Lawmakers’ mixed message on mandates puzzles Iowans
Fuel pumps at a gas station. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
I’m confused, and I have a hunch I am not the only one. Are government mandates a bad thing — or are they good?
My confusion comes because I hear what leaders in the Iowa Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds have said for months. It certainly seems as if, to a person, they agree mandates are bad.
The governor often talks about how she believes Iowans will “do the right thing” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines and wearing masks. She talks about the importance of defending people’s rights and liberties. She is confident Iowans will act appropriately.
Last May, she signed a new law that blocks K-12 school districts from requiring that masks be worn by students, teachers, staff and visitors. That law also prohibits cities and counties from requiring masks inside businesses.
The governor’s statement during the bill-signing was blunt: “The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care choices.”
Now, this is where things get murky.
This is where it becomes difficult to know whether mandates are something being pushed by unpatriotic Americans with little regard for our Constitution — or whether they are a reasonable step by government.
Our governor and these same lawmakers are working on a proposed new law that would require all gasoline retailers, with few exceptions, to have available for consumers higher blends of ethanol.
Most gas stations and convenience stores now sell the E10 blend that is 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. The governor and legislative leaders want to increase the market for Iowa ethanol by having more stations sell the E15 blend, which contains 15% ethanol.
The governor has been trying for a couple of years to increase the sale of ethanol, because that would raise the demand for Iowa corn. About half of all corn grown in Iowa is used for ethanol. But only about 300 of Iowa’s 2,000 convenience stores now sell E15.
Legislation approved last week by the Iowa House would require fuel retailers to purchase and install the equipment necessary to start dispensing E15 by 2026.
The House bill provides some wiggle room for retailers whose fuel tanks and equipment are too old or are not compatible with the higher blends of ethanol. In its present form, the bill allows those retailers to seek a waiver from the Iowa Department of Agriculture from the E15 requirement.
Political leaders often preach about burdensome government regulations and the detrimental effect those have on businesses. The House-passed bill manages to stir in several of those regulations.
The waiver application would require documentation that is backed up with “credible evidence” from engineers and other experts hired by station owners. If those experts or the station owner make untrue statements on the application, they could be charged with felonies, punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000.
Ron Langston, the president of FUEL Iowa, an organization of gasoline retailers, fuel distributors and biofuel producers, said he is concerned the Legislature’s proposals will force higher costs on businesses than the retailers can expect to recover through higher sales. And in small, rural communities, those economics will force some retailers to get out of the fuel business, he predicted.
“Markets, not government mandates, are what have been proven to work,” Langston told reporters.
One of those economic anxieties is an existing federal prohibition on E15 being sold during summer months, except for use in so-called “flex fuel” vehicles.
Tom Cope, a lobbyist for Casey’s General Stores, one of Iowa’s largest fuel sellers, told lawmakers that listing E15 as a flex fuel “will cause sales to fall through the floor.”
Sales falling through the floor — that is not the sort of business model you want if the government is going to require you to change the varieties of gasoline you sell and force you to absorb some of the expense of upgrading your equipment.
You didn’t hear lawmakers using the mandate word last week. You didn’t hear the words “burdensome government regulations” pass their lips, either.
Nor were they talking about their concerns for the individual liberties and rights of business owners who do not want to be ordered to take on an expense they have no interest in and, perhaps, no ability to bear.
Instead, House Speaker Pat Grassley of New Hartford said, “I think it’s very important for us here in Iowa to show the support for the renewable fuels industry.”
Of course. When the legislation was debated last year to prohibit mask mandates, proponents of masks tried, with no success, to show their support for the health of Iowans and the wellbeing of people in care centers, retail establishments and schools.
Last year, lawmakers had no appetite for requiring anyone to wear a mask.
This year, their view of mandates has changed — at least as long as we are talking about ethanol.
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