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Iowa Republicans vote against Amtrak funding

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Mar 06, 2015 at 07:00:02 AM CST

The U.S. House approved $8 billion in funding for Amtrak passenger rail on Wednesday. Keith Lang and Cristina Marcos reported for The Hill,

Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the government for operations and construction projects.

The measure would authorize about $982 million per year for the company's national network and another $470 million annually for its popular Northeast U.S. routes.

The bill, which would expire in 2019, sets another $300 million per year for construction on Amtrak routes in the rest of country and about $24 million per year for the company's inspector general.

All 184 Democrats present voted yes, including Iowa's Dave Loebsack (IA-02). But as the 316 to 101 roll call shows, more than 100 House conservatives voted against the Amtrak bill, including Iowa's Rod Blum (IA-01), David Young (IA-03), and Steve King (IA-04).

Young should know better. Currently, the only Amtrak routes across Iowa travel through the southern part of the state, calling at stations in the third and second Congressional districts. (King used to represent some of those southwest Iowa counties, but he hasn't since the last redistricting.) Anyway, Young has lived on the east coast long enough to understand how important passenger rail is for the U.S. transportation system.  

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Keystone XL bill dead for now but will be back

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 05, 2015 at 15:58:52 PM CST

As expected, the U.S. Senate failed yesterday to override President Barack Obama's veto of a bill that would clear the way for building the Keystone XL pipeline. Supporters of the bill managed 62 votes, five short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Iowa's Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst both voted yes, along with all of their Republican colleagues and eight Democrats (roll call). Republicans will now try to attach the Keystone language to some bill the president won't want to veto. Laura Barron-Lopez reported for The Hill,

"If we don't win the battle today, we will win the war, because we will attach it to another piece of legislation," Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who wrote the bill, said Wednesday.

Hoeven said Republicans are likely to try to attach the legislation to a long-term transportation funding bill. Congress faces a May 31 deadline to approve new transportation funding.

"This is coming back in the form an infrastructure bill, a road bill that we are all voting for," said Manchin.

Keystone supporters are optimistic that Obama won't veto a six-year highway bill if it includes Keystone, despite vows by the president to veto any attempt to circumvent the federal review process of the pipeline.

If attaching Keystone to a transpiration bill doesn't work, supporters say, they will try to link it to a broader energy package.

That sounds like a good strategy. I suspect Keystone XL is a price Obama would be willing to pay for a long-term transportation funding bill. Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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Two ways 40,000 Iowans could lose their health insurance

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Mar 04, 2015 at 14:40:13 PM CST

At least 40,000 Iowans are in danger of losing their health insurance later this year, and not only because of the King v Burwell case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Regardless of how justices decide that case, Iowans could lose access to federal subsidies they need to buy insurance policies.

State legislators and Governor Terry Branstad could eliminate the risk by working together to establish a fully state-run health insurance exchange this year. But for reasons I can't comprehend, I see no sense of urgency to prevent a potentially devastating outcome for thousands of families.  

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Homeland Security funded through fiscal year: How the Iowans voted

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Mar 03, 2015 at 19:52:53 PM CST

A bill funding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through September 30 is headed to the White House, stripped of language intended to undermine President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration. Details on the voting and procedural maneuvers are after the jump, along with reaction from some of the Iowans in Congress.

Representative Steve King (IA-04) has repeatedly posted this image of a fish trap to convey his view that House Republicans played into a scheme to legalize what he calls Obama's "amnesty." In his press release, he asserted that "The White House is having a fish fry."

Steve King fish trap photo B_M6IkVW0AAfupp.jpg-large_zpsgg05jdou.jpeg

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Iowa Democratic lawmakers seeking to expand medical cannabis law

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Mar 03, 2015 at 16:15:45 PM CST

Iowa Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Joe Bolkcom has introduced a bill to make medical marijuana more broadly available to Iowans suffering from life-threatening or chronic illnesses. Senate Study Bill 1243 would allow the possession and use of medical cannabis (not just the cannabis oil derivative legalized last year) for any of the following "debilitating medical conditions": cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, AIDS or HIV, glaucoma, hepatitis C, Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (often known as Lou Gehrig's disease), Ehlers-danlos syndrome, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Scroll to the end of this post for a detailed summary of the bill.

The latest Des Moines Register poll by Selzer & Co indicates that 70 percent of Iowans favor allowing medical marijuana use. Yet Iowa's new law allowing cannabis oil treatments has yet to benefit a single patient. Nevertheless, persuading Iowa House Republicans and Governor Terry Branstad to legalize marijuana for additional medical conditions may be an uphill battle. Follow me after the jump for more background on this issue, and excerpts from recent testimony before members of the Iowa Senate.

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Iowa reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Mar 03, 2015 at 12:45:47 PM CST

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to members of Congress this morning, covering the expected ground about U.S.-Israeli relations and the danger posed by negotiating with Iran. Yesterday President Barack Obama defended his administration's policies and suggested that events had disproved Netanyahu's warnings about the 2013 agreement designed to halt Iran's nuclear program. Obama isn't planning to meet with Netanyahu during this Washington trip because of the Israeli election happening later this month.

At least 50 Congressional Democrats skipped today's speech, mainly because Republicans had invited Netanyahu to speak without working through White House channels. Furthermore, many people feel it's inappropriate for the U.S. Congress to appear to support one political party leader two weeks before an Israeli election. Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference yesterday, Netanyahu disingenuously said, "The last thing anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want, is for Israel to become a partisan issue." Which of course has been the entirely predictable outcome of this episode. For that reason, this Jewish blogger is among the roughly half of Americans who disapprove of Republican leaders inviting Netanyahu to speak to Congress.

All of the Iowa Republicans in Congress attended today's speech. I've enclosed some of their comments below and will update this post as needed. UPDATE: Representative Steve King (IA-04) put his reaction on YouTube.

Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02) watched the speech from his office. I enclose below his statement, explaining his views on U.S.-Israeli relations and his reasons for staying away from the "spectacle." I support his position 100 percent. The Republican Party of Iowa accused Loebsack of insulting "America's ally" by not hearing the prime minister's thoughts. But Loebsack did listen to what Netanyahu had to say--from an appropriate distance. Incidentally, House Minority Nancy Pelosi commented that while listening to Netanyahu this morning, she was "saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States."

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Grassley, Ernst oppose Loretta Lynch for attorney general

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Mar 02, 2015 at 15:06:28 PM CST

U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch appears likely to be confirmed as the next attorney general after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, but both of Iowa's U.S. senators will oppose her confirmation. Senator Chuck Grassley voted against Lynch on the Judiciary Committee, saying she had not convinced him that she "will lead the department in a different direction" from outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. In a statement I've posted after the jump, Grassley said that as "the nation's top law enforcement officer," the attorney general's job is "not to be the President's 'wingman.'" He then cited several news headlines about Lynch defending President Barack Obama's executive orders halting deportations for some undocumented immigrants.

Today Senator Joni Ernst confirmed that she will also vote against confirming Lynch. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

"I have some very serious concerns with Loretta Lynch," Ernst says, "especially during her testimony when she had stated that she does uphold what the president has done and his decisions, especially when it comes to executive amnesty."

Late last week, Ernst and Grassley voted against the "clean" bill to continue funding the Department of Homeland Security, stripped of language opposing Obama's immigration policies.

Three Republican senators (Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, and Jeff Flake) voted to forward Lynch's nomination from the Judiciary Committee to the full Senate. Assuming all 46 Democrats are present for her confirmation vote, she will need only one more GOP supporter to reach the 60-vote threshold.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Iowa's U.S. Representatives Steve King (IA-04) and Rod Blum (IA-01) signed a letter urging Senate Judiciary Committee members to reject Lynch. To my knowledge, Representative David Young (IA-03) did not sign the letter.

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Bakken pipeline links and discussion thread

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Mar 02, 2015 at 09:51:19 AM CST

The proposed Bakken pipeline is one of the most urgent issues facing Iowa's environmental community. The Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners wants to build the pipeline to transport crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, crossing eighteen Iowa counties in the process. Governor Terry Branstad has made clear he won't support any legislative action to stop the pipeline. That will leave the initial decision up to the Iowa Utilities Board, though approval by other state and federal agencies would be needed later; more details on that are below.

Two dozen non-profit groups have formed a coalition to fight the pipeline. You can keep up with their work on Facebook or at the No Bakken website. I'm active with several of the coalition members and enclosed the full list after the jump. The Sierra Club's Iowa chapter outlined some of the key concerns concisely and explained how members of the public can submit comments.

Former state legislator Ed Fallon, who ran for governor in 2006 and for Congress in 2008, is kicking off a 400-mile walk along the proposed pipeline route today, starting from southeast Iowa and heading northwest over the next several weeks. I've enclosed below an excerpt from his first e-mail update about the walk, in which Fallon recounts a conversation with Lee County farmers whose land lies along the proposed pipeline route. Click here to view upcoming events, including a public meetings for residents of Lee County this evening, for Van Buren County residents in Birmingham on March 5, and for Jefferson County residents in Fairfield on March 6.

The latest Iowa poll conducted by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics found that a majority of Iowans support the Bakken pipeline, but a larger majority oppose using eminent domain to seize land for the pipeline. Excerpts from the Iowa poll findings are at the end of this post.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. - The company that wants to build the pipeline has claimed "the project would have an Iowa economic impact of $1.1 billion during two years of construction, creating enough work to keep 7,600 workers employed for a year." Economist Dave Swenson explained here why such estimates are misleading.

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Weekend open thread: What's wrong with this picture?

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Mar 01, 2015 at 10:27:12 AM CST

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers?  This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

I haven't been watching this year's freakshow CPAC convention, but I was struck by Senator Chuck Grassley posting a photo of himself smiling and shaking hands with Oliver North at the event. For those not old enough to remember the 1980s, North was an important figure in the Iran-Contra affair (brief history here). As a little-known National Security Council official in the Reagan administration, North diverted funds from arms sales to the Iranian regime to supply anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua. He lied to Congress about the policy and responded to an investigation "By stuffing many documents into a shredder and sneaking out others in his secretary's dress." His felony convictions for destroying classified documents and obstructing Congress were vacated because of technicalities: specifically, questions about whether Congressional hearings before his prosecution had tainted the proceedings. There was never any credible case that North hadn't committed those crimes.

Why would North appeal to a guy like Grassley, self-styled advocate of strong Congressional oversight of the executive branch? How was the policy to supply weapons to the hostile Iranian regime substantively different from those by officials in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms who carried out the "Operation Fast and Furious" gunwalking scheme? How were Oliver North's actions substantively different from those of Justice Department officials under Attorney General Eric Holder, whom Grassley has excoriated for not cooperating with the Congressional investigation into Fast and Furious?

Speaking of Grassley, here's some unintentional comedy from the senator's Twitter feed on February 15: "Every republican senator but one wants to debate Homeland Security bill that will block Obama immigration but Dems filibuster Why not vote?"

Great question. Democrats should answer right after Grassley explains why he and his Republican colleagues didn't let the Senate vote on the DREAM Act and repeatedly blocked campaign finance disclosure rules that were favored by the entire Democratic caucus.

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How the Iowans voted on the Homeland Security funding bills (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Feb 28, 2015 at 14:22:09 PM CST

Funding for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been bogged down in a dispute over how far Congressional Republicans should go to overturn President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration. The rest of the federal government is funded through the end of this fiscal year (September 30), under a deal the previous House and Senate members approved in December. But conservatives held up funding for Homeland Security to preserve leverage for the new Congress.

Last night, a partial shutdown of the department was averted when senators approved a one-week funding measure and House members followed suit. Whether a majority can be found next week for a longer-term bill remains unclear.

Iowa's own Steve King (R, IA-04) has been beating the drum for weeks urging conservatives not to give in and pass a "clean" Homeland Security funding bill. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have been less vocal about the matter, but they opposed the clean bill approved by a majority of senators yesterday (which didn't come to a House vote).

Follow me after the jump for details on where the Iowans stood on all the recent Congressional votes related to this standoff.

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Gas tax fallout: Eric Durbin challenging Clel Baudler in Iowa House district 20

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Feb 27, 2015 at 16:49:42 PM CST

Many Iowa GOP activists are upset that dozens of House and Senate Republicans voted to increase the gasoline tax this week. WHO drive-time radio host Simon Conway has been bashing some legislators who voted for the gas tax hike. He's also urging listeners to "ditch the GOP" by changing their party registration.

Such symbolic acts mean little to compared to what Eric Durbin did yesterday. Appearing on Conway's Thursday afternoon broadcast, he announced that he will challenge nine-term incumbent GOP State Representative Clel Baudler in Iowa House district 20. Durbin narrowly lost the GOP primary in House district 26 last year, but he recently moved his family from Indianola to a farm in Baudler's district. His campaign is on Facebook here; at this writing, the website still lists House district 26, which covers most of Warren County. I assume that will be changed soon. Durbin's core issues hit many of the top priorities for conservatives.

House district 20 covers Guthrie and Adair counties, plus parts of Dallas and Cass counties. A detailed map is after the jump. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State's office, House district 20 contains 4,629 active registered Democrats, 6,471 Republicans, and 7,490 no-party voters. Although Mitt Romney just barely carried this district in the 2012 presidential election, Baudler was re-elected by more than a 2,000 vote margin that year and last November. For those reasons, Baudler is probably at more risk from a primary challenger than from a Democrat in the next general election.

Among the longest-serving Iowa House Republicans, Baudler was first been elected in 1998. He has chaired the House Public Safety Committee since 2011. Although he's a longtime member of the National Rifle Association's board of directors, Baudler drew the ire of some Iowa gun rights activists by not advancing a gun bill during the 2012 legislative session. Nevertheless, he didn't face a primary challenger either that year or in 2014. The Iowa Gun Owners group will likely get behind Durbin's primary challenge. I wonder whether anti-tax groups like Iowans for Tax Relief and Americans for Prosperity will do much to punish the incumbents who went against them on the gas tax issue.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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Moderatepachy Goes to Des Moines: Vol. I

by: moderatepachy

Thu Feb 26, 2015 at 21:02:36 PM CST

(Bleeding Heartland welcomes guest diaries, and during the busy legislative session, it's particularly helpful to get a close look at bills proposed in the Iowa House or Senate. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

When I am not a moderatepachy, I am a lawyer.  The majority of my practice is as defense counsel in civil litigation.  Sometimes, the job is rewarding, especially when you win in lawsuits initiated by lawyers who advertise like this (disclosure: I have never opposed them, but I hope to one day, and win).  Other times, the job causes headaches, because my job is to to be a skeptic.

Recently, I went to the Iowa State Senate to talk about this proposed legislation.  SF107 extends the Statute of Limitations for filing civil (and criminal) actions relating to sex abuse of a child.  You can read an 80% accurate depiction of the Senate Subcommitte hearing here.  Believe this moderatepachy, the testimony from the survivors was passionate.  Petrovsky omitted that another survivor of abuse, John, gave compelling testimony.

What Petroski also missed is that the bill would allow suits within 25 years of the "discovery" of abuse by the alleged victim.   In other words, the 60+ year old senior partner at my firm could "discover" tomorrow that he had been abused as a child, and he would have 25 years to file suit... imagine a lawsuit filed in 2039 for something that allegedly occurred during the LBJ administration.   (No doubt Hillary Clinton's granddaughter and Ted Cruz's son will yell at one another about the lawsuit one day on Fox News' "Hannity & Son").

The sensitive and difficult nature about these types of suits is touched on here by the Iowa Catholic Conference; the Catholic church has a dog in this fight for obvious reasons I need not explain.

Besides those, the reality is that most abusers do not have any money; but insurance policyholders do.   The gimmick, then, is that one sues the abuser... but also wherever the abuser taught, worked, and preached, under a theory that supervisors are liable for whatever their subordinates do.  Imagine the changes that occur in 4 years (the Statute of Limitations right now) in a business, school, or church.  Records, witnesses, memories... gone.  Just like plaintiffs, defendants have a right to a fair trial.  How can one defend against an alleged wrong that occured 30, 50, or 70 years ago?

After the victims testified, it was clear that Senator Petersen (D, SD-18) urgently wanted to move the bill forward.  The defense bar hopes that cooler heads might prevail in the House.  Last year, similar legislation died in a Senate subcommittee.  To oppose this bill is tricky; to be seen as "against" abuse victims is to be seen as tacitly "supporting" abusers.    

What is interesting is that the lobbyist declarations have not been very active; certainly there are other things that keep our legislators busy, and in same cases, motivate our legislative leaders to cave to Farm Bureau pull members of their own caucus off of committees to get things done.

I urge any other Bleeding Heartland readers, if you hear about legislation you might not like, figure out a way to find it, found out who supports it, and share your view with your legislators.    

This moderatepachy may have further updates and hopes to give readers more insights in the legislative sausage being made.  Moderatepachy would also like to salute the work of desmoinesdem, for creating an incredible local resource on Iowa politics.  It smarts that the analysis and writing in this blog and another (D)'s usually has more contextstatewide scope, and humour (say it with a British or French accent to justify my misspelling), than the flagship for my party.   

 

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IA-01: Monica Vernon campaigning against ... Steve King

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Feb 27, 2015 at 09:53:04 AM CST

An e-mail appearing to come from the sender "Stop Steve King" popped up in my in-box this week. I opened it, wondering whether a Democratic candidate was ready to announce already in Iowa's fourth Congressional district. King's last challenger, Jim Mowrer, raised a huge amount of money in 2013 and last year, partly through mass e-mails coming from "Stop Steve King" or "Stop Steve King 2014." Getting voters to read messages from political campaigns is increasingly challenging, and "clickbait" subject headings don't always do the trick. Of all Iowa Republicans, King is probably the most hated by Democrats.    

As it turned out, the February 24 "Stop Steve King" message wasn't from a potential challenger in IA-04. New Blue Interactive sent it on behalf of Monica Vernon's Congressional campaign in Iowa's first district. The e-mail urged recipients to sign a petition demanding that Congress fund the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with a "clean" bill, not including "anti-immigration amendments." Clicking through the embedded link takes you to a petition page titled, "Tell the Tea Party to stop playing games with our national security!" Vernon's opponent, Representative Rod Blum, is mentioned as standing in lock-step with King, House Speaker John Boehner, and "tea party" Republicans. I've enclosed screenshots of the mass e-mail and the petition after the jump.

Within the House GOP caucus, King has been one of the loudest voices demanding that Congress use the Homeland Security funding measure to make a point on immigration policy. Blum has indicated that he also supports using the Homeland Security budget bill to withhold funding from programs related to the President Barack Obama's executive orders granting temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants. In Blum's view, holding the line on this matter "will not impact national security" because even after current funding expires at the end of February, "85 percent of the federal employees funded through Homeland Security are deemed essential and will continue work without pay until the funding issue is resolved."

So it seems fair for Vernon's campaign to lump Blum in with King and other Republicans engaging in brinksmanship over Homeland Security funding. Clearly "Stop Steve King" will catch the eye of many more Democrats than "Stop Rod Blum" or "Vernon for Congress." Whether this exercise in list-building will eventually translate into lots of new donors or volunteers for Vernon is anyone's guess.

Any comments about the race in IA-01 are welcome in this thread.

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More than 170,000 Iowans could be affected by Anthem cyber-attack

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Feb 26, 2015 at 19:34:43 PM CST

When hackers attacked the major health insurance company Anthem earlier this month, the ensuing data breach may have affected 172,727 Iowans, the Iowa Insurance Division announced today.

Any Iowan impacted by this cyber-attack will be contacted by Anthem and identity theft repair services are available.  Affected Iowans may also sign up for additional free services which include credit monitoring services and a free identity theft insurance policy.

"The Iowa Insurance Division is working with Anthem and regulators in other states to monitor this situation and we will continue to update Iowans as we learn more," [Iowa Insurance Commissioner Nick] Gerhart said.  "In addition to the identity repair assistance Anthem is offering by telephone, I would strongly recommend any Iowans affected by this cyber-attack to sign up for all of the additional protections being offered to help remedy the situation."

Affected Iowans should visit https://anthem.allclearid.com or call 1-877-263-7995 to sign up for the additional protections provided by Anthem.  For more information visit https://www.anthemfacts.com.

When news first broke about the cyber-attack, I never would have guessed that more than 5 percent of Iowans could be affected. Residents of fourteen other states where Anthem operates were even more likely to be victims, as this crime may have compromised personal data of 60 million to 80 million people nationwide. FBI officials claimed earlier this week that the investigation has made progress identifying the hackers, but few details are publicly available.

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Iowa Senate approves bills on wage theft, minimum wage increase

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Feb 26, 2015 at 13:12:54 PM CST

While the gasoline tax increase grabbed most of the attention, the Iowa Senate approved two other significant bills on Tuesday. Senate File 270 would combat Iowa's wage theft problem, estimated to cost workers about $600 million annually. After the jump I've enclosed State Senator Bill Dotzler's opening remarks on the bill, which cover its key provisions. Victims of wage theft testified at an Iowa Senate hearing in late January, and when you hear their stories, it's hard to understand why this remains a partisan issue.

It makes sense when you read the lobbyist declarations on the bill, showing various labor groups in favor and business groups opposed (including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Iowa Retail Federation, the Iowa Grocery Association, and the Iowa Propane Gas Association). During the Senate Labor and Business Committee's hearing on wage theft, GOP Senator Rick Bertrand had criticized the idea of forcing more "paperwork" on all Iowa businesses because a minority are stealing wages from workers. Democrats later incorporated some amendments suggested by Bertrand. Nevertheless, the final vote on Senate File 270 was strictly partisan, with 26 Democrats in favor and 23 Republicans against. Senators approved a similar bill last year, also along party lines. It died in the Iowa House.

Senate File 269, which would raise Iowa's minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.00 this year and to $8.75 next year, cleared the Iowa Senate on February 24 as well. This time Bertrand joined the 26 Democrats in voting for the bill; the other 22 Republicans who were present opposed it. For the last couple of years, many Democrats nationally and in Iowa have endorsed a minimum wage of $10.10.  I assume Senate File 269 set a lower goal in the hope of attracting bipartisan support, but I would have stuck with $10.10. Not only is that closer to a living wage, it's closer to the purchasing power of Iowa's minimum wage the last time it was raised in early 2007.

Incidentally, only three of the current Iowa Senate Republicans were in the legislature when Iowa last raised the minimum wage in 2007. Of those, David Johnson voted for raising the minimum wage to $7.25, while Brad Zaun and Jerry Behn voted against it.

Republican statehouse leaders have no interest in raising the minimum wage now, but when a minimum wage increase came to a vote in 2007, it passed with huge bipartisan majorities in both chambers. At that time, supporters included nine current Iowa House Republicans: Kraig Paulsen (now Iowa House Speaker), Linda Upmeyer (now Iowa House Majority Leader), Clel Baudler, Dave Deyoe, Cecil Dolecheck, Jack Drake, Dan Huseman, Linda Miller and Dawn Pettengill (she was a House Democrat at that time but switched to the Republican Party later in 2007). Seven of the current Iowa House Republicans voted against raising the minimum wage to $7.25 in 2007: Greg Forristall, Pat Grassley, Tom Sands, Chuck Soderberg, Ralph Watts, Matt Windschitl, and Gary Worthan.  

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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Mid-week open thread: Tragedies

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Feb 26, 2015 at 07:19:25 AM CST

Several recent tragedies in the Des Moines area have been on my mind this week. Last Friday, a body was found in Water Work Park, later identified as Richard Miles, a Iraq War veteran who had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after three deployments. He had sought in-patient help at the VA hospital in Des Moines on February 15, but was sent home with medication. He disappeared two days later. U.S. Senator Joni Ernst has written to the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs seeking a federal investigation into Miles' case and more generally the mental health programs of the Veterans Affairs Central Iowa Health Care System.

After the jump I've posted a list of mental health resources available to veterans, as well as a timeline and statement that Miles' friends released this week.

Two girls who attended Urbandale Middle School committed suicide within a week of each other. One was 12 years old and in sixth grade; the other 14 years old and in eighth grade. Police haven't found evidence of bullying in the first case and are investigating the second case. The sixth-grader's father has urged parents "to monitor their children's social media activity and for others to speak out if they see anything unusual on a friend's account." I've enclosed more of his comments below.

Child psychiatrist Dr. Donner Dewdney encourages parents to watch closely for sign of depression in their children, and to talk to teens specifically about alternatives to suicide.

Here are some resources and hotline numbers for Iowans of any age who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Many resources for children or teenagers who have experienced the death of a friend or close relative are available here and here.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

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Obama vetoes Keystone XL pipeline bill, with Iowa reaction

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Feb 25, 2015 at 19:20:00 PM CST

As expected, President Barack Obama vetoed a bill that would have forced approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. In his message to Congress, Obama said the bill "conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest -- including our security, safety, and environment."  

Republican leaders will attempt to override the veto, but those efforts will almost certainly fail, since the bill didn't muster a two-thirds majority in either the House or the Senate. The next likely step is for Congressional Republicans to attach language on Keystone XL to some other "must-pass" bill. I am concerned that under those conditions, language on the pipeline would not be a deal-breaker for Obama.

All four Iowans in the U.S. House supported the Keystone XL bill, as did Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. I haven't seen any official comment on the veto from Representatives Rod Blum (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02), David Young (IA-03), or Steve King (IA-04). After the jump I've posted the full text of the president's veto message, along with reaction from Grassley and Ernst. I will update as needed.

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Branstad signs gas tax hike, immediately calls for expediting new lane construction

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Feb 25, 2015 at 13:00:00 PM CST

This morning Governor Terry Branstad signed Senate File 257, which raises the state gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon and includes several other provisions related to transportation funding, permit fees, and fuel taxes. The Iowa House and Senate just approved the bill yesterday, with substantial bipartisan support and opposition in both chambers.

Gas tax revenues go into Iowa's Road Use Tax Fund, which distributes money among state, county and local governments according to a set formula. Because Iowa lawmakers did not incorporate any  "fix it first" language in Senate File 257, I remain concerned that the bulk of the new money will be spent on new road construction or building new lanes on existing roads, rather than on fixing the crumbling infrastructure that was cited to justify this tax increase. Branstad already signaled as much this morning:

Branstad said having the tax hike go into effect March 1 means the state will collect more fuel taxes than expected in the last four months of the state fiscal year - and the starting date for some road and bridge projects may be moved up.

"Highway 20 is one of those that has been around for a long time and we want to see that completed and moved up," Branstad said, "and this is a way that hopefully that and other key projects can get priority and be expedited."

The project to expand all 300 miles of the Highway 20 route from Dubuque and Sioux City into a divided four-lane highway began 50 years ago. Branstad told reporters this morning that he's recently talked with the Iowa DOT's director about speeding up the Highway 20 project.

Current Road Use Tax Fund revenues fall an estimated $215 million short of what Iowa needs annually to maintain existing infrastructure. According to the fiscal note produced by the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency, Senate File 257 will bring in a little more than $200 million in additional funds each year for the next several years. Money spent on new roads or new lanes on roads like Highway 20 won't help us catch up with ongoing maintenance needs. How many structurally deficient bridges won't be fixed because four-laning Highway 20 was expedited? The same dynamic could play out in many counties and local governments too, because new roads or road expansions are often seen as better economic development than fixing a road or bridge that's in bad shape.

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Iowa Senate, House approve gas tax increase

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Feb 24, 2015 at 16:48:31 PM CST

A bill that would raise Iowa's gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon is on its way to Governor Terry Branstad's desk after approval today by both chambers in the Iowa legislature. The Iowa Senate passed Senate File 257 this morning by 28 votes to 21. Sixteen Democrats and twelve Republicans voted for the bill, while ten Democrats and eleven Republicans opposed it. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal had reportedly insisted on at least half the GOP caucus supporting a gas tax increase as a condition for bringing the bill to the floor.

A few hours later, the Iowa House took up the Senate bill (rather than the bill that cleared two House committees last week). Thirty Republicans and 23 Democrats voted yes, while 26 Republicans and 20 Democrats voted no.

Only two state legislators missed today's votes: Republican State Senator Mark Chelgren and Republican State Representative Chip Baltimore. Baltimore voted against the House version of this bill in committee last week, while Chelgren doesn't serve on the committees that approved the bill in the Senate. Chelgren appears to have been absent for all of today's votes, while Baltimore was at the Capitol but left the chamber when the gas tax bill came up. Speaking to reporters later, he tried to make a virtue out of his absence: "I refuse to legitimize either the bill or the process with a vote." Weak sauce from a guy who is widely expected to seek higher office someday.

Conservative groups are urging Branstad to veto Senate File 257, but that seems unlikely, given the governor's recent comments on road funding. Branstad's spokesman said today that the governor will carefully review the final bill before deciding whether to sign it.  

After the jump I've enclosed the roll call votes in both chambers, as well as Senate Transportation Committee Chair Tod Bowman's opening remarks this morning, which summarize key points in Senate File 257.

Final note: several of the "no" votes came from lawmakers who may face competitive re-election campaigns in 2016. Those include Democrats Chris Brase (Senate district 46), Steve Sodders (Senate district 36), and Mary Jo Wilhelm (Senate district 26), and Republicans Dennis Guth (Senate district 4) and Amy Sinclair (Senate district 14).

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Chuck Grassley holds a record not likely to be broken

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Feb 24, 2015 at 07:10:00 AM CST

Philip Bump of the Washington Post called attention to something that sets Senator Chuck Grassley apart from all of his colleagues in Congress. Iowa's senior senator has not missed a roll-call vote since the summer of 1993, when he was touring flooded areas in Iowa with President Bill Clinton. The only person with a realistic chance to match his streak of more than 7,000 consecutive votes over more than two decades is Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who has participated in nearly 6,000 consecutive roll calls over more than 15 years. No other current member of the U.S. House or Senate has gone even five years without missing a roll-call vote.

Everyone can admire Grassley's dedication to showing up for work. How he votes on all those bills and resolutions could be improved, though. After the jump I've enclosed highlights from the Progressive Punch scoring of Grassley's voting record. In a dozen different issue categories, he goes against the progressive position at least 95 percent of the time. Grassley may be considered an establishment figure compared to some of the GOP's "tea party" heroes, but he is no moderate and never has been.

In other Grassley-related news, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair was mentioned in this article about a new left-meets-right coalition seeking to "reduce mandatory sentences, lower prison populations, and re-evaluate the war on drugs in the states."

Advocates already have a raft of bipartisan legislation to push forward. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators led by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee re-introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill heavily favored by advocates on both sides of the aisle. They're up against Republican leaders like Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, who has said he's not interested in any legislation that reduces mandatory minimum sentences.

You don't have to be a liberal to recognize that mandatory minimum sentences "contribute to prison overcrowding, irrational sentencing, racial disparities in sentencing, and exorbitant criminal justice costs," not to mention some absurdly disproportionate punishments for non-violent crimes. Here's hoping some conservatives can talk Grassley into opening his mind on this issue. He certainly won't listen to progressives.

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