The Des Moines Register. Oct. 8, 2012.
Lawmakers, it's time to support the outdoors
There has been ongoing debate in Iowa over the wisdom of state government handing huge grants or low-interest or no-interest loans to businesses in exchange for their promise to add more employees to the payroll. This debate revved up again last month when the Iowa Economic Development Authority reached an agreement with an Egyptian company to build and operate a fertilizer manufacturing plant in Lee County.
The state's defense of such economic development initiatives is jobs and economic growth in a region.
A recently completed study by Iowa State University looks at a different type of economic development in this state that gets too little attention, and too little respect, from our state's political leaders. That is outdoor recreation.
"Even though Iowa is not endowed with a stretch of the Rocky Mountains or a sandy ocean beach, the average percentage of Iowans engaging in wildlife-related activities is significantly higher than that of the country as a whole," the report states. Yet this state spends less than almost all states per person on recreation. Our waterways are filthy. Monuments are crumbling. There is too little public land for hunting.
According to the study:
— Expenditures on travel to recreation sites and participation in recreation activities has resulted in more than $3 billion of spending, which in turn helps support approximately 31,000 jobs and $717 million of income in the state.
— Rivers are engines of growth. Almost 5,000 jobs are supported with $143 million of personal income earned from spending associated with river recreation. Soil conservation helps protect our agricultural economy and future, the efforts generate millions in spending.
— Physical inactivity costs the state about $4.6 billion annually in lost worker productivity. It means higher health and worker compensation costs. Expanding and improving parks encourages people to get moving, thereby reducing those costs.
An investment in Mother Nature is an investment in the economy. It attracts new residents, businesses and visitors and improves health. "Expanding and improving outdoor recreation opportunities is a no-lose proposition for Iowa," the ISU study said.
It has been two years since voters in Iowa overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment to create a trust fund for recreation and conservation. Everyone from hunters to fishermen to bicyclists wants a dedicated source of revenue for the outdoors. They checked "yes" on a ballot, assuming lawmakers would follow through and increase sales tax a mere three-eighths of 1 percent to get money flowing into the fund.
Well, Iowans are still waiting. So far lawmakers have not finished the job. This should be a top priority for them next legislative session.
If lawmakers don't want to listen to voters (that's a bad idea), perhaps they will pay attention to the research. Study after study touts the health and economic benefits of spending on conservation and recreation. A new recreational trail means new customers for any business along the path. More places to fish and hunt mean more spending and more jobs. Green spaces increase property values and foster healthy lifestyles.
Maybe the new Iowa State University study will finally persuade lawmakers to do the right thing and give Iowans what they want.
Sioux City Journal. Oct. 3, 2012.
New school lunch rules serve greater societal good
Obesity among children is a growing, serious problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese, triple the number in 1980.
All Americans should be alarmed by this trend and support measures to reduce childhood obesity because we all have a stake in the health of our kids.
Obesity leads to a multitude of health problems, such as heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. Directly or indirectly, as a society and as taxpayers, Americans share the costs associated with obesity-produced increases in illnesses and diseases.
For those reasons, we support new United States Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines for school lunches, including limits on calories and sodium and an increase in servings of fruits and vegetables. School districts must meet the new guidelines or lose the federal subsidies they receive for meals they serve.
We understand few, if any school districts can afford to lose those subsidies and keep the cost of meals at a manageable level for families. Still, in our view, by seeking to insure the taxpayer money it spends on school lunches promotes improved nutrition and health among children and, by extension, helps reduce childhood obesity, the USDA is acting in appropriate, responsible and fiscally prudent fashion.
Are tweaks necessary within the new guidelines? Perhaps.
For example, we are sympathetic to complaints by some parents and students that the new school lunches are too small. We do not wish for any child to go through the school day hungry, so we would support looking into ways to increase the size or quantity of servings without sacrificing nutrition.
What we do not wish to see is short-sighted criticisms lead to a reversal of valuable new rules we believe serve the greater societal good in the long term by meeting important goals of improved nutrition and health for children and reduced obesity among children.
Iowa City Press-Citizen. Oct. 6, 2012.
Payday loan issues require statewide fix
You'll often hear lobbyists from the payday loan industry defend their product as a means of "protecting consumer options."
Temporarily cash-starved people, they'll argue, should have the option to take out a short-term loan at a higher percent rate — especially when the interest paid would add up to less than the fee for a bounced check or a late payment.
Having government set artificial limits on this free market, they argue with fist-pounding indignation, would hurt both consumers and businesses.
Perhaps the defenders of this industry would be right in making such statements — and in expressing such indignation — if the majority of payday loans actually were taken out by people who need only a temporary infusion of cash to get through an unexpectedly harsh economic period.
But Iowa Division of Banking statistics show that about half the payday borrowers in Iowa take out 12 loans a year, or one per month. And the Center for Responsible Lending reports that nationally the average payday loan borrower takes out 8.7 payday loans per year. The center also reports that about 60 percent of payday loans go to people with more than 12 transactions per year, and about 24 percent go to people with more than 21 transactions per year.
It would seem that the industry is designed not to help people get back on their feet but to ensure that people stay within a cycle of debt.
Indeed, Daniel Feehan, CEO of Cash America, said during the Jefferies Financial Services Conference in 2007, "You've got to get that customer in, work to turn him into a repetitive customer, long-term customer, because that's really where the profitability is."
The industry defenders are right when they say that a $15 fee on a two-week, $100 loan is less than the fee a bank may charge for a bounced check or a credit card company for a late payment. But that's only if the fee is paid right away.
While the industry defenders would like to describe such a fee as being a mere 15 percent, it actually represents closer to a 390 percent annual percentage rate. If the borrower is unable to pay back the loan right away, then that interest rate begins to add up and to start transforming "the cash-strapped" into simply "the trapped."
The industry defenders say that it's unfair to talk about annual percentage rates at all. They point out that the much higher interest rates only occur if a borrower recklessly rolls a loan over more than two dozen times in a year. It is this irresponsible behavior, they say, that gets borrowers in trouble, not the loan option itself.
But with more Iowans and other Americans facing financial uncertainty, we're glad a growing number of cities — including Iowa City, Des Moines, West Des Moines, Clive and Ames — are using their zoning authority to try and limit the number of payday loan businesses that can operate in their city limits.
Those municipal efforts, unfortunately, will have only a small effect on the industry. Iowa City's ordinance, for example, confines delayed deposit service businesses to community commercial zones and requires a minimum of 1,000 feet of separation between new and existing payday lenders. But it doesn't affect the businesses already in operation.
It's time for the Iowa Legislature to address directly the potential and real abuses of this industry on a statewide level.
At the same time, those pushing for more regulation of the industry need to be working equally hard to ensure that enough workable alternatives to payday loans — such as credit-union loans, small consumer loans, emergency-assistance programs and consumer-credit counseling — exist for struggling Iowans.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Oct. 8, 2012.
Voter fraud efforts applauded
Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz is catching some flak for pursuing a probe of alleged voter fraud in Iowa.
Earlier this year, Schultz filed emergency rules to change Iowa's voting procedures after finding potential evidence of fraud. He's stated that he's turned over for investigation the names of more than 1,000 potential noncitizens who voted since 2010 after comparing lists of noncitizens with driving permits against those who cast ballots in recent elections.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is now cross-matching records.
It's become a controversial issue. Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, chairman of the Senate's Government Oversight Committee, said he has formally requested state and federal audits of what he considers to be Schultz's "misuse of federal funding for his high-profile voter purge campaign."
Seriously? If there are people who are voting, and shouldn't be, should they not be purged from the rolls? This is as common sense as it is serious.
Had Schultz done nothing after such possible evidence came to light he would be derelict in his duty. He acted quickly, presumably because there is an election coming up.
Critics maintain a voter fraud problem is not widespread. But how widespread does it need to be? Recent elections have been decided by razor thin margins. Just look back at the Iowa Caucuses.
Last month three people were charged with felony counts of voter fraud in Pottawattamie County as a result of the DCI investigation.
According to criminal complaints filed in the case, all three are non-U.S. citizens who registered to vote. Court records indicated that two are citizens of Canada and one is a citizen of Mexico.
Two others — convicted felons who registered to vote — were charged with election fraud on Thursday. Look for more to follow.
If these investigations are uncovering actual instances of voter fraud, then Schultz's efforts should be applauded.
We could care less who these ineligible voters would vote for. The fact is, if a person is not entitled to vote, and does so, they cancel out a ballot from a legitimate voter.
We see that as a big deal.
We commend Schultz for his due diligence in attempting to correct a potentially disturbing problem. And for taking his job seriously.