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Neighbors Growing Together | Dec 11, 2016

Views from across Iowa

Oct 06, 2016

Des Moines Register, September 28

Branstad stands up against working Iowans

 

No one will ever accuse Iowa’s governor of being a champion of average workers.

Gov. Terry Branstad has not pushed for an increase in the state’s minimum wage. He has failed to comprehensively address Iowa’s job-killing occupational licensing requirements. Now he has joined a coalition of states and governors suing the U.S. Department of Labor. The lawsuit challenges a new federal overtime rule intended to help ensure lower-salaried workers are compensated for working overtime.

Though hourly workers are generally eligible for overtime pay after 40 hours of labor, salaried workers earning more than about $23,500 annually are not. Employers, including retail stores and restaurants, hire or “promote” people into salaried positions, legally wring 50 or 60 hours out of them, and pay no overtime.

Like many Americans, President Barack Obama believes this is wrong. He knows the government has a responsibility to ensure some minimal protections for workers. With no help from Congress, Obama has done what he can through executive orders and administrative rules to encourage fair pay and treatment in workplaces.

The overtime rule, which goes into effect Dec. 1, doubles the annual salary threshold under which workers will qualify for the additional pay to about $48,000 annually. Anyone earning less than that must be paid extra for working more than 40 hours. More than 4 million Americans, including 120,000 Iowans, could benefit, according to White House estimates.

Some businesses oppose the rule. They argue the additional cost will force them to cut employee hours, slow hiring or reduce staff. (If this argument sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same one businesses use to oppose an increase in minimum wage).

However, it is worth noting that before issuing the final rule, the Obama administration listened to employers’ concerns, scaled back the original income threshold and allowed bonuses to count toward salary. It is also worth noting that expecting employers to pay people for the hours worked is hardly a radical notion.

Iowa’s governor apparently thinks otherwise. And his rationale for opposing the rule is particularly odd. He says he’s concerned about an estimated additional $19 million cost to state government, which “may be forced to eliminate some services and even layoff employees,” according to a press release issued by his office last week.

The irony of this governor expressing concern about a reduction in government services and the loss of public-sector workers should be lost on no one.

Since he took office in January 2011, the number of administrative branch workers has decreased from 19,398 to 17,724, or 8.6 percent, according to information provided by the Department of Administrative Services. There are hundreds fewer workers in state agencies responsible for inspecting nursing homes, protecting children, guarding prison inmates and monitoring water quality.

It is difficult to believe the governor’s gripe with the federal overtime rule stems from anxiety about the loss of public services and employees. More likely, he’s taking a stand on behalf of private businesses opposed to the rule. He has certainly proven to be a champion of them.

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Quad City Times, September 29

Taxpayers deserve Hope Creek debate

 

Put Hope Creek under the microscope. Prove that it’s worth saving.

Rock Island County’s public nursing home is a constant tax-suck. Even after significant overhauls and financial improvements, it still bleeds more than $1 million a year. Two years ago, losses were double that amount.

And taxpayers made up the difference.

In November, the County Board is asking voters for a sales tax boost. The cash, they say, is needed to keep the Sheriff’s Office operational. Anything less would ignite a chain reaction that ends in illegal under-staffing, state sanctions and costly court decrees.

Freshly hired County Manager Dave Ross wants his shot to right the financial ship. Who can blame him? But the County Board isn’t offering much in return.

 

And that’s where Hope Creek Care Center comes in. The chances the home ever operates in the black are slim to none. It’s really a matter of acceptable losses.

 

Hope Creek’s existence on the public dole is, and always has been, based a specific view of government’s role. The indigent and poor fill most of the beds at any public nursing facilities. Private facilities turn a profit on the backs of private pay patients and Medicare-backed rehab programs. Medicaid, which pays for low-income health care, is a loss.

 

Pile on the relatively high cost of public employees compared to private ones and running in the black is out of reach for almost any public nursing home.

 

The patient-mix model seems to work just fine if the number of beds aren’t filled with Medicaid patients. Just last week, Rock Island County officials voted to decrease the percentage of Medicaid beds at Hope Creek from 55 to 51 percent. The move could generate a little savings, assuming the one-star rated facility can fill them with private-pay patients.

 

A wave of privatization shortly followed 2008’s economic crash. Tax revenues plunged. Roads needed pavement. Public employees were guaranteed health care. Nursing homes were, suddenly, wholly discretionary, disposable luxuries.

 

The process is never easy. Public unions rally outside and roll wheelchair-bound patients into board meetings. Dire predictions are made about elderly poor with nowhere to go. Firms interested in buying the facility are nitpicked. Negotiations drag on as politicians, hoping to relieve pressure, make demands about employee retention and availability for Medicaid beds.

 

It’s not pretty. But, in many cases, the sale goes through. It’s often not the facility itself that’s of value. It’s the operating license, a coveted thing in the highly regulated world of health care.

 

While hemorrhaging cash, Hope Creek continually contributes unneeded strife to a county government that has enough problems. In the past year, management firms were sacked.

 

Advisory committees wrestled with elected officials over decision-making power.

 

There’s a strong case for its sale, one that’s been beaten back for years. No more, not after massive property tax hikes and a proposed boost to the sales tax.

 

Even so, none of this might be enough to justify Hope Creek’s sale. Any dismantling of the safety net first requires study and robust debate. And that’s the conversation that Rock Island County taxpayers deserve from the county board. Establish a committee. Hire an appraiser. Gauge private interest. Maybe draft an early bid request.

 

Like it or not, Hope Creek’s future will continue to dominate county politics. High taxes aren’t going anywhere. Nor are the outstanding pensions or withering roads. Rock Island County is no different from the dozens of municipalities across the country that, in the past eight years, have shed once-public nursing homes.

 

Rock Island County Board has no choice but to face the Hope Creek issue, especially when asking taxpayers for even more.

 

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Sioux City Journal. September 25, 2016

It’s time to look at Iowa’s alcohol laws.

 

Iowa’s more-than-80-year old liquor laws are getting a long-overdue review with the goal of breaking down barriers that hinder entrepreneurship and stifle Iowa’s burgeoning beer, wine and spirits industries.

 

We say cheers to that.

 

A working group co-chaired by Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and Stephen Larson, administrator of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, is meeting to discover potential ways to ease regulatory burden on the state’s alcoholic beverage manufacturers.

 

The group consists of representatives from all sectors of Iowa’s liquor industry and includes Sioux City attorney John Gray as an at-large member. It will submit a report of recommendations to the governor sometime early in the 2017 legislative session.

 

“Within a three-tiered system, we need to review how some laws might have to be adjusted to leverage the opportunity we have to grow a cottage industry in our state,” Durham said in a news release announcing the group’s formation.

 

Indeed, updates to Iowa’s liquor laws can reap big benefits in growing main-street businesses and creating job opportunity.

 

A 2010 tweak to state law that changed the definition of beer to include those with higher alcohol contents had the effect of allowing Iowa’s breweries to produce and sell varieties of beer that proved to be popular with craft beer consumers.

 

Prior to that change, there were about 25 breweries in Iowa. Now, six years later, there are about 65 Iowa breweries with about two dozen more anticipated to open, according to J. Wilson of the Iowa Brewers Guild. Those breweries support 1,500 jobs, according to Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board data from 2014.

 

We see the timing between the change in law and the explosion of Iowa’s brewing industry as more than coincidental.

 

In looking at potential law changes, we urge the working group to cast a wary eye on those who would invoke the “three-tier system” as an excuse for doing nothing.

 

This system mandates a first tier that produces an alcoholic beverage (a distillery, for instance) that sells it to a distributor, the second tier, who then sells it to a retailer, the third tier, for sale to a consumer.

 

The system was set up to discourage national, Prohibition-era abuse that included vertical integration that served to limit marketplace competition. It is the foundation of much of Iowa’s - and the nation’s - modern-day liquor laws.

 

We believe that any changes in the law should respect the intent of the three-tier system. However, the specter of tarnishing the three-tier system should not be used as a bogeyman to invoke fear of societal ruin and calamity at the expense of offering a helping hand to Iowa’s home-grown alcoholic beverage producers.

 

Thoughtful exceptions have been made in the past and there is room for more.

 

Garrett Burchett, owner of Mississippi River Distilling Co. in LeClaire and a member of the working group, toiled on what evolved earlier this year into House File 2431, which would have - among other things - allowed Iowa’s distilleries to sell their spirits by the drink in a single facility owned by the distillery.

 

He says 60,000 people visit his distillery each year and not having that ability equals a lot of missed sales.

 

The bill passed the Ways and Means Committee and reached the House floor, but was never brought up for debate.

 

It would have required distilleries to sell their spirits to the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division - the state agency that serves as Iowa’s second-tier distributor for liquor. The state would sell it to a liquor store. The distillery would then buy it from the liquor store before it could be poured for a customer.

 

A long, strange trip to be sure, but one that appears to us to uphold the three-tier system while providing an additional revenue stream for the distilleries.

 

Asked if fear of upsetting that system was responsible for the bill being shelved, Burchett said, “Oh, yes, absolutely. Every legislator asks, ‘How will this affect the three-tier system.’”

 

Never mind that current law allows Iowa’s wineries and breweries to sell their wine or beer by the glass to customers at their facilities.

 

Or, that Iowa’s wineries can sell beer, but Iowa’s breweries cannot sell wine. Or that a native brewery can self-distribute its beers for off-site consumption, but that a brewpub can’t.

 

And so on ...

 

Iowa’s liquor laws are a patchwork of outdated inconsistencies that may well have worked perfectly fine years ago. But now they are hampering growth in the state’s nascent distilling, winemaking and brewing businesses.

 

We say, bring them out of the 1930s.

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