Over-regulated?

As we have seen, it is hard to regulate in America or in Iowa.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

How much regulation is right for the United States? One might expect demand to rise after the speculative fury that ruined financial markets and then nearly destroyed the economy, or after the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. However, some guys still take every chance they can to get on TV claiming g’mnt is the problem, crying that the economy is overregulated and they want less of it.

Actually, too little regulation leads to great potential mischief. We have a great example of it right here in Iowa. In 2008 we had massive floods all over eastern Iowa. Short-term responses dealt with the aftermath of the disaster, but we faced long-term questions as well.

Sensible regulatory policy would try to avoid the worst effects of another flood. We could limit development in the 500-year flood plain or plan for dikes to be breached, to let water flow onto farmland rather than on to city streets. (Compensating farmers and landowners is a better option than rebuilding cities, businesses and homes.)

A committee of Iowa experts looked into how to avoid the worst disasters from flooding. They recommended limits on development and establishing ways to spread out the flood wave before it hit cities and built-up areas.

The result? Legislation to do both was introduced into the most recent legislative session but powerful farm groups and developers were too strong and nearly nothing was done.

The Gulf oil spill, bankers speculating on our country’s future, and unwise development in the flood plain are all good reasons to rein in markets. However, as we have seen, it is hard to regulate in America or in Iowa.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Flush with awareness

While water quality has fresh international attention brought by the enormity of the BP disaster, we also need to be looking at what we’re doing right at home, little by little and day by day.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette editorial spotlights the work of four West Branch Middle School students in illustrating for their community the water-quality impacts of drug disposal.

In West Branch, a small town east of Iowa City, the team of Kara Fountain, Allison Kusick, Gabby Salemink and Megan Tadlock brought awareness to the effects of everyday actions on our environment, actions we take for granted maybe just because of tradition.

Then, when we realize the impacts, we have to find acceptance of that reality, find a way to break old habits and find the willingness to adopt new solutions. Much of public policy works that way.

A couple of reports from the Iowa Policy Project underline the issues examined by the West Branch students. One report, last December, notes that pharmaceuticals are one segment of a class of organic water contaminants that are found from everyday household use and tend to resist traditional wastewater treatment. A previous report, in 2006, noted that Iowa water is not tested for many chemical compounds that had not been considered as contaminants — among them prescription drugs for humans and animals, as well as cosmetics, dyes, preservatives and detergents.

In short, we need a better understanding of what’s going into our water supplies, and what is worthy of concern. While water quality has fresh international attention brought by the enormity of the BP disaster, we also need to be looking at what we’re doing right at home, little by little and day by day.

The West Branch students, under the supervision of retiring science teacher Hector Ibarra, are among those adding to knowledge about these issues for all of us. They worked with the University of Iowa Hygenics Laboratory to look for traces of discarded medicines in processed sewer water. As the West Branch Times noted, they also hosted a day for local residents to bring unused and old pharmaceuticals to be incinerated.

These students are an example for all Iowans, let alone leaders among students, in their willingness to explore and put what they’ve learned into practice.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Tax Day spin: Find refuge in the facts

It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today is, as we all know, “Tax Day,” the deadline for filing our federal individual income tax returns. It is quite possible there is no more heavily spun day on the calendar. You can’t even find refuge on the comics pages.

While the Tea Party folks and others have their spotlight today, take a few minutes to read this masterful year-old blog post from our friends at the Oklahoma Policy Institute: http://okpolicy.org/blog/taxes/classic-reruns-no-tax-day/

Beyond that perspective on the value of taxes in funding essential public services, other useful information also is worth considering today about who pays taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice, in a report this week about tax changes resulting from the recovery, or “stimulus,” legislation signed by President Obama last year, notes the following:

  • 99 percent of working families and individuals in Iowa benefited from at least one of the tax cuts signed into law by President Obama.
  • Working people in Iowa received $1,115, on average, from these breaks.
  • These tax breaks benefited working people at all income levels.

For the full report (3-page PDF) click here and for the Iowa-specific summary (4-page PDF) click here.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post (whose blog links to Jon Stewart’s take of the situation on “The Daily Show”) illustrate that lower-income Americans pay taxes, even if others might not want to acknowledge it.

As Stewart suggests, actually getting the facts about who pays taxes — which also include federal payroll taxes and state and local taxes — might not fit the outrage being pushed at a given moment: “Knowing that doesn’t make you as mad, does it?”

Iowa Fiscal Partnership reports have shown state and local tax impacts are far greater as a proportion of income for low-income Iowans than for higher-income Iowans, while corporate-income-tax loopholes and other tax breaks are draining the state treasury with little accountability, and critical services are being cut.

All food for thought on this day.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Why Should Iowans Pay for Stockholders’ Interests?

If a nuclear feasibility study is needed for Iowa, it should be independently done.

Teresa Galluzzo
Teresa Galluzzo

MidAmerican Energy asked the Iowa Legislature for $15 million of ratepayer money, mine and yours, to explore whether it should build a nuclear plant in Iowa. While I firmly agree that Iowa ought to aggressively pursue options to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, I find it very unsettling that state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved this request.

MidAmerican Energy must put its shareholders’ interests first and thus the company’s feasibility study would necessarily prioritize how a nuclear plant would perform for stockholders before the impacts on rate-paying Iowans.

Even as a leader in wind-powered generation — 17 percent to 20 percent of our electricity production — and energy efficiency, both thanks, in part, to substantial efforts by MidAmerican Energy, Iowa must continue to evaluate its energy future, because we need to do more to address climate change. If it is necessary to study further whether new nuclear plants are a viable part of our generation mix, such research should be done by an independent group and include analysis of how nuclear would impact Iowans’ rates and safety.

Governor Culver should consider this before joining the General Assembly in a giveaway — from utility customers’ pockets — to MidAmerican Energy for a study that could perhaps be done by an independent group at less expense to Iowans.

Action on climate change must consider all citizens

About 1 in 5 Iowans would be eligible for direct consumer relief on energy costs in the House climate bill.

Climate change affects everyone, everywhere.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

Everyone will have to make changes, but for some it will be more difficult than others. Public policy must recognize this disparity.

Recent negotiations in Copenhagen dealt with climate-change policy ideas that hit poor countries differently from rich.

Unless rich countries provide funds to help implement new energy-efficiency and renewable-energy technology, developing countries will not be able to afford a transition to smarter, cleaner, but initially more expensive methods of producing energy.

Within the United States, we’re going to see higher energy prices by making coal and other fossil fuels account for their environmental and health effects, at least initially. It is not avoidable, and without careful design these policies will affect people differently at different income levels.

While a climate-change bill has not passed the full Congress yet, President Obama last year signed economic recovery legislation that takes some steps, helping low-income people who find it difficult to insulate their homes and upgrade furnaces and other appliances to use less energy.

In that so-called “stimulus” package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Community Action Agencies in Iowa and around the nation received a large boost in funds to ensure that homes of the poorest families use much less energy.

Before, that program spent about $15 million per year on weatherization in Iowa. ARRA added $80 million over three years. The work is currently under way, helping people to weatherize their homes and helping the Iowa economy at the same time.

Climate legislation in Congress can and should do more.

The climate-change legislation passed last June by the U.S. House recognized the difference. Where, higher-income Americans can offset the higher costs of a gallon of gas or kilowatt hour of electricity by installing insulation or combining car trips, such efficiency moves are out of the reach of many Americans at low incomes.

About 1 in 5 Iowans — approximately 579,000 at low incomes — would be eligible for direct consumer relief in the House bill. These payments would compensate for higher expenses for energy and energy-intensive goods and services for those households.

A Senate version of the bill does less directly for low-income citizens, but that bill, passed out of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also makes improvements. It’s something that needs further consideration.

At home and abroad, climate-change policy must recognize the disparity in economic ability to make the necessary changes to save our environment, our resources and our planet.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Move now to improve Iowa’s lousy water quality

It is only a matter of political will to set strong water-pollution limits that are enforced, and to try out some innovative programs.

Teresa Galluzzo

A new report researched for us by economics professor Cathy Kling and PhD candidate Subhra Bhattacharjee of Iowa State University documents that Iowa’s water quality is poor, primarily because of agricultural pollution, and evaluates two newer approaches for improving water quality that have been used in the Midwest.

One of the primary findings of this report is that no matter how well we structure our water-quality programs, if they are not backed by tough pollution limits they will not improve water quality.

Governor Culver last week in his Condition of the State message did not mention Iowa’s significant water-quality problems. Obviously, Iowans are suffering from being out of work and being involved in wars abroad, and those issues rightly take precedent.

However over the last several decades, whether or not we are in a bad budget year, Iowa has not taken the measures necessary to improve our water quality.

Given the current poor economic climate, Iowa could take steps to improve water quality without impacting our budget. We could heed one of the primary recommendations of this report and increase our limits on pollution. That would not cost the state anything.

Further, the researchers learned many lessons from the two programs they studied for this report: water-quality trading and wetland banking. They created a significant list of dos and don’ts for how to structure these programs in Iowa and recommended that we establish pilot projects to try out these approaches. Taking such measures would allow us to begin improving water quality at a very small cost to the state.

The point is there are ways to address water quality, even without a significant state expenditure. It is only a matter of political will to set strong water-pollution limits that are enforced, and to try out some innovative programs. Iowa needs to find this will to improve our lousy water quality and thus quality of life and economy.

Posted by Teresa Galluzzo, Research Associate

PDF of full report, 16 pages, or executive summary, 2 pages

We don’t have luxury of avoiding climate change response

Putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution would create a bigger market for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Teresa Galluzzo
Teresa Galluzzo

Challenged by a down economy, two wars, and the need to fix our health care system, Congress might want to push other issues to the wayside. But Congress doesn’t have that luxury. Another very critical issue needs our attention: our action plan to address climate change.

Crafting legislation to reduce our contribution to climate change would also play a role in addressing today’s other immediate needs. Putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution would create a bigger market for renewable energy and energy efficiency. The jobs and industries created for developing clean energy technologies would help get the U.S. and Iowa economy back on track.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recently estimated the climate-change legislation passed by the House would net Iowa 4,000 new jobs in 2020 and nearly 6,000 jobs by 2030.

Likewise, the Center for Rural Affairs looked at the job creation potential of requiring that 20 percent of electricity be generated by renewable energy before 2030. That research found that the wind energy developed in Iowa to meet this standard could create over 9,000 permanent jobs and over 60,000 temporary construction jobs in Iowa.

The benefits reach beyond job creation. Reducing our reliance on foreign fossil fuel sources is critical to national security and preventing future conflicts over energy and those that would result from the human tragedy associated with the worldwide impacts of climate change.

Furthermore, preventing the more frequent occurrence of catastrophic heat waves, flooding and drought anticipated for Iowa — if we continue emitting large amounts of greenhouse gas pollution — would go along way toward improving our health.

Addressing climate change is urgent work and must it stay on Congress’ long to-do list. We can’t continue business as usual for our economy, security or health. We can do better, and responding to the challenge of climate change is the way forward.

Posted by Teresa Galluzzo, Research Associate