Never let it be said that the 2016 Iowa legislature accomplished nothing

In four months of work this year, Iowa lawmakers made no progress on improving water quality or expanding conservation programs, funded K-12 schools and higher education below levels needed to keep up with inflation, failed to increase the minimum wage or address wage theft, let most criminal justice reform proposals die in committee, didn’t approve adequate oversight for the newly-privatized Medicaid program, opted against making medical cannabis more available to sick and suffering Iowans, and left unaddressed several other issues that affect thousands of constituents.

But let the record reflect that bipartisan majorities in the Iowa House and Senate acted decisively to solve a non-existent problem. At a bill-signing ceremony yesterday, Governor Terry Branstad and supporters celebrated preventing something that probably never would have happened.

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This is why they raise taxes in non-election years

Early in last year’s legislative session, state lawmakers voted to raise Iowa’s gasoline tax for the first time in more than two decades. Unlike many controversial policy questions, this issue did not split the public or elected officials along party lines. The Des Moines Register’s February 2015 statewide poll showed Iowans generally and subgroups of Democrats, Republicans, and independents were all divided on whether to raise the tax by 10 cents a gallon to pay for road and bridge repairs. In the Iowa House and Senate, lawmakers from both parties voted for and against the tax increase. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal had reportedly refused to bring the bill to the floor without a guarantee that at least half of the 24 GOP senators would vote for it.

The immediate backlash against the gas tax hike came mostly from Republican circles. Former Iowa GOP Chair A.J. Spiker and former state party co-chair David Fischer were among the vocal critics. Conservative WHO Radio host Simon Conway urged Republicans to "send a message" by changing their party registration.

Governor Terry Branstad signed the gas tax hike into law within 24 hours of its passage. The following day, conservative activist Eric Durbin announced on Conway’s show that he would challenge nine-term incumbent State Representative Clel Baudler in the 2016 GOP primary to represent Iowa House district 20.

Yet a year later, there is little sign of political fallout for the 28 state senators and 53 state representatives who voted to make Iowans pay a little more at the pump.

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IA-Sen: Patty Judge thinking about challenging Chuck Grassley

The Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble snagged a surprising scoop yesterday: former Lieutenant Governor and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge is considering running for the U.S. Senate this year. Referring to Grassley’s approach to the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, Judge told Noble,

“Iowans have always been straight shooters, and up until the recent time I would have said the same thing about Chuck,” Judge said. […]

“I don’t like this double-speak,” Judge said. “I don’t like this deliberate obstruction of the process. I think Chuck Grassley owes us better. He’s been with us a long time. Maybe he’s been with us too long.”

To qualify for the Democratic primary ballot, Judge would need to submit nominating papers with the Secretary of State’s Office by March 18, three weeks from today. That doesn’t leave much time to collect at least 2,104 signatures, including minimum amounts in at least ten Iowa counties. But Judge could pull together a campaign quickly, having won three statewide elections—for secretary of agriculture in 1998 and 2002 and on the ticket with Chet Culver in 2006.

Three other Democrats are seeking the nomination to run against Grassley: State Senator Rob Hogg, former State Senator Tom Fiegen, and former State Representative Bob Krause. Former State Representative Ray Zirkelbach launched a U.S. Senate campaign in November but ended his campaign last month, Zirkelbach confirmed by phone this morning.

Dozens of Democratic state lawmakers endorsed Hogg in January. I enclose the full list below. Any comments about the Senate race are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Rebecca Tuetken notes, "Patty Judge does meet one apparent Iowa requirement: she told @SenatorHarkin ‘08 steak fry that she can castrate a calf." Truly a classic moment for Judge, when Joni Ernst was still the little-known Montgomery County auditor.

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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2016

The Iowa House opened its 2016 session today with 57 Republicans and 43 Democrats. The 100 state representatives include 27 women (21 Democrats and six Republicans) and 73 men. Five African-Americans (all Democrats) serve in the legislature’s lower chamber; the other 95 state representatives are white. No Latino has ever been elected to the Iowa House, and there has not been an Asian member since Swati Dandekar moved up to the Iowa Senate following the 2008 election.

After the jump I’ve posted details on the Iowa House majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing House committees. Where relevant, I’ve noted changes since last year. All are on the Republican side, mostly following from Kraig Paulsen’s decision to step down as speaker, Chuck Soderberg’s retirement, and the passing of Jack Drake.

Some non-political trivia: the Iowa House includes two Millers (one from each party), two Taylors (one from each party), and two Moores (both Republicans). As for first names, there are six Davids (four go by Dave), four Roberts (two Robs, one Bob, and a Bobby), four Marys (one goes by Mary Ann), four Johns, and three Brians. There are two Lindas, two Elizabeths (a Beth and a Liz), and two men each named Dan, Mark, Greg, Tom, Bruce, Todd, Chris, and Charles (one goes by Chuck).

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Iowa Senate, House approve gas tax increase

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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Iowa legislative state of play on raising the gas tax

Iowa House and Senate members have taken several steps toward raising the state gasoline tax for the first time since 1989. Follow me after the jump for details on where the legislation stands and the latest signals from the governor.

One big political question was answered today, as House Speaker Kraig Paulsen not only endorsed the gas tax bill but personally intervened to make sure it would clear the House Ways and Means Committee. His support may bring some reluctant House Republicans on board. Conservative advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Iowans for Tax Relief are pushing hard against any gas tax increase. Governor Terry Branstad or Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix appear ready to back this bill but may need to spend more political capital to get it passed.

Two important policy questions remain unanswered. First, what will be done to lessen the blow on low-income Iowans, who would be disproportionately affected by any increase in a regressive tax? Iowa’s tax system is already stacked against people with lower incomes.

Second, will the gas tax hike turn out to be a giant bait and switch? From business groups to road builders to heavyweights in the agricultural sector, advocates of a tax increase cite the poor condition of many Iowa roads and bridges. However, to my knowledge the pending legislation would not guarantee that any new Road Use Tax Fund revenues from gasoline taxes or vehicle fees be spent on repairing torn-up roads or structurally deficient bridges. Unless “fix it first” language or a change to the funding formula is added to the bill, the lion’s share of additional revenues from a gas tax hike could go toward building new roads or new lanes on existing roads, such as U.S. Highway 20 in northwest Iowa or any number of local “economic development” projects. If crumbling roads and bridges are used to justify a gas tax hike, lawmakers should stipulate that most of the new money raised would go toward existing infrastructure rather than new roads and lanes, which only increase future maintenance costs.  

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