The truth about that so-called "trolley for lobbyists"

Iowa Republicans have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this fall on television commercials and direct mail highlighting supposedly wasteful spending by Democratic state lawmakers. For the fourth election cycle in a row, many of these attacks repeat zombie lies from the 2010 campaign about money spent on “heated sidewalks” and a “trolley for lobbyists.”

As Bleeding Heartland explained here, Iowa House and Senate Democrats never approved money for heated sidewalks. They simply rejected a GOP amendment to a 2010 appropriations bill, which would have prohibited using state funds for “geothermal systems for melting snow and ice from streets or sidewalks.” The amendment was pointless, because planners of the award-winning streetscape project in question had already ruled out heated sidewalks in favor of porous pavement.

What about the Republican hit pieces claiming Democrats spent money on a “trolley for lobbyists”?

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Iowa risks leaving $116 million in unemployment benefits on the table

An estimated 29,183 long-term unemployed Iowans could qualify for some $116.3 million in additional benefits, but only if state legislators act quickly, according to a new report by the National Employment Law Project. Federal dollars could cover an extra 13 weeks of benefits for those Iowans. Follow me after the jump for details and background on the federal stimulus money we may leave on the table.

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Wellmark customers will pay more starting May 1

Approximately 80,000 Iowans will face substantial health insurance premium hikes beginning May 1. An independent review has confirmed the “need” for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield to raise rates by an average of 18 percent. The higher rates were intended to go into effect on April 1, but last month Governor Chet Culver ordered a delay pending an review of the matter. The Des Moines Register reports today,

[Iowa Insurance Commissioner Susan] Voss said in a memo to Culver that Wellmark’s losses supported “the need for the rate increase” based on two separate actuarial analyses conducted by INS Consultants, a Philadelphia actuary. The group also found that the insurance division’s rate review process is actuarially “acceptable” and “reasonable” compared with INS’s methodology.

Birny Birnbaum, head of the Center for Economic Justice, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Texas, said it’s unlikely that INS would disagree with the rate increase.

“While INS is technically independent, there is no way the firm would contradict and embarrass the agency which hired the firm,” Birnbaum said Monday. “If INS were to contradict the insurance division, it would likely not be hired in the future by the Iowa Insurance Division or any other insurance regulator.”

Speaking to the Register, State Representative Janet Petersen touted legislation passed during the 2010 session, which is intended to give consumers more information and warning regarding health insurance premium increases. After the jump I’ve posted some key points from Senate File 2201 and Senate File 2356.

These bills contain a lot of good provisions but probably won’t solve this particular problem for many Iowans. Wellmark dominates the insurance market in this state. Giving people a few weeks to shop around won’t magically allow them to find a better deal. In addition, health insurers can still exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions until 2014. The only real choices Wellmark’s individual customers have are: 1) pay a lot more, like my family, or 2) downgrade to a policy that’s less comprehensive and/or involves higher out-of-pocket costs for medical care.

Iowa House Republican leader Kraig Paulsen showed his creative side yesterday, finding a way to blame Democrats for Wellmark’s rate hikes:

Paulsen pointed out that the Democrat-controlled Legislature has voted in recent years to impose several health insurance mandates, such as coverage of cancer clinical trials and prosthetics.

“It’s indisputable that those add to rates. That’s just the way it works,” he said.

Health insurance mandates drive up costs for Iowans, Paulsen said.

“Mandates aren’t necessarily requirements that insurance companies sell something. They’re requirements that purchasers buy something,” he said.

One legislative proposal would have allowed state-regulated health insurance companies to provide mandate-free coverage “for those who want a less comprehensive product,” Paulsen said.

That idea by House Republicans failed, as did a proposal to study allowing out-of-state insurers to offer policies in Iowa, which could help Iowans find cheaper policies, he said.

Come on, Mr. Paulsen, who ever anticipates needing prosthetics someday, or being in a position to benefit from a cancer clinical trial? Anyway, that cancer clinical trial bill passed both the Iowa House and Senate unanimously. Also, allowing out-of-state insurers to sell policies here would spark a “race to the bottom” in terms of consumer protection.

Share any relevant thoughts in the comments.

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No, Virginia, there's no billion-dollar budget gap

Last night I watched the Republican gubernatorial debate on Iowa Public Television. If you missed it, you can read the full transcript here. Some Iowa stations are rebroadcasting the debate this Sunday too.

One of the worst things about televised debates is the lack of follow-up by the journalists who moderate. Wednesday’s exchange provided a classic example of this problem.  

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Beware of Republican fuzzy math on property taxes

Later today the three Republican candidates for governor will hold their first debate. When discussing state fiscal issues, they are likely to advance two contradictory arguments. First, they will criticize alleged “overspending” by Iowa Democrats, ignoring the good marks our state has received for fiscal management and the fact that severe state budget cuts would be a big drag on the economy. I will address those points in a future post.

Second, the Republican candidates for governor will criticize spending reductions Democrats included in next year’s budget, on the grounds that those cuts will force corresponding increases in property taxes statewide. It’s true that many Iowans will pay more in property taxes because of changes related to the “rollback” calculation, which “determines the percentage of a property’s actual value that will be taxable” in a given year. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Rants explained here why the rollback figure is on the rise. It has nothing to do with the tough choices Democrats made on the 2011 budget.

Rants and other Republicans are wrong to suggest that any cut in state spending will automatically lead to further property tax hikes. (They’ve been making that claim since Governor Chet Culver’s across-the-board budget cut last October.) Here’s just one example of why their assumptions are flawed. The Des Moines Register reported Tuesday on how Des Moines area school districts are coping with budget shortages. All of the districts will receive less from the state in the next fiscal year. Thankfully, the cuts are smaller than the worst-case scenarios floated in February, because Iowa House and Senate Democrats sought to protect K-12 education from severe budget cuts.

Anyway, all Iowa school districts are adapting to the reduction in state funding. But contrary to what Iowa Republicans are telling you, many districts, including the state’s largest in Des Moines, have ruled out property tax increases. Of the 10 central Iowa school districts mentioned in this article, only three are raising property taxes, and one more is considering that step. The others are cutting expenses and in some cases using money from cash reserves to cover the shortfalls in the coming fiscal year.

Some local governments in Iowa will raise property tax rates, but as with school districts, many will get by with spending or service cuts instead. I support additional federal fiscal aid to local and state governments, because the collapse in revenues is the most severe in six decades, and spending cuts could hamper the economic recovery. But naturally, the same Republicans who scream about property tax hikes are against using “one-time federal money” to help balance budgets.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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Past time to stop texting while driving

Governor Chet Culver today signed into law the ban on texting while driving. This chart at the Iowa Senate Democrats blog shows the relevant prohibitions and exceptions. The House Democrats blog summarizes key points:

House File 2456 prohibits the use of all electronic and mobile devices while driving for those under the age of 18.  Persons over 18 may not use a hand-held electronic device to read, write, or send a text message while driving. Violators will be charged with a simple misdemeanor and a $30 fine.  If texting is the cause of an accident that results in serious injury or death, penalties increase up to a $1000 fine and 180 day license suspension.

Law enforcement cannot stop or detain a person only for suspected violations of texting and local governments are not allowed to adopt their own ordinances.  When the new law takes effect on July 1, law enforcement will begin an education campaign and will only write warning citations for the first year before the enhanced penalties and fines begin to apply.

Click here for the full text and bill history of House File 2456. It’s a reasonable compromise between a broad texting ban approved by the Iowa Senate in February and an Iowa House version that would have applied only to teenage drivers. State Representative Curt Hanson, a retired driver’s education teacher, headed the committee that drafted the compromise language. Texting is dangerous for older drivers as well as for teens.

The new law specifies that police cannot pull someone over solely for a suspected texting violation because while this bill was under consideration, some activists alleged that the texting ban would give officers another excuse for racially-motivated traffic stops and arrests. A group paid for robocalls in some House Democrats’ districts, seeking to generate calls against the new law. Excerpt from one such call, which you can listen to here: “This has nothing to do with safety–they just want another reason to pull you over and to harrass you.”

While the texting ban is a step in the right direction, drivers ought to go further and stop using their cell phones while the vehicle is moving. Driving while talking on the phone has been shown to be as dangerous as drunk driving. Cell phones are estimated to cause 1.4 million crashes a year in the U.S., and hands-free phones are no safer for drivers than hand-held phones. For more background, read the New York Times series of reports last summer on the dangers of cell phone use while driving. I know someone who is normally a good driver but rear-ended another vehicle recently while glancing down to see who was calling her cell phone.

Politically, restricting cell phone use while driving won’t be possible in Iowa until some high-profile accident claims lives here. Too often it takes a tragedy (with sympathetic victims) to spur lawmakers to act.  

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