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Iowa House

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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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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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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Iowa legislative state of play on raising the gas tax

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Feb 19, 2015 at 18:01:47 PM CST

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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Department of strange omissions

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Feb 18, 2015 at 12:45:37 PM CST

UPDATE: The day after this post appeared, Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen yanked Highfill from the Ways and Means Committee.

Did anyone read Josh Hafner's feature on Republican State Representative Jake Highfill in Sunday's Des Moines Register? The gist was that Highfill, the youngest current Iowa House member at age 24, has grown into his job as state legislator. He now feels "mature, more confident, he said, like he has a handle on the issues," and his constituents aren't bothered by his youth.

A few salient facts were missing from the profile.

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Iowa House Republicans accept marriage equality but can't admit it yet

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Feb 12, 2015 at 15:10:25 PM CST

Four years ago, Republicans rushed to pass a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman within weeks of regaining control of the Iowa House. Every member of the GOP caucus was on the same page.

Two years ago, the marriage amendment failed to come up for a vote in the Iowa House, but a majority of Republican lawmakers still co-sponsored the legislation.

Now, signs point to Iowa House Judiciary Committee Chair Chip Baltimore letting the marriage amendment die quietly, as he did in 2013. Fewer than a quarter of the 57 House Republicans signed on to the latest effort to turn back the clock on marriage rights. At the same time, only one GOP lawmaker is "loud and proud" about supporting the right of all Iowans to marry the person they love.

Follow me after the jump for a breakdown of where Iowa House Republicans stand on the "traditional marriage" amendment, and speculation on why so many of them aren't trying to pass it anymore, even though they ostensibly don't support LGBT marriage rights.  

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Iowa legislative state of play on school funding

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Feb 11, 2015 at 12:30:37 PM CST

A standoff over state funding for K-12 education appears unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. The Republican-controlled Iowa House has approved legislation setting "allowable growth" in state funding to school districts at 1.25 percent for fiscal year 2016; the House Journal for January 27 includes details on the debate, during which members rejected on a party-line vote a Democratic amendment to increase school spending, and later approved House File 80, also along party lines. House Republicans reportedly support a 2.45 percent increase in school funding for fiscal year 2017 but have not brought legislation before the full chamber yet.

Meanwhile, Democrats who control the Iowa Senate are committed to setting allowable growth at 4 percent for each of the next two fiscal years. Many education groups have lobbied lawmakers for at least 4 percent allowable growth, and in a Senate Democratic survey of Iowa superintendents, 96 percent of respondents said the appropriate level of supplemental state aid for the coming fiscal year should be 4 percent or higher.

Yesterday four education funding bills passed the upper chamber; a statement enclosed after the jump covers the key points in each bill. The legislation setting allowable growth at 4 percent for fiscal year 2016 and 2017 passed on party-line votes (roll calls are in the Senate Journal). Republicans joined their colleagues to unanimously approve the other two bills, which would "have the state pick up the 12.5 percent property tax share under the state's foundation aid formula for both fiscal years." Rod Boshart summed up the bottom line:

Under the GOP approach, current state per-pupil funding of $6,366 would grow by $80 in fiscal 2016 and another $158 in fiscal 2017. By contrast, the Senate's 4 percent position would boost per-pupil funding to $6,621 for the 2015-16 academic year and $6,886 the following school year.

Or to view it another way, the House approach would include nearly $100 million in additional K-12 school funding for fiscal year 2016, while the Senate approach would provide an additional $212 million this coming year and $217 million the following year.

The obvious compromise would be to increase school aid by somewhere between 2-3 percent for each of the next two years, but Republican lawmakers and Governor Terry Branstad insist there's no room in the state budget for that much additional spending. Note that no one questioned whether Iowans could afford an extra $100 million in tax cuts, mostly for business, which just passed the Iowa House unanimously.

During yesterday's debate, Democratic State Senator Tony Bisignano argued that the big commercial property tax cut approved in 2013 will shortchange Iowa students. (Indeed, when that commercial property tax bill passed, many people warned that it would lead to cuts in public services.) State Senator Joe Bolkcom also criticized "messed up" priorities that favor "special interests" in the state tax code. As long as I've been paying attention to the Iowa legislature, tax expenditures have always been an easier sell than more money for schools or other public services. That dynamic won't change this year.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.  

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David Sieck will represent Iowa House district 23

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Feb 11, 2015 at 06:45:00 AM CST

Republican David Sieck won yesterday's special election to represent Iowa House district 23. The seat became vacant after State Representative Mark Costello won the special election to replace Joni Ernst in Iowa Senate district 12. Unofficial results from the Iowa Secretary of State's office indicate that Sieck won 1082 votes to 404 for Democrat Steve Adams. House district 23 is one of the most GOP-leaning Iowa House seats, containing more than twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats. The southwestern Iowa district covers Mills and Fremont counties, plus most of Montgomery County. I've enclosed a map after the jump.

Sieck had unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination to replace Ernst, and Adams was the Democratic nominee in the Senate district 12 special election. The Omaha World-Herald published this background on Sieck:

"I'm running because I'm fed up with big government pushing down on us all the time," Sieck said.

Sieck is a lifelong resident of Iowa and a founding member of Responsible River Management, which works to find solutions to river management issues on the Missouri River, among other duties. He was vice chairman of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee and a recipient of the Grassroots Award in 2014 with the Iowa and National Corn Growers Associations.

Do you think Sieck views farm subsidies, crop insurance subsidies, and flood relief funds as the federal government "pushing down" on farmers in his area?

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Iowa legislature sends first tax bill to Branstad's desk

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Feb 10, 2015 at 17:18:12 PM CST

Lawmakers from the two parties remain far from consensus on high-profile tax and budget questions, but the Iowa legislature has unanimously approved its first tax bill of the 2015 session. Senate File 126 (full text here) passed the Iowa Senate by 49 votes to 0 on February 4 and passed the Iowa House by 95 votes to 0 today. It "conforms Iowa's revenue laws to incorporate federal changes" made during 2014. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

The bill would extend a tax break to Iowa business owners, allowing them to claim the first half a million dollars worth of new equipment purchases as a tax deduction for the business. It also allows Iowa teachers to claim a tax credit for up to $250 for the supplies, equipment and materials used in their classroom.

Unlike most bills, which take effect on July 1 (at the start of the next fiscal year), SF 126 "takes effect upon enactment" and "applies retroactively to January 1, 2014, for tax years beginning on or after that date." The fiscal note indicates that this bill will reduce state tax revenue by $98.98 million in the current fiscal year. About $83.5 million of that comes from one part of the bill:

Of the extended provisions, the most significant from a fiscal impact perspective is the extension of favorable depreciation expensing known as "Section 179 expensing." This provision allows business taxpayers (including corporate taxpayers and business entities taxed through the individual income tax) to write off additional depreciation in the year a qualified depreciable asset is placed in service. Since the provision accelerates the claiming of depreciation, the provision reduces taxes owed in the first year, but increases taxes owed in later years.

Looking through the lobbyist declarations, I didn't see any lobbyists registered against this bill. The Iowa Society of Public Accountants, Deere & Company, Iowa Community Foundations, and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation all registered in favor. Speaking to Radio Iowa, Republican State Representative Chris Hagenow said certified public accountants and tax preparers had told lawmakers "this is a priority for them" to provide "certainty" going into tax season.  

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Someone should investigate state's role in Iowa's health insurance coop failure

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jan 26, 2015 at 09:59:10 AM CST

What has seemed likely since Christmas Eve was confirmed on Friday: Iowa's non-profit health insurance coop is liquidating. At the end of this post, I've enclosed the e-mail CoOportunity Health members received on January 23. Members are strongly encouraged to enroll in other health insurance before February 15, the end of 2015 Open Enrollment under the federal health care reform law. In Iowa, only Coventry now sells policies through the exchange, allowing eligible people to receive federal tax subsidies to help cover the cost of insurance.

CoOportunity Health was created to sell individual, family, and small-business health insurance policies in Iowa and Nebraska. Its membership greatly exceeded projections, but so did the costs of insuring a population that had largely been uninsured before the 2010 Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014.

Some politicians, like Senator Joni Ernst, have nothing to say about CoOportunity's collapse beyond empty talking points about Obamacare. Others, like Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02), are digging for answers on why federal officials didn't do more to help the health insurance coop survive. Those are important questions.

As far as I can tell, no one in a position of power is examining how decisions by Iowa officials stacked the deck against CoOportunity ever becoming solvent. Did Iowa's insurance commissioner Nick Gerhart seal the coop's fate by bending over backwards to suit the 800-pound gorilla in Iowa's health insurance market (Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield)? Now that CoOportunity's failure leaves only one company selling policies on Iowa's health insurance exchange, what is Gerhart's "plan B" if Coventry decides later this year against continuing to participate on the exchange for 2016?

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Bully Bill Redux: 2015 Edition

by: natewithglasses

Mon Jan 19, 2015 at 09:30:58 AM CST

(Thanks for this in-depth look at one of Governor Terry Branstad's top priorities for the legislative session. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

For the past several legislative sessions - a bully bill in some form or another has been proposed and supported by Governor Branstad.  In each session, the bill has taken on many different forms and have gone from extreme (license to bully provision) to this year's shocking development.

Read on for the latest in the Governor's proposed 2015 Bully Free Iowa Act.  

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Three pros and three cons of Andy McGuire as Iowa Democratic Party chair (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Jan 17, 2015 at 15:59:23 PM CST

Earlier today the Iowa Democratic Party's State Central Committee selected Dr. Andy McGuire to lead the party for the next two years. McGuire was the favorite going into the election and won on the third ballot against Kurt Meyer. Another candidate for state chair, former Congressional candidate Jim Mowrer, then ran for first vice chair and was elected on the first ballot.

Dr. McGuire has been active in Iowa Democratic politics for more than 20 years, since working on her sister-in-law Sheila McGuire's 1994 Congressional campaign in Iowa's fifth district. (Sheila McGuire later served as state party chair for a term.) In the political world, Andy McGuire is best-known for being Mike Blouin's running mate during the 2006 Democratic primary for governor. The pro-choice mother of seven helped balance the ticket, as many Democratic activists were concerned about Blouin's stance on abortion rights.

In recent years, McGuire has often been mentioned as a possible Congressional candidate, but she ruled out running in Iowa's third district in 2016 if elected to lead the party. Many central Iowa Democrats expect her to run for governor in 2018.

Although I favored one of the other candidates, McGuire brings a lot to the table as a state party leader. My first thoughts on the pros and cons of her election are after the jump.  

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Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice calls for action on racial disparity, courthouse security

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Jan 14, 2015 at 14:32:36 PM CST

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady delivered his annual State of the Judiciary address to Iowa House and Senate members this morning. The full text is available here (pdf), and I've posted important sections after the jump. Cady hailed progress the court system is making on helping Iowa children and improving efficiency and transparency. He described ongoing initiatives to improve how Iowa courts handle family law cases and review guardianship and conservatorship laws and procedures. Cady also asked lawmakers to appropriate 4.7 percent more funding for the court system in the next fiscal year.

Cady cited recent work within the judicial branch to "better understand and address the persistence of racial disparities" in the criminal justice system--a longstanding problem in Iowa. I enclosed below reaction from Assistant House Minority Leader Ako Abdul-Samad. Abdul-Samad is one of five African-American members of the Iowa House.

Finally, the chief justice alluded to a shooting last September during a meeting of the Jackson County Board of Supervisors as he called for action "to make every courthouse in Iowa safer and more secure."

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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Highlights from Branstad's 2015 Condition of the State address

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Jan 13, 2015 at 08:55:23 AM CST

Governor Terry Branstad will deliver his annual Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa House and Senate this morning at 10 am. You can watch the speech live on Iowa Public Television's website or on IPTV World (channel 119 on Mediacom in central Iowa). The full text as prepared will be available on the governor's official website.

Judging by yesterday's opening remarks from state legislative leaders, Iowa House Republicans most want to see new tax reform proposals from the governor. Iowa Senate Democrats are most closely watching to see whether Branstad will propose adequate funding for education at all levels, from pre-school to K-12 to community colleges and state universities. I'll update this post later with highlights from the day. Any comments about the governor's speech (content or delivery) or the upcoming legislative session are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Added highlights and some reaction to the "Together We Can" speech below. James Q. Lynch created a graphic showing the words Branstad used most.

Chutzpah alert: Branstad is urging lawmakers to "bring together state agencies that have a shared interest in quality of life initiatives and invest in our parks, trails, lakes and museums." Maybe he's forgotten that the state legislature did that last year, before he vetoed millions of dollars that would have gone toward parks, trails, water quality programs and other amenities.

It's also disappointing that the governor can't quit lying about how many jobs have been created since he returned to public office.

It's encouraging to hear the governor call for stronger efforts to protect victims of domestic violence and end bullying in schools. The devil will be in the details of those proposals. Speaking to Radio Iowa, Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum said "the anti-bullying proposal as well as the anti-domestic violence proposal will get a very good response from the Iowa Senate." But she said the governor's proposed education funding is "less than what we know we need in order to bring Iowa's per pupil spending investment up to at least close the national average." Meanwhile, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen told Radio Iowa that his caucus will continue to look for tax cuts ("a way to for Iowans to leave more of their own money in their pockets").

SECOND UPDATE: As he did last year, the governor called for expanding access to broadband statewide. But strangely, Branstad does not plan to attend President Barack Obama's scheduled January 14 event in Cedar Falls, where the president will "propose plans to increase affordable access to high-speed broadband internet."

LATE UPDATE: Nate Monson, executive director for Iowa Safe Schools, characterized the governor's anti-bullying bill as a "giant leap forward for gay youth" in Iowa. I've enclosed excerpts from his Des Moines Register guest editorial at the end of this post.

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The face of the medical marijuana fight in Iowa has died

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jan 12, 2015 at 22:05:00 PM CST

Benton Mackenzie passed away at home this morning, his wife Loretta Mackenzie told Brian Wellner of the Quad-City Times. Mackenzie was convicted last summer on drug charges, having grown dozens of marijuana plants in order to treat his terminal cancer. During the trial, the judge did not allow Mackenzie or his attorney to say that the defendant was seeking to use cannabis as a cancer treatment. Mackenzie was later sentenced to probation. The family had hoped to move to Oregon; Mackenzie had visited the state and received a valid Oregon medical marijuana card before his health deteriorated late last year.

Many Iowans who favor legalizing medical marijuana were outraged by the prosecution of a terminal cancer patient. State Senator Joe Bolkcom described the case as a waste of taxpayer money. During last year's legislative session, Bolkcom defied long odds to get a baby step toward legalizing medical cannabis approved in the Iowa House and Senate. However, the new law only permits the use of cannabis oil in order to treat certain seizure disorders, and even the affected families have been unable to obtain the treatment so far.  

Thousands of Iowans are battling cancer or suffering from chronic illnesses that can be treated with cannabis or its derivatives. They should not be subject to criminal prosecution merely for attempting to obtain marijuana for personal use. Benton Mackenzie's death may not be enough to spur a majority of lawmakers to act this year, but I hope his sad story will eventually create the political space to expand Iowa's medical marijuana law.

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Themes from the opening day of the Iowa legislature's 2015 session

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jan 12, 2015 at 18:16:59 PM CST

Exciting times for Iowa politics watchers: the state legislature's 2015 session began in Des Moines today. A tentative schedule for this year's work is available here (pdf). The last day lawmakers will receive per diem expenses is on May 1, but for the past four years of divided control between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, the session has always gone into overtime--sometimes by a little and sometimes by a lot. Bleeding Heartland previously posted details on the each chamber's majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing committees. Click here for who's who in the Iowa House, and here for who's who in the Iowa Senate.

Today legislative leaders from both parties pledged to work together. After the jump I've enclosed the full texts of opening day remarks. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal called for making Iowa's middle class the "focus of the 2015 session" by ensuring adequate education spending, fighting wage theft, and expanding worker training while keeping a balanced budget. He praised Governor Terry Branstad for agreeing to go back to setting K-12 school funding a year in advance, as is required by state law, but warned the governor not to make a partisan statement by proposing too little funding for education when he addresses the legislature tomorrow.

Echoing some of the priorities she named last year, Senate President Pam Jochum said building an economy that "works for everyone" means supporting families and especially children: "For too long, the well-being of children has been considered a woman's issue.' It is not just a 'woman's issue'. It is an American issue. It is an Iowan issue." Jochum urged lawmakers to expand access to education from pre-K through college, make "quality, affordable childcare" more available across the state, and boost an initiative to "detect and help prevent mental health and developmental problems among young children."

Iowa House Minority Leader Mark Smith said the top priorities for House Democrats are strengthening the middle class and re-vitalizing rural Iowa. In addition to expanding early childhood education and providing adequate funds for K-12 schools, Smith called for raising the minimum wage, though GOP leaders have shown no willingness to negotiate on that issue.

As has been true in recent years, top Iowa House and Senate Republicans focused on fiscal issues and mostly avoided social issues. Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen challenged his colleagues "to ensure that government do less and do it better" when "others bring forward their laundry list of funding opportunities, spending priorities, or flashy government programs." He called for more tax cuts along the lines of a 2006 bipartisan agreement to eliminate the state tax on Social Security benefits. (Mike Owen of the Iowa Policy Project explained in a guest column for the Quad-City Times why that tax cut was passed "under false pretenses" and skewed Iowa's tax code "further to the benefit of the wealthy.") House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer emphasized the need to "craft a responsible budget." She singled out the Medicaid program for criticism, claiming growth in Medicaid spending is "not sustainable" and will threaten lawmakers' ability to invest in education, job training, infrastructure, and renewable energy. Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix called on senators to "work together to rein in spending, make cuts and reduce the size of government and lift up all Iowans in the process by reducing their tax burdens."

None of the Republicans set a goal of undoing marriage equality, and only House Speaker Pro Tem Matt Windschitl made passing reference to other top priorities for social conservatives when he said, "Let us work together to make Iowa the best place to live, where taxes are low, jobs are abundant, education is top of the line, innocent life is protected and Second Amendment rights are fully embraced."

Any comments about the legislative session are welcome in this thread. By the way, here's some trivia you may not know about Speaker Paulsen.  

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John Kooiker wins special election to represent Iowa House district 4

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Jan 07, 2015 at 06:52:35 AM CST

Republican John Kooiker easily won today's special election in Iowa House district 4, which covers most of Sioux County in northwest Iowa (scroll down this page for a map). Unofficial results published on the Sioux County website indicate that Kooiker received 2,064 votes to 456 for Democrat John Buntsma. I was surprised to see that Dennis Wright, a Republican former county supervisor, managed 840 votes (about a quarter of all votes cast) as a write-in candidate. That's a huge number of votes for a write-in, especially in a low-turnout special election. Wright should seriously consider challenging Kooiker in the 2016 GOP primary to represent House district 4.

Kooiker will succeed longtime conservative stalwart Dwayne Alons, who passed away in November shortly after being re-elected to a ninth term in the Iowa House.

House district 4 is the safest legislative district in the state for the GOP, with roughly nine times as many registered Republicans as Democrats. I admire Buntsma for making sure voters would have a choice, even in a hopeless district for a Democrat.  

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Mark Costello will represent Iowa Senate district 12

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Dec 31, 2014 at 07:05:00 AM CST

Republican State Representative Mark Costello easily won yesterday's special election to represent Iowa Senate district 12. The seat became vacant after Joni Ernst's victory in the U.S. Senate race. According to unofficial results posted on the Iowa Secretary of State's website, Costello received 3,068 votes, to 924 votes for Democrat Steve Adams and 131 votes for Libertarian Don Brantz. Adams deserves credit for stepping up to give voters a choice in the second- or third-most Republican Iowa Senate district. Although the Libertarians were smart to nominate a candidate here, they didn't have anything like the Iowa GOP's resources for voter turnout, and their nominee got the worst kind of publicity a candidate can have when he was charged with several crimes earlier this month.

Democrats retain a 26 to 24 majority in the Iowa Senate, but Costello told Radio Iowa he's optimistic and hopeful Republicans will win a majority after the 2016 elections. They certainly will have better opportunities to gain Iowa Senate seats in the coming cycle than they did in 2014. Blowing the chance to defeat GOP State Senator Mark Chelgren this year could prove costly for Iowa Democrats.

Costello's victory will force a special election in Iowa House district 23, which he has represented for the last two years. Like Senate district 12, the House district should be safe for Republicans, allowing them to maintain a 57 to 43 majority in the Iowa House next year.

I expect another crowded GOP nominating convention when House district 23 delegates meet to choose a new candidate. Several people who sought the GOP nomination in Senate district 12 live in communities Costello has represented. Republicans would do well to nominate a woman. It's embarrassing that Amy Sinclair is the only woman left in their Iowa Senate caucus, and the Iowa House GOP caucus includes 51 men (including Costello) to just six women.

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Iowa House district 4: John Kooiker vs. John Buntsma

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Dec 26, 2014 at 07:45:00 AM CST

In what might be described as a Christmas miracle, a Democrat has stepped up to run in the January 6 special election to represent Iowa House district 4. The vacancy arose when State Representative Dwayne Alons passed away last month.

John Buntsma is the first Democrat since 2008 to contest the Iowa House district covering most of Sioux County (scroll down for a detailed map). Of the 100 Iowa House districts, this is the most Republican, with only 1,498 active registered Democrats, 13,279 Republicans, and 3,555 no-party voters according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State's office. GOP presidential candidates routinely top 80 percent in Sioux County, and Governor Terry Branstad got about 91 percent of the votes there this year. In a statement I've enclosed below, Buntsma said he is running because "It is important for all of us to have choices. I felt that the voters should have more than one choice." Good for him. I would love to see Democratic candidates compete in every Iowa House and Senate district, no matter how hopeless the race may appear.

I haven't seen any detailed background on John Kooiker, the "military veteran, family farmer and retired postal service worker" who won a Republican nominating convention in House district 4. A short press release noted that Kooiker "heavily emphasized his social conservative beliefs," which helped him secure the GOP nomination on the third ballot. That probably makes him a pretty good fit for the district. Alons was one of the most outspoken social conservatives in the Iowa House Republican caucus.

After the jump I've enclosed two press releases containing background on Buntsma. Note the difference between the version circulated by the candidate himself and the shorter release from the Iowa Democratic Party. I've often heard Democratic candidates complain that party types warn them against speaking their minds on potentially controversial issues. In a race like this, what difference could it make to downplay Buntsma's beliefs on immigration, the minimum wage, or the exemption casinos received from Iowa's public smoking ban?

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