Iowa Republican lawmakers not eager to block Branstad's latest power grab

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Among the many examples of corporate cronyism Governor Terry Branstad’s administration has provided these past five years, getting the Iowa Department of Revenue and Finance to rewrite tax code without legislative approval "on behalf of the Iowa Taxpayers Association” is among the most brazen.

Not only does this unprecedented use of the rule making process usurp legislative authority, it may end up being more expensive than "the worst economic development deal in state history.” At least tax incentives benefiting Orascom (for a fertilizer plant the company would have built anyway) have an end point. The Iowa Department of Revenue’s proposed sales tax cut for manufacturers will cost the state of Iowa tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year, indefinitely.

Democratic state lawmakers weren’t happy that the Branstad administration unilaterally decided to let private insurance companies manage the state’s Medicaid program, especially since some corporate representatives were briefed on that managed care plan long before state officials informed lawmakers or the general public. But state lawmakers didn’t have a way to block the Medicaid privatization.

In contrast, the Iowa House and Senate could stop the Iowa Department of Revenue’s proposed rule and thereby assert the authority of the legislative branch to approve tax code changes. Alas, signs from Tuesday’s meeting of the legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee (ARRC) point to House Republicans going along with the Branstad administration’s ”serious overreach of executive power.”

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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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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2015

The Iowa House will begin its 2015 session on January 12 with 57 Republicans and 43 Democrats (assuming a Republican wins the January 6 special election in House district 4). Depending on who wins that special election, the 100 state representatives will include either 27 or 28 women, and either 72 or 73 men.

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 the previous legislative session.

Some non-political trivia: two of the three state representatives with the surname Olson retired this year, as did one of the two Iowa House members named Smith. There are still two Millers and two Taylors in the legislature’s lower chamber, one from each party. As for first names, the new cohort contains five six Davids (four go by Dave), four Roberts (two Robs, one Bob, and a Bobby), four Marys (one goes by Mary Ann), three four Johns, and three Brians. There are two Lindas, two Elizabeths (a Beth and a Liz), and two men each named Dan, Mark, Greg, Chuck, Bruce, Todd, and Chris.

2015 UPDATE: Added below information for John Kooiker, who won the House district 4 special election, and David Sieck, who won the House district 23 special election.  

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Third-party and independent candidates in Iowa's 2014 elections

The filing period for general election candidates in Iowa closed last Friday, so it’s a good time to review where candidates not representing either the Democratic or Republican Party are running for office. The full candidate list is on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website (pdf(. After the jump I discuss all the federal, statewide, and state legislative races including at least one independent or minor-party candidate. Where possible, I’ve linked to campaign websites, so you can learn more about the candidates and their priorities.

Rarely has any Iowa election been affected by an independent or third-party candidate on the ballot. Arguably, the most recent case may have been the 2010 election in Iowa’s first Congressional district. Final results showed that Democratic incumbent Bruce Braley defeated Republican challenger Ben Lange by 4,209 votes, while conservative candidates Rob Petsche and Jason Faulkner drew 4,087 votes and 2,092 votes, respectively.

Any comments about Iowa’s 2014 elections are welcome in this thread.

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Iowa House rejects broadband access bill

When bills come to the floor of the Iowa House or Senate, the outcome of the vote is typically a foregone conclusion. Leaders rarely call up bills that don’t have the votes to pass. But in "the most surprising vote of the day, if not this year’s session," Iowa House members on Friday rejected House File 2472, a bill designed to expand broadband access in small-town and rural Iowa. The initiative was among Governor Terry Branstad’s legislative priorities this year. While the goal is uncontroversial, especially in communities where people are stuck with dialup internet, lawmakers disagreed on how to accomplish the task.

The House Journal for April 25 includes details from the floor debate, including roll calls on two Democratic amendments that failed to pass on party-line votes. One of them was a “strike” amendment replacing the entire content of House File 2472 with stronger incentives favored by House Democrats. After the routine business of rejecting minority party amendments, a vote was called on final passage. But only 42 Republicans voted yes, joined by just two Democrats. I’ve posted a list of yes and no votes after the jump. House Minority Leader Mark Smith said Democrats opposed the bill because it “does not go far enough in expanding broadband access to more homes and small businesses.” The Republicans who voted no may have been put off by the size of the tax breaks or the lack of accountability. State Representative Guy Vander Linden told Radio Iowa, “We don’t say they need to meet any requirements in terms of our capacity, speed – anything. All we say is: ‘If you will put broadband infrastructure in place in any unserved or underserved area…we’ll give you all these benefits.’ That, to me, sounds like a blank check that I’m not willing to sign up to.”

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer has already filed a motion to reconsider the vote on this bill, so leaders may believe they can find the votes they need through friendly persuasion or arm-twisting. (She was one of the “no” votes, presumably to preserve her ability to file the bill again after realizing it would not pass.) Two Republicans (Clel Baudler and Ron Jorgensen) were absent from Friday’s vote. Assuming they support the broadband bill and Upmeyer changes her vote, House leaders would need to persuade four more Republicans or Democrats.

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