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MIDWEST UPDATE

02/06/2008
By Hank Behar

Full-time employment may mean 40 hours a week to most, but in Ohio the 30-hour week may become the new standard -- as far as paid sick leave is concerned.

That's the number of hours per week an employee needs to qualify for seven days of paid sick leave a year, according to a new ballot initiative being bandied about in the halls of the state legislature.

The rule would apply to all businesses in Ohio with 25 or more employees, but it's not clear as to whether it means a yearly total of 25 employees including turnovers, or a steady roster of 25 employees.

"That's just one of the features of the proposal that make it unacceptable to us," said Gordon Gough, director of the Ohio Association of Convenience Stores (OACS). "But even more intolerable is the burden it would place on our members, who are already reeling under†the escalating costs of doing business, from increased health care insurance and rising credit card fees generated by out-of-control gasoline prices."

He continued: "And not only that, the proposal would also provide paid sick leave for part-time employees on a pro-rata basis. With employees coming and going throughout a typical year, the bookkeeping alone would put a strain on any small business. The OACS Board of Directors therefore voted 'vehemently' against the proposal and we are working hard in the state capitol to oppose to it."

In Ohio, a ballot initiative can be generated by a citizen's petition of 120,000 signatures, which is how this proposal, with the backing of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), reached the legislature. If it does not come up for a vote, the proposal can be reintroduced with an additional 120,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, a 1988 expressway plan adopted in Nebraska to "connect communities with populations of 15,000 or greater to the Interstate 80 via a four-lane highway" needs money for completion.

Today, with 140 miles to go, several ideas have been proposed on how to raise the revenue needed.
Ideas range from transferring $50 to $75 million from the general fund to the highway fund, to pooling state and municipal buying power for greater production efficiencies, or taxing ethanol.

But the big one, as far as the Nebraska Petroleum Marketing and Convenience Store Association (NPCA) is concerned, is tying the motor fuel tax to inflation at the wholesale price level.

The plan would replace 8 cents of the fixed per-gallon tax with a 5 percent tax on the average wholesale price of gasoline over a six-month period. "And that just won't do, because it potentially could put Nebraska at a 10-cents-a-gallon disadvantage compared to Iowa, and a large part of our population lies close to our Iowa border," said Tim Keigher, executive director of the NPCA.

"What's needed is a longterm solution to funding our roads, instead of piecemeal revenue gimmicks that hurt our pricing position," he said. "The NPCA is therefore encouraging the state committee to wait and see what windfall Nebraska gets with our recent 4 cent per-gallon reduction in the motor fuel tax effective Jan. 1, 2008, putting us in a stronger competitive position with our neighboring states. Then we can take a more balanced look at our revenue-raising needs."

In the meantime, there's the matter of cheeseburgers in paradise to take care of for the NPCA, which will hold its annual expo in March featuring a trade show, two days of business-improving seminars ("Work Smarter, Not Harder," is one), entertainment and cocktails, all capped with "a taste of Margaritaville and cheeseburgers in paradise."

The event is happening at the CoCo Key Resort in Omaha's Holiday Inn Central on March 18 and 19, 2008, with special room rates for attendees. Call Katie Reiss at (402) 474-6691 for details.

Another dated bill is haunting c-stores in Iowa. When the bottle bill in the state was enacted in 1978, its purpose was to decrease litter. Since then it has morphed into a revenue generating faucet without a turn-off knob -- in spite of the fact that today, only 4 percent of beverages in aluminum cans are consumed in cars and 91 percent in glass packages are drunk at home or in bars and restaurants.

Now the governor is proposing to double the deposit from 5 to 10 cents per container, and extend the law to cover a wider range of beverages. Consumers, however, will receive only 8 cents when they return their bottles, since one cent will go to the state and one cent will go for handling fees.

"This will suck tens of millions of dollars out of Iowan's pockets, and make them drag even more dirty containers back to the stores, increasing the potential health hazards there," said Jerry Fleagle, president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association (IGIA). "It forces store clerks to become tax collectors and that's not their primary interest, which is to provide clean stores where people can buy safe food."

Fleagle's solution is to expand curbside recycling options so that consumers can recycle their containers where they're consumed.

"Bottle deposits, claimed or unclaimed, have never been and will never be a revenue source for the grocery industry," he said. "We would much rather have everyone keep their money and recycle their containers at the curb. We'll be working hard in the state capitol to keep this expansion of the bottle law from being passed."

Moving westward, to promote the use of renewable fuels and bring muscle to Wisconsin's efforts in the fight against dependence on foreign oil, state legislation has been introduced that requires refineries to sell a minimum of 10 percent renewable fuels between 2009 and 2014.

The requirement then goes up to 15 percent for the years 2015 to 2019, 20 percent for 2020 to 2024 and 25 percent after that.

The legislation also permits refiners to buy or sell credits to meet its renewable fuel requirements, and in the case of diesel retailers, mandate them to sell 5 percent biodiesel fuels beginning in 2009.

"These proposals have laudable goals, but the legislation designed to reach those goals fails to take into account the concerns of our industry," said Matt Hauser, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association (WPMCA). "Retailers may be required to offer E10 and E85 when there is no economic†benefit to them or consumers, and without economic benefits plans have difficulty generating consumer acceptance. There are also concerns about the supply, distribution and consumer demand for biodiesel fuels."

He continued: "It's our hope that the authors will address our apprehensions before advancing their proposal to the state legislature."

Hauser, who provided expert testimony in opposition to the proposed bills, was joined by Dan Staebell of Hartland Fuel Products LLC, Randy Meffert of Meffert Oil Co. and John Salden of Fuel Service.