- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

Telegraph Herald. Nov. 30, 2014.

Internet sales tax law long overdue

If you find yourself wondering why less work than usual is being accomplished at your place of business, don’t blame the residual effects of Thursday’s dose of tryptophan.

It might be because employees are busy shopping online.

The day dubbed “Cyber Monday” keeps breaking sales records year after year, with last year’s total rising 16 percent to $2.29 billion. And some research shows that as many as half of the millions of those purchases were made on workplace computers. Office productivity likely takes a hit on the Monday after Thanksgiving when online retailers blast customers with emails hyping Web-only deals. On no other day is the uneven playing field between online retailers and community-based, brick-and-mortar stores more obvious. Shoppers can’t escape regular stores without paying the government its due in the form of sales tax. But that’s exactly what happens with most purchases made online.

The U.S. Senate tried to right this inequality last year when it passed the Marketplace Fairness Act. But the House took no action on it, so the Senate in July introduced a revised Marketplace and Internet Tax Fairness Act. Still, the House hasn’t moved on it.

It’s long past time to create fairness among online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

A bit of history: More than 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court barred states from requiring remote sellers to collect sales taxes unless the retailers had some physical presence in the state. The high court’s decision came with strongly worded encouragement for Congress to work with states to establish taxation rules. Congress dropped the ball.

When the country plunged into recession in 2008, while at the same time Internet sales were cruising to new highs, some states began to discuss addressing the fairness issue. New York began taxing most online sales, which prompted a lawsuit by online megabusiness Amazon.com and others. The law withstood the lawsuits: Online sellers are required to collect sales tax in New York.

Since then, other states have taken on the issue, and more online retailers have come around to giving states their due. As Amazon.com grows and puts up more and more warehouses and distribution centers, it now has to collect taxes in 23 states - including Wisconsin, but not yet Iowa and Illinois. Even Amazon supports fairness legislation that would make states simplify their sales tax laws in order for them to tax Internet sales by companies that do more than $1 million in sales each year. That’s a reasonable approach - tracking the sales tax laws in every state is unwieldy for online retailers.

Without a change in the law, states are leaving lots of tax revenue uncollected. The National Council of State Legislatures estimates that states lose out on more than $23 billion annually in sales tax from online and catalog purchases. All the more reason for Congress to back this proposal and level the playing field.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are the people who live in our community, pay property taxes and provide employment. It isn’t fair that they should be placed at a competitive disadvantage by government. Let’s expect that Congress will show the wherewithal to make this the last Cyber Monday that most online retailers get such a free pass.

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The Des Moines Register. Nov. 30, 2014.

Iowa cannot tolerate prison crowding

The state of Iowa recently completed construction of a new men’s penitentiary north of Fort Madison and expansion of the women’s prison at Mitchellville. The two prisons give the state a combined capacity of 1,700 inmates at a cost of $200 million.

But the state faces the prospect of building more prisons like these to accommodate the projected growth in Iowa’s prison population.

That is a projection, not a prediction, and is based on the latest prison population forecast by the Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. The projection is that Iowa’s prison population will shoot up by 39 percent, or 3,000 inmates, over the next 10 years.

That would put Iowa’s prison population at 154 percent of the current capacity of 8,000 inmates at the state’s nine prisons. The current population total is already 13 percent over capacity.

The projected growth in Iowa’s prison population cannot be allowed to happen unless the governor and the Legislature are prepared to make a major investments in more prisons and the continuing expense of operating them.

The prison population projections are based on current sentencing practices. That means the growth is based on the assumption that there will be no major changes in state criminal sentencing laws or policies over the next 10 years.

Thus, Iowa’s elected leaders are in a position to change the state’s destiny. They are somewhat like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” who is given the opportunity to change his bleak destiny.

Iowa has the opportunity to changes its destiny, but criminal sentencing reforms must be made to head off a prison population boom. A good place to begin is with mandatory minimum criminal sentences, which replace judges’ discretion with one-size-fits-all mandatory prison sentences.

Iowa law requires offenders serving prison sentences for major crimes to serve at least 70 percent of their sentence, as opposed to inmates who receive substantial reductions in their sentences for good behavior. Mandatory minimum sentences keep criminals off the streets for longer periods, but those sentences don’t necessarily change lives. They are, however, a major driver of the project growth of Iowa’s prison population.

Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately affect African-American offenders, contributing to the persistent racial disparity in Iowa’s prisons. Blacks, who represent just 3.3 percent of Iowa’s population, make up 26 percent of the state’s prison population. More than a third of prison inmates serving 70 percent minimum sentences are black. “Thus,” the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning report points out, “it will be difficult to reduce the racial disparity in Iowa’s prison population without somehow modifying 70 percent sentences.”

Iowa should also seriously consider changes in criminal penalties and sentencing policies for illegal drug crimes. It makes no sense to lock up people with drug-abuse problems in a secure prison, as opposed to violent drug dealers. It costs more than $90 a day to house a prison inmate, compared to $73 a day in community corrections facilities where offenders are closer to jobs, family and drug-abuse treatment programs.

The Legislature has been given this advice by the Public Safety Advisory Board, which it created four years ago to advise lawmakers on criminal sentencing. The board recommended a year ago that mandatory sentences be reduced for certain categories of robbery and that the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences be reduced. Legislators took no action on those recommendations this year, but the board is renewing the recommendations for the 2015 session. Legislators should act on the board’s advice.

Iowa’s prison population has experienced sharp spikes and drops in the past decade, in large part because of short-term changes in prison admissions compared with early releases by the Board of Parole. But the long-term trend is worrisome. Prison populations were flat from 1925 to 1975, when they started a steady upward trajectory.

After a brief period of stability, the line is projected to shoot upward toward 2025. That is unless the Legislature, the governor and other state officials begin to make serious changes in criminal sentencing policy. The status quo will not do. The alternative will be very expensive to both the state budget and to human beings caught up in the criminal justice system.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Nov. 27, 2014.

Deere Tractor & Engine Museum a welcome addition to downtown

Area residents who have lived in the Cedar Valley for any significant amount of time know well the huge impact John Deere has had on this area.

So we can all be proud of the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum that will open Tuesday. The company announced the opening date earlier this week. This particular component has long been mentioned as part of the ongoing Cedar Valley TechWorks project - the $50 million endeavor on Deere’s former Westfield Avenue facilities.

There is no debate about the economic importance of this major employer.

The company is closing in on the century mark here, having a presence in the Cedar Valley since 1918 when Deere purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and built that enterprise into the world’s largest tractor manufacturing complex.

“Tractors and engines have been and continue to be important to John Deere’s success,” said Dawn Hendershot, project manager. “We are pleased to share the history of these products as part of our overall story as a technology leader and quality manufacturer.”

The 27,000-square-foot facility will feature 19 tractors from different eras, including nine the company owns and 10 that belong to collectors. The museum focuses on the history of tractor and engine design and manufacturing at John Deere, particularly in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area.

Also featured are seven engines and about 25 “hands-on” interactive exhibits. The museum includes 15,000 square feet of space dedicated to galleries, as well as a 100-seat theater and an 1,800-square-foot retail store.

“It does exactly what we intended it to do, as far as highlighting the authentic site and showcasing what the community and employees have been involved in, as far as tractor manufacturing and development on this site,” Hendershot said. “It tells a great story about how tractors came to be and the employee and community involvement. We feel really proud of it and that it does meet expectations.

“Throughout its history, John Deere has remained focused on the success of customers whose work is linked to the land,” Henderson added. “For 177 years, Deere has endured various economic cycles, and this museum is a tribute to the resilience of John Deere employees and customers to weather both the good times and the bad.”

The Dec. 2 opening is a “soft opening,” with a grand opening event to be scheduled for the spring.

The vitality of Waterloo and the Cedar Valley has long been tied to this major manufacturer and employer. The new John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum will be an interesting and appropriate addition to the area.

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Quad-City Times. Nov. 29, 2014.

Iowa pushes alcohol consumption even higher

While Iowa dabbles in the marijuana debate, we’re reminded once again the state is not an impartial observer. The same state so wary about the ramifications of marijuana reform continues to pocket record profits from alcohol.

That’s the substance another government agency, the Department of Public Safety, calls.

- The 2nd leading cause of all traffic accidents, after speed.

- Responsible for 18 percent of all Iowa fatal crashes.

- The key factor in 10,000 Iowa drunken driving arrests each year.

Iowa’s alcohol branch of government just announced another record year. Sales were up 3 percent to $263.5 million. Those sales from the state liquor monopoly, along with taxes on competitively marketed beer and wine, generated $119 million for the state’s general fund.

In this context, we struggle to comprehend Iowa’s skittish approach to marijuana. The governor’s Office of Drug Policy, the state Pharmacy Board and the legislature seem consumed by fears of possible medical marijuana abuse. Yet state warehouses, trucks and drivers heap hard alcohol upon Iowans with nary a care, content to live with the arrests, accidents and deaths singularly attributable to this state-managed substance.

Those satisfied with the status quo - including Gov. Terry Branstad - say state distribution increases accountability and profitability. If so, wouldn’t those state-run safeguards be appropriate for marijuana, a substance that unlike hard liquor has verifiable medical benefits?

Branstad and others have told us the culture of alcohol consumption is much different than marijuana. Of course it is. The alcohol culture was created, enforced and sustained by state government.

Unlike other states that tax and regulate privately distributed liquor, Iowa has chosen to retain its government-run exclusive distribution of hard alcohol, while fostering competition among beer and wine distributors. It’s a hypocrisy that defies any measure of logic.

It makes sense only if revenue is the primary criteria.

Yet revenue and tax prospects never enter into Iowa’s marijuana debate. The governor and lawmakers raise specters of drug-addled lawlessness while maintaining a full-out war on marijuana that has failed to reduce consumption or availability. Iowa maintains a screwy system of identifying and seizing marijuana assets for one reason: To find more marijuana assets to seize.

The state-alcohol monopoly yields millions for schools, roads and other big-ticket items, while offering a comparable pittance for treatment.

So Iowa celebrates another record alcohol sales year, the result of government workers’ success in increasing alcohol consumption on a county-by-county basis.

Hurrah.

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