October 1, 2014

Change in SNAP security costs stores

It now costs Iowa grocery stores and other businesses more to accept payments through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Merchants now have to pay for their own equipment and processing services whenever SNAP cards are used. Kevin Concannon, the U.S.D.A.’s Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services and a former Iowan, says the change was designed to prevent the illegal use of the program.

Concannon says, “We found that in some locations where a manual machine was used to record the expenditure on the SNAP benefit, there was a higher rate of fraud or trafficking.” About 421-thousand Iowans now receive SNAP benefits, or about 13-percent of the population.

Concannon says the goal is to make the use of those benefits more secure. “There are now 257,000 locations across the United States where one can use or spend your SNAP benefits,” Concannon says. “The requirement will be now that all of those outlets will be required to use electronic benefit capacity.”

Iowans who make part of their living at the 230 farmers markets across the state will be glad to hear that there are a few exceptions to the rule. “Those exceptions are basically farmers markets because it recognizes the nature of a farmers market is often on a vacant lot or in a rural area,” Concannon says. “It’s part of our effort to really reach out and support local agriculture and to encourage people to purchase healthier foods.”

Other exceptions include military commissaries, direct marketing farmers and non-profit food cooperatives. Concannon is the former director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.


Alliant Energy rate plan freezes base electric rate through 2016

A rate plan approved by state regulators will hold the line on electric rates for the 530-thousand customers of Alliant Energy Company. Alliant spokesman, Justin Foss, says the rate plan came out of a new agreement to purchase power from the Duane Arnold Nuclear plant that began in February of this year.

“We are going to get a lot cheaper energy, a lot less expensive energy from the plant. So, that’s a great thing, so that lowers rates,” Foss says. Foss says the plan has a couple of parts, one is the rate freeze. “The base rate — the majority of the price of energy — is going to stay the same, that it has been since late 2010, and it’s going to stay that way all the way through 2016,” he explains.

The rate plan also includes $105 million in customer credits, which began showing up on electric customer’s bills May 1.

“In 2014 we are going to be able to give back about $70 million in credits to reflect that lower cost,” Foss says, “but, because our other costs are rising, the credits will be less in 2015 and 2016.”

He says it’s hard to say how much credit each electric customer sees on their monthly bill. “It depends on how much you use. So, people who are seeing a lot of usage are seeing a little bit more credit on that, and people who are not using as much are not seeing as much credit,” according to Foss. “So, it’s really tough to put an average amount on that.”

Foss says customers with questions can go to: alliantenergy.com/iowarates.


Jimmy John’s reports 4 Iowa stores part of data breach

Four Jimmy John’s stores in Iowa were impacted by a recent security breach. According to a news release from the Illinois-based restaurant chain, customers’ credit card data was stolen from 216 Jimmy John’s stores in 37 states between June and early September.

That includes four sandwich shops in Iowa located at 2801 Grand Avenue North in Ames, 2016 College Street in Cedar Falls, 202 South Ankeny Boulevard in Ankeny, and 4926 Southeast 14th Street in Des Moines.

Investigators believe someone stole log-in credentials and remotely installed malware on machines used to swipe credit cards. The new release states Jimmy John’s has taken steps to restore its security.



Report estimates Iowa’s take in taxes if pot is legalized

A new report puts a price tag on what Iowa might reap in tax revenues every year if the state legalized marijuana. The financial website NerdWallet.com took the data from an anonymous health survey that found about 4-percent of Iowans over age 25 said they’d smoked pot in the past month.

Based on Iowa’s population, that’s about 84,000 users. From there, the report’s writers mirrored what Colorado has done and figured in a 15-percent excise tax on all marijuana sales. The final tally exceeded $24 million which the website claims Iowa could generate in taxes each year by making pot legal.

Nationwide, the figure exceeds $3 billion.


Iowa Fertilizer Plant the focus of tonight’s gubernatorial debate

The fertilizer plant under construction in southeast Iowa was a major point of contention during this evening’s debate between the two major party candidates for governor. The incumbent, Republican Terry Branstad, defended his administration’s decision to award $110 million worth of state incentives to the Egyptian company that’s building the plant near Wever.

“We’re very proud of it and the CEO of the company recently said they’re just getting warmed up,” Branstad said. “When they complete this, they’re looking at expanding it.”

Democratic challenger Jack Hatch said that’s $700,000 worth of state incentives per job and that’s a “bad deal” for taxpayers.

“The state has the responsibility to invest in our communities and our small businesses, not the big, undeserving corporations like we have,” Hatch said.

The debate was held in Burlington — about 14 miles away from the construction site in neighboring Lee County. Branstad called the development a “great deal” and, over time, Branstad said local southeast Iowa governments will reap millions.

“The net result is the Fort Madison School District and Lee County are going to get net plus of $2.9 million additional tax revenue every year and the State of Iowa is also going to gain revenue,” Branstad said. “If it hadn’t located here, we wouldn’t get those additional tax revenues.”

Hatch said rather than giving $110 million worth of incentives to one company, there would have been greater economic impact if that money had been spread out among businesses statewide.

“The top-down approach that Governor Branstad has been using, where Des Moines picks winner and losers, is the wrong approach to use when we’re recovering from a recession,” Hatch said.

The two candidates quarreled over Branstad’s job creation claims and each questioned the other’s commitment to raising the minimum wage. The conduct of the campaign was a simmering issue during Saturday’s debate as well, with Hatch complaining about Branstad’s ads that criticize Hatch’s property development business.

“Governor, I’d like to ask that you take the key from one of your political heroes, Ronald Reagan and he said…’You stop lying about me and I’ll stop telling the truth about you,’” Hatch said, to applause from his supporters in the crowd.

Branstad didn’t back down.

“If he wants to disprove our claim that he has gained substantially and made millions of dollars at the taxpayers’ expense, I would challenge Senator Hatch to release four more years of his taxes,” Branstad said. “He’s only done one. I’ve done 24. I’m willing to do another four of the previous four before I came back as governor if he’s willing to do that.”

Branstad served four years as Iowa’s lieutenant governor, then 16 years as Iowa’s governor and left office in January of 1999. In 2010 he won a fifth term as governor. The political culture of Illinois was cited during Saturday’s hour-long debate. Hatch listed a number of controversies that have popped up over the last four years, including Branstad’s order to close the Iowa Juvenile Home and the disclosure that some state employees were being paid extra to stay quiet about their exit settlements with the state.

“This is the kind of leadership you’d expect from the governor of Illinois, not the governor of Iowa,” Hatch said.

Branstad responded.

“This is Iowa, not Illinois. Most of the former governors of Illinois are in prison. I’m back in office ’cause the people of Iowa trust me,” Branstad said, drawing applause from his supporters in the room. “They know me. They can rely on me.”

Tonight’s debate was sponsored by the Greater Burlington Partnership — an alliance of local chambers of commerce and by the Burlington Hawk Eye and WQAD television. The third and final debate between Branstad and Hatch will be held in Sioux City on October 20.

Ethanol plant managers return from trip to U.S. capital

The leaders of four of Iowa’s ethanol plants have returned home from a trip to Washington, D.C. this week. Kelly Hanson, general manager of the Hanlontown POET Biorefinery facility, says they met with a host of policy makers in hopes of rejecting the EPA’s proposal to lower the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS).

The group also pushed for the implementation of E-15 into the nation’s fuel supply. Hanson says while lawmakers in many states support the ethanol industry, others have “misconceptions” about the RFS. “Truthfully, the RFS can benefit every state in the nation and we worked hard to make sure that message was clear,” Hanson says.

The Renewable Fuels Standard requires a set amount of corn-based ethanol fuel to be produced each year. Hanson says the RFS, first established in 2005, has been an “overwhelming” success. “It’s created over 400,000 American jobs, it has revitalized rural America, it’s clearly lowered the price of fuel at the pump, and one of the most important things is it’s helped our nation become more energy independent,” Hanson says.

The delegation in Washington this week included the general managers of POET facilities in Corning, Coon Rapids, Gowrie,Jewell and Hanlontown.

(Reporting by Pat Powers, KQWC, Webster City)


August unemployment rate matches July

The monthly unemployment report is out today. “Our August unemployment rate stayed the same as the previous month at 4.5 percent, that’s down from 4.7 percent for August of last year, and still below the national rate of 6.1 percent,” according to Kerry Koonce of Iowa Workforce Development.

Small gains in the job market were offset by some losses.”Overall we just added 200 jobs across the economy. The largest areas of gains were in the professional and business services and then in the leisure and hospitality — both of those adding 12-hundred,” Koonce explains. “The largest loss was 11-hundred in construction. This time of year some things are starting to slow down — they are finishing summer projects — that’s why you see those numbers.”

Koonce says there usually is not a lot of movement as summer winds down. “It’s typical this time of year, you had jobs added and people going back to work in the spring, and the construction industry kind of tables off here in the summer while they are not adding more. Then we’ll see some transition again as we move back into the fall,” according to Koonce. The unemployment rate started the year at 4.3 percent and moved up slightly for two months to 4.5, dropped back to 4.3 in April, moved to 4.4 in May and held in June.It then moved to 4.5 in July and August.

Koonce doesn’t expect a lot more movement the rest of this year. “I would guess that we’re probably going to hold in this low four range — for at least the rest of this year. We will have to see what the rest of the year brings, but probably hanging in the low four areas for the rest of 2014,” Koonce says. The total estimated number of unemployed Iowans remained at 76,700 in August. The current estimate is 1,400 lower than one year ago.

The jobs report finds nonfarm employment continuing to trend upward, adding 18,000 jobs annually (1.2 percent). The professional and business services sector has added the most private industry jobs (+3,200), and has been fueled by strengthened staffing in administrative and support positions. The education and health services sector also remains significantly up (+2,700) due primarily to growth in health care industries (+2,000). The information services sector remains the only sector to trail last year’s level (-600).