November 23, 2014

Ethanol backers pleased with EPA pull back on renewable fuel standard

Gas pumpSupporters of renewable fuels in Iowa say they are pleased with the announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that they delaying their decision on a proposal that would have dramatically cut the amount of renewable fuels required to be used in the country.

Iowa Renewable Fuels Association executive director, Monte Shaw, has been fighting the decision on the federal Renewable Fuel Standard or RFS since it was announced.

“Well at this stage, I’m not sure what would surprise us,” Shaw. Shaw says he was at a rally with the governor and members of the congressional delegation to defend the RFS in Nevada at this time last year.

“And here we are one year later and they’re deciding they need more time to decide. So, I think the signs are clear that they’ve understood that this proposal isn’t going to fly that has been out there and they are going to redo it and get it right. So, I am going to be cautiously optimistic,” Shaw says.

The EPA proposal would cut the amount of ethanol required in the RFS by 3 billion gallons. Shaw says there is some good news in the decision to take more time. “If they wanted to just finalize the draft proposal, they had 365 days to do it and they didn’t,” Shaw says. “So that tells me that clearly they got a message that they need to get back to having the RFS do what it was supposed to do — which is help consumers get access to the higher ethanol blends, biodiesel blends and cellulosic ethanol.”

Shaw says ethanol has continued to show its importance as a fuel. “Ethanol is still the cheapest source of fuel on the planet, not just octane, but it’s still cheaper than gasoline. So, the more ethanol we get in our fuel supply, the cheaper it is going to be,” Shaw says. “Part of the reason that they had originally put our the draft rule that would have gutted the RFS is they were concerned about gas prices. And that you wouldn’t be able to use enough ethanol and that would cause gas prices to go up.”

He says those fears were unfounded. “I think the market over the last 12 months has shown that that was a misplaced fear, that that was a big oil talking point, that unfortunately the administration bought into for some time,” Shaw says. Shaw isn’t ready to say the RFS fight is over, but he is happy with the EPA’s latest move. “Again, I’m going to be optimistic that this is the administration saying we need to hit the reset button on this proposal. We need to go back and get the numbers right, get the methodology right and get back to having the RFS do what it was supposed to, which is to crack the monopoly that oil has,” according to Shaw.

Governor Terry Branstad, Iowa’s Ag Secretary, Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley, all issued statements praising the decision to delay the action on the EPA renewable fuels proposal.


Congressman-elect Young: securing border first step in immigration reform

David Young

David Young

Congressman-elect David Young says President Obama’s plans for immigration reform do not address what he says is the most important issue. “For me, I’ve always said first of all in any immigration package, we have to secure the border first, first and foremost the border. And that comes in conjunction with securing the homeland and then enforcing the rule of law, whatever it is, and right now we’re not enforcing the rule of law,” Young says.

The Republican who is preparing to represent the third district, was asked his definition of securing the border. “It means nobody is flowing through the border, whether it’s the northern border or southern border,” Young replies. “The president I believe on his own could be working to secure that border on his own with the border patrol agents and the funds.”

Some Republicans say they may have to shut down the government to stop the president’s actions on immigration, Young is not ready to do that. “I want to make sure the government is open, I don’t think that helps in any real manner, I think it costs money in the end. I think there are some tools that we can possibly use. There are some defunding mechanisms that we can probably use,” Young says. “But what we have to understand with what the president is doing, it is going ot be hard to use funds — or lack thereof and the power of the purse — to do that because what is happening now is those application fees are funding what’s going to be happening with the president’s action.”

Young says he has talked with the Latino community in his district about the issue. “For the most part they want the rule of law enforced,” Young explains. “This really gets at those folks who came over here legally, man of them in the Latino population, the African population, the Asian population. They are a little bit disappointed that some folks are getting this favoritism, while those folks came through the right way.”

On other issues, Young says he wants to see spending and tax bills come forward, and he wants to see the Keystone pipeline approved. “I think that we’re going to have the votes in the 114th Congress to pass that and possibly override any veto, I am hopeful of that. But that’s something that I want to make sure that we get passed as well,” Young says.

He also expects with the House and Senate both now controlled by Republicans, that they will try to repeal Obamacare. “I’m assuming that there is going to be an up or down vote on repeal, and I would vote for repeal,” Young says, “because I thought it was a bad law and a bad policy. And if that doesn’t succeed, there are ways to dismantle this law and make it better.” Young says there are some things he would like to keep in the federal health care law, such as making sure that people with preexisting conditions can stay on insurance, and allowing kids to stay on their parent’s health care plan up to the age of 26.

Young made his comments during taping of the “Iowa Press” program that airs tonight (Friday) on Iowa Public Television.

Branstad: no ‘big changes’ in his staff in 2015

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Don’t expect the top brass in the Branstad Administration to look all that different in 2015. Republican Terry Branstad does not plan to use the start of a new term to make wholesale changes in top administrative positions in state government, but a “few” people will exit and be replaced.

“We’ll be making a few staff changes in the governor’s office,” Branstad said this week. “We may have some changes in terms of department heads.”

Some key state senators have said a few of Branstad’s agency chiefs might not win confirmation from two-thirds of the senate to serve another four years. Iowa Workforce Development director Teresa Wahlert has been heavily criticized by Senate Democrats for her management style and the changes she’s made in the agency. Branstad won’t be asking for any resignations, but he hinted some top state agency managers may “retire” rather than stay on for his sixth term.

“We’re not ready to make any announcements at this time, but I don’t expect there’ll be big changes, but I expect there will be a few,” Branstad told Radio Iowa during a Wednesday afternoon interview shortly before his departure to the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida.

Branstad served 16 years as governor, from January of 1983 to January of 1999. After 12 years out of office, Branstad was reelected as Iowa’s governor in 2010. His victory in 2014 sets the stage for Branstad to claim the record as the nation’s longest-serving governor. He’ll cross that mark midway through his sixth term.

Congressman King suggests ‘censure’ for Obama over immigration order

Representative Steve King.

Representative Steve King.

The reaction from Iowa’s congressional delegation to Predident Obama’s immigration order includes one suggestion that congress vote to publicly and formally reprimand Obama for his actions.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin says Obama has taken “common sense steps” and “is doing the right thing.” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley says Obama has taken “the wrong way forward” and is “poisoning the well for future action” om immigration reform. Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack of Iowa City says he has “concerns about the president acting without congressional approval,” but Loebsack says he hopes the president’s executive order now spurs House Republicans to vote on an immigration reform bill.

Republican Congressman Steve King of Kiron is a leading critic of “amnesty” for any illegal immigrant. King says no one in congress wants to throw the country in turmoil and impeach the president, but King suggested during an appearance last night on CNN that congress might vote to censure Obama instead.

Senator Harkin says inaction by Congress forced president to act on immigration

Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin says he understands why President Obama will likely issue an executive order today providing temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. Harkin, a Democrat, blames the Republican-led U.S. House for its inaction on immigration. He notes, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill 18 months ago, a bill that hasn’t yet come up for debate in the House.

“So, it’s forcing the president to do something on an executive basis, which, I would admit should be done legislatively, but the crisis is real and the president has to act, so keep that in mind.” Harkin says if House leaders would allow the bill to go to a vote, it would likely pass. He’s expecting the president to take action today where the legislative branch of government has failed.

“I think he’s going to clarify in an executive order what his lawyers tell him that he can do executively,” Harkin says. “I think he’s going to do something about the “dreamers,” the young kids who are brought here as children or young kids, to let them be a part of our society and go to college here.”

The most controversial part of the expected executive order would grant legal status, at least on a temporary basis, to as many as five-million immigrants who are now in the country illegally.

Harkin says, “I believe that he’s going to stay the deportation of certain segments of people who have been here for a long time and are working and paying their taxes and everything else in this country.”

One Republican U.S. Senator says the president’s actions today may spark violence and “anarchy” from immigration opponents. Harkin says the comments from Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn go too far in predicting such a negative reaction about the president’s pending executive order. “I wish Mr. Coburn would use less inflammatory language,” Harkin says. “This is the kind of thing that stirs people up and implicates fear and anxiety in people rather than calmly discussing it and talking about it.”

The president is expected to address the nation from the White House tonight.


Congressman-elect Blum listed in bankruptcy filing, loaned hockey star’s family $2 million

A Dubuque businessman who just won a seat in congress earlier this month is listed in a professional hockey player’s bankruptcy filing.

The Columbus Dispatch reports hockey star Jack Johnson, who plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets, has filed for bankruptcy after his parents — who managed his finances — apparently ran up huge debts in his name. The bankruptcy filing documents mention a $2 million loan that Rodney L. Blum made the family in March of 2011. Blum, who won Iowa’s first district congressional race this month, is a successful software developer.

The newspaper reports Blum’s office “did not respond to interview requests” and “it’s unclear” how Johnson’s family knew Blum or why Blum made a personal loan to the family, at a 12 percent interest rate. The newspaper reports that about a month after extending the loan, Blum sued. About $42,000 from the hockey star’s salary was garnished every two weeks during most of the past two seasons to repay the debt to Blum.

Blum’s spokesman, Keegan Conway, issued a written statement to Radio Iowa.

“Obviously this is a difficult time for the Johnson family,” Conway said, “and out of respect for their privacy Mr. Blum will not be discussing their private financial situation as the legal process takes its course.”

Hockey star Jack Johnson is 27 years old. The Columbus Dispatch reports his mother took out at least $15 million worth of high-interest loans in his name, using her son’s future earnings as collateral. The newspaper reports by this spring, the professional hockey player had little, if any, of his paycheck left after debt payments were made. He lists assets of just $50,000 and debts of at least $10 million in his bankruptcy filing.

(This story was updated at 11:57 a.m. with additional information.)

Branstad says it’s time to consider ‘options & ideas’ for new road revenue

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad says he’s open to considering all options that might boost the amount of money available to fix Iowa’s roads and bridges.

“I’m interested in coming up with additional funding for the Road Use Tax Fund,” Branstad told Radio Iowa Wednesday afternoon, “and I want to look at a whole series of options and ideas.”

The state gas taxes paid when motorists fill up at Iowa pumps are deposited in the state’s Road Use Tax Fund, but transportation officials have said for the past several years there’s not enough money being generated from the gas tax to finance needed road and bridge repairs and new construction. It’s partly because modern vehicles get far better gas mileage — so fewer gallons of fuel are purchased — and partly because the state gas tax of 22 cents per gallon hasn’t been raised since 1989. Branstad said he isn’t calling on legislators to pass an increase in the state gas tax. Branstad suggested a wide-ranging combination of actions should be considered.

“I want to look at fees for heavier loads being transported across the state,” Branstad said. “I want to look at different options for diesel than gas and maybe different mechanisms in terms of the way it’s done.”

One idea floated last year would be to charge the state sales tax on fuel purchases. One of the complications lawmakers are considering is that drivers of new hybrid vehicles which primarily run on electricity pay little, if anything, for using the roads compared to those who pay the gas tax when they fill up.

“I really believe that we need a more modern and efficient system,” Branstad said, “and I also want to do something that will maybe give some option opportunities to local governments as well.”

Branstad wants to explore giving cities and counties that receive a combination of state and federal dollars to finance road projects a way to opt out of Davis-Bacon restrictions. Those federal rules require federally financed projects to pay construction workers the prevailing wage in the county. Republicans say that unnecessarily inflates the cost of projects and benefits construction firms that employ union labor, while Democrats have traditionally opposed efforts to do away with prevailing wage rules.

Iowa cities and counties already get a share of state gas tax revenue, but local officials have complained it’s not a large enough share based on the number of miles of city streets and county roads when compared to the number of miles of state-maintained highways. Some areas of the state with pressing needs have resorted to asking voters to raise their property taxes to finance local road and bridge projects. Branstad said he’s talked with leaders from both parties to see if there’s some way to come up with a “bipartisan consensus” among legislators this year, compared to previous years when no agreement emerged.

The 2015 Iowa Legislature convenes Monday, January, 12th.