Alternative license plates — your choice?

The state of Iowa wants to redecorate Iowans’ vehicles with a new license plate design. And Iowans get a say in it — a public vote is underway on three options at the State Fair and online, here.

Nothing against the proposed designs that you can find at the links above, but we might want to consider alternatives that deal with critical issues facing our state:

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OK, so the last one is a shameless plug. But we have to find a way to work on the issues on the plates above it, so don’t be too hard on us. And, you can donate here, or by clicking on the license plate above.

 

2017-owen5464Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Focus on fixing insurance exchange

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable — and not a good excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off health insurance.

It’s time for Iowa’s congressmen and senators to start working on immediate measures to strengthen the health care system, and specifically the health insurance exchange, or marketplace. The obsession of some with bills to repeal and replace Obamacare has been a distraction from that task.

In recent days, bipartisan groups have sprung up in both the House and the Senate to begin developing legislation to stabilize the insurance market. These groups recognize the immediate need for measures to ensure that federal payments continue for cost-sharing reductions (CSRs) that help low-income people afford their copays and deductibles. Without the assurance that these payments will continue, premiums will rise sharply.

The president has threatened to continue his efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by ordering an end to CSRs. This threat has already prompted Medica, the only Iowa health insurance company still offering plans on the exchange, to plan for another premium increase.

The bipartisan efforts to shore up the insurance exchanges could include another important measure: a reinsurance program that would reduce the risk that a small number of high-cost customers will cause insurance company losses. The “million-dollar customer” has been cited as a factor contributing to the decisions of Wellmark and Aetna to exit the Iowa exchange. Reinsurance would establish a national pool to cover high-risk cases; this would allow companies to remain in the exchanges without drastic premium increases on everyone to pay for those few cases.

The Senate’s attempts to repeal and replace failed because they were wildly unpopular. These measures would have resulted in over 200,000 Iowans losing health insurance; would have effectively ended the expansion of Medicaid that covers thousands of low-wage workers; would have reduced Medicaid benefits for thousands of seniors, children, and people with disabilities; would have raised premiums and deductibles; would have gutted protections for persons with pre-existing conditions; and would have provided billions in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations.

Another attack on coverage: Graham-Cassidy

Pragmatic efforts to stabilize the health insurance market stand in stark contrast to a last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare that surfaced this week: the Graham-Cassidy plan. Like the previous failed bills, this plan would end the Medicaid expansion that now covers 150,000 Iowans.

Unlike previous repeal and replace bills, the Graham-Cassidy plan would also end the premium assistance that makes health insurance affordable to tens of thousands of low and moderate income Iowa families. While it replaces ACA funding of premium assistance and Medicaid expansion with a block grant, it provides no guarantee that the states will use that block grant to make health insurance affordable to those who need help the most. And the bill would further destabilize the insurance market by ending the mandate to purchase insurance, while making it more expensive, leaving insurance companies with the sickest and costliest customers.

The problems with the insurance exchange in Iowa are fixable. Let’s see if our Senators and Representatives actually try to fix those problems instead of using them as an excuse to fund tax cuts to the wealthy by forcing tens of thousands of Iowans off their health insurance.

Peter Fisher is research director of the Iowa Policy Project.

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Minimum wage sinking — not ‘stuck’

New analysis from the Economic Policy Institute illustrates just how much we underestimate the impact of inaction on the minimum wage when we talk of it being “stuck,” “frozen,” or “held down,” at $7.25.

In reality, as EPI’s David Cooper shows, the wage actually declines year by year, because its buying power doesn’t keep pace with inflation. The $7.25 national minimum wage that took effect in 2009 would be $8.29 in today’s dollars. Put another way, the value of the minimum wage has declined 12.5 percent since Congress last raised it.

For Iowa, the situation is even worse, because the Iowa Legislature passed and Governor Chet Culver signed a $7.25 minimum wage that took effect a year and a half before the national increase. When the Legislature returns in January, it will have been 10 years since the last minimum-wage increase, while costs to families have kept rising.

EPI also points out that at its high point in 1968, the federal minimum wage was equal to $9.90 in today’s dollars. Tie it to increases in average wages, and the figure is $11.62. Tie it to productivity, and the figure is $19.33.

Click the link below for an interactive version of the above graphic:
http://www.epi.org?p=132305&view=embed&embed_template=charts_v2013_08_21&embed_date=20170802&onp=132309&utm_source=epi_press&utm_medium=chart_embed&utm_campaign=charts_v2

It seems settled in the current political environment that our minimum wage is stuck — there’s that word — at $7.25. There is no movement in either Des Moines or Washington to raise it, even though 29 states currently are above that level, including all but Wisconsin among our neighbors.

In fact, the state of Iowa forced repeal of local minimum wages where counties and cities demonstrated leadership that our legislative leaders could not, as those state leaders pandered to ideological myths and political talking points from an entrenched and bullying business lobby.

A $7.25 minimum wage is indefensible. Businesses paying at or near that wage benefit from the economy that taxpayers support through public services, not the least of which are law enforcement, fire protection and streets, let alone an educated work force. Yet they insist that we ask nothing in return, while their workers toil at wages so low they need other public supports — in food, health care, housing and energy assistance, all threatened by the current administration in Washington — just to keep their families going.

Think you’re done hearing about the minimum wage? Not if we can help it.

Mike Owen, executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Scaling back even a voluntary effort on clean water

Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Since 1998 the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has led a volunteer program known as IOWATER to monitor local water quality around the state. Recent state budget cuts have forced the DNR to transfer administration of the program to a patchwork of willing nonprofits and local government agencies.

As reported by Iowa Public Radio, DNR will provide initial training and resources, but local government and nonprofit entities will be responsible for continued funding and administration of any volunteer water quality monitoring efforts.

The outsourcing of IOWATER to local entities is just another example of the Iowa Legislature depending on voluntary action to deal with the statewide water-quality crisis. The state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which was introduced in 2013, also relies heavily on voluntary conservation measures to address the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution from both point and nonpoint sources. However, the NRS falls woefully short of reaching its funding targets and desired outcomes.

Our state has failed to appropriately and adequately address the largest source of water quality degradation — agricultural practices that continue pumping nitrogen and phosphorous into our watersheds. More than 90 percent of nitrogen and two-thirds of the phosphorus come from nonpoint sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

As we reported at the Iowa Policy Project in late 2016, “Iowa’s efforts in response to the NRS have had minimal, if any, positive impact on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico — or for the most part on Iowa’s lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water supplies. At best, the state of Iowa has managed to not increase levels of nutrients in streams. There remains a widespread lack of understanding and acceptance of the connection between producers’ business practices and the nutrient concentrations in waters of Iowa and the nation.”

Further highlighting the lack of a clear mandate to clean up our waters is the last legislative session, when the Legislature continued to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution from animal facilities, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. They passed little in new water quality funding, and what funding there was merely diverted resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety. (See our end-of-session statement).

We need to start treating clean water as the valuable public commodity that it is. Water feeds our crops, our pets, our livestock, our sports fish, our children, and our employers and employees. “Water is Life” became a popular mantra for a reason: There is no life without clean water. Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Posted by Sarah Garvin, Research Associate for the Iowa Policy Project

sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

Why Governor Reynolds is wrong

If the Governor cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

As it has become clear that Iowa state leaders need to be more engaged publicly on the national health care debate, it was surprising to see Governor Kim Reynolds’ take on it.

“I’m focused on the things I can control.”

Well, if that is the standard for where the Governor should speak up, lock the office door and throw away the key. That’s not the way government works — or is supposed to work — in our American and Iowa tradition.

The Governor in our system has an important and powerful role, but rarely a controlling one.

What the Governor is not acknowledging, though she surely knows to be the case, is that her position is perhaps the best pulpit in the state of Iowa for speaking up on behalf of Iowans, to our elected representatives in the House and Senate in Washington, and to the President of the United States.

If she cannot speak for the people of Iowa, who will do so?

What is clear from the debate thus far in Washington is that more than 200,000 Iowans will lose health insurance if the current Affordable Care Act is repealed without a meaningful replacement.

In fact, the latest estimate from the Urban Institute finds 229,000 fewer Iowans would be insured in 2022 than if the ACA were kept in place — but the state would spend $29 million more as federal spending dropped by 28 percent.

The Governor’s comments to reporters repeated inaccurate talking points about ACA, avoiding both the state’s own role in undermining the individual insurance marketplace, and the principal way Iowans would lose insurance: the loss of the Medicaid expansion. That one piece of the ACA covers 150,000 Iowans now and is projected to grow to 177,000 in two years, but goes away under the Senate and House plans.

So, whether Governor Reynolds likes it or not, what is now a federal issue will become a state issue.

Right now, the things she has more direct influence upon are state budget choices, many of which already are difficult.

Imagine how much more difficult those choices become with 200,000 more people uninsured. What will the state do to make up for it? What budget control — or families’ control over their health care options — would be lost? Some members of the Legislature already are calling for a state-run program to step into the void.

If Governor Reynolds is uncomfortable with any of these possibilities she could call her friends Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst, or gather the microphones and cameras and raise awareness about the stakes for all Iowans.

Again, there are members of the Legislature weighing in on that score as well. Perhaps they recognize that persuasion, and pushing for a critical mass of support behind an idea, is where “control” emerges.

 

owen-2013-57Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

Toxic blooms for Iowa waters

Iowa’s water-quality issues are likely to become more severe without well-funded mandates that are enacted and enforced.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) recently reported on the first toxic algal blooms of the summer beach season in Iowa. Two state park beaches posted swimming advisories warning people to stay out of the water because of the presence of high levels of microcystin. Microcystin is a toxin produced by blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, that can cause health issues, particularly in children and pets.

As summer water temperatures climb, these closures and warnings will become more commonplace. The Iowa Policy Project first published a report on cyanobacteria in 2009 — a year with only one swimming advisory. The advisories have increased each year since and last year there were 37. (IEC has compiled a history of warnings.)

Cyanobacteria quickly multiply into high-density blooms in the presence of excess nutrients in the water. Several research reports by the Iowa Policy Project (links below) concluded that the most significant contributing factor of nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin is from agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have the potential to not only restrict recreational activities in our waterways, but to obstruct access to clean drinking water. This happened most notably in 2014 when a water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio, warned its 500,000 customers not to use water from the tap because algae blooms surrounded water intakes at its Lake Erie source. The catastrophic algal bloom prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency, as the city was forced to find alternative sources of drinking water.

Clean drinking water in Iowa is already threatened because of high nutrient concentrations in our waterways. The recent Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit against three counties in north central Iowa highlighted this very problem. The DMWW must spend increasing sums to remove nutrients from the water obtained from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers — so much it will now build a new nitrate removal facility. The nitrate present in these source rivers is primarily from agricultural runoff coming from the three counties named in the suit.

The magnitude of Iowa’s water quality issues cannot be overstated and the data we have show that these issues are only likely to deepen in severity without well-funded mandates for water quality that not only are enacted, but enforced. Voluntary conservation measures will not clean up our lakes, beaches, rivers and drinking water sources. If Iowa legislators are serious about luring businesses, jobs and families to this state, then it is time to make sure state revenues can support the protection of the very resource that supports our quality of life.

Sarah Garvin, research associate for the Iowa Policy Project
sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

Related IPP Reports:

Scum in Iowa’s Water: Dealing with the Impact of Excess Nutrients,” December 2009, Andrea Heffernan and Teresa Galluzzo

Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm,” September 2010, Andrea Heffernan, Teresa Galluzzo and Will Hoyer

A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution,” July 2014, David Osterberg and Aaron Kline

Saving Resources: Manure and Water,” May 2016, David Osterberg, Nick Fetty and Nathan Wong

 

​Rushing to push Iowans off insurance​

Governor Reynolds and state legislators of both parties might want to consider how they would cope with the results of this legislation.

We have seen this film before. Legislators propose a new law that they claim will improve health care, but pushes millions off of health coverage, strips away protections in current law, tells cash-strapped states to pick up the tab, and gives big breaks to the wealthy who don’t need help.

Did you walk out of the theater the first two times? Will you stay for this one? More importantly, will our senators?

In the coming days we will get an analysis of the new Senate bill from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The analysis may come with little time in advance of a vote, as the Senate leadership is attempting to rush to a vote before the public, let alone Senate members, have a chance to fully evaluate it. (That is not new, either.)

We all need a sense of what to look for in the official analysis of the new proposal — not what Senator McConnell or Sunday morning-show spin-masters tell us the bill would do.

First, what is the comparison point? To understand the impact on Iowans, the comparison should be to current law, not just to previous proposals.

More than the minor changes it makes to the previous Senate bill, or how it differs from the House-passed bill, we need to know from the new official analysis how this bill differs from current law that has extended health coverage to tens of millions across the country, and some 200,000 in Iowa.

We know, for example, that about 150,000 Iowans are covered by only one piece of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the Medicaid expansion, and that this number will be 177,000 in 2019 if the expansion is preserved.

However, the Medicaid expansion would effectively be eliminated under the new Senate plan, as in the previous, stalled Senate proposal and the House-passed bill. In none of these proposals do we see opportunities to further increase access to insurance for those who are most vulnerable.

In the end, isn’t that what we would expect health care reform to do? Provide more coverage, more efficiently, to all. Continual tweaks in the current and recent Washington plans don’t change a fundamental problem: Millions nationally, and hundreds of thousands in Iowa, would lose health insurance.

Put in stark terms: When people lose health insurance, they can lose access to health care. When that happens, they become sicker. Or they take on debt they can never overcome. Some die.

Ultimately, our state leaders in Iowa — the Governor, and state legislators of both parties — might want to consider how they would cope with the results of this legislation. Are they content with the U.S. Senate and House pushing more budget problems onto their desks, and to Iowa taxpayers? That is the choice Senators Grassley and Ernst will have in the coming days.

 

owen-2013-57Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org