Iowa legislature 2012 opening day linkfest

The Iowa legislature’s 2012 session begins today with several major policy reforms on the agenda. Making progress on even one of those issues would be daunting under any circumstances, but particularly during an election year when different parties control the Iowa House and Senate. Lots of links are after the jump.

EDUCATION

On January 6, Governor Terry Branstad released “final recommendations” on education reform for state legislators to tackle this year. Not everything in the blueprint for education reform, released in October, made the cut. The most significant missing item is the proposal to change the dominant teacher pay structure.

Last month, Branstad shelved a plan to revamp the state’s teacher pay system after heavy criticism from teachers, parents and others. He’s now planning to form task forces to study the possibility of extending the school day or school year and reexamine the teacher compensation issue.

“The change in the compensation system is, I think, clearly the most costly piece,” Branstad said [on January 6]. “It’s also one of the most complicated ones. This is the first year of what we think is really a 10 year process to move Iowa to be ‘best in the nation’ in education.”

From a press release by the Iowa Department of Education.

The recommendations stay true to three key areas outlined in a blueprint for education reform released by the Branstad-Reynolds administration in October: highly effective teachers and leaders, high expectations for all students with fair measures for results, and innovation that boosts learning.

[…]

The education blueprint released in October was a starting point for meaningful change. Members of the Branstad-Reynolds administration traveled the state last fall to listen to ideas at dozens of town hall meetings.

One change made as a result of input from Iowans: Doing more, beginning in preschool, to help students read by the end of third grade. At that point, most students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Students who finish third grade without meeting basic literacy requirements across a broad set of measures would be retained and provided intensive reading assistance.

Another change adds state standards for music and other fine arts, applied arts, physical education, character education and entrepreneurship education. […]

Key proposals include:

*Be more selective about who can become an educator by requiring a 3.0 grade-point average to gain admission into teacher preparation programs.

*Candidates for teaching licensure must pass a test demonstrating content-specific and teaching knowledge.

*Evaluate teachers annually instead of every three years, which is the current requirement. Principals and superintendents also would be evaluated each year.

*Widen the pathways to alternative teacher licensure with a number of quality assurance checks.

*Make seniority a minor factor in deciding which teachers are laid off by a school district faced with reducing the workforce. Annual evaluations based on performance should be the main factor.

*Establish state task forces to study important long-term issues, such as teacher leadership, compensation and questions about extending the school day or school year.

*Give all preschool students and enrolled 4-year-olds a kindergarten readiness assessment to determine early literacy and numeracy skills.

*High school students will take end-of-course exams in core academic areas of algebra, English, science and U.S. history to make sure they have a solid foundation before they graduate and to better align high school courses to the Iowa Core.

*All 11th grade students take a college entrance exam as a way to provide one of the keys needed for postsecondary education. Phase out the current 11th grade assessment, the Iowa Tests of Educational Development.

*Eliminate requirements around seat time for academic credit to accommodate school districts that choose to adopt a system of competency-based education, which advances students based on their mastery of subjects.

*Widen the pathway for starting charter schools by giving the State Board of Education authority to approve charter applications from universities, community colleges and nonprofit organizations, as well as collaborative efforts of all these groups. Iowa’s current charter school law is restrictive in that it only allows existing school districts to establish charter schools.

*Give school districts greater flexibility to meet state requirements so that public schools can better apply innovative ideas to improve learning. School districts would have the same flexibility that charter schools have.

My gut says minimal legislative progress will be made on this front in 2012. Conservatives found a lot to dislike about Branstad’s education reform plans, which means Republicans in the Iowa House will be under pressure not to impose more state standards on local school districts, private schools and home educators.

Bleeding Heartland will cover the education reform debate in more depth in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Scott McLeod’s take on the governor’s blueprint is well worth reading. Here’s his take on the proposal for holding back more third-graders who can’t read well:

Failing 3rd graders who can’t pass some reading assessment is a really, really bad idea. It doesn’t matter how many safeguards and second chances there are and I understand why the policy is being proposed (both educationally and politically). The bottom line is that, regardless of the ‘social promotion’ rhetoric and whatever gut intuition parents or policymakers may have, the research evidence is overwhelmingly unidirectional that in-grade retention does far more harm than good. Desired test score increases often never materialize and, even if they do, they usually don’t persist past a few years. One of the stronger and consistent findings in educational research is that, in the long run, in-grade retention is at best a long-term wash score-wise and the resultant negative impact on students’ psyches and their likelihood to graduate is horrific. The Governor and [Department of Education] don’t get to advocate for research-driven practices in other parts of the Blueprint but ignore that requirement here.

Democrats and educators are sure to oppose the plan to hold back more third-graders as well as several other parts of the governor’s plan. Leading Iowa Senate Democrats have reserved judgment on some of these proposals until Branstad reveals how he plans to pay for them in his draft budget. If the governor doesn’t get the political support he needs in the upper chamber, he may regret his two line-item vetoes of the Democrats’ top tax reform priority last year.

TAXES

Speaking of taxes, legislators in both parties insist that 2012 is the year commercial property tax reform will finally pass in Iowa. Last spring, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the governor advocated three very different approaches. I’m skeptical that progress can be made on this issue in an election year. On the other hand, Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy alluded to negotiations behind the scenes in the latest edition of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program.

[Radio Iowa’s O.Kay] Henderson: The allegation from legislative leaders is that you all have been working on this commercial property tax relief package and that you’re close to an agreement.  Representative Upmeyer, I’m’ sort of a cynic, I’ll believe it when I see it.  Is there really a deal imminent on commercial property tax or is this going to be something that will not be resolved?

Upmeyer: Well, I think there’s a great deal of flexibility on what we can do on property taxes.  There’s three principles we have always have our requirements as we do that.  It needs to be broad-based across property taxes or classes, it needs to be very significant and consequential relief and it should benefit everyone and we had those conversations last year, those conversations have continued during the interim and it is certainly my hope that we can get that achieved this year.

Henderson: Representative McCarthy, is it going to happen?

McCarthy: Things are looking better. Two anecdotal stories — I’ve been working on this issue for several years and it has always collapsed politically under its own weight because somebody’s ox is getting gored among the class of property tax payers.  This year the local governments are kind of recognizing now, particularly for small businesses, that taxing commercial property at 100% valuation is not really competitive.  So, there’s a willingness to be sympathetic to that.  And the conversely, I was at the Iowa Chamber Alliance and they put in their legislative proposals that we must recognize that we can’t hurt local governments and police and fire so people have taken a step towards one another which means there’s a chance for compromise.  It may not be everything everybody wants but we can do something maybe modest.

I will be very surprised if the Iowa House and Senate pass a comprehensive property tax reform bill in 2012. The Iowa League of Cities and Association of Counties are powerful lobbying entities.

With many Iowa roads and bridges needing repair, some state lawmakers are determined to put a gasoline tax increase on the agenda this year. The chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees spoke out for a gas tax hike last week:

“I’m tired of just Iowans [bearing] this burden,” said Sen. Tom Rielly, D-Oskaloosa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee who noted statistics showing 35 percent of large truck traffic and 15 percent of passenger cars are from outside of the state.

Rielly continued: “We’d like to take this initiative right now and work with the governor and work in a bipartisan way to put people back to work, improve the safety of our roads and get people from outside of the state of Iowa to pay their fair share.”

The proposal would increase the gas tax by four cents next year and another four cents in 2014, which would raise an estimated $180 million a year when fully implemented. Registrations for new vehicles would also increase from five to six percent this year.

The group would also like to apply additional fees to annual registration costs for vehicles run by alternative fuels.  Advocates say such a few is fair since higher efficiency vehicles continue to use the road but pay far less in taxes since they consume less or no gasoline. Advocates argue that every road user has a responsibility to contribute.

That’s easy for Rielly to say; his new Senate district has shifted so much toward the Republicans that he has little to lose by advocating a gas tax increase. Other lawmakers from both parties will be reluctant to move forward on that front in an election year.

In November, Branstad suggested he would not support raising the gas tax in 2012, but House Transportation Committee Chair David Tjepkes told supporters last week that the governor has not threatened to veto a bill to increase the gasoline tax. I expect the gas tax to become an issue in this year’s GOP primary in Iowa House district 10, where Tjepkes may face first-term State Representative Tom Shaw.

UPDATE: Tjepkes announced on January 9 that he’s not seeking re-election in 2012. No wonder he’s gung-ho about raising the gas tax.

UPDATE: Democratic Senate President Jack Kibbie endorsed an increase in gasoline taxes in his speech to colleagues on January 9:

According to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, we have 27% of our bridges either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete; 41% of our major roads are in poor or mediocre condition; 38% of our major urban highways are congested; traffic on our highways has increase 57% over a 15 year period; and, we face a $27 billion transportation funding shortage in the next two decades. No one disputes the extent of this problem and it is time for us to step up and have the courage to increase the gas tax so that we have dedicated funding to begin to address the backlog. I believe there is bipartisan support for this and close to a fifth of the money received will be from non-Iowans who use our roads. We are 34th in fuel tax rates and each penny generates $22 million. These funds will help generate badly need jobs in the construction industry and we cannot afford to delay or study any longer.

Kibbie is retiring this year, so it’s easy for him to ask colleagues to have courage to raise taxes. Senators facing re-election this year or in 2014 may not be so brave.

Republican Senator Tim Kapucian, the ranking member on the Senate Transportation Committee, said he thinks the proposed gas tax hike “has legs” this year. Meanwhile, James Q. Lynch reports,

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who chairs the Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriation Subcommittee, expects bipartisan support in the House and Senate for a phased-in tax increase of 5 cents per gallon beginning Jan. 1, 2013, and another nickel increase on Jan. 1, 2014. […]

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, withheld his full support for a gas tax hike, suggesting there’s no point spending political capital if Branstad’s not on board.

Whether legislators support a tax hike, he said, will depend on the situation in their district.

“It is a different issue in every district,” he said. In districts where roads are in good shape “they don’t really particularly see the need for it. So, I think there is going to be some that are for it, some that are against it.”

HEALTH CARE

Lawmakers in both parties have predicted a bipartisan deal on reforming mental health services in Iowa this year. The main goal is to standardize care available to Iowans whether they live in an urban or rural county.

“We all know the system is unsustainable the way it is now,” Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, said.

He was co-leader of an interim panel that tackled the task of establishing a funding mechanism that will enable policy makers to redesign the current county-based mental health system into a statewide effort where services are administered regionally and delivered locally beginning July 1, 2013.

“It is a priority of both chambers as well as the governor’s office to get something done, and it’s not very often that the stars align where everybody’s priority is this,”

Hatch and Rep. Renee Schulte, R-Cedar Rapids, the other leader of the Legislature’s Mental Health and Disability Services Study Committee, said they have asked their leaders to appoint a joint House-Senate panel that will draft legislation early in the session for both chambers to consider.

“I have great hope we’re going to get something done this session,” said Schulte, who expected the system overhaul could become this year’s “signature” piece of bipartisan work.

“It is a priority of both chambers as well as the governor’s office to get something done, and it’s not very often that the stars align where everybody’s priority is this,” she said.

Rep. Renee Schulte, R-Cedar Rapids

The impetus for the reform effort was legislation approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Terry Branstad that established a “sunset” of the current mental health system in two years and directed state Department of Human Services officials to engage Iowans in discussions about core services, outcomes, delivery and funding with an expectation that lawmakers would craft legislation in their 2012 session that will spell out the particulars of the new system.

When legislators talked about mental health reform last year, many suggested a new system would reduce the burden on county governments. However, cost estimates from the state Department of Human Services “call for the state to invest $42 million in the effort, with that growing to $133 million once fully implemented in fiscal 2017. The county share from property tax levies would stay at about $125 million each year.”

I’ll be interested to see what Branstad proposes for mental health funding in his draft budget.

The Des Moines Register has been covering problems with the new high-risk insurance pool Iowa created as part of the 2010 federal health care reform bill. These pools were supposed to bridge the gap for people with pre-existing conditions until 2014, when the federal law will prohibit private insurers from excluding people on that basis. Trouble is, Iowa’s program is racking up high administrative costs while insuring only about 200 people. And the board that runs the pool has set up rules that block HIV positive Iowans from joining. The Register’s reporting on that disgrace was enough to shock even a hardened cynic:

Iowa chose to administer its own high risk pool and use the administrative infrastructure of an existing state insurance pool – one that relies heavily on a board of directors and executive director from private business.

Iowa’s program prohibits “third-party payers” from picking up the cost of premiums for enrollees.

The result: Many HIV-positive Iowans using the [federal AIDS Drug Assistance] program – people like Tami Haught – are not able to enroll. They can’t afford the premiums on their own, and no other source of money – a third party – can be used to pay their premiums.

Randy Mayer, a public health bureau chief, wants to use money from the federal drug program to pay their premiums. That would get these Iowans health insurance that would cover their doctor and hospital expenses, as well as pay for their HIV drugs.

But that can’t happen. Iowa is one of of only a few states prohibiting these third-party payments.

The Iowa pool’s 16-member board of directors and executive director Cecil Bykerk should should immediately fix this. These 17 people have so far refused to change the policy.

The entire ordeal is an outrage. Iowa is standing in the way insuring the very people Congress intended to help.

“It is worse than an outrage,” said Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines. “It is immoral.” The Legislature convenes Monday. Hatch and Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, say they will ask the Senate Oversight Committee to begin an investigation.

Let’s hope they can get something done on that front. Even if they do, Iowa’s high-risk pool will cover only a tiny fraction of uninsured people with pre-existing conditions.

ENERGY

One big piece of unfinished business from 2011 was a bill that would allow MidAmerican Energy to charge ratepayers now for anticipated costs of building a nuclear power plant. The bill passed the Iowa House but never came up for a floor vote in the Iowa Senate. Its champion in the upper chamber was Democrat Swati Dandekar, who resigned from the legislature to take a position on the Iowa Utilities Board. Iowa environmental groups are nervous that the bill will move forward this year. Upmeyer and McCarthy discussed prospects for promoting nuclear energy on “Iowa Press”:

Henderson: One of the discussions legislators had last year that remains unresolved is whether utility customers in Iowa should be assessed an increase in their rates to finance construction of a nuclear power plant in Iowa.  Representative Upmeyer, is that something that House republicans want to have on the Governor’s desk by the end of this session?

Upmeyer: Well, we passed the energy bill out of the House last year.  There was discussion last year that the Senate was going to make some amendment to that and send it back to us, it never happened.  Certainly we think all forms of energy need to be considered in this state for our future energy needs as one of the big things that companies look at, job creators look at as they expand their businesses.  And so that’s something we want to be competitive, we want to have adequate energy and we think this is a component of it.  So, we’ll see if it comes back.

Henderson: Representative McCarthy, you don’t speak for Senate democrats, you speak for House democrats but what does your crystal ball tell you on this particular issue?

McCarthy: My thought is that most people that are of reasonable mind that will look at this issue of energy and ask a question how do you deliver base load power in the future?  Most people have come to this, I think, conclusion.  We can not continue to have fossil fuels, coal, etc. be that base load source forever.  This is not sustainable, it’s not sustainable for our environment and it’s not sustainable.  So, nuclear seems to be the option that can deliver that base load power.  The issue of whether the rate payers should bear the total burden or whether it should be the shareholders, that was very controversial last year, it’s why AARP was very upset and that’s why we don’t have the bill passed yet.  It is my prediction that the bill will be amended to be more consumer friendly and it will come back to the House and I predict we may have a bill.

I agree with McCarthy; without the AARP lobbying against this bill, it would have been on Branstad’s desk last spring. Environmentalists need to make the case against this bill on consumer protection grounds.

UPDATE: The AARP is coming right out of the gate with strong words against the bill written by and for MidAmerican Energy:

AARP Iowa Director of Advocacy Anthony Carroll says it is not nuclear power his group opposes, but the idea of paying for it up front. He notes the bill passed the Iowa House last session.

“The Senate is eligible to take up this bill immediately, from Day One. It doesn’t have to go through the committee process, it’s eligible for debate – and it’s important that Iowans know that.”

He says many Iowans are already having a hard time paying utility bills, and it should be the utility and its shareholders who shoulder the cost.

“The legislation says that this plant – which is estimated to take about 10 years to build – if at anyplace along the way it gets canceled, customers would have still have to pay all accumulated costs.”

Right now, there isn’t even an estimate of how much the proposed plant would cost, Carroll says. An AARP survey done last year found 72 percent of Iowans over age 50 oppose the idea of this kind of advance rate-making.

Backers of the bill say that it’s a financial requirement in order to make construction possible, and the state needs the additional power.

That last sentence is code for “we need to fleece rate-payers because private investors will never put up the money to build a nuclear reactor.” Given that similar legislation in other states has not led to construction of even one new nuclear power, I think there’s a decent chance that this bill is merely a smokescreen to allow MidAmerican to raise electricity rates. The Iowa Utilities Board probably won’t allow them to do so unless they can claim they need the rate hike to pay for a new nuclear reactor. If they decide later that the nuclear project isn’t feasible, MidAmerican gets to keep the extra cash.

Any comments about the Iowa legislature’s 2012 session are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- The best news for Iowa politics junkies: six new cameras in the House chamber will cover all floor debates.

Paulsen had cameras installed over the speaker’s chair and the main entrance to the chamber, which will allow people to watch live streaming video of the House when it is in session online.

The setup cost $130,000, but $100,000 of that was covered by a grant to make government more accessible to the public. Paulsen said the cameras will be activated during floor debate.

Gronstal said there are no plans to outfit the Senate with similar cameras this year.

Too bad the Senate’s not following Paulsen’s example. I’m looking forward to some entertaining footage from the House.

UPDATE: According to the official legislative timetable (subject to change), January 20 is the final day for legislators to request that the Legislative Services Agency draft bills.

The first funnel deadline is February 24. After that date, most bills that have not been passed by at least one committee in either the Iowa House or Senate will be considered dead for the 2012 session.

The second funnel deadline is March 16. After that point, most bills will be dead for the session unless they have passed either the full House or Senate, and have passed in at least one committee in the other chamber.

Caveat:

The February 24 and March 16 committee deadlines do not apply to Appropriations Bills, Ways and Means Bills, Government Oversight Bills, Bills co-sponsored by Majority and Minority Leaders of one House, Companion Bills sponsored by the Majority Leaders of both Houses after consultation with the respective Minority Leaders, Conference Committee Reports, Concurrent or Simple Resolutions, Joint Resolutions nullifying Administrative Rules, Legalizing Acts, Administrative Rules Review Committee Bills, and Committee Bills related to delayed Administrative Rules

April 17 is the 100th calendar day of the session. After that point, legislators no longer receive per diem expenses, regardless of how long the session continues.

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