Massive Iowa Legislature linkfest (post-funnel edition)

The Iowa Legislature has been moving at an unusually fast pace during the shortened 2010 session. It’s time to catch up on what’s happened at the statehouse over the past three weeks. From here on out I will try to post a legislative roundup at the end of every week.

February 12 was the first “funnel” deadline. In order to have a chance of moving forward in 2010, all legislation except for tax and appropriations bills must have cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the end of last Friday.

After the jump I’ve included links on lots of bills that have passed or are still under consideration, as well as bills I took an interest in that failed to clear the funnel. I have grouped bills by subject area. This post is not an exhaustive list; way too many bills are under consideration for me to discuss them all. I recommend this funnel day roundup by Rod Boshart for the Mason City Globe-Gazette.

Note: the Iowa legislature’s second funnel deadline is coming up on March 5. To remain alive after that point, all bills except tax and appropriations bills must have been approved by either the full House or Senate and by a committee in the opposite chamber. Many bills that cleared the first funnel week will die in the second.  

BUDGET/GOVERNMENT REORGANIZATION

Budget constraints are dominating this year’s shortened session, and Iowa House and Senate leaders released their fiscal year 2011 budget targets on February 17. You can find a link to a pdf file with all the numbers here. Iowa House Appropriations Committee Chair Jo Oldson emphasized that lawmakers plan to spend “less from the general fund next year than we did this year.” Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Bob Dvorsky said priorities will be helping middle-class Iowa families and small businesses “by helping create good-paying jobs across our state, expanding access to affordable health care and maintaining opportunities for a quality education for all Iowans.”

It sounds like some state tax credits will be eliminated or curtailed, as the budget principles include “more accountability and oversight for tax breaks for corporations that do not create or keep jobs in Iowa.” Democratic leaders insist they will not raise taxes on middle-class Iowans as a way to balance the budget.

A large government reorganization bill, Senate File 2088, will lay the groundwork for many of the spending reductions in the 2011 budget. The Iowa Senate passed this bill on February 1 with three Republicans joining the 32 Democrats in favor. In the Iowa House, floor debate stretched over two days before the chamber unanimously approved its version of the reorganization on February 15. The bill now goes back to the Senate. From the Iowa House speaker’s office:

“The government reorganization effort approved today eliminates waste and saves millions of dollars for Iowa taxpayers.  From cost-saving measures to making state government more efficient to improving the services that the state offers, our reorganization efforts so far this year total $272 million and makes our state stronger and more responsive,” said State Representative Mary Mascher of Iowa City, who won approval of the bill.

The goal of Senate File 2088 is to create more accountability for taxpayer dollars and eliminate wasteful spending by consolidating agencies and delivering services to Iowans more efficiently.  Last fall, Governor Culver used his executive authority to implement $88 million in cost saving measures and last week he signed an early retirement package for state employees into law that saved an additional $60 million.  The massive reorganization plan approved today is estimated to save taxpayers an additional $124 million next year, bringing the total savings from reorganization efforts to $272 million.

The bill is one of the largest initiatives in state history at 350 pages and contains over 50 different ideas, both large and small.  It eliminates 14 different boards and commissions, reduces energy costs, combines state purchasing, cuts down on middle management to keep front line workers in their jobs, and consolidates information technology.

Although all of the Iowa House Republicans voted for the reorganization bill in the end, some have continued to complain that their ideas for larger cost-savings were rejected. During the floor debate, State Representative Chris Rants again offered an amendment he proposed in committee, which he claims would produce an additional $290 million in savings. As I discussed here, his numbers about savings from denying services to undocumented immigrants aren’t credible. Other savings would have cut too deeply into priority areas for Democrats, such as early childhood education and renewable energy investments through the Power Fund. Democratic State Representative Bruce Hunter disputed Rants’ claim that selling the state’s vehicle fleet would save money. The House rejected his amendment. Rants also tried unsuccessfully to include an amendment that would have allowed Iowa to opt out of any new services or programs required by a federal health care reform bill.

The reorganization bill supplements savings from an early retirement bill that both chambers approved with bipartisan support. Culver signed the early retirement bill into law on February 10:

The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives by a 98-1 margin and the Senate with a 41-6 vote, will qualify approximately 6,600 employees for early retirement incentives, including 2,300 who qualify to receive full benefits from IPERS. Key initiatives of SERIP include:

   * $1,000 incentive pay for every year served between 10-25 years (maximum payout of $25,000). Employees serving more than 25 years would not be able to receive incentive pay beyond the maximum. Incentive pay will distributed over a five year period in equal amounts.

   * $2,000 incentive to assist with payment of state portion for continuing health insurance coverage. Payment upon departure from state employment.

   * Cash payout of accumulated vacation that will be added to the five-year incentive pay schedule.

To qualify for SERIP, individuals must be 55 years of age, be employed in the Executive Branch, have worked for at least 10 years and agree to never return to state employment. Those not eligible include those of the Legislative Branch, Regents institutional employees, elected officials or Executive Branch employees covered by SPOC.

The early retirement bill is expected to save between $57 million and $60 million, though only about half of the savings will come from the general fund. Rants cast the only vote against the early retirement package in the Iowa House on February 3 and explained his reasoning in a blog post at his gubernatorial campaign website. Among other things, he suggested it’s hard to explain to constituents who got laid off that the state is paying people to retire. (As if private-sector employers don’t provide early retirement incentives to avoid layoffs.) Rants also said “paying people to quit should be our last resort to balance the budget – not the first step out of the gate.” I understand why Rants would have wanted to draw attention to himself before he dropped out of the governor’s race, but it’s amazing for him to say paying people to quit should be the “last resort.” This from a guy who would happily balance the budget by cutting thousands of Iowa four-year-olds off from preschool opportunities.

Despite the significant savings from the government reorganization and early retirement bills, I can’t see how the 2011 budget will be balanced without some revenue increases. Those are likely to come from eliminating certain tax credits. The Senate Economic Growth Committee has already approved a bill to suspend the state film tax credit until July 2011. But it will require tremendous political will to cut other tax credits. Companies and industries that benefit from the current tax credit structure have hired a small army of lobbyists at the capitol. Some Democrats are not happy with proposals to curb the very expensive research activities tax credit.

Although the government reorganization plan had bipartisan support, we aren’t likely to see many bipartisan votes on 2011 budget provisions. I was surprised to learn earlier this month that Senate Republicans voted against a $1.8 million supplemental appropriation of unspent money from the 2009 budget, which was allocated to support mental health services at the county level. You would think that would be a no-brainer, since it didn’t add a dime to the current-year budget, and counties face high demand for social services.

BUSINESS AND EMPLOYMENT ISSUES

This week the Progressive States Network held up Iowa as an example of how “a progressive state should act.”

“In Iowa, legislators have kept the focus on helping families, especially middle class, working families who are struggling,” said Nathan Newman, Executive Director of the Progressive States Network. “Iowa is leading the way on expanding health care coverage to all children, raising the minimum wage and giving working families a significant tax break.”

The Progressive States Network is a network of state legislators and allied community, labor, and other non-profit organizations in all fifty states working to promote effective, progressive change state-by-state. The group serves as a clearinghouse for progressive legislation and ideas to encourage the rapid adoption of best practices across the nation. […]

“This year’s push in Iowa for increased transparency and accountability on corporate tax cuts is another innovation that we encourage other states and Congress to follow.”

Newman also cited proposed legislation to require paid sick days and tougher wage enforcement laws as measures which benefit working families stressed by the national recession. And he cited Iowa’s continued leadership on renewable energy and other measures to promote a greener economy.

A bill that would provide some paid sick leave is still alive but will reportedly require significant amendments in order to pass. According to the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, Senate Study Bill 3176 “requires employers to provide a minimum number of days of paid time for employees per year (full and part-time, pro-rated) to be able to use to recover from their own illness, take care of an ill family member, or seek assistance, legal advice, or medical care related to  domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, and establishes a rate of accrual. The bill does not impact employers who already offer a package or alter any collective bargaining agreements.”

The Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee unanimously approved Senate File 2270, which requires employers to allow breastfeeding employees to pump milk during their breaks, and to make a “reasonable effort” to provide a private place for expressing milk that is not a toilet stall. The full Senate approved the same bill on February 18, but on a 29-15 vote. All of the no votes were Republicans, including a few who had voted for it at the committee level.  According to Jennifer Jacobs of the Des Moines Register, 23 other states have laws on workplace accommodation for breastfeeding.

Most of organized labor’s legislative priorities are not going anywhere, but Democrats have offered a watered-down version of “fair share” legislation. The concept of House File 2420 is to require non-union public employees to pay some fee to compensate the union for bargaining services done on their behalf. Although this bill would not apply to the private sector, Republicans claim it would undermine Iowa’s “Right to Work” law (which should be called the right to work for less law). On February 17 about 60 people spoke at a three-hour public hearing on the bill. WHO’s Dave Price liveblogged the public hearing at the Price of Politics blog, and Jason Clayworth posted some quotes at the Des Moines Register’s blog. I noticed that State Representative Geri Huser, one of the House Democratic “six-pack” who sank labor bills in 2009, was involved in crafting the latest version of “fair share,” which may increase its odds of getting through the House.

A few bills deal with specific industries, including several relating to gambling: one would allow betting on sports, another would allow casinos to drop greyhound racing, and another would allow casinos to host large poker tournaments. However, legislators will not reintroduce “touchplay” gambling machines in bars.

The Senate State Government Committee approved Senate File 2091, which helps Iowa micro-breweries by allowing “the manufacture and sale of high-alcohol beer that contains 5 to 12 percent alcohol.”

On February 17 the Iowa House approved a bill increasing inspections of puppy mills. From an Iowa House press release:

A key provision will increase the number of state inspectors to respond to animal health and safety complaints involving USDA licensed facilities.

“We are now on track to crack down on the bad actors in this industry and protect responsible breeders.  This bill will ensure that all companion animals bred and raised in Iowa are healthy and safe,” said State Representative Jim Lykam of Davenport, who won approval of the bill.

House File 2280, which passed on a 77-22 vote, increases penalties for unlicensed facilities and requires continuing education for breeders with violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.  It also increases enforcement of uncollected sales tax on the sale of dogs and cats. Many of Iowa’s neighboring states already provide state inspection of USDA licensed breeders, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.

I was surprised by the level of support for this bill, which livestock interests opposed. Some Democrats addressed those concerns during the floor debate:

Representative Mark Kuhn, a Democrat from Charles City, says there’s nothing in the bill that would apply to cows, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, chickens or any other farm animals. “Let’s just talk about what’s in the bill and in the first two lines of the title it says, ‘An act providing for the treatment of animals other than agricultural animals,’” Kuhn says. “(It’s) the first thing the bill says.” Kuhn says the bill applies only to businesses that raise “companion animals.”

Representative Dolores Mertz, a Democrat from Ottosen, agrees. “I feel comfortable in voting for this bill today because I believe it does not affect livestock,” Mertz says. “And if I find out that this bill does after we pass it, I’ll tell you all ‘H’ is going to open up in this whole state of Iowa if I have anything to say about it.”

Kuhn deserves a lot of credit for moving this bill forward. His wife rescues dogs from irresponsible breeders.

A few bills target fraudulent business practices. Senate File 2108, a consumer protection bill targeting deceptive automobile repair shops, passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously. Culver signed that bill into law on February 17. Senate File 2089 would prohibit musical acts that claim to be revivals of famous groups but don’t have any original band members.

Probably the biggest disappointment in terms of business regulation was the failure of the payday lending reform bill. This proposal was one of the top priorities for key Democratic legislators before the session. The bill would have capped interest rates for payday loans at 36 percent. Current rates of up to 400 percent interest frequently trap borrowers in cycles of debt after just one loan. It seems to have had enough support to clear the House Commerce Committee, but unfortunately, Democratic State Representative Mike Reasoner was able to keep it stuck in subcommittee, so it never came up for a committee vote before the funnel deadline. Republican State Representative Thomas Sands absurdly claimed that the problem with payday loans isn’t the interest rates, it’s that some borrowers use them irresponsibly. But when the average payday borrower takes out 12 loans in a year, suggesting that the industry’s business model depends on trapping customers in cycles of debt.

PUBLIC SAFETY AND CRIME

By a 20-1 vote, the House Transportation Committee approved a bill that would ban texting while driving:

Under House File 2021, motorists wouldn’t be prohibited from reading text messages on cell phones, and the measure would prohibit other levels of government from enacting stricter laws.

If it becomes law, the measure would delay enforcement for a year, requiring officers to only hand out warnings at first. When it takes effect, violators would be fined a minimum of $65.

In cases where texting can be linked to crashes causing serious injury, the fine would climb to $500 and drivers could lose their licenses.

I support this bill, but cell phone use is much more prevalent among drivers than texting, and talking on a cell phone while driving has been shown to be as dangerous as drunk driving.

On February 18 the Senate approved a bill that restricts teenage driving between 11 pm and 5 am and increases from six months to 12 months the period during which a 16- or 17-year-old may drive only if a licensed adult is in the passenger seat. Senate File 2150 passed on a 47-1 vote.

On February 17 the Senate approved by 39 to 9 Senate File 2055, which requires everyone under 18 to wear seat belts in the back seats of cars as well as the front seats.

According to a report from Blank Children’s Hospital, 1,823 injuries were reported in Iowa for unbelted kids under 18 between 2004 and 2007. Teens have a higher crash risk than all other drivers, yet studies show they are far less likely to wear seatbelts than older drivers.

When backseat passengers buckle up, their chance of dying in an accident is cut by 60 to 70 percent. In addition, statistics show that a driver is twice as likely to die in an accident when there is an unbelted passenger in the back seat.

A bicycle safety bill is still under consideration too. It would require motor vehicles to leave at least five feet clearance when passing bicyclists and would increase penalties for car vs. bicycle infractions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved SF 2050, which was prompted by a high-profile murder:

Last year, high school football coach Ed Thomas of Parkersburg was shot and killed by a former student. The student had just been released from a hospital, where he was being treated for mental illness. The student was wanted by the police on other charges, but the law enforcement officials were unable to take him into custody because they didn’t know he had been released from the hospital. Hours later, Coach Thomas was murdered.

The “Ed Thomas” bill, Senate File 2050, will allow magistrates to order a hospital or facility to notify law enforcement agencies prior to discharging a person who is wanted by law enforcement. […] This bill opens up the lines of communication to help hospitals and law enforcement keep the public safe while protecting patients’ rights.

Several bills aimed at reducing violence against women are still alive. The Iowa Commission on the Status of Women summarizes them:

·         Enforcement of firearm prohibition for domestic abusers (SSB1033). The bill mirrors existing federal which prohibits anyone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or felony, or who is subject to a protective order, from owning a firearm. Eligible for Debate in Senate (note: unanimous passage in Committee).

·         Domestic abuse strangulation (SSB1029). Makes strangulation or impeding an airway a class D felony.  Eligible for Debate in Senate (note: unanimous passage in Committee).

·         Repeal forced evictions for persons who request help from public safety agencies (SF2210). Exempts persons who call the police for help (esp. for domestic violence) from city and county “specified crimes” ordinances that require landlords to evict tenants for certain types of police calls. Eligible for Debate in Senate.

·         Adds dating violence to domestic abuse statute (SF2249/HF2207). Adds dating relationships to qualifications for charges of domestic abuse (dating violence is currently eligible for protective orders, but not for domestic abuse assault). Eligible for Debate in Senate (note: unanimous passage in Committee).

One crime-related bill that didn’t clear the funnel would have slightly increased the credit prison inmates can earn for “staying out of trouble and for participating in treatment and work programs.” You probably can guess why this failed, but the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski spells it out:

Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, said the bill won’t move forward because of a lack of bipartisan support. Democrats don’t want to pass a bill which would result in Republicans accusing them of being soft on crime during an election year.

I wonder how much money that bill could have saved.

A bill that would have legalized medical marijuana also failed to make the funnel. Perhaps the Iowa Board of Pharmacy’s decision on February 17 to recommend reclassifying marijuana will give this bill some momentum during the 2011 legislative session. The latest Selzer and Co. statewide poll for the Des Moines Register indicated that 64 percent of respondents supported “allowing medical marijuana,” while only 33 percent opposed the idea.  

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM

The Senate State Government Committee approved new limits on corporate campaign contributions in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling. It will undergo further amendments, but key Democrats say these elements will be in the final version:

– Requiring additional reporting of receipts and independent expenditures by corporations engaged in independent campaign activities.

– Barring collusion by corporate donors and political candidates. This includes bans on using the same consultants, advertising firms and other campaign advisers.

– Requiring disclaimers on advertisements paid for by corporations.

– Requiring board, chief executive officer or stockholder approval before a corporation can use funds for independent expenditures.

– Prohibiting foreign-controlled companies from any role in Iowa elections.

Senators Jeff Danielson and Mike Gronstal explained the campaign finance law changes here. The goal is to “protect Iowa’s voters from a flood of anonymous, negative advertisements funded by big corporations. Iowa voters deserve full disclosure.” Senators worked closely with the office of the Iowa Campaign Ethics and Disclosure Board to draft this bill.

Another campaign finance reform bill that’s still alive was inspired by the activities of the “Draft Branstad PAC” last fall. It would require committees seeking to draft a candidate to disclose fundraising information, as campaign committees already do in Iowa.

As usual, Democrats made no effort this session to limit individual contributions to candidates for state office.

HEALTH CARE

Shortly after the largest health insurance company in Iowa announced a huge rate hike, Democratic legislators announced on February 18 that they will “hold insurance companies accountable and provide more transparency for consumers on health insurance plans and premiums”:

“Middle class families can’t afford these outrageous insurance premium increases.  At a minimum, Iowans deserve to know exactly what factors led to [Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield’s] 18% rate increase.  Our plan will bring more accountability to insurance companies by ensuring consumers have access to information on health insurance plans, premium rate increases, and health care cost information,” said State Representative Janet Petersen of Des Moines, who chairs the House Commerce Committee.

The insurance company accountability plan outlined by leaders today will be added to Senate File 2201 in the House Commerce Committee.  Enacted by the Iowa Insurance Commissioner, a new consumer guide on health insurance will be created for Iowans with health insurance or looking to purchase insurance.

“Greedy Wall Street executives used their power to enrich themselves and devastated our national economy in the process.  Isn’t Wellmark doing the same thing when it uses its control of the Iowa insurance market to hammer middle class families, small business owners and farmers?” said State Senator Becky Schmitz of Fairfield, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.  “As lawmakers, our job is to ensure insurance rate hikes are justified and that insurance companies aren’t taking advantage of small businesses or families.”

The accountability plan also calls for a detailed report from the Iowa Insurance Commissioner on health spending costs for insurance plans.  The information must include rate increase data, health care expenditures, ranking factors that raise or lower costs in each insurance plan, and other data.

I’m guessing that bill will not go through without a big fight.

Not every health care bill has been controversial, though. On February 15 the Iowa Senate approved a bill on cancer patients in clinical trials: “People who are undergoing clinical trials for cancer treatment would be assured that routine medical care would still be paid for by health insurance companies. Insurers would not be required to pay for the clinical trials.” The Iowa House unanimously approved this bill last month. “Peggy Huppert, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, said requiring the coverage would eliminate any doubt about an insurance company’s legal responsibilities.”

I learned from the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women that renewal of the Medicaid Family Planning Waiver (HF2281/SSB3086) is alive as well. “The bill renews the State’s ability to draw down federal funds (with state matching funds) to pay for family planning services for low income women (and some men), and expands the age group covered to up to 55.”

A bill to collect data to address Iowa’s nursing shortage made it through the funnel too. The bill numbers for the Iowa Needs Nurses Now Initiative are HSB634 and SF2168.

Friends of Iowa Midwives have been working hard to convince legislators to pass House File 781 on licensing midwives who attend births outside a hospital setting. That bill was approved by the House State Government Committee but has not yet been scheduled for a vote on the House floor. Although I did not choose to have a home birth, I consider access to midwifery care a reproductive rights issue, so I hope this bill goes forward.

EDUCATION

The legislature passed some education bills during the first week of this session in order to meet a deadline for a federal grant proposal. I discussed those in this post.

Other important decisions relating to education will come when lawmakers debate the 2011 budget. The good news is that Democrats are holding the line on the early childhood education program expanded in 2007.

A comprehensive sex ed bill didn’t make the funnel deadline:

The House Education Committee Thursday [February 11] decided not to take up a bill that would have expanded the state educational standards by adding age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education to be taught in kindergarten through grade 12 by public school districts and nonpublic accredited schools. Even with an “opt-out” provision for parents the measure was staunchly opposed by Catholic and private school interests.

House Republicans proposed Regents reform including limits to tuition increases, but that bill didn’t go forward. Neither did a mean-spirited proposal to “remove protections for gay, lesbian and transgender students from an anti-bullying law passed in 2007”.

ENVIRONMENT

So far it hasn’t been an encouraging legislative session for environmental issues. Many of the Iowa Environmental Council’s legislative priorities did not clear the funnel, including several related to renewable energy: a “feed-in tariff” program that would have forced utilities to pay a fair price for smaller-scale renewable sources of electricity, like wind, solar, and biomass; a “solar electric generation standard” to require public utilities to increase their use of solar power; a bill that would have increased financing for energy-efficiency improvements; a bill that would have required public utilities to disclose to customers how much electricity was generated from alternative and renewable sources; extending energy conservation requirements in the energy code.

A bill that would affect redevelopment in the 500-year flood plain is still alive, but I am not optimistic about its chances based on rumors I’m hearing. A separate measure that would have limited financing for development in the 500-year flood plain did not clear the funnel. We need better watershed management practices, but if the 2008 floods weren’t enough to create the political will to pass a bill like this, it’s never going to happen.

The House Agriculture Committee fast-tracked a terrible bill that would allow factory farms to avoid restrictions on spreading manure over frozen and snow-covered ground. There’s a companion bill in the Iowa Senate, but it hasn’t cleared a subcommittee yet. The latest rumor is that these bills are not going forward this session. I hope that’s true as well for the comically awful House File 2206, which would give landowners until 2020 (!) to comply with regulations passed in 1997 to prevent water contamination from agricultural drainage wells.

As usual, a good bill that would have allowed “local control” (agricultural zoning at the county level) for large confinement livestock operations didn’t go anywhere. Iowa Democrats missed a big opportunity by not pushing for this reform during the past four years. It would have been very popular with the general public, though not with some corporate interest groups.

On the plus side, the Senate Natural Resources Committee approved Senate Study Bill 3198, which outlines how the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund will be managed if Iowa voters approve a ballot initiative on creating that fund this November.

In addition, the Iowa Senate approved a good land use bill on February 18. Senate File 2265 establishes smart planning principles and passed on a 39 to 7 vote (all the no votes were Republicans). It now goes to the House, where it will be considered in the Local Government Committee. It may be some work to get this bill through the lower chamber. When the House Rebuild Iowa Committee considered a similar bill (called House Study Bill 592) earlier in this session, amendments removed many provisions that would have promoted sustainable development.

Also, Democrats on the legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee allowed “anti-degradation” rules protecting water quality to stand, despite efforts by Republicans to derail the new rules.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

No proposed constitutional amendments survived the funnel this year. The highest-profile proposal would have restricted the definition of marriage to one man and one woman in Iowa. Republican efforts to sidestep committee votes and bring that amendment straight to the House and Senate floor failed on February 9. Republicans will use procedural maneuvers to try to revive the marriage amendment later this session, but they are unlikely to succeed. Only five Iowa Senate Democrats have signed a discharge petition to bring the marriage amendment to the floor, and the Republicans need at least eight Democrats to prevail.

Other failed constitutional amendments this session would have limited state spending, prohibited any requirement for workers to pay union dues, defined a “right to life” from conception, restored elections for the Iowa Supreme Court, allowed ballot initiative petitions, protected the right to keep and bear arms, and reduced the number of counties to 50 by July 2015.

CONFIRMATIONS

During the 2009 session, Iowa Senate Republicans blocked three of Governor Culver’s appointees: Gene Gessow as head of the Department of Human Services, Shearon Elderkin as a member of the Environmental Protection Commission and Carrie La Seur as a board member of the Iowa Power Fund. So far this session, confirmations have not been contentious. On February 4 the Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed Bret Mills as head of the Iowa Department of Economic Development and Charlie Krogmeier as director of the Department of Human Services. Mills replaces interim IDED director Fred Hubbell, who took over after Mike Tramontina resigned in the wake of the film tax credit scandal. Culver appointed Krogmeier after Gessow’s nomination failed last year. The Senate unanimously confirmed Joe O’Hern as head of the Iowa Finance Authority on February 15.

MILITARY AND VETERANS’ ISSUES

House File 2110 would extend unemployment benefits to military spouses who relocate because of their spouse’s job assignment. It cleared the Iowa House in late January on a party-line vote, which surprised Democratic State Representative McKinley Bailey:

“This bill has little effect in Iowa, since we don’t have any military bases, which is why the visceral opposition to this bill is unfounded,” Bailey told the Iowa Independent during a phone interview. […]

Bailey said the impetus of the bill did not start at the state level. Rather it was a crafted in response to one of 10 priority issues identified by the Department of Defense as “having a strong impact on military families at the state level.” Currently, 35 other states have adopted similar bills that expand unemployment benefits to trailing military spouses.

“In a state like Texas, which is Republican controlled and has hundreds of thousands of military members, they have this law,” Bailey said. “I’m not trying to pick a partisan fight here; I just don’t understand the opposition and why there was so much opposition here. It was really frustrating during the debate on the House floor, and I’m not blaming all the Republicans, but there were a few who dragged military families through the mud and said, for example, that these families would use this bill to try and milk the system.”

Republicans thought HF 2110 would put too big a strain on Iowa’s unemployment trust fund and/or wanted to limit it to spouses of service members who had been deployed.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bob Krause, who heads the Iowa Democratic Veterans Caucus, had a strong statement about this bill:

“Republican collusion against Veterans’ spouse unemployment compensation in the Iowa House is part of a Republican pattern of honoring the veteran with tinsel but refusing meaningful relief. In wartime, when the spouse quits to follow his or her service member, ‘voluntary quit’ often does not mean ‘voluntary quit,’” Krause, a veteran and member of the American Legion added.  “Instead it means something you do to keep the family afloat and together – especially on the relative low wages of some of the junior enlisted soldiers.”

“So what did the House Republicans do to support our soldiers and their families in time of war?  They opposed the bill as being too costly to employers,” Krause said.  “It seems strange to me that these sunshine soldiers and summertime patriots do not understand that businesses make money in our society because servicemembers protect their right to do it.  This is one of the most shameful acts of economic tight-fistedness that I have seen in my long career of working with the military and national defense.”

A bill to give veterans the day off on Veterans’ Day proved less controversial, clearing the Iowa House on a 97-2 vote on February 10. It awaits action in the Senate.

On February 16 the Senate unanimously approved Senate File 2226, which would allow non-custodial parents facing military deployments to have a family member regularly visit their children while they are deployed. (Thousands of Iowans will be sent to Afghanistan this year.) Senator Steve Warnstadt explained the concept behind that bill here. It awaits action in the House.

SYMBOLIC MEASURES

During this shortened session, there wasn’t time to waste on many bills of little substantive importance. Victims of the funnel included a bill offered by House Democrat Ray Zirkelbach that would have amended the official description of Iowa’s seal, which refers to a citizen soldier with “a plow in his rear.” Not surprisingly, House and Senate Republicans offered many symbolic measures that had no chance of going anywhere. Those included a “state sovereignty” bill, which Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley tried to make an issue while he was exploring a gubernatorial campaign last year.

One symbolic bill that is still alive would put a statue of Nobel Laureate Normal Borlaug, who died last year, in the U.S. Capitol, replacing one of 19th-century Iowa politician Samuel Kirkwood.

Any comments about the current legislative session are welcome in this thread. Please let me know about important bills I forgot to mention.

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