Last year's legislative session was the longest in decades, and I wouldn't be surprised if this year's session goes well beyond the end of April too. The Republican-controlled Iowa House and Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate are once again far apart on spending targets. Governor Terry Branstad's draft budget called for $6.242 billion in general fund spending for fiscal year 2013, a 4 percent increase from the current year budget. House Republicans want to increase state spending only 1 percent this year, for a total of $6.06 billion. Senate Democrats want to spend about $6.22 billion, about 3 percent more than in fiscal year 2012. The Senate's overall spending target is closer to Branstad's, but they would get there differently.
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Senate plan sought to spend $25.2 million less than the governor proposed - an approach that included a commercial property tax cut geared to helps Iowa's small businesses and new workforce training to reduce Iowa's skilled worker shortfall. The plan also calls for increased state support for Iowa's local schools and a $25 million tax cut for working Iowans by raising the earned income tax credit from 7 percent to 13 percent.
Republican legislators defended their cautious approach to spending despite improving state revenues:
"We have to send a signal to employers that we have our act together. We think this budget does that. They're not going to have to be worried about a looming tax increase. It's important that we send that signal," [House Speaker Kraig] Paulsen told reporters in outlining a $6.06 billion spending plan that calls for $20 million in government efficiencies and savings, reduces funding for many small state agencies to 90 percent of current levels, and requires all government employees - including themselves - to contribute $200 a month to help defray the cost of their health insurance. That assessment would save $42.9 million next fiscal year but would require that unionized state workers agree to reopen the second year of their collective bargaining pact and accept the concession, he said.
"The growth in the economy, while it is encouraging, it is a very tenuous situation. One percent growth is reasonable and something that taxpayers can feel comfortable can actually be afforded without future cuts," said Sen. Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, ranking GOP member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It's a proposal that can work."
In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal called the House Republican proposal "the mother of all job killers."
"We will continue to work with the Governor and any legislators interested in creating good jobs by helping Iowa workers fill existing job openings, helping Iowa businesses create new jobs, and ensuring that education and job training are affordable and accessible across our state."
In a February 20 press release, Senate Democrats challenged Branstad to reject "the Iowa economic disaster that is the House Republican budget." The release noted that House Republicans want to spend $51 million less than the governor on public universities, $4.3 million less than the governor on workforce development offices, $1.8 million less than the governor on "economic development at Regent universities," and omitted $25 million the governor wants to spend on an economic incentives fund. Branstad has urged House Republicans to allocate more funding to the University of Iowa, Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa: "And I think this is an indication that when I present a budget, I stand behind it and will work hard for it."
Branstad's actions last year told a different story. In early 2011, he proposed general fund spending at a level in between the House and Senate targets. But shortly after the legislative session went into overtime, Branstad moved all the way to the Republican position on state spending, even though Iowa's revenue projections were improving. Branstad could have urged both sides to meet in the middle, but he stuck to his guns as the impasse nearly forced a state government shutdown. Why should House Republicans believe the governor will stand by his 2012 budget proposal?
Incidentally, Republican State Auditor David Vaudt has criticized both the House and Senate budget documents.
The GOP auditor criticized legislative Republicans for starting a "highly misleading practice" last session of shifting $106 million in state spending from the general fund to a health care trust account as a way to hold the overall fiscal 2012 state general fund budget below $6 billion, when it's actually spending around $6.3 billion. This year, he said, Senate Democrats want to move another $113 million into that same fund as a way to "camouflage" general fund spending, which would actually mean they propose to spend $88 million more than Branstad, as opposed to their claim of spending $25 million less than the governor's budget plan.
"It's just an expenditure shift," Vaudt said. "It simply moves and hides millions of dollars of Medicaid spending outside the general fund."
Vaudt also criticized legislative Republicans for including $63 million worth of proposed spending cuts in their fiscal 2013 targets that do not appear to be feasible.
GOP lawmakers plan to save $43 million by requiring a $200 monthly contribution per state employee and elected official for health insurance costs, but he questioned whether unionized state workers would agree to reopen current collective bargaining agreements to approve such contributions - a factor that skews the targets. Also, he said, it did not appear the $20 million in government efficiencies to be achieved by selling state-owned land was realistic either.
Vaudt said he hoped lawmakers would provide more detailed information in the future so the public can better assess what is transpiring during the budgeting process.
That land sale proposal is appalling, by the way. According to an action alert from Iowa's Water and Land Legacy, House File 2434 in the Ways and Means Committee "directs the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to sell $20 million worth of public land and dedicate those funds to the Resource Enhancement & Protection fund. This would be one time money only, and couldn't be used to fill the Open Spaces account or used for additional land acquisition." Talk about short-sighted. Iowa has too little public land as it is. This proposal won't go anywhere in the Senate, but the fact that House Republicans have proposed it makes me worried that it could be on the table if the GOP wins a Senate majority in 2013.
Speaking of budget items related to the environment, the Iowa Policy Project recently published a report on "funding for several key state water programs over the last decade," which found that Iowa's "commitment to water protection programs is woefully lacking."
When water quality programs are underfunded, it's frustrating that $5 million over two years to rebuild the dam at Lake Delhi is still on the table for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. The Delaware County supervisors have approved a bond issue needed to match the funding sought from the state. Several Iowa environmental groups maintain that Lake Delhi is unsustainable and a poor use of public money compared to other lake and river restoration projects. UPDATE: On March 22 the House Appropriations Committee removed funding for the Lake Delhi project from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund budget. The Senate version of that appropriations bill still includes $5 million over two years for dam restoration.
One more budget-related note: Lynda Waddington reported that some House Republicans are trying to change how family planning services are funded in the health and human services appropriations bill. The idea is to defund Planned Parenthood clinics, but if the effort succeeds, Iowa could lose its federal funding from Medicaid's Women Health Program. Click the link for the details.
Tax bills aren't subject to the funnel deadline, but I think the proposed gasoline tax hike is finished for the year, and possibly for this decade. Despite some bipartisan support for the idea, it was never going to be easy to persuade lawmakers to raise an unpopular tax in an election year after redistricting. The intense media focus on rising gasoline prices has further undermined support. The Des Moines Register's poll showing overwhelming opposition to a gas tax hike won't reassure anyone. Finally, 11 Iowa House Republicans face primary challengers. I just can't see this bill moving forward.
The House and Senate remain far apart on a plan to restructure property taxes. House File 2274 passed the Iowa house on a straight party-line vote in February. The House plan wasn't exactly what Branstad proposed, but the governor liked the approach. From a House Republican press release:
"Our uncompetitive property tax system is a burden on job creators and prohibits businesses of all sizes from expanding, hiring or even settling in Iowa," said Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha). "This pro-growth, pro-jobs plan creates predictability and certainty for Iowa families and employers."
Highlights of the Republican plan include:
ALL Iowans receive tax relief and there is no shifting of burdens to any one class of property
Job creators receive a $602 million property tax cut
Homeowners receive a $417 million property tax cut
Republicans' proposal offers a total of $1.2 billion in relief for Iowa property taxpayers
The plan proposed by Democrats results in a $2.5 billion property tax increase, with $1.69 billion of that falling on the backs of homeowners.
Naturally, Senate Democrats see things differently. They say their plan is less expensive and would neither starve local governments of revenue nor shift the burden to residential property tax payers. Democrats also say their plan would help more small business owners.
Further complicating matters: Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Joe Bolkcom is standing by his promise not to consider property tax reform until the governor signs an earned income tax credit expansion into law. Branstad line-item vetoed that tax credit expansion twice in 2011. Now the governor would like to use it as a bargaining chip to get what he wants on commercial property taxes. Sorry, Charlie: you can't strip the Democrats' top priority out of two separate bipartisan compromise bills and then hope to use it as a bargaining chip a third time. The Senate unanimously approved the earned income tax credit expansion for a third time in February, but the House has yet to act on the bill.
Branstad made an ambitious education reform package one of his top legislative priorities for 2012. Both the Iowa House and Senate are moving forward with versions of education reform, but those bills differ significantly from each other.
The Iowa House approved their reform bill, House File 2380, on March 13 by 53 votes to 46. Debate on the bill went late into the evening on March 12, as representatives rejected most amendments proposed by House Democrats. The House Journal (pdf) provides much more detail on the amendments considered and the roll call votes.
The House bill didn't endorse everything Branstad wanted. Notably, the House took out "a requirement that prospective teachers have and maintain a 3.0 GPA." The House bill also altered Branstad's proposal on retaining third graders who can't read, delaying its implementation until 2016. Branstad's Department of Education has given its blessing to two school districts that partnered with for-profit companies to provide 100 percent online learning. But the House bill "limits the number of school children who can enroll in fully online courses to 900 students statewide and restricts outward open enrollment from any single district to 1 percent of its total enrollment."
On final passage, all 39 House Democrats present voted against the education reform bill, joined by seven Republicans: Dwayne Alons, Betty De Boef, Jarad Klein, Glen Massie, Kim Pearson, Tom Shaw, and Jason Schultz. They are among the most hard-core social conservatives in the Iowa legislature. Bob Vander Plaats' FAMiLY Leader recently came out against the governor's education proposals. Last year three prominent Iowa conservatives slammed the governor's blueprint in a report for the American Principles Project.
After the final vote on House File 2380, a statement released by Democratic State Representative Sharon Steckman previewed the likely battle lines in the House/Senate negotiations over education reform:
"We strongly believe in strengthening our educational system and giving students the skills necessary to land a good-paying job.
However, true reform is research based and has a positive impact on student's learning. Some of the proposals supported by Republicans are a step in the wrong direction, including 100% online learning and 3rd grade retention.
As the debate continues this year, we're also hopeful that the Senate will include some of the initiatives we offered today that were rejected by Republicans, including smaller class sizes, increased early literacy efforts, and teacher collaboration."
Senate Study Bill 3171 passed the Education Committee in late February and has been referred to Appropriations. Senate Democrats continue to make a public case against Branstad's proposal on third grade retention.
The Senate package allows for retention, but mandates that teachers take into consideration other factors than the reading scores. The Senate plan also requires that a child's parent or guardian meets with school officials before the child is held back.
"I think what she said is very consistent with what we've heard from other sources," said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, chairman of the Senate Education committee. "The scientific result on third-grade retention is very mixed. There does seem to be a pretty strong consensus that early intervention is necessary and you need to identify problems early and do something and not wait until the third grade."
Democratic Senator Tom Courtney is taking the lead to "outlaw or restrict gimmicks like 100 percent online schools in Iowa." New legislation on that subject is needed because last week Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller issued a written opinion stating that the proposed online academies don't violate any existing state law.
Senate Democrats continue to insist on higher funding levels for K-12 education (4 percent allowable growth in education budgets for the 2013/2014 academic year). The Senate budget targets also call for more spending on community colleges and public universities as well as other education-related programs. The Senate has also approved a bill to prevent the state Department of Education from cutting $30 million "used by local schools to reduce class sizes and improve reading instruction in early elementary grades." That bill, Senate File 2219, has cleared the House Education Committee but has been referred to Appropriations. Meanwhile, the House Education Committee voted along party lines to use $20 million of the class size money to pay for education reform. House Democratic leader Kevin McCarthy called that idea "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
One of the most important items on the legislature's to-do list this year is reforming the mental health services system. During the 2011 session, the Iowa House and Senate adopted a blueprint for redesigning the system, leaving the details to be worked out by the end of this fiscal year. Democrats and Republicans largely agree that mental health services need to be more consistent, but funding levels and mechanisms remain a sticking point.
Last week the Senate passed Senate File 2315, the mental health reform bill, by 32 votes to 18. All 26 Senate Democrats voted for the bill, joined by Republicans Rob Bacon, Merlin Bartz, Nancy Boettger, Joni Ernst, James Seymour, and Brad Zaun.
Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jack Hatch wrote in his newsletter of March 16:
One of the great collaborations in my legislative career has been the reform of our health care system. This year, in a bipartisan vote (32-18), the Senate passed the Mental Health Redesign Bill. Positioned to completely redesign the way our mental health system is structured and financed, we passed SF 2315, which creates a comprehensive system of patient-centered care with statewide standards, regionally administered and locally delivered.
Today, Iowa treats mental illness with 78 separate systems with little or no coordination and a variety of funding levels. This bill corrects the disparity and focuses on more local-rather than institutional-care. The bill is now in the House, where it passed out of their Human Services Committee and is now in their Appropriations Committee.
Several other health policy bills have passed the Senate and await action in the House. Senate File 2293 would change state law so that Iowa's high-risk health insurance pool could accept people whose prescriptions are covered by third-party payers. The current restriction excludes HIV-positive Iowans. In light of the Senate's party-line vote for this bill, I doubt it will go anywhere in the House.
Senate File 2298 also passed on a party-line vote last week. It would establish licensing and certification standards for direct care workers in nursing homes, home care, hospitals, and hospices. Hatch described the bill's goal as giving "more than 70,000 direct care workers in Iowa a pathway to more stable employment, broader training and better compensation. The process will ultimately improve the quality care direct care workers provide to Iowans who depend on them." According to Hatch, the industry groups Iowa Health Care Association and Direct Care Association support this bill. The Senate GOP caucus unanimously opposed it, supposedly because "Republicans believe that public unions would attempt to unionize this industry." If that's the case, this bill isn't going anywhere in the Iowa House.
One health-related bill cleared the Senate recently with strong bipartisan support. Senate File 2128 would require "certain group health insurance policies, contracts, or plans to provide coverage for autism spectrum disorders" for all children in Iowa. Democrat Daryl Beall is the key backer of this bill. It follows from "Drew's law," adopted in 2010, which expanded health insurance coverage for state employees to include treatment for autism spectrum disorder. Beall's grandson Drew is on the spectrum. In his latest newsletter, Beall said supporting Senate File 2128 was "the proudest vote I've cast in 10 years." He hailed "the tremendous bipartisan support during debate." Usually Republican lawmakers oppose any new regulation on business, but most of the Senate GOP caucus joined the 43 to 7 majority that passed the bill. The no voters (all Republicans) were Jerry Behn, Bill Dix, Steve Kettering, Paul McKinley, Roby Smith, Kent Sorenson, and Jack Whitver. Presumably they have no idea how expensive autism treatments can be, or how important it is for families to obtain early intervention after diagnosis.
One casualty of the funnel deadline was Senate File 2042, which would set up the insurance exchange states are supposed to create by January 2013, as part of the 2010 federal health insurance reform law (Affordable Care Act). This bill cleared a Senate committee but never came up for a vote on the floor. If Iowa doesn't create its own insurance exchange, the federal government will dictate the terms of the exchange. According to Hatch, Branstad "believes he has authority to create an [insurance] exchange without the legislature. If he is wrong, he will put at risk our ability to create an exchange based on Iowa values and Iowa issues."
On March 13 the Senate approved a bill to legalize internet poker, designed to help the state collect up to $30 million in revenues annually. Senate File 2275 was approved by 29 votes to 20, but House Speaker Kraig Paulsen referred to a "general lack of interest" in the proposal, while House State Government Committee Chair Peter Cownie said the problem was timing:
The Senate plan to allow competing hub operators to partner with state-licensed casinos under the control of the state Racing and Gaming Commission to operate online sites for registered players ages 21 and older within Iowa subject to the state's current gaming fee structure wasn't introduced in the House until Thursday morning [March 15]. That was too late for committee action, Cownie said.
"There are deadlines and this really was a victim of the funnel," he said referring to the Legislature's self-imposed March 16 is deadline for non-money measures to clear one legislative chamber and a committee of the other to remain eligible for consideration this session.
Democratic State Senator Jeff Danielson was the key backer of the internet poker proposal. I'm not sorry to see it fail, because in my opinion, Iowa has enough legal forms of gambling. The Senate debate was interesting, though. On a mostly party-line vote, senators rejected an amendment proposed by Republican Joni Ernst, which would have directed revenues from internet poker to the road use tax fund. Another amendment, which would have required casinos that operate internet poker to prohibit smoking on their premises, was ruled out of order. (The gambling lobby managed to get an exemption for casinos to the public smoking ban Iowa adopted in 2008.)
For what it's worth, the final vote on internet poker was bipartisan. The 29 senators supporting the bill were Republicans Bill Anderson, Merlin Bartz, Rick Bertrand, Bill Dix, Sandy Greiner, Tim Kapucian, Kent Sorenson, and Jack Whitver, along with Democrats Daryl Beall, Dennis Black, Tod Bowman, Tom Courtney, Jeff Danielson, Dick Dearden, Bill Dotzler, Bob Dvorsky, Mike Gronstal, Tom Hancock, Jack Hatch, Wally Horn, Pam Jochum, Jack Kibbie, Liz Mathis, Matt McCoy, Amanda Ragan, Tom Rielly, Brian Schoenjahn, Steve Sodders, and Mary Jo Wilhelm.
The 20 senators who opposed the internet poker bill were Republicans Rob Bacon, Jerry Behn, Nancy Boettger, Mark Chelgren, Joni Ernst, Randy Feenstra, Jim Hahn, Shawn Hamerlinck, David Johnson, Steve Kettering, Paul McKinley, James Seymour, Roby Smith, Pat Ward, and Brad Zaun, along with Democrats Joe Bolkcom, Gene Fraise, Rob Hogg, Herman Quirmbach, and Joe Seng.
CRIME AND SAFETY
Several crime-related bills have already been adopted this year. Branstad signed "Kadyn's Law" on March 16. Senate File 2218 was inspired by Kadyn Halverson's death last May while waiting for a school bus. The bill "will provide stiffer penalties for those who violate school bus safety laws and also mandates a study to be conducted to find other areas that need modifications to make traveling safer for school children." driver illegally passed a stopped school bus. The bill passed both the Iowa House and Iowa Senate unanimously.
Last month, Branstad signed into law Senate File 93, which was a top priority for domestic violent prevention advocates. It defines choking and "sets harsher penalties for those convicted of domestic assault by attempted strangulation." The bill passed the Iowa Senate unanimously in 2011 and passed the Iowa House 96 to 1 this year. Republican Glen Massie was the only no vote; he later explained that he considered the bill unconstitutional.
Bleeding Heartland has already discussed Iowa's new "ag gag" law, which Branstad signed in early March. House File 589 is designed to deter whistle-blowing at livestock production facilities.
Several other bills related to crime or public safety are still alive. The proposed ban on traffic cameras to catch drivers for speeding or running red lights never made it to the House floor, but House Speaker Paulsen gave that bill another chance by assigning it to the Appropriations Committee, which isn't subject to the funnel deadline. Paulsen told journalists that at one point, "the bill had between 65 and 70 votes with Democrats putting up 15 to 20 of them." Local governments strongly oppose House File 2214. Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said on a recent Iowa Public Television program that the traffic cameras have reduced accidents where they've been installed and help generate at least $3 million in revenue for each city annually.
Another crime bill that's pending would allow multiple charges to be filed against "people who have pornographic images of multiple minors" on a single computer.
House File 2226 also survived the funnel and "clarifies the right of individuals placed on the state's child abuse registry to provide information challenging their inclusion on the list and further outlines their right to appeals."
Several crime or law enforcement-related bills appear to be dead. As many House Democrats warned, the Iowa Senate did not take up a constitutional amendment that would ban almost any kind of regulation on guns. Nor did any Senate committee approve another one of the gun lobby's top legislative priorities: a "stand your ground" bill (House File 2215). The Iowa House approved that legislation last month. Florida has seen a sharp increase in killings ruled justifiable homicides since adopting a "stand your ground" law five years ago. I recommend clicking through to read the report by Ben Montgomery and Colleen Jenkins for the Tampa Bay Times. Some of the killings they describe which didn't sound like self-defense, yet no charges were filed against the shooters.
Another casualty of the funnel was House File 2430, intended to force businesses to use the E-Verify system so as not to hire undocumented immigrants. Secretary of State Matt Schultz has made E-Verify one of his legislative priorities, but the bill never cleared The lobbyist declarations for this bill reveal an unusual coalition of groups opposed to requiring businesses to use E-Verify: the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, the Iowa State Sheriffs' and Deputies' Association, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Iowa Catholic Conference, the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church, The Iowa Federation of Labor, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. The only lobbyist registered for this bill represents the Iowa Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. A large group of 39 House Republicans and two Democrats sponsored this bill, but it never came up for a vote on the House floor, let alone the Senate. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement asserted in a March 16 press release that "people power" had killed this bill. Excerpt:
Des Moines, IA - Anti-immigrant bill House File 2430, a measure that would have pushed all businesses to screen their workers' social security numbers through the E-Verify system and burdened local law enforcement with an unfunded mandate, is officially dead for the rest of the legislative session.
Since the introduction of this Arizona-style measure, Iowa CCI Action Fund members, joined by a coalition of faith and human rights groups and local business owners, relentlessly worked to close the door on the racial profiling, burden on local resources and economic downturn that would have ensued with House File 2430.
"This is a victory. I was very happy to participate in defeating this bill, and all our effort was worthwhile," said CCI Action member Maria Romero. "But we can't stop here; lawmakers must stop proposing laws that hurt working people," she said.
CCI Action Fund members packed the House Judiciary committee that discussed House File 2430 and though it was voted through that day, the pressure was turned up on legislators to respond to Iowans from all walks of life. "Shame on legislators for even proposing such a cruel piece of legislation," said CCI Action member Larry Ginter during a speak out at the Capitol on Feb. 21.
Hundreds of people from all across the state contacted their representatives, asking them to defeat HF 2430. And it worked, as the piece of legislation did not even make it to debate at the full House.
"Thanks to the efforts of many people, we managed to succeed in defeating it," said Elvira Guerrero, a CCI Action Fund member.
"Immigrants --Latinos-- are key part of Iowa. We're here to work hard to support our families here, and the money we earn stays in Iowa," Guerrero said. "Our contribution should go to measures that benefit our communities, not to support anti-immigrant laws."
CCI Action members will continue to monitor legislation for amendments which bring up anti-immigrant policies, as well as fight against legislation that doesn't put people before profits or communities before corporations.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
The most important energy-related legislation still in play is the nuclear power bill that the Senate Commerce Committee approved last week. Bleeding Heartland discussed that vote here. House File 561 could come up for debate in the full Senate as early as this week, but opponents including Senators Beall and Bolkcom have vowed to fight to keep the bill off the floor. If it is brought up for debate, it will likely pass easily; most Republicans support the measure, while the Democratic caucus is divided.
Bills designed to protect the environment haven't gone anywhere this year. Environmental groups have fought an uphill battle against the pro-nuclear bill and against House Joint Resolution 2001. That legislation and its companion, Senate Joint Resolution 2001, would overturn the administrative rule approved last summer to ban the use of lead shot for dove-hunting. Ever since the legislature's Administrative Rules Review Committee voted to delay the implementation of that rule, I knew it would be difficult to stop lawmakers from nullifying it. House Joint Resolution 2001 passed the Iowa House last month by 73 votes to 27 (pdf). All 60 House Republicans voted for it, joined by Democrats Dennis Cohoon, Mary Gaskill, Chris Hall, Jerry Kearns, Jim Lykam, Kevin McCarthy, Helen Miller, Dan Muhlbauer, Rick Olson, Brian Quirk, Nate Willems, John Wittneben, and Mary Wolfe.
The lead shot bill hasn't come up for a vote in the full Senate yet, but I have no doubt that it will pass. The Senate Natural Resources Committee approved the bill in January by 9 votes to 3 (pdf). Only three Democrats, Rob Hogg, Amanda Ragan, and Joe Seng, opposed the effort to overturn the lead shot ban. Democrats Dick Dearden, Dennis Black, Tom Hancock, and Brian Schoenjahn voted for the bill, joined by committee Republicans Jim Hahn, Shawn Hamerlinck, Tim Kapucian, and Kent Sorenson.
Any comments related to this year's legislative session are welcome in this thread. Rod Boshart's post-funnel roundup is also worth reading.