Sioux City Journal. April 26, 2013.
Legislature must adequately fund Public Information Board
Last year, we gave the Legislature high marks for finally creating the Iowa Public Information Board. For four years prior to last year, the idea of a state open government board had passed in the Senate, but stalled in the House.
This year, state lawmakers must take the next step and adequately fund the new board.
Governor Terry Branstad and the Senate are committed to doing that, but the House so far is not. Branstad proposed $490,000 in funding for the next fiscal year; the Senate, $450,000. The House? Just $100,000.
The new board is charged with handling open-meetings and open-records complaints and disputes and issuing rulings on allegations of open-meetings and open-records violations. Goals for the board also include training government workers on the state's open-meetings and open-records laws and educating the public on their rights with respect to accessing government information.
Clearly, if full or close-to-full funding isn't appropriated, Iowans will not reap the full benefits of this important new agency (the results of a 2011 poll commissioned by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council showed two in three Iowans supported creation of the Public Information Board). Staffing, training and education would be negatively impacted.
The average Iowan might reasonably ask: So what's with House resistance to open government?
This legislation languished in the House for years before passage. Then the House made a late effort last year to strip the Public Information Board of necessary enforcement powers. Now it seeks nearly 80 percent less funding for the board than Branstad or the Senate proposes.
We urge our local and regional delegation to take the lead within the House in advocating for the work of this board and pushing for the funding necessary for it to do its work effectively. Within the state budget as a whole, an additional $350,000 is a small amount, but it would make a significant difference to the Public Information Board.
Last year, the state talked the talk about openness in the conduct of the people's business. This year it must walk the walk.
The Des Moines Register. April 28, 2013.
Are huge giveaways the best strategy?
State and local leaders heralded the announcement that Facebook will build a computer center in the eastern Polk County city of Altoona as evidence that Iowa is on an economic-development roll in attracting high-tech jobs and investment.
Facebook's Altoona data center represents a major investment by any measure. It will begin with a $300 million development and will grow to an investment of perhaps $1 billion in a sprawling computer processing center that will rival a small college campus in size. It will create a massive presence in the community that is also home to Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino and the Adventureland amusement park.
Still, it's fair to ask whether the direct economic benefits to the state have been oversold in light of substantial taxpayer incentives offered by the state and the city of Altoona.
The project will mean as many as 250 temporary jobs and ripple effects throughout the central Iowa economy during construction. Longer term, however, the computer server facility will demand a lot of electricity but not a lot of people: Facebook says it will employ 31 people at the Altoona center. Meanwhile, the state has agreed to give the company $18 million in tax credits and the city of Altoona will forgo all property taxes on the facility for 20 years.
The state incentives alone come out to be more than $580,000 per employee. It's hard to calculate how much property-tax revenue Altoona will forfeit for two decades, but in the meantime, the city will be investing $1.35 million in infrastructure improvements, in part to accommodate this project, and it will have to provide police and fire protection to the facility.
There is more at stake for the state and the city than just 31 jobs, no doubt. A lot of money will be spent to keep a facility that size in operation beyond those employed by Facebook. That will ripple throughout the central Iowa economy. Also, state officials believe landing Google and now Facebook could serve as a catalyst for attracting even more high-tech employers.
But how much public gain will there be beyond the public investment?
Iowa Economic Development Director Debi Durham said that based on a cost-benefit analysis, she is satisfied the state incentives will be repaid in economic benefit. "We do a return-on-investment analysis" on every project, she told the Register, "and this one had a positive return. The downstream benefit will be huge."
It will be some time before that return begins to flow to the state, given the size of its investment. As for the city, a child born in Altoona today would be a senior in college before the city reaps any property-tax benefit from the Facebook center.
The question is whether the state's investment in these huge projects, including a similar project by Google in Council Bluffs and the Orascom fertilizer plant in Lee County, are the best strategy for attracting and growing companies that offer good wages and benefits.
Do enormously profitable companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft really need government assistance financed by Iowa taxpayers? These tax incentives not only create a bidding war among states desperate for jobs but these incentives are now the minimum expectation.
Might the resources devoted to these big projects create more jobs, and long-term economic growth, if they were spread among smaller companies? Do these projects fit Iowa's long-term goal of focusing on a few key areas, such as biotechnology and cutting-edge manufacturing that adds value to Iowa products?
The people of Iowa are being asked to spend substantial amounts of tax money on economic development incentives to businesses. That is money that cannot be spent on other things, including clean rivers and lakes, world-class schools, libraries and other public services that have direct economic impact by making Iowa an attractive destination for employers and employees.
Iowa has landed some big developments in recent years, but the state must demonstrate that the public investment in those projects will result in a greater public benefit.
The Hawk Eye. April 29, 2013.
An iceberg looms
That didn't take long.
Less than a week after Congress' ill-conceived budget cuts plunged the air travel industry into chaos, Congress made an exception to its own foolish rule.
On Friday an embarrassed Senate and House rushed to President Barack Obama's desk an emergency bill that gave the Federal Aviation Administration the funds to keep its vital air traffic controllers on the job.
The Republican-controlled Congress' so-called sequester that mandated across-the-board spending cuts for every federal agency led the FAA to reduce staffing at airport control towers last Monday.
The resulting flight delays cost airlines millions of dollars and produced an angry and justified consumer backlash that forced Congress to reverse its idiotic austerity measures that affect the FAA.
Congress grossly misjudged the public's response to its misplaced and in many cases senseless budget cuts. A majority of members foolishly convinced themselves there would be no repercussions save gratitude from the public.
No such luck. Obama repeatedly warned Congress across-the-board sequester cuts were crazy and would negatively affect the still struggling economy.
So when he reluctantly obeyed its edict and told the FAA to cut staff last week, he was playing hardball with Congress' own rule book in hopes of restoring reason to Washington.
The furlough of 1,500 air traffic controllers to meet a mandatory $200 million cut in FAA spending produced clear, predictable and painful results: flying gridlock and furious passengers.
Republicans who had refused to retreat on their sequester demands to prevent such a crisis are furious at Obama. They imply he deliberately announced the air traffic controllers' furlough plan's full impact only a week before it went into effect. His plan being to show in a dramatic way how the $637 million in mandated budget cuts would affect Americans.
In fact, the president has been warning of the consequences for many months. But Republicans refused to negotiate a sensible compromise. Now they whine that he's playing dirty politics. They ought to know.
If last week's civics lesson from a constitutional law professor doesn't persuade Congress to revisit the titanic demands contained in its sequester, then it should be prepared for more backlashes. Because the airline slowdown is just the tip of a very big iceberg.
Quad-City Times. April 28, 2013.
Civil trial is a crime
The luckiest guys in America are in a Davenport federal courtroom this month.
Owners and former contract employees of Henry's Turkey Service are in Davenport as witnesses in a federal civil suit alleging decades of exploitation, neglect and abuse of disabled men brought to Atalissa, Iowa, from Texas to work in Iowa poultry plants.
If successful, federal government attorneys will win steep fines against the company already assessed $4.25 million in civil and regulatory penalties from state and federal agencies.
These witnesses should be elated. The testimony during this week's civil trial and previous hearings suggests a longstanding conspiracy to imprison, exploit and steal from low-functioning men unable to protect themselves from ongoing abuse.
Yet four years after Iowa investigators disclosed these atrocities, not one person has been held criminally liable.
That includes the Henry's Turkey Service employee who admitted under oath he handcuffed, beat and abused these men on a routine basis. Randy Neubauer described his actions as pranks and horseplay during his testimony last week in federal court.
State and federal investigators paint a picture of weekly abuse of the men living in the decrepit "bunkhouse," an insect-infested old school building owned by the city of Atalissa and rented by Henry's Turkey Service.
Documents from a 2011 Iowa Department of Workforce Development ruling found 2,911 specific wage violations by Henry's. The investigation also concluded Henry's effectively stole monthly disability payments of $300 to $1,000 per man, banking the money intended to provide food and shelter.
Evidence shows room and board for the decrepit bunkhouse also was taken out of each man's wages.
Regardless of their work hours or Social Security payments, most of the men were paid a flat $65 per week, from which more deductions sometimes were taken for room and board.
Federal laws against involuntary servitude outlaw compulsory service through "actual force, threats of force or threats of legal coercion." Federal law sets a prison term of up to 20 years upon conviction.
Iowa's human trafficking laws prohibit threats of physical injury, or use of restraints on people brought to the state against their will to work. Testimony and evidence show none of these men had the mental capability to affirm their willingness. All had court-appointed guardians.
Iowa statutes also make it illegal to solicit services or benefit from the services of a trafficking victim.
The Iowa offenses are Class D felonies, punishable by up to five years for each conviction. State investigators removed 32 men from the bunkhouse, suggesting literally hundreds of specific Class D felony violations.
But neither county, state nor federal prosecutors have sought even one day of jail time against the perpetrators showing up as witnesses in the Davenport federal civil suit.
The Davenport jury trial seems likely to end with more whopping fines piled on top of the $4.25 million already assessed.
It must be followed by vigorous criminal prosecution of those behind the systemic exploitation and trafficking of disabled men effectively enslaved in Iowa meat-packing plants.