Spreading a friend’s message

“At 93 I am nearing the end of my life on this planet. As a parting message, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms to use your influence to make distributed solar energy a major source of electricity. … Please use your influence.” — Don Laughlin, in his letter to Warren Buffett

I visited an old friend, Don Laughlin, in a nursing home before he died. A stroke had paralyzed half of his body but certainly had not affected his mind. Even with his impending death he was looking toward the future as he spoke with Nathan Shepherd of IPP and me.

Our conversation was about renewable energy, which he had promoted for decades. He told us that one of his many unfinished projects was a letter to Warren Buffett, the owner of MidAmerican Energy, to ask him to be more supportive of rooftop solar power. Nathan suggested to Don that he dictate a letter and that we would send it to the billionaire. And we did.

160810-CLIP-dmr-openletterBut we realized that with probably hundreds of letters every day, Warren Buffett might never hear of Don’s letter. We spoke with the Des Moines Register’s opinion editor, who loved the idea of publishing Don’s letter as an open letter to Buffett. So, two days after we spoke to Don, a third of the Register’s op-ed page was Don’s letter, an introduction by Nathan and me, and a huge picture of solar panels. (Click on image.)

Within several days, Don Laughlin would be gone at the age of 93.

At a celebration of Don’s life at Scattergood School near West Branch August 27, my neighbor Deborah Dakin suggested that while she was sure Don was happy to do one last act to encourage solar power and reduce the effect of climate change, more could be done.

Basic RGBShe suggested that everyone who reads this write to Warren Buffett to ask him to pull his company back from efforts to reduce the return to homeowners from their own rooftop solar. That is because MidAmerican is trying to kill net metering, the ability of a homeowner or business to receive retail rates for any excess electricity they generate beyond their own usage.

Your letter would honor Don Laughlin’s last public activity, and, if it succeeds, each of us will be doing our part to stave off the worse and worst effects of climate change.

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg, Co-Founder and Environmental Researcher, IPP

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Ignore ideologues — IPERS sound, stronger

Time seems to be running out on those who do not want a stable, secure and sustainable retirement program for public employees. IPERS, the Iowa Public Employment Retirement System, is well on the way to recovery before its opponents can kill it. But they’re still trying.

The criticism this time comes in a Des Moines Register opinion piece, from a familiar source, the Public Interest Institute (PII) in Mount Pleasant.

In its latest ideological attack on IPERS, PII offers no data — not a single financial indicator — to demonstrate a problem. In fact, IPERS is rebounding from troubles brought on by the Great Recession and inadequate state contributions in the latter half of the last decade.

According to the latest IPERS annual report, IPERS’s ratio of funded actuarial assets to liabilities — which had dropped from 89.1 percent in FY2008 to a low of 79.9 percent in FY2011 — has continued to rebound, rising in FY2015 from 82.7 percent to 83.7 percent.

In an Iowa Policy Project report in late 2013, Imran Farooqi, Peter Fisher and David Osterberg showed that contrary to high-profile examples of public pension problems with the city of Detroit and the state of Illinois, the public employee pension systems in Iowa and most states were generally healthy and well-managed for the long term.

“Iowa’s public pension plans have sufficient assets to pay benefits now and well into the future. And recent improvement in the plans’ designs have already enabled them to begin recouping losses incurred during the recessionary stock market decline,” they wrote. Now, 2 1/2 years later, there is no indication of a change in that positive trend.

That report did recommend ways to strengthen IPERS and other public employee retirement plans in Iowa, such as increasing contributions and meeting actuarial recommendations for those contributions.

What we need to remember is that the purpose of IPERS is not to see how little we can pay public employees, but to attract good employees partly with a promise of a secure retirement. It is to “improve public employment within the state, reduce excessive personnel turnover, and offer suitable attraction to high-grade men and women to enter public service in the state.” This is the stated purpose of the law, Chapter 97B.2.

The biggest problem for PII is that IPERS may fully recover before PII gets the law changed to a less secure “defined contribution” system. A defined benefit system provides financial security by pooling risk in the group — more efficient than having everyone on their own based on defined contributions that they might outlive.

So let’s be clear: Shifting from a defined benefit plan like IPERS to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), is a way to cut benefits and reduce retirement security.

We can spend our time better addressing real concerns to assure our public employees can deliver on public education, overseeing human services, policing our streets and guarding prisoners — and making sure they can retire securely when they are done working for us.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

———

One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

Big state, big issues — an obligation for all

We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

160104-osterberg-map-7x7I put up a new map at the IPP office this morning. It’s a big one — about 4 feet by 6 feet, and it’s impressive on a wall.

What makes it more impressive comes when you think of what that map represents, some 36 million acres of land, and to think of how those acres are used, and what we are doing to protect them.

Even though it’s mainly a road map, we see those roads plotted on a landscape that we know is mostly farmland — rivers, lakes and streams running through it, and dominated by it.

Each five years the United States Department of Agriculture puts out a census of agriculture. The last one from 2012 shows just how agriculture dominates our land. About 24 of the 36 million acres are in cropland nearly all corn and soybeans — though even more land is agricultural since activities like grazing push the total of ag land well beyond 30 million acres. Cropland, woodland and pasture make up so much of the landscape that the category house lots, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc. makes up only 1.4 million acres, or less than 5 percent of the total.

IPP pointed out in a 2010 report Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm that so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses.

When sewage treatment plants are included in the urban share of nutrient pollution, agriculture still dominates.

So the take-away message — water pollution in Iowa comes from agricultural land. We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt — particularly the biggest one. It is not a voluntary matter.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project

Mark Smith ‘passionate and tireless’ leader

Mark Smith at the dedication of the IPP conference room in his honor, May 2009.
Mark Smith at the dedication of the IPP conference room in his honor, May 2009.

IOWA CITY, Iowa (Dec. 5, 2015) — The Iowa Policy Project today issued the following statement from Jennifer Sherer, president of the organization’s board of directors, about the passing of Mark Smith, who co-founded IPP in 2001 with David Osterberg. Mark Smith was 71.

“It is with deep sadness that we mark the passing of Iowa Policy Project co-founder Mark Smith.
“Mark will be remembered for his passionate and tireless leadership on behalf of workers, families, the poor, and all who struggle to reverse inequity or discrimination. As a labor and civic leader, he devoted his life to strengthening the voices of Iowans seeking fairness and equal opportunity in their workplaces, communities, and at the state Capitol.
“Mark started his career as an educator and maintained a lifelong commitment to the power of organized people and good ideas to transform the world. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy of building durable institutions — including the Iowa Policy Project — that continue to make a difference in the lives of Iowans.
“All of us at the Iowa Policy Project mourn our loss — and Iowa’s loss — of Mark Smith.”
The Iowa Policy Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research and analysis organization based in Iowa City. Reports are at www.iowapolicyproject.org.

REAP: Long on Promise, Short on Support

REAP is kept well short of the $20 million annual support that had been envisioned — a nearly 25-year trend that keeps REAP well short of its potential.

When Iowa’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program (REAP) was established in 1989, the Legislature set its spending authority at $30 million, but funded it at only half that — $15 million. The next year, funding (FY1991) was set at $20 million, an amount we thought was sustainable.

It never again reached that level — though lawmakers attempted to set it at $25 million for the 25th anniversary of the program in the just-completed fiscal year. Governor Branstad vetoed $9 million that year, leaving REAP at $16 million for FY2015, where it stands for FY2016 as well.

Ironically, the 2014 veto came as the state was promoting its voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Twenty percent of REAP goes to these programs. The veto reduced funds available to help farmers implement new nutrient runoff reduction and filtration measures that could contribute to the goals of the nutrient strategy. Actions like these contributed to a long-term REAP shortfall of more than $220 million.

Basic RGB

Basic RGB

See our new Iowa Policy Project report, REAP: A Case Study of Stewardship. With a more clear understanding of how REAP can make a difference in our quality of life, all Iowans may evaluate how it should be funded. In practice, REAP is kept well short of the $20 million annual support that had been envisioned — a nearly 25-year trend that keeps REAP well short of its potential.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, IPP co-founder and environmental researcher

Beyond politics: Teacher pay in context

In Iowa, the Mrs. Brown or Ms. Green who taught you was paid about the same as your kid’s teacher gets today.

Funding for Iowa schools has been under discussion for nearly the entire legislative session. The Iowa House has one version of a funding bill and the Iowa Senate has one with a higher funding level. Schools use their money for a variety of things that support the education of students from kindergarten to the senior year of high school. One obvious part of funding is teacher salaries.

During debate at the Capitol, State Representative Greg Forristall called for a salary freeze for teachers. According to Iowa Public Radio, Forristall stated in the Education Committee that farmers are expected to make 30 percent less in this coming year. “Maybe this is the year that teachers could accept last year’s salary,” he said.[1]

Also according to Iowa Public Radio, the speaker of the Iowa House, Kraig Paulsen, said teachers are bargaining for raises that cost too much money.[2]

So how have salaries changed over the years in Iowa? The National Center for Educational Statistics gathers average annual salary for teachers in public elementary and secondary schools by state going back to school year 1969-70.[3]

In that year salaries for Iowa teachers converted to present dollars averaged $51,170. In the school year 2012-13, the most recent figures, the same average teacher earned $51,528. That’s a difference of only $360 over almost 45 years.

Put another way: The Mrs. Brown or Ms. Green who taught you was paid about the same as your kid’s teacher gets today.

Secondly, Iowa average salaries are below the national average of $56,383.

Iowa teachers could go over our northern border and earn almost $5,000 more in Minnesota. On the other hand, South Dakota teachers on average earn $12,000 less. (South Dakota teachers even make less than teachers do in Mississippi.) Iowa is near the middle of average salaries for all teachers compared to other states.

When it comes to starting teacher salaries, however, Iowa ranks 33rd in the nation at $33,226.[4] We are similar to Wisconsin and Kansas. We are below Illinois and Minnesota as expected. What is surprising is that starting salaries here are almost $3,000 below Alabama and even lower than in Texas.

The disagreement in funding for schools includes many aspects. Before one should believe that teachers have bargained for too much or need a pay freeze, it might be good to look at this data.

[1] http://iowapublicradio.org/post/republican-lawmaker-freeze-teacher-salaries
[2] http://iowapublicradio.org/post/paulsen-teacher-raises-too-big
[3] http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_211.60.asp
[4] http://www.nea.org/home/2012-2013-average-starting-teacher-salary.html
IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, Co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project