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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 1, 2014 at 9:00 am •  Published: December 1, 2014
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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.

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