Telegraph Herald. July 27, 2014.
Branstad's nix of solar grant disappointing
"I think the state of Iowa has the potential to be the leader of renewable energy."
That was Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011. Branstad said he believed alternative energy development could be the key to bringing to fruition two of the governor's main goals: Bringing 200,000 jobs to Iowa by 2016 and increasing family income by 25 percent.
Then in 2012, Branstad signed bipartisan legislation supporting key solar energy technologies. The legislation created tax incentives for research and development in the area of solar photovoltaics, or solar PV, and solar thermal technologies like solar hot water — both clean and reliable forms of energy that match well with Iowa's energy needs.
In the fall of 2013, the Iowa Economic Development Authority was excited to announce its energy office had landed a $1 million three-year solar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. "Iowa should be at the front of the pack" in solar energy, the governor declared.
Then sometime this spring, Branstad's enthusiasm for solar energy wilted. The Branstad administration surrendered the $1 million grant.
What explanation did the governor give at the time for rejecting a million dollars to help achieve the goals he had been talking about for years?
None. In fact, until journalists with the Associated Press requested emails on the subject under the open records law, no one in the Branstad administration even acknowledged the grant had been sent back to Washington.
Development Authority Director Debi Durham, with the support of Branstad, approved the decision to terminate the grant on April 8.
Guess what April 9 was?
That's right, it was Iowa Solar Day, an annual event sponsored by Iowa's Solar Energy Trade Association celebrating the state's progress implementing solar technology. Branstad told the solar advocates gathered at the Statehouse, "I see tremendous potential for growth in solar energy as I do in other renewable energy in our state." He didn't mention the fact that his administration had just sent back a $1 million grant supporting that effort. That might not have gone over too well with the Solar Energy Trade Association.
It doesn't go over well with the people of Iowa, either. Branstad's reputation has been that of a straight-shooter, but he missed the mark here. First of all, the state really should be working on expanding alternative energy sources. When the state turns down money to help that effort, it looks like the governor is just paying lip service to renewable energy advocates while secretly placating the big utilities. The emails obtained by AP reveal just that — a chilly response from the Iowa Utility Association was the precursor to rejecting the grant.
The secrecy is even more troubling. Branstad typically can be counted on to "own" his opinions and explain his actions, whether or not people agree with him. That didn't happen here.
This grant would have been a perfect fit for the city of Dubuque. With all the city has done to position itself as a sustainability leader, Dubuque was a natural to be a pilot site to expand solar installation. City staffers were ready to work with the state.
Rejecting the grant was troubling on a couple of levels. The state missed an opportunity to reduce burdensome costs and regulations that prevent Iowa residents from adopting solar — that's what the grant was to have been dedicated to. And the whole incident reflects poorly on Branstad. Most Iowans have come to trust Branstad, even if they disagree with him. The governor will have to learn to deal with flak from Iowa's largest utilities if he's really going to make good on his bid to increase alternative energy sources.
Sioux City Journal. July 27, 2014.
U.S. must secure border, whatever it takes
Arguably, no more important, pressing domestic issue exists today than the crisis on America's border with Mexico.
In fact, Gallup said the percentage of Americans citing immigration as the nation's number-one issue surged to 17 percent this month, up from 5 percent in June, to its highest percentage since 2006. Immigration ranked ahead of dissatisfaction with government, the general economy, unemployment/jobs and health care.
The legal, social, economic, security and humanitarian implications of continued illegal immigration and the virtual tidal wave of Central American children pouring across our nation's southern border can't be overstated.
As America continues its struggle to answer the question of what to do about illegal immigrants and migrant children who already have entered the country, a greater sense of urgency must be applied to improved border security.
In other words, before we can treat the wounds effectively, we first must stop the bleeding.
Whatever it takes.
A growing number of Americans agree.
A CNN/ORC International survey released on Thursday showed 51 percent of Americans believe forming a plan to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants should be the main focus of immigration policy. Forty-five percent said the top priority should be developing a plan to allow undocumented immigrants who have jobs to become legal residents. That's a "notable shift" from February when Americans said legal status was more important than border security, 54 to 41 percent, CNN said.
Some important steps have been taken to improve border security in recent years, such as increased manpower within the Border Patrol, but they aren't sufficient. Each day the southern border remains porous, border-related problems grow larger.
What should be done?
We support any and all steps to seal the border tight, including more fence, more surveillance technology, even more Border Patrol agents, and, yes, a temporary mobilization of National Guard troops ordered by President Obama. Congress also should revisit the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 under which nearly 60,000 Central American children have arrived on our doorstep since last fall. The federal government should seek to partner with state governments on the problem, not simply leave frustrated governors like Rick Perry of Texas to take action on their own. The U.S. should strengthen border dialogue with Mexico and Central American nations (a meeting held Friday at the White House between President Obama and the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador was a positive step).
Simply put, the flow of illegal immigrants and migrant children into the U.S. can't and shouldn't be allowed to continue. The federal government must send the strongest signals possible, including to individual states and foreign governments, of the seriousness with which it views this issue.
Prospects for action anytime soon look dim, we acknowledge.
Members of Congress will take the entire month of August off. President Obama, who spent most of last week on a fund-raising trip to California, is counting down the days to his own vacation on Martha's Vineyard.
"Unfortunately, it looks like we're on track to do absolutely nothing," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said earlier this week.
Contributing to fading prospects for action on border security is the fact this is an election year. Even though border security shouldn't be a partisan issue and both Democrats and Republicans should be alarmed at where this current path eventually might lead, the realities of politics appear to be getting in the way.
Still, we can hope.
Enough talk, enough pushing this issue off to another day. Border security needs to become priority number one - not simply in Austin, Texas, but from the White House to the Capitol in Washington.
Does tighter border security answer questions related to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants or the tens of thousands of Central American children already here? No.
Does improved security allow the U.S. to prevent border problems from growing worse, which they absolutely will if the federal government doesn't meet its responsibilities? Without question, yes.
There will be a cost for securing the border to the extent necessary, but the cost of allowing the border to remain unsecured will be far greater.
The Des Moines Register. July 27, 2014.
Road fund needs a permanent solution
Congress is deservedly condemned for failing to act on serious national needs. But sometimes when it does act it makes things worse. The short-term bailout of the Highway Trust Fund is a prime example.
The highway fund is expected to run out of money in the coming weeks. Unless Congress acts before it adjourns this week for another vacation, construction on road projects will come to a halt across the country. Federal money pays for about $450 million a year of Iowa road projects, so if that money dries up it will affect work on interstate projects in Council Bluffs and Sioux City and a new Mississippi River bridge at Bettendorf.
Rather than doing the right thing by providing stable, long-term funding for highways, lawmakers have come up with a nearly $11 billion "patch" that would push the trust fund's bankruptcy off until next May. This short-term bailout was engineered by House Republicans worried about running up the federal budget deficit, but it won broad bipartisan support and was on track late last week to be approved by the Senate.
This temporary fix is not a serious solution for highway funding. Iowa road projects are mapped out five years in advance and often take years to complete. The patch will likely cost taxpayers more in the long run because it relies in large part on a crazy gimmick that would allow private companies to reduce contributions to their employee pension funds, thus increasing profits and their federal tax bills.
This is worse than doing nothing. Shorting pension obligations now will force companies to increase contributions later, which will reduce federal tax revenues. What's more, this so-called "pension smoothing" could put corporate pensions in jeopardy of future insolvency, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In that case, the taxpayers are on the hook to bail them out.
This is worse than kicking the can down the road. It is the equivalent of a family postponing putting money in the children's college fund. The action has been denounced from both ends of the political spectrum, including the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
This might represent a low point for Congress, which has increasingly neglected the infrastructure needs of this country. It is shameful that highways, bridges and other major national infrastructure projects built and paid for under past administrations and Congresses, with the support of Republicans and Democrats alike, are allowed to deteriorate.
The reluctance to raise revenues is not surprising in the current political climate, but building and maintaining transportation infrastructure is not like discretionary spending that may be open to debate. Congested and crumbling highways and bridges put the safety of American citizens at risk, and reliable highways and bridges — just like airports, seaports and dams — are essential to a thriving economy.
Money for highways comes from those who benefit directly. But the federal government collects less than three-quarters of what is needed to cover the rising cost of construction and maintenance, because the federal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel has not been raised since 1993. Congress has regularly bailed out the trust fund with appropriations from the treasury, and the deficit is expected to grow to $170 billion over the next decade.
The best solution is phasing in an increase in the federal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel to close the gap. It's estimated the tax would eventually have to go up by 15 cents a gallon to do the job. This would be politically unpopular but politicians must grow some backbone.
The failure to provide long-term and sustainable revenue for the Highway Trust Fund is just one example of Congress' failure to do its job. Add to that the looming shortfall in the Social Security Trust Fund, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will run out of money in less than 20 years. Progress has stalled on paying for additional medical staff for veterans hospitals, and in case you hadn't noticed Congress is headed toward another "fiscal cliff" when the current budget well runs dry in October.
It is time for politicians to honestly tell the American people they must be prepared to pay for services they need and to demand or stop demanding them.
Iowa City Press-Citizen. July 24, 2014.
Still more to do for America to be ADA-compliant
Twenty-three years ago Saturday, just before signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, then President George H.W. Bush said, "Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down."
Although sections of that wall continue to stand for the estimated 57 million Americans who have a disability, large sections have been brought down over the past two decades.
The passage and signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act has triggered a fundamental cultural shift in the way our society accommodates people with disabilities. In the past quarter century, the phrase "ADA-compliant" has become shorthand for the idea that accommodating people with disabilities isn't just an optional, nice thing to do; it's a question of basic equality and civil rights.
The legislation established a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It outlined requirements for ensuring equal opportunity for people with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, businesses and transportation.
Defining disability as any condition that impairs one or more major life activities, the law provided recourse for people with physical or mental disabilities when they were discriminated against. And the act was expanded in 2008 to include other chronic health conditions.
This year's local anniversary celebration will be on the pedestrian mall in downtown Iowa City. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is the author of the legislation, will offer the keynote address, and there will be an open-mic period in which people can share their own stories of challenges and triumphs. The festival also will feature art, games and a variety of performances.
As much as the anniversary is a time for celebrating what's been accomplished, it's also a time to remind people how more is left to do — especially in terms of mental illness, which can debilitate people as much as heart disease, chronic pain or other diseases/disorders can.
Surveys about the effectiveness of the ADA have returned with mixed results. An online survey created by the University of Texas Health Science Center found that two-thirds of people with disabilities think the law has been the most significant influence on their lives in the past two decades — improving public awareness of disabilities and opening up new possibilities for the disabled in public places and through transportation services.
A survey conducted by the Kessler Foundation/National Organization on Disability, on the other hand, found that many gaps still exist between the 57 million Americans with disabilities and those without in key areas such as employment, access to health care and socializing.
Those survey results aren't necessarily contradictory. The Americans with Disabilities Act has helped change the national default so that curb breaks and ramps as well as wheelchair-accessible entrances and restrooms are the norm rather than the exception.
But America still is a long way from being fully ADA-compliant.