November 26, 2014

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.


Loebsack says congress should reconvene ASAP

Congressman Dave Loebsack.

Congressman Dave Loebsack.

Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack of Iowa City says the U.S. House should reconvene this week to deal with some critical issues.

“We’ve got to get back and we’ve got to make sure that we extend the tax provisions that have been languishing for far too long for the production tax credit, for example, the wind industry. We’ve got to work on the Renewable Fuels Standard, make sure we get that back to where it’s supposed to be,” Loebsack said on Election Night. “There are a lot of things that we have to do when we get back to Washington, D.C. I think we should go back tomorrow.”

Loebsack was elected to a new, two-year term in the U.S. House on Tuesday, but that term doesn’t start ’til January. A so-called “lame duck” session is likely to convene soon for current members of congress, including Loebsack, and he says it can’t start soon enough for him. Loebsack was among those who called for congress to reconvene in October, when the House did not meet to give members time to campaign.

“We should have gone back to Washington to discuss what to do in Syria and Iraq and the region more generally,” Loebsack said Tuesday. “I think the president needs an authorization for the use of military force from congress to do what he’s doing in Syria. We need to have a serious conversation about that.”

Congress is expected to return to Washington next week, but will be in session for votes for just 14 days through the end of the year. Over 50 temporary laws that outline dozens of corporate tax breaks have been in limbo since the end of 2013, when their last authorized extension ran out. The tax breaks are for things as varied as Puerto Rican Rum production and NASCAR race tracks, as well as the wind production tax credit. Congress must also vote to authorize government spending past December 11, when the current stop-gap spending plan expires.

State treasurer’s race features long-term incumbent versus econ professor


Mike Fitzgerald

The Republican who finished second in the race for the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination is still on November’s ballot — as a candidate for state treasurer. Sam Clovis says as state treasurer he’d be an advocate for tax reform, college affordability and economic development.

“All of these things have impact on the treasurer’s office and the treasurer’s office has impact on all of those things,” Clovis says. “And we have had a treasurer in the state of Iowa that has essentially done very little if any of that and has been essentially there to make sure the bills get paid.”

Democrat Michael Fitzgerald has been state treasurer for the past 32 years and he’s seeking reelection to another four-year term. Fitzgerald stresses his role as, essentially, the state’s banker.

“I’ve kept the money safe for all these years,” Fitzgerald says. “I’ve worked with our Republican auditors, especially Dick Johnson, to bring Generally Accepted Accounting Principles — an honest set of books to Iowa which helped us get AAA (bond) rating from all the rating agencies and now we have reserve funds because of that.”

And Fitzgerald says he’s addressed college affordability as the manager of the College Savings Iowa program.

“We have over 221,000 accounts, $4 billion is invested and it’s helping families send their kids to college in Iowa,” Fitzgerald says.

Sam Clovis

Sam Clovis

Clovis faults Fitzgerald for using the fund’s promotional dollars to feature himself in public service announcements about the program.

“He has used the PSAs for electioneering in election years,” Clovis says.

Fitzgerald defends his appearance in this fall’s radio and TV spots for the program.

“College Savings Iowa has grown because people want to know who they’re investing their money with and Iowans have come to trust me with the College Savings Iowa because we professionally invest their money,” Fitzgerald says, “and we’ve done remarkably well.”

Clovis says the money Fitzgerald has been spending on public service announcements could be better spent helping set up College Savings accounts for middle and low-income Iowans.

“Once they’re started, typically a family will continue to save,” Clovis says. “And a child that has a college saving program is seven times more likely to go to college and four times more likely to graduate from college and what that does is helps break the cycle of poverty in the state and essentially changes the economy of the state almost overnight.”

Clovis, who is 65 years old, lives in Hinton and is a Morningside College economics professor. Fitzgerald, who is 62, was a marketing analyst for Massey-Ferguson before he was elected state treasurer.









Iowa restaurant owner’s fight against the IRS gains national attention

Carole Hinders in front of her restaurant.

Carole Hinders in front of her restaurant.

A restaurant owner in northwest Iowa has landed in the national news spotlight over her fight with the federal government. Carole Hinders has operated Mrs. Lady’s Mexican Food in Arnolds Park for 38 years.

On May 22nd of last year, she says her life was turned upside down. “I got a knock on the door and it was two IRS agents who informed me they had closed my business bank account and seized all my money, which was almost $33,000,” Hinders said. The restaurant only accepts cash, which means Hinders makes frequent trips to the bank to avoid having large sums of money in the business.

Larry Salzman is with Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm that’s helping Hinders with her case.

“Federal law requires banks to report cash deposits greater than $10,000. The federal government used civil forfeiture to seize Carole’s bank account, claiming by making small deposits, she was evading that requirement,” Salzman said.

The Institute for Justice produced a video telling Hinders’ story. “It’s been a year from Hell,” Hinders said in the video. “I decided to fight this fight because I didn’t do anything wrong. They took my money and I don’t think they should have the right to do that.”

The law firm reports federal law enforcement agencies — using civil forfeiture — can take cash, cars and other property without charging the property owner with a crime. The 67-year-old Hinders said she received no warning from either her bank or the government before her money was taken.

Since then, she’s borrowed money and used credit cards to pay bills and keep her restaurant in business. The New York Times recently featured a story about Hinders’ plight on its front page. The Institute for Justice analyzed civil forfeiture, or “structuring,” data from the I.R.S., and determined the feds made 639 seizures in 2012, up from 114 in 2005.

Only one in five was prosecuted as a criminal structuring case.


Photo courtesy of Institute for Justice


IRS extends drought livestock loss deadline

Cattle in a field near Audubon.

Cattle in a field near Audubon.

A recent change by the Internal Revenue Service gives farmers who have been hit by drought a little more time for recovery. IRS spokesman, Christopher Miller, says the agency has changed the rules when it comes to livestock losses.

He says farmers often sell off livestock during drought conditions, and in order to take advantage of tax conditions under the law, they have to replace the sold off livestock within four years, but the IRS has extended the deadline another year for those who were facing a December 31st deadline this year.

“And that also means that impacted farmers can defer taxes on capital gains on that sale of the livestock,” Miller points out. The IRS regulations say the one-year extension applies to capital gains realized by eligible farmers and ranchers on sales of livestock held for draft, dairy or breeding purposes due to drought.

Sales of other livestock, such as those raised for slaughter or held for sporting purposes, and poultry are not eligible. “If you are a farmer in Iowa impacted by drought conditions over the last few years, you will have an extension of time to replace the livestock that you had to get rid of because of those conditions. And you also have an extension of time to defer any taxes that you get because of the gain in selling that livestock,” according to Miller.

Miller urges Iowans to check to see if they qualify under the extension. “To learn more, farmers simply need to read the IRS publication, 225, and that’s available on our website and we’ll also have a notice there that outlines the affected counties in Iowa,” Miller says. He says you should be able to find all the information you need on the website.


In final debate, Hatch says Branstad ‘close to…lying’ while Branstad dismisses ‘wild accusations’

Tonight Republican Governor Terry Branstad and Jack Hatch, the Democratic challenger, met in Sioux City for their third and final televised debate. The hour-long event gave Hatch’s low-budget campaign perhaps its final chance to make an impression with voters and Hatch came out swinging, criticizing Branstad’s priority of cutting property taxes and questioning Branstad’s job creation claims.

“We can’t afford four more years of Terry Branstad and his promises kept or broken,” Hatch said.

Branstad dismissed what he referred to as Hatch’s “wild accusations.”

“And the state of Iowa is on the right track,” Branstad said.

Hatch argued it’s time to cut income taxes for middle class Iowans.

“You know we’ve done a lot of corporations,” Hatch said. “We haven’t done very much for the people who work for them and that’s going to be my focus in the next four years.”

Branstad defended the bill he signed which has begun reducing commercial and industrial property taxes.

“And I’ve had people all over Iowa say: ‘Thank you for doing something that was promised for 30 years and you’ve finally delivered,” Bransad said. “The Iowa commercial and industrial property tax is going down.”

Sioux City journalists who moderated the debate also focused attention on an issue important to the host city for the event: completing the expansion of Highway 20 to four lanes. Hatch said Iowans are “expecting to have better roads.”

“There’s no better example from Governor Branstad of his broken promises than the completion of Highway 20,” Hatch said. “I don’t know what he’s going to do now that he hasn’t done the previous 20 years as governor.”

Branstad said it will likely take a combination of things to get this and other highway projects done, including federal funding and perhaps a shift to charging the state sales tax on gasoline purchases to raise more funds at the state level.

“We’ve been working on Highway 20 for a long time,” Branstad said. “We’ve only got 45 miles left. We need to get that done expeditiously and that’s the segment from Moville to Early.”

In the 2010 campaign, Branstad promised that if he was elected he’d create 200,000 new jobs in Iowa within five years. Tonight Branstad was asked how many jobs have been created since he returned to the governor’s office in January of 2011.

“I’m proud to say that we’ve been working on this every day since we came into office and in a little over three and a half years, we’ve created 150,900 jobs,” Branstad said. “…We have created more jobs in less than four years than the previous two governors did in 12 years.”

Hatch said that’s “close to…lying.”

“He’s created less than 80,000 jobs…Even a fifth grader knows you have to subtract those jobs that were lost,” Hatch said. “And what about those 80,000 jobs that were lost? Are they not important? I’m going to be a governor who focuses on those lost jobs as well.”

Halfway through the debate, the candidates were asked to cite something they admired in their opponent and the two offered “respect” to the other for putting their name on the ballot. Branstad then looked past November 4.

“I think working together is important,” Branstad said. “Once the election’s over, we need to recognize we all are public servants. We need to serve the people of Iowa.”

Hatch said he’d put the “people’s business” first if he’s elected.

“I have to say that we both, of course, had mustaches,” Hatch said, as some in the audience laughed. “For 46 years I liked mine, but I (shaved) it off because I was looking for differences and I think in a political campaign we have to show our differences.”

Hatch is a long-time state legislator from Des Moines who told the audience last night he first came to Iowa to attend college at Drake University, then stayed after graduation. Branstad, who is seeking his sixth term as Iowa’s governor, said in his closing statement that he “grew up poor” on a northern Iowa farm, where he learned to work hard at an early age.

A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register “Iowa Poll” conducted last week found Branstad holding a 15-point lead over Hatch. Tonight’s debate was broadcast live on KTIV TV and KSCJ Radio and co-sponsored by the Sioux City Journal and the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce.

State tax revenue predicted to rise 4.8 percent in next fiscal year

A three member panel of experts is predicting state tax revenue will continue to rise over the next three quarters — but by slightly less than what they had predicted in March. Dave Roederer, the governor’s budget director, is one of the members of the Revenue Estimating Conference. He says the state’s ag economy is “softening” and that’s one reason for the adjustment.

“Corn prices today are 40 percent less than what they were a year ago and soybeans are down 23 percent from where they were a year ago, so we were factoring that in,” Roederer says.

State policymakers are starting to think about crafting a new state spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The tax-revenue estimators are predicting the state will collect nearly five percent more in taxes that year compared to the current year.