- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

Des Moines Register. October 27, 2016

Provide free lunch to all schoolchildren.

For two months, Josette Duran of New Mexico packed two lunches for her teenage son, Dylan. When he first asked for the extra meal at the beginning of the school year, she figured he was hungrier than usual. Eventually he told her he was giving the food to a friend whose mother couldn’t pay the lunch bill.

Duran continued to pack the second lunch. When the other boy’s mother found out and tried to pay Duran back, she refused the money. When a volleyball team raised $400 to reimburse her, she used it to pay past-due accounts for kids at her son’s school.

“Now nobody in that school owes any money, and everybody can eat,” she said in an Oct. 14 Facebook video.

Her generosity was contagious.

Jerry Fenton, more than 1,000 miles away in Burlington, heard the story. The Iowan donated $700 to pay overdue lunch bills for students at Grimes Elementary School in Burlington, which he had attended as a child.

Such acts of generosity deserve recognition and should inspire the rest of us. But they should not be necessary when it comes to school lunch.

This country is long overdue in reconsidering how it feeds millions of schoolchildren each day. Every child in a K-12 school should receive a free lunch. All of us should share in covering the expense the same way we fund many other costs of education, from heating school buildings to paying teachers.

Isn’t lunch as standard a part of the school day as math class?

Providing lunch to everyone is hardly a radical idea. Taxpayers already subsidize low-cost and free meals for more than 30 million students each day. In Iowa, about 42 percent of public school students qualified for reduced-price or free meals in the 2015-16 school year, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education. In Burlington and Council Bluffs, more than 64 percent of students qualified, and more than 75 percent in Columbus and Perry.

How much more would it cost us to feed them all? And how much of the expense could be offset by eliminating the bureaucracy and administrative expenses in the current system?

It was 1946 when the National School Lunch Act was established. Though updated over the years, the structure remains basically the same. The federal government gives cash subsidies and food to schools. The schools agree to meet federal requirements.

But the system inevitably turns a lunch lady into a collection agent. It embarrasses families who owe money or must admit to being poor so their children can get free meals. It embarrasses children who receive an “alternative” meal when their account is in arrears. Schools are awash in paperwork.

And generous people feel compelled to donate money so children can eat a meal at school. There must be a better way.

Des Moines is doing lunch right

Des Moines Public Schools offers meals at no cost to all students in 40 schools and four early learning centers. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program is funded largely by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It covers 100 percent of the cost of breakfast and lunch for everyone attending schools identified as having a high number of children in poverty. These schools are no longer awash in the bureaucracy of collecting applications from parents to determine income or trying to collect money from parents. And it’s good for kids, too. “Students can focus on their studies, and not on where their next meal will come from,” said Superintendent Tom Ahart.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls CourierĀ . October 28, 2016

Clawbacks rightfully taken back.

Lately we’ve heard a lot about “clawbacks” - reclaiming money already disbursed - involving Wells Fargo executives and enlistment bonuses for National Guard members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Neither is exactly what it seems, but both have had appalling aspects.

John Stumpf, the recently retired Wells Fargo chief executive officer, presided over a scandal involving the illegal transfer of money from customers’ legitimate accounts into unauthorized ones - among two million fraudulently created - a scheme involving 5,300 subsequently fired employees, supposedly done without corporate direction.

After Stumpf managed to make matters worse during congressional hearings, the Wells Fargo board announced a $41 million “clawback” of his stock awards, which had yet to vest, from his holdings valued at $247 million.

It was a clawback without sharp claws.

Likewise, retired community banking chief Carrie Tolstedt, the program supervisor, had a clawback of $19 million in stock awards that hadn’t vested from her holdings valued at $125 million.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the National Guard clawback - primarily in California, although it could extend beyond - involved 9,700 members told to pay back enlistment bonuses of $15,000 or more because they were never entitled to them or improper paperwork was at fault.

Former Army Master Sgt. Susan Haley, who spent 25 years in the service including a tour in Afghanistan, is among those forced to repay her bonus - $20,500. She told the Times she had been sending the Pentagon $650 monthly. “I feel totally betrayed,” she said.

About 1,200 service members appealed their debts. Nearly half received debt reductions.

Rampant fraud in the enlistment program prompted the clawbacks.

A 2010 RAND National Defense Research Institute paper found Defense Department spending from 2000-08 increased from $266 million to $625 million for enlistment bonuses and from $891 million to $1.4 billion for selective re-enlistment.

The bonuses were instituted as the Army and Marine Corps struggled to maintain manpower in Iraq and Afghanistan and were earmarked for those taking assignments difficult to fill. Student loan repayments also were offered.

The Sacramento Bee reported in 2010 the California National Guard misspent $100 million of the bonus money. Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, who headed the program, pleaded guilty to making $15 million in false claims and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

According to the Bee, Jaffe single-handedly processed 8,600 payments during a 16-month period in 2007-08 with very little oversight. Most student loan repayments were drawn from money designated for combat vets, but a large portion went to Guard members who hadn’t served a day at war, including captains and majors.

Among the most notable largesse:

Capt. Bruce Corum, a chiropractor, received $83,000, including $63,000 (over the $10,000 limit for the program) for student loans taken out long before being eligible for repayment. Jaffe added a $20,000 bonus, but Corum was unqualified because of his lack of required job skills.

Capt. Teressa Vaughn, a licensed cosmetologist, recruiter and chaplain candidate, received student loan repayments of $51,800 despite “similar problems,” according to the Bee. She got a $30,000 bonus despite being ineligible because of a lack of proper job experience.

Capt. Robert Couture, a fellow recruiter, received $51,000 in student loan repayments. The contract to certify eligibility wasn’t on file, he received more than the maximum benefit and he didn’t qualify due to his rank.

The scandal initially was considered “war profiteering” by high-ranking officers who never left California, but many of those having their checks garnished were lower-ranking members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts,” Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California National Guard, told the Times. “We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.”

The claws were retracted Wednesday.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the Pentagon to stop seeking repayment of the bonuses from those California National Guard members who served overseas and to develop a streamlined process by New Year’s Day to help the troops get relief from repayment obligations.

Carter said the aim was to put “as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own” while respecting “our important obligation to the taxpayer.”

Indeed, it would be deplorable to victimize Guard members because of the actions of deceitful or bumbling recruiters. Instead, we owe them a debt of gratitude for stepping up when the nation desperately needed brave men and women to serve in some of the most dangerous places on the planet.

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Quad City Times. October 27, 2016

Context is everything.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Iowa’s Democratic Party mangled Monday when it attacked Gov. Terry Branstad for simply answering a reporter’s question.

Branstad said Monday that he’d explore hiking Iowa’s minimum wage and urged lawmakers to hash it out in the next session. The statement came during the Republican governor’s weekly press conference and stemmed directly from media questioning.

It’s a fair question. Iowa’s counties are, one by one, grappling with the stagnant $7.25 hourly minimum at a local level. The result, should the trend continue, would be a patchwork of variable wage levels that could make doing business throughout the state an absolute nightmare for companies with more than one location. It’s a legitimate concern for any state-level official.

It’s the state, Branstad correctly reasoned, that should be dealing with this issue. And, come January, he urged the Legislature to do just that.

But state Democratic Chairwoman Andy McGuire did what partisans do, and skewered Branstad for offering a legitimate answer.

“After they have stonewalled on this important issue for Iowa families for a decade, why would any Iowa worker believe Gov. Branstad and legislative Republicans are sincere today about raising the minimum (wage)?” McGuire said.

Branstad’s comments were nothing but an election-season head-fake, wholly intended to bolster the GOP’s chances of seizing the state Senate, she said. She then went on to excoriate the GOP for pandering to the rich and other standard Democratic attacks.

Listening to McGuire, you’d think Branstad walked to the mic and, unprompted, proposed legislation to boost the minimum wage. In reality, Branstad gave a wholly appropriate response about a complex, important issue that, without state action, could very well spin out of control.

A county-by-county hodge-podge of various wages would pose an unnecessary burden on business throughout the state.

It’s true that Iowa’s minimum wage hasn’t budged since 2007. It’s true that, year after year, Republicans have rebuffed Democratic efforts to boost it, amid inflation and cost-of-living increases. It’s true that, according to federal data, about half of those earning the minimum wage are adults, not high school students.

It’s also true that Branstad’s call for a debate in the Legislature stands head-and-shoulders above Washington’s total unwillingness to even face the issue. Frankly, the counties are forcing Branstad’s hand. He responded precisely as he should.

But Iowa Democrats would rather twist Branstad’s words and pile on. It’s this very partisan gimmickry that’s resulted in such widespread disaffection.

Branstad should stick to his word and drive a debate on minimum wage in 2017. Democrats should continue the drum beat. Republicans should face reality and deal with the fact that Iowa’s largest counties are usurping authority due to the legislative inaction.

McGuire would rather stoke partisan rancor than embrace the momentum Branstad afforded.

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Dubuque Telegraph Herald. October 28, 2016

Pentagon fails to look out for veterans.

It might seem like Americans are too divided in this partisan election season to find any area of agreement. But all factions found a united voice in the chorus of criticism of the Pentagon’s effort to secure repayment of enlistment bonuses mistakenly issued to thousands of California National Guard members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the outcry grew, Defense Secretary Ash Carter responded by calling a halt to the attempt to get money back from nearly 10,000 veterans.

That was the right call. But it was only Step 1.

Next up: Getting the mess straightened out and leaving veterans alone.

The quagmire stems from enlistment bonuses of $15,000 or more that the California National Guard offered to try to get more soldiers to fight America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Audits revealed some of the people weren’t eligible for the bonus program. Others were offered more than was authorized. In some cases, the paperwork was lost.

All of those issues are the problem of the government, not the people who served. Yet when it was discovered that the bonuses were improperly offered, the Pentagon demanded the soldiers pay back the government.

These are soldiers who did, in fact, enlist or re-enlist, and go to Afghanistan or Iraq to fight for our country. Now, the government says, “Just kidding about the signing bonus.” And the soldiers are expected to come up with the money, sometimes decades later.

Veterans are mortgaging their homes while others are near financial ruin, all to pay back money they took in good faith and in return for putting their lives on the line for their country.

“Unfair” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Government officials have an opportunity to right this wrong and remind the American people that it isn’t always about politics. Taking action to correct the reimbursement efforts that have left some veterans destitute would show the world we mean what we say when talk about taking care of our veterans.

Our veterans need help from our elected officials to sort out this issue. The concern about the misspending of taxpayer dollars is outweighed by the responsibility we have to our veterans. This is not a price the soldiers should have to pay.

Federal officials should chalk it up as a costly mistake, make whole the veterans who have already paid the government back and make sure this will not happen again.

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