthcare benefits for the jobless through the end of December.” According to the Washington Post, the main Republican objection was that the bill will add to the deficit. It’s notable that Republicans never let concerns about the deficit stop them from voting for unaffordable wars or tax cuts for the wealthy. But unemployment benefits that help struggling families while stimulating the economy and creating jobs are too expensive for Republicans.

The Senate bill approved yesterday also included an extension of the Biodiesel Tax Credit through the end of December. Most Iowa biodiesel plants are not viable without this tax credit, and consequently many shut down production in January of this year.

House Democrats may want a conference committee to reconcile the bill the Senate passed yesterday with a $154 billion jobs bill the House approved in December. That House bill included “significant new spending for infrastructure projects, as well as aid to states to prevent layoffs of key personnel such as teachers, police and firefighters.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has reportedly promised to “bring up a bill that included the infrastructure and state fiscal aid measures from the House jobs bill” before the Senate’s Easter break.

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Massive Iowa Legislature linkfest (post-funnel edition)

The Iowa Legislature has been moving at an unusually fast pace during the shortened 2010 session. It’s time to catch up on what’s happened at the statehouse over the past three weeks. From here on out I will try to post a legislative roundup at the end of every week.

February 12 was the first “funnel” deadline. In order to have a chance of moving forward in 2010, all legislation except for tax and appropriations bills must have cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the end of last Friday.

After the jump I’ve included links on lots of bills that have passed or are still under consideration, as well as bills I took an interest in that failed to clear the funnel. I have grouped bills by subject area. This post is not an exhaustive list; way too many bills are under consideration for me to discuss them all. I recommend this funnel day roundup by Rod Boshart for the Mason City Globe-Gazette.

Note: the Iowa legislature’s second funnel deadline is coming up on March 5. To remain alive after that point, all bills except tax and appropriations bills must have been approved by either the full House or Senate and by a committee in the opposite chamber. Many bills that cleared the first funnel week will die in the second.  

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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.

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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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