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.


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.

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.


ACLU files lawsuit against state over felon voting rights

Kelli Jo Griffin

Kelli Jo Griffin

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today on behalf of a Montrose woman who wants to get her voting rights back.

Iowa ACLU spokesperson, Veronica Fowler, says 41-year-old Kelli Jo Griffin lost her voting rights after being convicted of a nonviolent felony drug charge in 2008. “She completed her probation, but under Iowa law she can’t vote any longer,” Fowler says, “and she’s really turned her life around. She is a mom of four, she is involved with her kids, she is a volunteer in our community, she works with women who have been victims of domestic violence. She works with women who have gone through rehab and who are in rehab for drug and chemical addiction.”

Fowler says there is a process where you can apply to have your voting rights restored, but it is not easy. “It can be confusing, it can be time consuming, and there is no guarantee that if you do it, that you can get your right to vote back,” Fowler says. She says her organization has tried to help people work through the process to restore their voting rights. “We have put together multi-page booklets on it, there’s information from the secretary of state’s office, the governor’s office, but there’s still a lot of confusion,” Fowler says. She says they used a number of communications people and lawyers and still found it a difficult and confusing process.

The lawsuit asks the court to restore the voting rights automatically to Griffin and others who have lower-level, nonviolent felonies. “And then we are also seeking an injunction to stop the state from bringing criminal charges against Iowans with past lower-level criminal charges when they register to vote, or they actually vote,” Fowler says. Fowlers says a series of executive orders from Iowa governors covering voting rights for felons made things even more confusing.

She says Griffin was charged in 2013 for voting in a school election. Her lawyer had correctly told her she could vote again after serving her sentence, but by the time she voted, an executive order by Governor Terry Branstad in 2011 had changed her status. It overturned the previous policy that automatically restored the rights of felons to vote and requires them to apply to have their rights restored. A jury acquitted her, but she is still barred from voting.

The lawsuit names Governor Branstad, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, and Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise as defendants. Schultz’s spokesman says the Secretary of State’s legal department has not yet seen the lawsuit, so they cannot comment on it at this time.

Photo courtesy of the Iowa ACLU.

Other related stories:

Branstad snaps back at Holder over felon voting rights

Governor releases streamlined rules for restoring voting rights.

Debate continues over restoring voting rights of felons.


Iowa Senate leader: ‘Erase the chalk board. Start over.’

Mike Gronstal

Mike Gronstal

After all the hoopla of the 2014 election, there won’t be much change in the key decision-makers at the statehouse. Republican Governor Terry Branstad easily won reelection, Republicans added four seats in to their majority in the Iowa House and Democrats were able to retain control of the Iowa Senate.

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs suggests legislators need to forget about all the election drama and move on. “Everybody understands a sore loser. Nobody understands a sore winner. Erase the chalk board. Start over,” Gronstal says. “The voters have put a set of people into this golden dome building and it’s our job to work together and try and face the problems Iowa has and solve them.”

For the past two years Democrats had held a narrow, 26 to 24 seat edge in the Iowa Senate and, while some of the seats changed hands Tuesday night, Democrats will be in control by the same 26-to-24 margin for the next few years.

“We go out and recruit really good candidates, people who are already leaders in their community, and help them run smart, savvy campaigns and I think that’s why we succeed,” Gronstal says.

Senate Democrats plan to meet on Sunday to hold leadership elections and Gronstal is likely to remain the majority leader. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock has scheduled a meeting on Monday for Senate Republicans.

“We’ll all get together,” Dix says. “We’ll work on where we want to align ourselves and make sure we continue to stand for those conservative values that grow Iowa’s economy and jobs and try to find a way to work in any way we can to get those issues done and sent on to the governor.”

House Republicans are likely to retain Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha and Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake as their top leaders. House Republicans will meet Monday to elect leaders and plot strategy for the 2015 legislative session. House Democrats plan to meet on Saturday, November 15 to discuss their election losses and priorities for 2015.


Results of Iowa’s 2014 Election: Ernst, Branstad, incumbents win (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad and supporters on election night.

Governor Terry Branstad and supporters on election night.

Over 1.1 million Iowans voted in the 2014 General Election. Read more about the turn-out here.

In Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, Republican Joni Ernst defeated Democrat Bruce Braley by 8.5 points.  Hear Ernst’s Election Night speech here.  Listen to Braley’s remarks to supporters here.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad easily won reelection to a sixth term and will become the nation’s longest-serving governor ever.  Listen to Branstad’s victory speech.  Jack Hatch, the Democrat who challenged Branstad’s bid for reelection, spoke to supporters shortly after the polls closed.

Republicans won three of Iowa’s four congressional seats.  Congressmen Steve King and Dave Loeback, as well as Congressmen-elect David Young and Rod Blum, all spoke with Radio Iowa on Election Night to talk about their victories. Jim Mowrer, the Democrat who ran against Steve King, addressed speculation that he may run against U.S. Senate Chuck Grassley in 2016.  Read about the congressional races here.

Staci Appel talks with supporters after losing her race for the U.S. House.

Staci Appel talks with supporters after losing her race for the U.S. House.

Incumbents won in each of the races for state ag secretary, state treasurer, state attorney general, state auditor and secretary of state.  Read more about those results here, along with the news that Democrats held onto their slim two-seat edge in the Iowa Senate, while Republicans gained four seats in the Iowa House to up their majority to 57 of the 100 seats there.

(Reporting by the Radio Iowa news team, including Matt Kelley, who anchored Radio Iowa’s Election Night reports; Dar Danielson at Iowa GOP Election Night Headquarters; Pat Curtis at Iowa Democratic Party Election Night Headquarters; with editing and additional reporting from Todd Kimm and O. Kay Henderson in the newsroom.)

Incumbents win statewide races, Democrats hold Iowa Senate

Mike Fitzgerald

Mike Fitzgerald

In addition to reelection an incumbent governor, Iowa voters selected incumbents — from both parties — to fill all statewide offices. State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, a Democrat, won a ninth term and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, also a Democrat, won an eighth term.

“In spite of being disappointed about what’s happened to so many friends, I feel a great deal of gratitude as well. Gratitude, first and foremost, to the voters. The voters in Iowa have just been so good to me, giving me a chance many, many times to have this job I love,” Miller said.

Bill Northey of Spirit Lake, a Republican who has served two terms as the state agriculture secretary, was reelected to a third term.

“I’m really looking forward to the next four years,” Northey said. “We’ve got some great stuff going on water quality and showing that Washington, D.C. you need to work with farmers, not regulate them. If you do that, you get things done.”

Governor Terry Branstad appointed Republican Mary Mosiman to be state auditor in May of last year and she won her first bid for election to the post last night. The other statewide race went to a candidate who had once served in the job for one term in the late 1990s. Republican Paul Pate, the former mayor of Cedar Rapids who was seeking to return as Iowa’s Secretary of State, was declared the winner by the Associated Press by a narrow margin over Democrat Brad Anderson, a political consultant who managed President Obama’s 2012 Iowa campaign.

The partisan break-down of the Iowa legislature changed little based on last night’s results. Democrats retained a two-seat edge in the Iowa Senate. Republicans added four seats to their majority in the Iowa House.