April 19, 2014

Microsoft to build second data center in West Des Moines

Microsoft has been identified as the company behind another big economic development project in West Des Moines. The company will build a $1.1 billion data center on a 154 acre site in Polk County.

Governor Terry Branstad was in West Des Moines for the announcement, made shortly after the Iowa Economic Development Authority approved just over $20 million dollars in sales tax rebates for the project. “Iowa has been very fortunate in the last few years to have numerous economic development projects worth over one billion dollars; Facebook, MidAmerican Energy’s Wind Farm, CF Industries, and Iowa Fertilizer,” Branstad said.

Microsoft already has a data center in West Des Moines, so the company’s total investment in the area will now reach nearly $2 billion. “That is an all-time record (for the state),” Branstad noted.

The City of West Des Moines has promised $53 million in infrastructure improvements to accommodate the site. Mayor Steve Gaer  said it’s well worth the investment. “The economic impact of this project alone, when it’s fully developed, will be over 8 million dollars a year in property taxes to the city, county and school district,” Gaer said.

Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly said the data center will be huge, covering a space comparable to roughly 20 football fields. “The project will firmly establish central Iowa as one of the country’s leading technology environments and with the addition of over 80 jobs, will certainly bring new talent to our community,” Connolly said. Microsoft officials have pledged the project will eventually create 84 jobs, most of which will pay a wage of at least $24.32 an hour.

Construction on the project is expected to start this spring.

Branstad releases his 2013 income tax returns, plus a letter from his doctor

Branstad tax returnsRepublican Governor Terry Branstad has released the state and federal tax returns he and his wife have filed, revealing the couple reported taxable income of almost $235,000.

Branstad’s salary as governor is just over $127,000 and he got about $55,000 from his state pension for his 30 years of service as a state legislator, as lieutenant governor and for his first four terms as governor. Branstad and his wife, Chris, own 13 rural post office buildings and collected $64,000 in rent last year, plus the Branstads reported income from investments and from an IRA willed to Branstad by an uncle who died recently.

The couple donated just over $40,000 to charity in 2013. That’s 17.2 percent of their total income. Reporters were allowed to read through Branstad’s tax returns this morning, as well as  read a short letter Branstad’s doctor wrote after the governor’s last physical in late February. The doctor said he found the 67-year-old Branstad “to be in good health” and the doctor said he had “no concerns” regarding Branstad’s “health and capacity to work.”

Jack Hatch, the only Democrat running for governor, released his 2013 tax returns as well as a letter from his doctor yesterday. Hatch reported he and his wife — who are property developers — had about $469,000 in income last year. Jack and Sonja Hatch paid over $88,000 in federal income taxes and almost $29,000 in state income taxes.  Terry and Chris Branstad paid $28,000 in federal taxes and $6200 in state taxes.

Hatch releases information about his personal finances & his health

The Democrat who is running for governor of Iowa has released the state and federal tax returns he and his wife have filed, revealing taxable income of nearly $469,000 during 2013.

State Senator Jack Hatch of Des Moines — the only Democrat running for governor — is a property developer.  Hatch allowed reporters to view his tax returns and the documents show Hatch and his wife, Sonja, paid over $88,00 in federal income taxes and almost $29,000 in state income taxes. The couple donated over $19,000 to charity in 2013. That’s about four percent of their total income.

Jack and Sonja Hatch own two companies. One develops properties. The other manages apartments. The couple also has partnerships in seven different real estate developments in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Hatch will later release an estimate of his net worth.

Hatch also has released a letter from his doctor today, saying Hatch is in “generally good health.” Hatch had a physical last week.  The doctor said the 64-year-old candidate has had an elevated cholesterol level as well as a family history of high blood pressure, but those are “well controlled” with medication.

Governor Terry Branstad plans to release the details of his income tax returns tomorrow. Branstad’s reelection campaign this morning challenged Hatch to release his tax returns for the past five years — Branstad has made his own returns public during that time period. Hatch’s campaign manager says the senator is releasing his returns from the previous year.

Branstad’s campaign spokesman Tommy Schultz suggests Hatch is “deeply worried” about something in his past tax returns.  Branstad made his opponent’s tax returns a major issue in the 1982 campaign.

Senator Grassley says fouled up tax system is depressing

The deadline for filing federal tax returns is one week away and Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says today’s tax code is a “monstrosity” that’s far too complicated and is a drag on the nation’s economic growth, not to mention our patience. “The IRS says it takes an average taxpayer 13 hours to comply with the federal tax code,” Grassley says. “Every year, Americans spend more than $168 billion and collectively clock in six-billion hours to file their taxes.”

Grassley says he gets “very, very depressed” when he considers how fouled up our tax system has become and he hears constituents’ complaints on the topic all the time. “People come to my office and they say ‘We need tax reform, but don’t touch my part of the tax code,’” Grassley says. “They don’t actually say it that way but that’s the implication. That makes me pessimistic when you have every economic interest is for tax reform but ‘don’t effect ours,’ that’s a zero sum gain and it’s hard to get anything done.”

Grassley, a Republican, says one thing we’ve never tried is throwing out the entire tax code and starting over. “But in 1986, there was big progress made in tax reform and the trouble is, within five years, in a very slow process that brings us to the monstrosity we have today,” Grassley says. “It’s back probably worse than it was in 1986 when we started reform then.”

He says taxpayers already pay enough to shoulder the costs of the federal government. Grassley notes, the Affordable Care Act will raise taxes more than $700 billion over the next decade.

No traction for increasing state gas tax

It appears lawmakers will adjourn the 2014 session of the Iowa Legislature without taking action on proposals that would have raised additional money to maintain and expand the state’s transportation system.  House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, says those who’ve been lobbying for an increase in the state gas tax have gained no traction.

“I don’t think anything’s changed in that dialogue this session,” Paulsen says.

Efforts over the past few years to raise the state gas tax have fallen short and last fall the Iowa DOT’s director developed a list of other alternatives, like getting rid of the tax exemption for fuel used in farm machinery, to raise funds for roads. None of those alternatives have been endorsed by a legislative committee and Governor Branstad did not include the proposals in his own budget plan. Representative Josh Byrnes, a Republican from Osage who supports increasing the gas tax, suggests now would be a good time for Branstad to change his tune.

“What the governor’s office should do, if they want to divert attention from this other conversation, they should come out in support of the fuel tax,” Byrnes says.

Branstad’s administration is under scrutiny for alleged “hush money” payments to laid off state workers.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock does not sense a groundswell for a gas tax increase.

“I believe that what you’re seeing happen in the Iowa Senate is that people are listening and while attitudes may be changing about that, at the moment they’re not hearing a strong message from the vast majority of their constituents to make those changes,” Dix says.

Representative Byrnes says Republicans in one of the counties in Dix’s district called for an increase in the gas tax in their party platform.

“I don’t get why he’s been so anti, against this when his own constituents are wanting it,” Byrnes says.

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs has said if a gas tax hike is to pass, it must get bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

“I personally believe we need additional in the Road Use Tax Fund and, if that’s going to happen, it requires a meeeting of the minds,” Gronstal says. “…If we get to that, I am still open to considering (a bill to increase the gas tax) this session.”

Byrnes says he’s frustrated by those comments from Gronstal.

“If you know that we need to do this and you know that it needs to be done, then quit putting up this stupid requirement that says you need to have 12 Republicans in favor of it out of the Senate,” Byrnes says. “If you get 10, take it. It’s still a bipartisan vote.”

In November Governor Branstad said raising the gas tax is “not popular” with Iowans. State transportation officials estimate they are $215 million short of what’s needed to maintain and build new roads and bridges.  Iowa’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1989.

(Reporting & editing by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson; additional reporting by Darin Swenson of KDEC in Decorah)

Tax checkoff supports child abuse prevention

Federal tax returns are due in about a dozen days and an Iowa-based charity is hoping taxpayers in the state don’t skip the opportunity to make a quick donation.

Sarah Welch, spokeswoman for Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, says the non-profit organization is dedicated to prevention through education. “We, from January of last year through March of this year, were able to come in second among the four beneficiaries of the checkoffs that are on the state income tax return form,” Welch says, “and with that second-place finish in the number of contributions we receive, that means we’ll stay on the state income tax return form for another two years.”

She says the tax return checkoff netted the organization $65,000 last year for its child abuse prevention programs. The services last year served 12-thousand parents and 45,000 children in 83 Iowa counties. The annual Prevent Child Abuse Iowa Conference is scheduled for next week.

Around 500 people from across Iowa are expected to attend. Welch says they’re partnered with the Iowa Department of Public Health and its Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. “They’ve provided a lot of support and resources to help us bring in some pretty significant national speakers from major research institutes like the Pew Charitable Trust,” Welch says. “We also have somebody from the National Fatherhood Institute coming out.”

The conference runs April 14th through the 16th at the West Des Moines Sheraton. Learn more at: www.pcaiowa.org

(Reporting by Pat Powers, KQWC, Webster City)

“Sing Me to Heaven” group lobbies legislators for state funding

Jennifer Mehlert & Diane McIntosh of La Porte City with Rep. Kressig.

Jennifer Mehlert & Diane McIntosh of La Porte City with Rep. Kressig.

A small group of Iowans involved in the “Sing Me to Heaven” Foundation is asking legislators to pass a bill that would set aside $100,000 in state tax money to help low-income families who have to bury a child. Jennifer Mehlert of La Porte City started the non-profit group after her daughter died in early 2010.

“I was 27 years old at the time and I had to plan a funeral…and the funeral bill was over $9,000,” she said during a statehouse news conference. “It was comparable to an adult’s, so I began to think about it and I decided something needed to happen so, with the support of my mom, we started Sing Me to Heaven.”

The bill would funnel the state money to Mehlert’s non-profit group for grants of up to $2,000 each to help pay for the funeral of a child in a family who’s receiving government assistance or who can prove financial need. Mehlert’s group has thus far raised $60,000 on its own and helped 42 families in 17 Iowa counties pay for the funerals of their children.

“With this one-time request of funds, we’re looking to potentially help at a bare minimum of 50 families…to take their time to grieve rather than having…to worry about downsizing, selling its vehicle or even looking at the possibility of bankruptcy,” says John McDermott, a member of the Sing Me to Heaven board of directors. “It provides them the opportunity to grieve properly.”

Larry Schwienebart of Baxter said it’s “not right” that needy families face the financial stress of a funeral when a child dies.  He’s at the statehouse, urging legislators to pass the bill.

“I’ve been through the Vietnam conflict and that was hell,” an emotional Schwienebart said. “But losing a granddaughter who was like a daughter to us was the worst thing I’ve ever faced in my life and you don’t understand it until you’ve been there and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

Representative Bob Kressig, a Democrat from Cedar Falls, is the main sponsor of the bill that would set aside state money to pay for the funerals of low-income children.

“It is real,” Kressig said. “It is happening and families are suffering.”

The bill has not yet been considered by a subcommittee in the Iowa House and there’s no meeting scheduled.