Ernst optimistic about biofuels, tax reform

But the Iowa senator is frustrated, concerned over health care

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst answers a question during her Johnson County Town Meeting as part of her 99 county tour at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Friday, Sep. 22, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst answers a question during her Johnson County Town Meeting as part of her 99 county tour at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Friday, Sep. 22, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

JOHNSTON — U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst credits presidential intervention and a strong Iowa lobbying effort with convincing Environmental Protection Agency officials to change course.

The EPA has promised that future volume requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard will remain the same or go higher than where they were set in July, she said.

Speaking with Iowa reporters Friday, Ernst also said she expects Congress will pass President Donald Trump’s tax reform plan. But she was uncertain how the state’s request for a stopgap plan to aid Iowans with individual health insurance coverage will play out.

Ernst, a first-term U.S. senator from Red Oak, also dismissed suggestions that her recent speaking engagement in South Carolina — one of the four leadoff states in the presidential selection process — carried national political implications.

“I always say never say never, but I feel pretty confident at this point that it’s a never,” she said.

During and after an appearance on Iowa Public Television, and later on a conference call with Iowa reporters, Ernst said it was a “huge victory” for Iowa farmers and manufacturers when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt committed in writing that the federal agency would not backtrack on renewable fuel commitments to ethanol and biodiesel when they set 2018 production mandates.

“I think it’s resolved, I think this is the clincher,” Ernst said of the latest battle to protect RFS mandates. “I think the EPA got a little ahead of the White House in this situation. I don’t think President Donald Trump was probably too happy about the way some of this was going down.”

She added that the effort was aided by her “leverage” in holding up EPA nominees until the issue was resolved.

“We’re sitting in a very good position now,” Ernst said. “One thing that I insisted on when I was working through the negotiations with the EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and the White House was that we get those assurances in writing, that way there is no messing around with this. We have it in black and white what the administrator has told us in private what he would do.”

In addition to his comments on volume requirements, Pruitt said in the letter he has directed the agency to finalize within 30 days an earlier decision not to move the “point of obligation” away from refiners to comply with the RFS. Some refiners, led by investor Carl Icahn, had sought the change.

“I have warned people that there are a lot of naysayers when it comes to the Renewable Fuel Standard out there, and I think we will always have to be vigilant in this area,” Ernst noted.

On other topics, the Iowa senator said she was optimistic that the Republican-led Congress will pass a tax reform package now that progress has been made to move the federal budget proposal forward. Elements of the tax plan have been misrepresented, Ernst said, but she conceded more details are needed for the public as the issue advances.

“If we can help more of our lower- and middle-income wage earners keep more dollars in their pockets, I think it’s a great thing,” she said.

Ernst also held out hope that a bipartisan health care plan would receive congressional consideration as a “short-term fix.”

She expressed concern and frustration that no action has been forthcoming to help resolve the uncertainty facing 72,000 Iowans facing huge increases in their health insurance premiums.

She hoped a federal decision on a the requested stopgap waiver would come by month’s end — but she added it still will require more insurers to offer competitive rates for individual coverage plans.

“I hope everything can work out, but we have a very tight time frame,” she said.

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