Waiting … and Waiting on a Highway Funding Fix

30449450Federal highway funding is running low. Nothing new there. The Indiana Chamber, and many others, have called for long-term solutions from Washington instead of short-term fixes that simply extend the uncertainty.

How are states reacting to the current dilemma. According to the Kiplinger Letter:

  • Arkansas, Georgia, Wyoming and Tennessee have postponed 440 projects totaling more than $1.3 billion
  • Iowa, South Dakota and Utah have increased gas taxes. Others that may follow include Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Carolina
  • Seeking funds from advertisers: Virginia sells space on highway rest stop signs to GEICO; Travelers Marketing sponsors highway patrols in Massachusetts
  • Partnering with private investors: Florida is seeking private funds to rebuild portions of Interstate 4; New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia are seeking similar ventures

Kiplinger editors add:

But states can only do so much on their own. Ultimately, Congress must act. Odds favor another temporary fix this fall. A long-term solution will likely wait until 2017. Congress and a new president will have a fresh opportunity to tackle broad tax reform, including a possible hike in federal fuel taxes, which no longer approach what’s needed to pay for highway work.

Not what many want to hear in terms of the time frame.

78% of Hoosier Manufacturers Predict Growth in the Next Two Years

An excerpt from a report released by Katz Sapper & Miller

Just four years ago, many Hoosier manufacturers were nearly swamped by the challenges presented by the financial crisis and the resulting Great Recession.

Recovery ensued for many in 2011 and 2012, but most could not help but wonder if the improvement was simply a return to a pre-crisis normalcy or the beginning of a renaissance in manufacturing, powered by energy-cost advantages and onshoring. The 2014 Indiana Manufacturing Survey results provide more clues.

All things considered, Indiana manufacturers have experienced steady improvement, with the percentage describing their financial position as “challenged” dropping to 17%, down from 21% in both the 2013 and 2012 surveys and down from a whopping 47% in the 2011 survey. Not so coincidentally, 47% of Indiana manufacturers now describe their financial performance as “healthy,” up from 34% in 2013 and back in line with the improvement observed in 2012, when 44% responded as such (versus only 21% in 2011).

These new results confirm the trend we noted in last year’s report: Indiana manufacturing has made significant financial and operational improvements while rebounding from the recession. Raw materials, work-in-process and finished-goods inventories are under control; suppliers and accounts receivables are being paid on a timely basis; and a host of operational performance measures, from customer satisfaction to product quality, have noticeably improved. Indeed, Indiana manufacturing is on a path that could see it grow in terms of employment and economic output to levels not seen in more than a decade.

Also view this corresponding infographic.

Keystone XL Pipeline Defeat Will Likely Be Short-Lived

119744231The Keystone XL Pipeline bill was narrowly defeated Tuesday in the U.S. Senate. Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar offers his thoughts on the policy and the latest activity in Washington:

“Canada is going to continue to develop the oil sands and sell to other nations whether the U.S. allows the Keystone XL Pipeline or not. Whatever the impact that activity has on the environment, the activity is still going to happen. That’s the reality. Continued posturing by the Obama Administration and others amid calls from environmental groups isn’t going to change that.

Other countries are looking out for their energy futures. The U.S. needs to as well. Going forward with the Keystone XL Pipeline is an important part of the mix. It would strengthen and expand our already vital energy relationship with Canada. And sourcing more of our energy from a friendly, North American neighbor will help reduce our reliance on energy resources from less stable areas of the world.

Indiana is fortunate to have two senators – Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly – who understand the pipeline’s importance and have been staunch supporters of the project. It’s too bad the Senate, on the whole, couldn’t get past politics and do the right thing for our nation’s energy security. However, we look forward to early 2015 when this measure seems destined to finally pass the Senate and make its way to the President’s desk.

Background: The proposed Keystone XL project would construct a 1,700 mile pipeline to transport about 800,000 barrels a day of heavy crude oil from tar sand fields in Canada across the central U.S. to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

America, the Beautiful

7659613I love traveling. In fact, I am infatuated with traveling.

I’ve been to six different countries across three continents, and in January I plan on studying abroad in Europe for four months. It’s my greatest pleasure to seek adventure and experience culture, but something I often forget is just how awesome our home country is.

I found a list on BuzzFeed of the 29 most breathtaking places in the United States. You’ll want to check this out — and you might even need to update your bucket list.

Paige Ferise, a sophomore at Butler University, is interning in the Indiana Chamber communications department this fall.

Breaking Bad? Google Chairman Warns That Governments Could Effectively ‘Break Internet’

WIn a recent event hosted by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Google Chairman Eric Schmidt offered an alarming prediction that governments, especially our own, could end up splintering the Internet into pieces. This, he argues, is because countries may prefer to operate their own Internet instead of allowing surveillance organizations, such as the National Security Agency, to collect data on their citizenry.

Wyden added that this would hurt American tech companies — and thus eliminate some American jobs.

Be sure to read the full National Journal article about these remarks, and watch the brief video featuring Schmidt’s comments.

Poll: Almost One in Four Americans Open to Separating from U.S.

CAlthough Scotland’s movement to secede from the United Kingdom fell a bit short at the ballot box, it appears it’s not just 45% of Scots who have separation on their minds.

And frankly, it’s no secret most Americans aren’t enthusiastic about the federal government these days. Between gridlock, behemoth budgets and trying to solve the health care puzzle, many have grown frustrated. Poll results explained in this Reuters article, however, are still a bit alarming.

Whoever takes the White House in 2016 may have his/her hands full in trying to unify the country. 

High Electricity Prices are Bad for Everyone

The headline might seem like an obvious one – you’ve most likely seen your energy bills go up over the last several years. But it’s not just families struggling to pay high electric bills. Hoosier companies, particularly those that are energy intensive (such as manufacturing facilities), face exponentially-higher sticker shock when it comes to paying the electricity bill.

And the consequences of companies paying more for electricity is far-reaching: less money for employees, higher prices for consumers, fewer opportunities to expand and lost economic development chances.

Here’s a little history: In the early 2000s, Indiana was fifth lowest in the country, in terms of electricity prices. Today, the state has fallen to the middle of the pack, around 27th lowest.

The State Utility Forecasting Group (SUFG) out of Purdue University puts together electricity forecasts every two years. The current forecast (released at the end of 2013) points to prices increasing by over 30% over the next 20 years, with electricity demand in Indiana staying almost stagnant.

We look at the reasons for the higher prices and the lower demand in the new edition of BizVoice®. I spoke with the director of the SUFG, as well as the president of a small foundry in Rochester and a representative from the Indiana Industrial Energy Consumers, Inc. (which represents some of the state’s largest industrial energy users) for their reactions to the SUFG report.

While I didn’t have the opportunity to include an email interview with Wayne Harman, manager of energy procurement from ArcelorMittal USA, I’m able to share some of it here. Here’s a shortened Q&A:

BizVoice®: What is the consequence of high electricity prices for a large energy-intensive company like ArcelorMittal USA?

Harman: “Higher electricity costs translates to net higher costs for manufacturing finished steel products. Added costs cause inflationary pressure when they can be passed on to customers or squeeze profit margins when a commodity’s market selling price is too low to fully cover the added manufacturing costs. Business investment tends to be reduced until a later period when profit margins are stronger.”

BV: When determining where to build new plants (nationally or abroad), how much of a factor are electricity prices?

Harman: “The cost of power is a key factor in making such a decision, but also the availability and reliability of that power source need to be taken into consideration. Market demand and a company’s supply position to serve that market area need are more important in making such decisions … Above a certain cost point, electricity costs become a deal breaker for such investments.”

BV: Nationally, Indiana used to rank fifth lowest in electricity prices, now we’re somewhere around 27th lowest. What kind of an impact is that making when companies compare states to locate their new or expanding businesses?

Harman: “Clearly the higher cost of electricity in Indiana now as compared to just a few years ago is a disadvantage. Companies must also factor in projections for how the electricity costs will likely increase going forward as compared to other geographical regions, as there is a wide range for current power costs and power generation mix (nuclear, coal, natural gas, etc.) region to region. Indiana is heavily coal-fired generation and as such the costs to deal with tightened EPA emissions from these power plants has translated into higher power prices.”

BV: The SUFG released a recent forecast that predicted that prices will grow by over 30% over the next 20 years, while demand stays relatively flat. If companies have a hard time keeping up with costs now, what is the impact that an extra 30% will have over time?

Harman: “All companies are being forced to reduce the energy intensity of their businesses in order to offset what they can of the future electricity cost increases. Any cost increases that cannot be passed on through higher selling prices cause profit margin compression and reduce the financial health of a company. Companies are sensitive to customer demands that they must first do everything in their power to avoid any increases in costs before they try to seek cost recovery through price increases. …

Since 2006, ArcelorMittal USA has reduced energy costs by more than $163 million through focused improvements and energy management, making us the only steelmaker to be named an Energy Star® partner by the US EPA and participant in the US Department of Energy’s Better Plants Program.”

Read the full story.

Help Get I-69 Into National Freight Network

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is currently seeking comments on the Primary Freight Network and National Freight Network designations. The Indiana Chamber believes that I-69 should be included as part of the National Freight Network and is asking DOT to support this effort.

As part of the National Freight Network designation, DOT has the opportunity to identify an additional 3,000 miles of highways that are critical to the future efficient movement of goods; this represents a strategic opportunity for the nation to enhance its freight transportation network.

A national priority over the past 20 years, I-69’s significance as a major freight route will increase as states along the corridor continue making progress toward its completion.

I-69 provides the most direct interstate access to principle international border crossings between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, as well as multiple Gulf Coast ports; the volume of traffic on I-69 is anticipated to dramatically rise as the interstate progresses. For all these reasons, I-69 should be included in the Primary Freight Network.

We urge you to show your support for including I-69 as part of the Primary Freight Network by signing this petition.

We’re Working Longer Now, but Maybe Not Tomorrow

Americans have been working longer (in years) — and the researcher/author of this MarketWatch blog post says that is a good thing. But recent findings suggest that the primary factor has been increased educational attainment among men. With that pattern showing signs of slowing down, will the opportunities and desires to continue to remain in the workforce also be scaled back?

As a strong proponent of working longer, I have been delighted to see the increase in the labor-force participation of men age 60 to 74 in recent years.   I, and other researchers, attribute this pattern to a host of factors, including changes in Social Security (lower replacement rates as the full retirement age increases and the maturation of the delayed retirement credit); the shift from defined-benefit plans with strong early-retirement incentives to 401(k)s; an improvement in the health and education of older workers; less physically demanding jobs; the desire to postpone retirement until the availability of Medicare; and the joint decision-making of dual-earner couples.   With all these forces at play, my assumption was that we would continue to see gains in the labor force activity of older workers as they responded to declines in the retirement income system by remaining in the labor force longer.
 
A recent study by Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution has caused me to worry.   Burtless explored the extent to which the increased educational attainment of older workers – both absolutely and relative to the attainment of prime-age workers – could explain their greater labor force participation. 
 
The gains in educational attainment among older men have been dramatic.  In 1985, only 15% of men age 60 to 74 had been to college; today that fraction has more than doubled, reaching 32%.  Similarly, in 1985, more than 40% of older men had not finished high school; today only 13% lack a high school diploma.
 
Just as important, the gap in education levels between older and younger men has largely disappeared.  For example, men in their early 60s are now as likely to have completed college as those in their early 40s.  These two groups are also similar in terms of the percentage who lack a high school diploma.  As the educational gap between older and younger workers has narrowed, so too has the wage gap.  Today, men age 60 to 74 earn about the same as their counterparts age 35 to 54.

States Turning Tuition World Upside Down

Recently, Oregon was the first state to propose a "Pay it Forward" college tuition plan. While many questions remain on whether the dramatic proposal is valid, that isn't stopping a legislative leader from another part of the country from recommending further study of the concept. NJ.com reports:

Under the plan, New Jersey public colleges could waive tuition and fees for students who pledge to give the state a portion of their salaries after graduation.

In theory, the idea would reduce the amount of loans students take out to go to college.

"When kids are getting out of college, they’re buried in debt," Sweeney said. "It gives another pathway to higher education. As someone who didn’t go to college and recognizes how fortunate I am that things worked out for me, you don’t want to leave things up to luck."

New Jersey’s public colleges have some of the highest tuitions in the nation. For example, the average in-state Rutgers University undergraduate will pay $13,499 in tuition and fees for the 2013-14 school year. Once room and board are added in, the total cost of attending Rutgers will be $25,077 for students living on campus.

New Jersey would not be the first state to explore the idea of delaying tuition payments.

On July 29, the governor of Oregon signed a bill to appoint a commission to study a "Pay it Forward" plan and recommend whether the state should institute a trial program.

Although details have not been finalized, proponents of Oregon’s plan have called for the state to waive tuition for students who agree to pay 3 percent of their incomes over 24 years.

Supporters say the program will help alleviate the nation’s growing student loan problem since many graduates leave college encumbered with tens of thousands of dollars of debt before they ever find their first job.

But critics say the "Pay it Forward" idea has too many holes.

While students would get free tuition and fees while they are in school, they will still have to take out loans to cover the cost of living on or off campus, buying books, paying for transportation and other costs that often account for more than half of the expense of attending college.

It is also unclear if asking students in Oregon to repay 3 percent of their income for a quarter century would cover the cost of running a college or if the schools would have enough cash to operate in the first few years of the program. Critics also questioned whether the state would be able to keep track of the incomes of students who move out of state or out of the country.