Quad-City Times. Nov. 30, 2013.
Iowa reports record year in the liquor business
By any business measure, Iowa's government-run liquor wholesaling business is a phenomenal success.
New figures released by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverage Division report a 34.8 percent gross profit margin. That helped drive a record-setting $295.6 million in revenue, a 5 percent jump over last year.
Look back even farther to see how this government agency has succeeded in increasing Iowans' alcohol consumption and liquor profits.
Since 2003, Iowans' vodka consumption is up 63 percent to 1.2 million gallons. That doesn't include another 240,707 gallons of flavored vodkas, a product that wasn't on the market 10 years ago.
The state Alcoholic Beverage Division reports that per capita consumption — measured only by the adult population — has soared from 1.48 gallons annually in 2003 to 2.27 gallons this year. Beer, which is regulated by the state, but distributed privately, has dropped slightly, from 35.8 to 33.6 gallons in the past decade.
Unlike most states, Iowa retained government-run wholesale marketing and distribution of alcohol when it got out of the retail liquor business. Most states tax and regulate liquor. But in Iowa, state employees buy, market and ship every drop of hard liquor in the state. The arrangement provides big money to the state's general fund. Liquor gross revenue of $285.6 million this year generated a record $119.5 million. Of that, $18 million was applied to substance abuse intervention.
Those profits keep the state's liquor business popular with legislators, even those who normally condemn government involvement in private sector businesses. In Iowa, government isn't just involved with liquor. It IS the liquor business. Lawmakers helped out tremendously two years ago by changing the law to expand hard liquor sales to gas stations.
We welcome almost any new revenue for the state, and appreciate the ABD's transparency through its annual reports. But we still struggle to understand how this particular business — run privately, taxed and regulated in most other states — remains a division of state government.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Nov. 26, 2013.
Keeping an eye on plain language rules
Making sure that government departments are communicating clearly with the nation's taxpayers is important to the government working correctly.
That was the point behind the Clear Writing Act, a bill proposed by Rep. Bruce Braley signed into law in 2010. It was supposed to ensure that government agencies write in clear, understandable language, free of government gobbledygook and jargon.
Unfortunately, the law doesn't have a lot of punitive teeth for those agencies that don't comply. However, the Plain Writing Act Report Card shows us which departments need more scrutiny.
At the bottom of this year's scores are the U.S. Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, both of which got an F in compliance and a D in plain writing. Braley said the Treasury's low score was particularly disturbing since it's the agency that handles taxes. The Department of Justice received a D in each of the categories.
The Social Security Administration improved from Cs in 2012 to this year's top score — an A in each category. The Department of Agriculture got the second highest score, an A in compliance and a B in plain writing.
"The whole point of this report card is shining a spotlight on the deficiencies of these agencies who are not complying and the successes of the agencies who are embracing it and how it's actually changed the way they think about how they're communicating," Braley said.
It is imperative that government agencies communicate with American citizens in a way that the vast majority can comprehend. Otherwise, federal rules can be hard to follow and people may be discouraged from applying for benefits or kept from participating in government in a meaningful way.
For example, when Medicare Part D was being implemented in 2006, countless seniors missed the deadline to receive prescription drug benefits because the stack of papers filled with confusing language was overwhelming for many of them.
We've all seen examples of the wide variety of government forms that are overcomplicated.
The passing of the bill was a logical step. It could even be seen as another government transparency issue.
"I am encouraged by these agencies that have taken the law seriously," Braley said. "I am troubled by the agencies who have not taken the law seriously, which is reflected in the report card."
In a democracy, it's necessary that the regular citizen is able to understand government documents. Evidently some departments need some remediation in that concept.
We appreciate that this annual "report card" lets us know which agencies those are. And it is our hope that our leaders and fellow citizens can then apply the pressure to force compliance.
The Des Moines Register. Nov. 30, 2013.
Rural interests need support of urban America in new farm bill
Congress left town for its Thanksgiving break without passing a new farm bill that expired in September. And if it doesn't pass something by the end of the year, a bunch of agricultural subsidies and nutrition programs will expire, and parts of the law will revert to the original 1938 and 1949 versions that would push milk prices up to $7 a gallon.
That might seem far-fetched, but given the repeated failures of Congress to enact budgets or raise the debt ceiling, the prospect of failure on the farm bill is not beyond the realm of possibility. Some members of Congress are not troubled by the idea of causing widespread economic disaster and pain for average Americans.
The farm bill provides farmers economic backstops through commodity price supports and disaster insurance. The law also promotes rural development, foreign trade in farm products, agricultural research, alternative sources of energy and healthful nutrition programs in public schools.
The single biggest sticking point on passing this farm bill is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps.
The House removed SNAP from the farm bill and voted separately to cut food stamps by $40 billion over 10 years. The Senate version of the farm bill would cut the program by just $4 billion over a decade. Although a 41-member House-Senate conference committee has been trying to work out differences in the farm bill, neither side appears willing to back down.
This is a historic breakdown. Farm-support programs providing an economic safety net for farmers date back at least to the Great Depression, and farm bills have been renewed roughly every five years since the 1940s. That was possible in part because of the food stamp program, which gave urban legislators a reason to vote for spending that benefited few of their constituents back home.
That rural-urban coalition fell apart last year when the House removed food stamps from its version of the farm bill. The legislation has also become a battleground for environmental groups that see crop subsidies encouraging reckless and unsustainable management of farmland. Consumer groups increasingly concerned about Americans' diets and rates of obesity believe Congress should encourage production and consumption of fruits, vegetables and organically grown foods. And, while city folk might be sympathetic to the plight of family farmers, they are less so of corporate-style industrial agriculture.
This splintering of views on what had been a fairly noncontroversial piece of legislation has not been lost on lawmakers from rural states, including Iowa's congressional delegation. Yet it is still not clear that leading farm organizations in this state and in other farm states have gotten the message that they have to make a better case for the federal support they enjoy.
Every other Iowa business would dearly love to have taxpayer-subsidized price supports and insurance that protects against natural and economic losses. Farmers must make a better case for why their industry should get special treatment.
It is not enough just to say that economically stable farming is essential to putting food on the table at reasonable prices. Or that farmers are subject to potentially ruinous risks related to the weather or insects and blight. American farmers must also demonstrate in measurable ways that they are using sustainable farming practices that protect the environment and preserve the land for future farmers.
They must demonstrate that they are willing to accept mandatory conservation rules and participation as a tradeoff for asking American taxpayers to subsidize their business. That has not happened. Instead, powerful farm organizations and state leaders in Iowa send the opposite message that they expect government handouts without any strings being attached.
That attitude will no longer do. Congress is on the precipice of failing, for the third time in the past two years, to pass an extension of the historic farm bill. It is time for rural America to wake up to that possibility.
Sioux City Journal. Dec. 1, 2013.
EPA plan to reduce RFS requirements: Misguided
It's crucial for leaders in farm states like Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska to lead the fight against an Environmental Protection Agency plan to lower Renewable Fuel Standard requirements beginning next year.
Created in 2005, the federal RFS requires transportation fuel sold in the U.S. be blended with a minimum volume of renewable fuels, such as corn-based ethanol. Under a proposal announced earlier this month, the EPA would reduce the requirement for 2014 by three billion gallons.
Clearly, this plan would hurt agriculture states. Iowa, for example, is the number-one producer of ethanol in America. The industry supports some 55,000 jobs in the state and accounts for $5.4 billion of Iowa's GDP, according to the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and the Iowa Corn Growers Association.
Ethanol is good for America, too. In addition to creating jobs and economic activity (in 2012, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, the production of 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol directly employed 87,292 Americans, indirectly employed an additional 295,969 Americans and contributed $43.4 billion to the national GDP), clean-burning ethanol is helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.
But we're preaching to the choir. In the heartland, we understand and appreciate the value and importance of renewable fuels, including ethanol.
This battle will be waged in Washington, largely against the lobbying efforts of the oil industry.
As we have said before, if the federal government wishes to reduce or end support for renewable fuels like ethanol, then it should end all forms of support, like tax writeoffs, for all energy producers, including oil.
Since the percentage-depletion allowance was created in 1913, the oil industry has enjoyed a wealth of tax breaks. Today, those tax writeoffs amount to billions of dollars each year. This at a time of record profits for the five largest oil companies.
What we fear is happening to the RFS is this: Influential oil interests possessed of power through lobbying and campaign contributions are dictating the rules of the game.
For the good not simply of states like Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, but America as a whole, we do not wish to see RFS requirements reduced and believe biofuels should remain a key component in national energy policy. In the name of achieving energy independence for the country, we in principle are comfortable with the idea of federal support for energy — all of energy.
We encourage state and federal leaders in our three states to continue pushing back against the EPA proposal in aggressive fashion.
We like, for example, the stand taken by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad last week when, in staunchly opposing the EPA proposal, said presidential candidates who visit Iowa in advance of the 2016 first-in-the-nation caucuses should get behind biofuels.
"I think that anybody who aspires to be president of the United States also should make a commitment to continuing . the reduction of our dependency on foreign oil and our commitment to having more and more of our energy coming from renewable sources like ethanol and biodiesel," Branstad said.
Regardless of political party or philosophical differences on other issues, leaders in states like Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska must stake out common ground together in spirited opposition to the EPA proposal on the RFS and work to reverse what is a misguided plan.