Final results from the Iowa Legislature's 2009 session

The Iowa House adjourned for the year a little after 5 am today, and the Iowa Senate adjourned a few minutes before 6 am. I’ll write more about what happened and didn’t happen in the next day or two, but I wanted to put up this thread right away so people can share their opinions.

Several major bills passed during the final marathon days in which legislators were in the statehouse chambers nearly all night on Friday and Saturday. The most important were the 2010 budget and an infrastructure bonding proposal. Legislators also approved new restrictions on the application of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground. Another high-profile bill that made it through changes restrictions on convicted sex offenders.

Several controversial bills did not pass for lack of a 51st vote in the Iowa House, namely a tax reform plan that would have ended federal deductibility and key legislative priorities for organized labor.

Not surprisingly, last-minute Republican efforts to debate a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage also failed.

More details and some preliminary analysis are after the jump.

First, a quick look at what did pass. I have not had a chance to review any details in the fiscal year 2010 budget, which totals more than $6 billion. In a statement I received via e-mail, Senate President Jack Kibbie said Democrats had to make “tough decisions” this year:

“And in the end, we balanced the state budget without raising taxes, spent less money than we did last year, and put $400 million in the state’s rainy day fund.”

According to Iowa Politics,

A last-minute agreement between Gov. Chet Culver and Democratic leaders plugged about $30 million more in stimulus money than originally intended by lawmakers into Iowa’s budget next year, including $13.1 million for instructional support for education, $2 million to school districts for professional development, $2.5 million for child and family services and over $1 million more for corrections at Fort Madison.

“We’re actually required by the federal law, by the federal recovery money, to do everything in our power to reduce or limit layoffs,” Culver said. “That’s the purpose of the stimulus.”

The governor is right. The federal stimulus bill purposefully included money to assist state governments so that fewer state employees would lose their jobs.

Republican politicians and their allies are criticizing the 2010 budget as the largest in Iowa history.

The infrastructure bonding proposal also went through during the final night of the session. A joint statement from House and Senate Democratic leaders said,

The Legislature approved a bold economic initiative to create good-paying jobs across the state. Iowa’s $715 million effort – combined with federal stimulus funds — will fund transportation projects, public buildings, disaster recovery and prevention, wastewater and water improvements, and initiatives on housing, energy, and broadband access.

A key disagreement between Culver and statehouse Democrats was whether the infrastructure borrowing plan should include money for roads and bridges. The governor wanted the state to borrow money for roads and bridges. Legislators wanted to use the bonds to fund other kinds of construction projects, noting that there are other designated funds as well as federal stimulus money for roads.

The Des Moines Register reported that the borrowing plan totals $830 billion:

• $115 million for repairs to bridges and roads.

• $600 million would go for repairs at flood-damaged buildings and houses, sewer systems, construction of homeless and domestic abuse shelters, energy projects, public high-speed Internet systems and public construction projects.

• $115 million would pay for flood repairs at the University of Iowa and more construction at a veterinary lab at Iowa State University.

Bonding bills

• Senate File 376: Passed House 53-43; Senate, 30-18.

• Senate File 477: Passed Senate 31-18; House, 52-44.

I’ll have more on this in the next few days when I figure out which bills funded which kind of projects and which Democrats voted with Republicans. I hope that the infrastructure bonds will be used to repair the roads and bridges we already have, rather than for new road construction that increases future maintenance costs.

Iowa Independent has more on the last-minute political negotiations and debate over the borrowing plan:

“With this bill, you’re handcuffing us for the next 26 years,” said Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull. “This legislature of 2009 will go down in history.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, agreed with Feenstra that the session will go down in history.

“It will go down in history as the session where we said we’re not going to do what Louisiana did and leave New Orleans in swamps,” he said. “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to make sure we recover from last summer’s disasters, help our communities fix themselves up, pull themselves up, and build a new future.”

House Republican leader Kraig Paulsen claimed that 71 percent of Iowans oppose the borrowing plan, but I believe that number is based on a badly-phrased poll question. People may say they don’t want to borrow money for infrastructure, but they will like having roads, bridges, sewer systems, and flood-damaged buildings repaired in their communities. Next year Republicans will need to explain to their constituents why they voted against this spending. They will claim they didn’t want to burden future generations, but

Iowa’s debt load is very low – 48th in the nation – said the key architect of the plan, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines. Even if lawmakers tripled what they approved, it would bring Iowa up only to 47th, he said.

Interest rates are relatively low now, and investments in infrastructure (if done wisely) will pay off for decades. We are still using a lot of buildings that were government-funded construction projects during the 1930s. I expect expanded high-speed internet to be popular in rural areas. I know my friends who are stuck with dial-up internet access will be grateful.

The bill on sex offender restrictions passed with huge bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. A statement from Democratic leaders said, “The Legislature worked together to protect Iowa’s children by making Iowa’s sex offender laws smarter, tougher, and safer.  We’ve given law enforcement the power to keep dangerous child sex offenders away from schools, day care centers and other places children gather.” I tend to agree with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board, which called on legislators to abolish the unworkable residency restrictions, which cost too much law enforcement time and money without protecting children. But the bill that passed is certainly an improvement on the status quo.

A few weeks ago I criticized the “manure in water” bill, which many environmental groups opposed as an attempt to circumvent rules on manure application being drafted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. On Friday that bill passed with very strong amendments, which should significantly reduce the amount of manure Iowa farmers can spread on frozen or snow-covered ground. (Manure on frozen ground can easily get into waterways during the snow melt.) I will have more details on this bill in the coming days, but for now I want to give credit to the DNR, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Sierra Club, and the Iowa Environmental Council, which all urged legislators to amend what was a very bad bill to begin with.

As for the bills that did not pass, the tax reform will need to come back during the 2010 session. On balance, the deal Culver negotiated with legislative leaders was worth passing. Unfortunately, it may be harder to overhaul the tax system in an election year, especially when Republicans and conservative interest groups will be emboldened by their success in blocking it this year. Iowa Politics noted that Ed Failor’s organization Iowans for Tax Relief “spent more than $250,000 on an ad campaign to fight the elimination of federal deductibility.”

My sympathies are with the organized labor community, which has done so much heavy lifting for years to elect Democrats in this state. Labor went into the 2009 session with four key priorities: “fair share,” a bill to expand collective bargaining, a bill to give employees their choice of doctor if injured on the job, and a bill to require that government projects pay the “prevailing wage.” They got nothing.

I don’t know anyone who expected fair share to pass this year; even though it’s a good idea, its proponents have not done enough to educate people about the benefits. Republicans were ready to pounce with a scare campaign about eviscerating Iowa’s so-called “right to work” law.

The prevailing wage bill should have passed, but got stuck at 50 votes in the Iowa House. I’m guessing that the fiasco surrounding the attempt to get the prevailing wage bill through the House hurt chances for the other labor legislation. Iowa Republicans were jubilant about their success in generating phone calls and e-mails to legislators opposing prevailing wage. That may have spooked some Democrats, though it must be noted that a few of the House Democrats who opposed prevailing wage and other labor bills are in safe Democratic districts. (Incidentally, at the federal level a prevailing wage bill has provoked little controversy.)

There is no excuse for collective bargaining not passing this year. I do not understand why Democrats were able to get 51 votes in favor of this bill during the 2008 session, when we had a 53-47 majority in the Iowa House, but not this year, with our expanded 56-44 majority. Please post a comment or send me an e-mail if you understand what was going on here. Was this simply a casualty of the prevailing wage controversy, or were there significant differences between this year’s collective bargaining bill and what passed last year?

When Governor Chet Culver vetoed the collective bargaining bill last year, citing a flawed process of deliberation, I assumed that he would have another chance to sign the bill this year. That veto created lasting hard feelings between Culver and activists for organized labor.

It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t find the votes to pass the choice of doctor bill. Why shouldn’t people be able to designate their own doctors in case they are injured on the job? Why should an employer be able to force its choice of doctor on employees? Republican claims that this bill would allow “doctor shopping” were false, because the bill required Iowa workers to choose a preferred medical provider before any injury occurred.

Democrats need to get their act together if we are to pass any of the rejected bills during the 2010 session. We clearly need to elect more and better House Democrats, but for next year we’re stuck with the 56 we have. We can’t keep letting the “six-pack” of corporate Democrats block progressive change. Some of the Democrats opposing tax and labor bills represent relatively conservative districts, but a few are in safe Democratic districts. I hope to see some Democratic primary challengers for these legislators, by the way.

Before next year there will be at least one change within the House Democratic leadership group. Last last week Representative Mike Reasoner of Creston stepped down as assistant House majority leader, citing unspecified differences with Speaker Pat Murphy:

“My differences of opinion as to the direction of the caucus are at odds with the direction you believe House Democrats should pursue,” Reasoner wrote in the letter. “So as not to send mixed signals to the caucus that the leadership team is not united and out of respect for you as speaker and the caucus as a whole, I hereby resign my position as an assistant leader effective immediately.”

Reasoner refused to directly address what issues they disagreed on.

“It’s just something that I felt was better for the rest of the caucus, and we’ll just leave it at that,” Reasoner said.

During the past week or two we saw new evidence of the dysfunctional relationship between the governor’s office and legislative leaders. House Speaker Pat Murphy seemed to blame the governor for demanding changes to the tax reform bill that cost Democrats a couple of House votes. House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy complained that the governor wasn’t negotiating with legislators (which Culver’s office denied).

There’s no love lost between the governor and Senate leader Gronstal either.

Both sides need to improve their communication and cooperation during the 2010 session. I’m glad that a last-minute agreement saved the infrastructure bonding proposal, but too many good bills did not make it through during the 2009 legislative session.

I’d like to end this post on a positive note. I appreciate that right up to the last day of the session, House and Senate Democrats continued to reject Republican efforts to pass a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.

Please share any relevant thoughts in this thread, or feel free to post a diary about your reaction to what passed (or what didn’t pass) this year.

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  • Defense OK, Offense Flunks

    The Dems were good enough on defense, but they have no offense even with big majorities.

    Maybe we could get profiles on this blog for the six Dems who keep defecting?