Register poll on Obama, gay marriage and more

The Des Moines Register continues to release results from its latest statewide poll. Selzer and Co surveyed 800 Iowa adults between February 13 and 16. Bleeding Heartland discussed the Register’s poll numbers on Governor Terry Branstad here.

Follow me after the jump to discuss President Barack Obama’s approval inching up in Iowa, slight growth in support for same-sex marriage rights, views on ways to close the state budget gap, and more.

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Iowa House sends heavily amended spending cut bill to governor

House File 45 heads to Governor Terry Branstad’s desk today after the Iowa House approved the “deappropriations” bill by a 95 to zero vote. The bill was the top legislative priority for House Republican leaders, but the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate eliminated many of its controversial provisions last week. The full text of House File 45 is here, and the complete bill history is here. The Senate Journal for February 17 contains roll calls for votes on House File 45 and various amendments (pdf file). The final Senate version of House File 45 passed with 48 yes votes. First-term Republican Senator Mark Chelgren voted against the bill, and Republican Senator Sandy Greiner was absent.

Thanks to the Senate amendment, state funding for preschool, family planning, passenger rail, smoking cessation programs, and the core curriculum live to fight another day in the Iowa legislature. So do the Power Fund, the Office of Energy Independence, and the Grow Iowa Values Fund, all economic development programs long targeted by statehouse Republicans.

In addition, the Senate removed language from House File 45 that would have reduced funding for state universities, area education agencies, land acquisitions by the Department of Natural Resources and the Resource Enhancement and Protection fund.

The Senate’s version of House File 45 also did not include language creating a “tax relief fund” that would have collected surplus revenues after state reserve funds were filled.

After the jump I’ve posted an overview compiled by the Iowa House Democratic research staff on “major items eliminated” by the Senate amendment to House File 45. I’ve also listed some other significant points of divergence between the Senate and House versions of this bill, as well as key points on which the Senate left House File 45’s language intact.

Finally, I’ve posted the House Democratic research staff’s explanation of language that would create searchable databases on the state budget and tax rates.  

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Wellmark made me defend smokers' rights

Until this morning, I would have considered myself the blogger least likely to defend the right to smoke. Because of the many health risks associated with secondhand smoke, I strongly supported the Iowa Smokefree Air Act adopted in 2008, as well as the Iowa Department of Public Health’s decision to enforce that ban in all restaurants. I had no sympathy for smokers who whined about “Big Brother Democrats and Turncoat Republicans” and called the public smoking ban “Soviet” or “fascist.” I knew restaurant and bar owners who challenged the smoking ban in court were wasting their time and money.

However, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield is going too far with its new personnel policy on tobacco use. Beginning on June 1,

The insurer will “require applicants to assert that they are tobacco-free in order to be considered for a position,” said Rob Schweers, spokesman for Wellmark, which employs approximately 1,600 people in Des Moines and another 200 throughout the rest of the state.

Wellmark is asking existing employees to stop using tobacco by Oct. 1. The new policy also prohibits any smoking during work hours, including scheduled breaks and during lunch.

The Des Moines Register quotes Schweers as saying the company wants to provide “incentive for people to quit [smoking], which will result in a healthier, more productive work force.” If Wellmark wants to pay for counseling or nicotine patches or other support for smokers trying to quit, I’m all for it. Nicotine is highly addictive, and many people need extra support to stop using it. But smoking is still legal in private homes and many outdoor spaces, and employers should not try to control how employees live when they’re not at work. Yes, smokers cost employers more in health care costs, but so do people who eat unhealthy diets or engage in other risky (but legal) behavior.

According to the Register, several other large employers in central Iowa ban smoking during working hours, including lunch breaks, but don’t prohibit their employees from smoking during private time. Wellmark has not yet threatened to fire employees who don’t quit smoking by October 1, but apparently, they would have the legal right to do so. Peggy Huppert of the American Cancer Society said violating that organization’s policy on tobacco use is grounds for termination.  

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