Lots of links for a snowy day

Many Iowans will be leaving work or school early today, or perhaps not going in at all, as the season’s first big winter blast rolls in. Here’s plenty of reading to keep you busy if you are stuck at home.

Global news first: The United National Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen opened yesterday. To follow news from the proceedings, I’m reading the team of Mother Jones bloggers in Copenhagen. The Open Left blog will also post regular updates from Natasha Chart and Friends of the Earth staff who are on the ground. If you prefer a mainstream media perspective, check out The Climate Pool on Facebook, which is a collaboration among major news organizations.

Also on Monday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson signed off on two findings that will pave the way to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. This action follows from a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA. More background and details can be found on the EPA’s site. Environment Iowa explains the significance of the EPA’s action here. An expert panel surveyed by Grist disagreed on whether the EPA’s “endangerment finding” would affect the Copenhagen talks.

The most important reason I oppose the current draft bills on climate change kicking around Congress is that they would revoke the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide. Chris Bowers explains why that would be disastrous here.

Uganda is considering a horrific law that would subject homosexuals to long prison terms or even the death penalty. One Iowa is collecting signatures on a petition to Senator Chuck Grassley, asking him to speak out against this law. Grassley’s never going to be a gay rights advocate, but he should agree that criminalizing homosexuality is wrong. Grassley is involved with “The Family,” which is connected to the proposed bill in Uganda.

On the economic front, President Obama is expected to announce plans to use about $200 billion allocated for the Wall Street bailout to fund a jobs bill Congress will consider soon.. The Hill previewed some of the measures that may end up in that bill.

Some economists who met with Governor Chet Culver yesterday think Iowa has already reached the bottom of this recession. I hope they are right, but either way, policy-makers should listen to their ideas for reforming Iowa’s budget process. I’ll write a separate post on this important development soon. Here is the short take:

The state could base its spending on a multi-year average, such as the previous three years, or five years or seven years, said Jon Muller, president of Muller Consulting Inc., a public policy and business development consulting firm based in Des Moines.

“The way it’s always worked, when times are really good, we increase spending and we cut taxes,” Muller said. “And when times are bad, there’s pressure to increase taxes and decrease spending. And that all happens when the demand for government is at its highest,” Muller said.

The multi-year idea would flip, he said.

“In good times you would be squirreling money at way a little at a time. And in bad times, you could continue to increase spending to service the growing demands of a recession.”

It would require state lawmakers to not touch the reserves, even in times of plenty. But it would also reduce the need to tap into reserves just to get by during rainy days, the advisers said.

Regarding budget cuts, the Newton Independent reports here on a “plan to reorganize the Iowa Department of Human Services operations under two deputy directors, six rather than nine divisions, five rather than eight service areas, more part-time offices and the elimination of 78 currently vacant positions” (hat tip to Iowa Independent). Click this link for more details about the proposed restructuring.

On the political front, John Deeth analyzes possible changes the Democratic National Committee is considering for the presidential nomination process. Jerome Armstrong had a good idea the DNC won’t implement: ban caucuses everywhere but Iowa. No other state derives the party-building benefits of caucuses, but just about every state that uses caucuses for presidential selection has lower voter participation than would occur in a primary.

I haven’t written much on health care reform lately, because recent developments are so depressing. Our best hope was using the budget reconciliation process to pass a strong bill in the Senate with 51 votes (or 50 plus Joe Biden). Now that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has taken reconciliation off the table, we’re left with a variety of bad compromises to get to 60 votes in the Senate. I am not convinced the final product will be any improvement over the status quo. It will certainly be worse for millions of Americans required to buy overpriced private health insurance. If there’s a quicker way to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage with young voters, I don’t know what it is.

Speaking of health care reform, Steve Benen wrote a good piece about Grassley’s latest grandstanding on the issue.

Speaking of things that are depressing, John Lennon was shot dead 29 years ago today.  Daily Kos user noweasels remembers him and that night. Although Paul’s always been my favorite Beatle, I love a lot of John’s work too. Here’s one of his all-time best:

Share any relevant thoughts or your own favorite Lennon songs in the comments.

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Revisionist history watch: Branstad budget edition

The editors of the conservative Fort Dodge Messenger are ecstatic about Terry Branstad’s gubernatorial campaign, and they got a little carried away in this Sunday editorial:

Iowa must return to a pay-as-you-go approach to budgeting. Government spending should be carefully aligned with anticipated revenues. As governor, Branstad rigorously adhered to that philosophy. He pledged it will once again become central to state budgeting if he is elected.

Who are they kidding?

Branstad’s sleight of hand on the budget was so notorious that as a three-term incumbent, he almost lost the 1994 GOP primary to Fred Grandy. That campaign centered on “the Mastercard governor” and his record of fiscal mismanagement, including keeping two sets of books to hide deficits.

As State Representative Chris Rants has noted, Branstad likes to take credit for budget reforms that were not his idea and were intended to prevent future governors from repeating his mistakes.

That’s to be expected from a politician, but I expect more reality-based commentary from newspaper editors.

By the way, did you notice how the Messenger editors suggested that Iowa is no longer doing “pay as you go” budgeting? That Republican talking point is supposed to make people believe that Democrats have borrowed money to fund budget line items. In fact, the I-JOBS state bonding program was for capital investment projects. Investors understood that distinction. That’s why the bonds were sold at lower interest rates, and the Bond Buyer daily rated I-JOBS one of the country’s top 10 best financing deals for 2009.

Even after factoring in the I-JOBS program, Iowa’s state debt per capita is low by national standards.

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Culver calls for new budget process

Speaking to the annual meeting of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation today, Governor Chet Culver said the way Iowa drafts its budgets should be changed:

Currently, the governor said he is required to submit a state budget by the end of January based on projections set by the state Revenue Estimating Conference in December, but then lawmakers craft their spending plan after the REC’s next quarterly estimates in March.

“That makes no sense at all. For three months, we sit around and wait for the March number in many cases before serious budget discussions take place,” he said. “We have a moving target. It is terribly frustrating and we need to make some changes.”

Several accounting experts have told me that it is impossible to estimate state revenues accurately. The current system leads to budget surpluses when the economy is doing well and shortfalls requiring rapid cuts when the economy heads downhill.

As usual, Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson has a better idea. Speaking to the Des Moines Register in October,

Swenson said he believes the budget-setting system is backward. Government should look at annual needs and adjust taxes and fees to accomplish goals. Instead, officials adjust needs by what’s available.

“It is a stupid system and makes no sense,” Swenson said.

The most recent Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register showed that broad majorities support increased state spending on various programs that Democrats have expanded in recent years. Even a majority of self-identified conservatives supported maintaining higher spending levels for teacher pay, state aid to schools, renewable energy research and development, health care coverage for children and repairing roads and bridges.

If politicians evaluate our state’s needs and then search for a way to fund them, we are likely to get some changes on the revenue side of the equation. Eliminating certain tax credits could increase revenue, and Culver has created a panel that will evaluate all of the state’s current tax credits before making recommendations for state legislators.

Our state income tax structure should also be on the table. A new poll by Selzer and Associates for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership found that a majority of Iowans would support eliminating federal deductibility, which mainly benefits high-income taxpayers. During the 2009 legislative session, Culver and legislative leaders agreed on a tax reform package that would have ended federal deductibility, but Iowa House leaders were unable to find 51 votes to pass that bill.

UPDATE: More details from the Des Moines Register are after the jump.

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