Thousands of Iowans will suffer brutal consequences from the two major bills Republican senators approved Monday. House File 295 blocks local governments from raising the minimum wage. Once Governor Terry Branstad signs the bill, thousands of people working in Linn, Johnson, and Wapello counties will get an immediate pay cut. Some 25,000 people in Polk County will be stuck earning $7.25 an hour, instead of getting a raise to $8.75, beginning next week. House File 518 will make it harder for employees to file workers' compensation claims and will vastly reduce benefits for those who do qualify, especially anyone with a shoulder injury.
Both bills passed on party-line 29-21 votes after Republicans had rejected every effort to mitigate the harm done to working people.
As each Democratic amendment went down during hours of debate on the Senate floor, feelings of sadness, disgust and anger came through in the speeches of some Democrats and independent State Senator David Johnson. Why are you doing this, several asked their GOP colleagues. You don't have to follow your floor manager, some pleaded. You can reject the "shameful" attempt to target poor people or those affected by life-altering workplace accidents.
Another dismal day in the Iowa legislature provoked an outpouring on social media, where progressive activists have mobilized this year in response to the Republican agenda. A measurable wave of "greater grassroots activism on the political left" is one of the few bright spots in the national landscape. In Iowa too, ordinary people are contacting their state lawmakers in record numbers and showing up to challenge them at district forums.
Watching these discussions unfold, I've noticed a reflexive tendency to blame one destructive Iowa GOP bill after another on the Koch brothers or the American Legislative Exchange Council. The more Democrats make the conversation about Koch money or ALEC, the easier it is for Republicans to avoid talking about the real-world consequences of their actions.
Look at what happened at the West Des Moines legislative forum on March 18. An audience member called out "ALEC" after another person asked how Republicans decide to support certain bills that are unpopular, like defunding Planned Parenthood. House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow was happy to seize on the diversion, as you can see on Christen Bain's video, beginning around the 23:00 mark.
Hagenow said it is "troubling" that so many believe "there is someone behind the curtain pulling the levers" at the legislature, "because it certainly isn't true." He lamented what he called "this mainstream conspiracy theory" that "because someone got a check from some group that they go up and will do everything they say." He noted that he didn't take any money from ALEC or from the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity last year. He acknowledged, "I did get a relatively speaking, a modest check" from the Koch Industries business, which he characterized as a fertilizer/ag distribution company. But among donations from many other groups, "that one wouldn't rise up to the level where I would start doing something [for them] as opposed to everybody else"; Republicans take contributions from "private folks all down the line."
Having looked at many of Hagenow's campaign finance disclosure forms over the years, I believe $1,500 from the Koch Industries, Inc. PAC wouldn't necessarily grab his attention. Last year the majority leader received dozens of campaign contributions in that range or larger from corporate PACs and wealthy individuals.
Speaking to the West Des Moines audience, Hagenow asserted that ALEC has "become this bogeyman that I don't think anyone's ever connected the dots [...] they just start painting with a broad brush that we're all guilty of this." He added with a chuckle, "So you may think that's true, but it's, it's not. And so, I don't even know how to respond to it, other than, you think I'm lying to you if you think that's still true."
Sitting beside Hagenow, Republican State Representative Peter Cownie said he talks to constituents and relies on the expertise of other legislators when considering public policy. “I can speak to bills that I’m working on and myself personally, I’ve never been to one of these ALEC meetings,” or to any meetings of the Council of State Governments or the National Conference of State Legislatures. “None of those representatives of those [groups] have spoken to me once about any bill this year,” Cownie added. Before moving on to the next question, Hagenow pointed out that the current state chair for ALEC, Representative Rob Taylor, voted against one of the major pieces of business legislation (the workers’ compensation bill).
Instead of being forced to defend their votes to hurt public employees, people trying to make ends meet at $7.25 an hour, or workers dealing with career-ending injuries, Hagenow and Cownie played the victim of conspiracy theories about political corruption.
A similar scene played out at a March 25 forum in Allison, featuring three other powerful GOP lawmakers: Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, and House Appropriations Chair Pat Grassley. Jeff Reinitz reported for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier,
Gary Duneman of Waverly said many of the ideas pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council — restricting local control of the minimum wage, fighting collective bargaining for public employees and requiring voter identification cards — are being taken up by lawmakers. [...]
Stephanie Schwinn of Waverly, who said almost every major bill passed by the Legislature can be found in model policies on ALEC’s website, accused lawmakers of taking corporate money.
“How am I supposed to believe that you are representing the issues that are important to Iowans when you are taking so much money from ALEC ... because this legislation wasn’t driven by anything that constituents are concerned about. It came straight out of ALEC,” Schwinn said.
Grassley cautioned Schwinn against making claims the Legislature is working for partisan groups. He said there are several different organizations lawmakers can be a part of. He said legislators have membership in ALEC as well other similar groups like the “somewhat left-leaning” National Council of State Legislatures.
“I’ve never been to an ALEC meeting, and I’m not sure what that would entail. ... I could probably go a website and find someone that supports every bill that we’ve done this year, and just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean the Legislature turned around and modeled a piece of legislature after that,” Grassley said. [...]
“ALEC is an organization that has helped educate me on issues that have been perfected and worked on in other states that bring more opportunities to the people in those states, that make the states more attractive to new career opportunities, new jobs, reforming government,” Dix said. He said he has taken part in meetings with other legislative organizations like NCSL.
What do you think Grassley and Dix would rather have journalists cover: personal stories about Iowans harmed by Republican bills, or Democrats making unprovable accusations about who calls the shots for lawmakers?
Republicans follow the same business-friendly playbook in every state where they control the legislature and the governor's office: attack collective bargaining rights, enact new means of voter suppression, divert money from public education to private schools, make the tax structure more regressive, keep wages low, create more obstacles for employees seeking workers' compensation, and so on. No doubt we will find many similarities when we compare Iowa bills to ALEC's model legislation.
As Bernie Sanders used to say, I'm not a psychologist. I don't know why Republicans vote to hurt and disenfranchise vulnerable people, to make life harder for those living paycheck to paycheck or trying to rebuild their lives after a disabling injury. I can think of many possible motivations:
• wrong-headed ideology (e.g. a belief that rewarding "job creators" will boost the economy);
• being too easily swayed by lobbyists and too lazy to research the consequences of the bills before them;
• inability to empathize with the victims of their policies, who look different or have lower socio-economic status than Republican lawmakers and their contemporaries;
• reluctance to defy caucus leaders, even when they have serious doubts;
• fear of angering rank-and-file party activists, who passionately support some of these policies.
Even if we assume statehouse Republicans are answering the call of major donors, the really heavy hitters at the Capitol are home-grown groups like the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, or large corporations headquartered in this state.
Process arguments about ALEC or Koch brothers money are a distraction. We can't prove the claim, and the average person doesn't care.
Senate Democrats didn't fall into this trap when debating the local pre-emption and workers' compensation bills on Monday. They explained what the Republican "attack on workers" would cost people on the edge. They read aloud letters from Iowans whose careers were ended by painful injuries.
Senator Janet Petersen talked about a single mother living in poverty, for whom a small minimum wage increase might mean being able to buy a functioning used car and get around a little bit easier. Senator Tod Bowman noted that renting a house in Iowa City (where Johnson County has raised the minimum wage to $10.10) costs $2,400 a month. That "would be a fortune" in Maquoketa, where he lives, which is why it's appropriate for county governments to set minimum wage levels that fit their communities. Senator Tony Bisignano's contempt was palpable as he talked about what Republicans are doing to low-wage workers, including many of his Des Moines constituents.
Speaking about the workers' compensation bill, Senator Bill Dotzler recounted horrific accidents he had witnessed as a John Deere factory worker. Senator Liz Mathis recalled a man who attended one of her district forums. His arm had been caught in a lathe. She described how he would be affected by the bill. Many Iowa House Democrats shared similar stories during that chamber's debate on House File 518. State Representative Jerry Kearns laid out how a person with a bad shoulder injury might be entitled to $200,000 in lifetime compensation under the current system. Under the Republican plan to put shoulder injuries into a different category, the same employee could receive at most $40,000 in benefits, plus a chance at $15,000 worth of community college education, if deemed eligible for retraining.
I'm not saying Democrats should pretend Iowa Republicans dreamed up their agenda on their own. Senator Nate Boulton was very clear on the Senate floor: "This is about a national movement. State after state has gutted workers' compensation benefits, and now Iowa is on the list and Iowa workers will pay the price. This is wrong." Yet in his many speeches about the collective bargaining bill and the amendments he offered, Boulton stayed centered on people who would be harmed.
Near the end of a late night, Senator David Johnson asked Senator Mike Breitbach, an insurance guy who floor managed the workers' compensation bill, if he had talked with any workers injured in meatpacking plants. (He had not.) Johnson went on to describe the difficult conditions for workers in such plants, many of whom are immigrants making low wages. The production line moves faster than it used to, increasing the risks.
Some of those people will suffer devastating injuries and either not qualify for workers' compensation or receive a fraction of the benefits they would have under the current system.
Online and at public events, Democratic activists should be talking about indisputable facts: Republican bills will hurt Iowans. We need to tell those stories.
Shifting the focus to ALEC or Koch money is a gift to the party in power. Republicans would love to engage in that argument instead of talking about what they have done to some of their own constituents.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. I enclose below more resources on the impact of the local pre-emption and workers' compensation bills.
Facts about House File 295
From an Iowa Policy Project backgrounder by Peter Fisher in September 2015 (emphasis in original):
About 40,000 wage-earners in Johnson County work in the private sector, including nonprofits. About 10,100 of those workers, or 25 percent, would stand to benefit directly from a minimum wage rising to $10.10 by 2017. [...]
Women are disproportionately represented in lower-wage jobs, so it is no surprise that nearly 56 percent of those benefiting from the county minimum wage would be women. More surprising, perhaps, is that nearly a fifth would be over the age of 40, while only 22 percent would be under age 20. Only about 1 in 5 of the beneficiaries work fewer than 20 hours per week; 42 percent work full time (35+ hours per week). Over 1 in 5 beneficiaries (22 percent) are parents; almost 1 in 4 are persons of color.
From Peter Fisher's January 2016 policy brief, "The Case for a Linn County Minimum Wage":
In this report, we evaluate the case for establishing a minimum wage in Linn County and increasing the wage gradually over the next two years to $10.10 per hour. We conclude:
• While productivity has nearly doubled since 1968, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen 25 percent. If the minimum wage were increased to match the average growth in productivity since 1968, it would be over $18 per hour today.
• Most families in Linn County need to earn more than $15 per hour just to pay for basic needs.
• Most of the cities and counties that have adopted a local minimum wage have set the wage above $10 per hour, many at $15, and most have indexed the wage to inflation.
• About 18,400 workers in Linn County would benefit directly from an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
• Of those who would benefit from the higher wage in Linn County, 54 percent are women, 52 percent work full time, and 23 percent are age 40 or older, while only 20 percent are under 20.
• Most workers who are now living below the poverty line would see a wage increase. A reduction in poverty has long-term benefits not just for low-wage workers but for their children and their future life chances, and the broader community.
• A higher minimum wage would put money in the pockets of low-wage workers and boost spending in the local economy, which in turn would lead to additional local retail and service jobs.
• Studies of moderate increases in the minimum wage have found no discernible effect on jobs. With an increase in the wage, the resulting boost in local spending, reduced employee turnover and hiring costs, and the ability of employers to make other adjustments will likely minimize effects on employment.
From Peter Fisher's May 2016 policy brief, "The Case for a Polk County Minimum Wage":
• While productivity has nearly doubled since 1968, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen 25 percent. If the minimum wage were increased to match the average growth in productivity since 1968, it would be over $18 per hour today.
• Most families in Polk County need to earn more than $15 per hour just to pay for basic needs.
• Most of the cities and counties that have adopted a local minimum wage have set the wage above $10 per hour, many at $15, and most have indexed the wage to inflation. [...]
• Beneficiaries of the minimum wage increase consist of workers who on average provide about half of all family income. Over 1 in 4 are sole providers.
• Over half the workers who are now living below the poverty line would see a wage increase. A reduction in poverty has long term benefits not just for low-wage workers but for their children and their future life chances, and the broader community.
From William Petroski's story for the Des Moines Register about the Senate passing the pre-emption bill:
In Polk County, about 36,000 workers would benefit from a minimum wage increase, said Peter Fisher, research director at the Iowa Policy Project. Estimates from the Economic Policy Institute show 25,200 employees earn less than $8.75 an hour, he said. Another 10,800 would indirectly benefit from Polk County's increases as businesses raise wages to remain competitive, he said.
Polk County wages are scheduled to grow incrementally to $10.75 an hour by 2019, beginning with an increase to $8.75 an hour on April 1. However, at least six Polk County cities have already approved or are considering opting-out of the minimum wage hike.
Note: an earlier version of House File 295 would have banned local ordinances forbidding discrimination based on lawful source of income, such as Social Security or Disability payments, or housing vouchers from the federal Section 8 program. House members voted to remove that language before approving the bill on March 9.
During the Senate floor debate on March 27, Minority Leader Rob Hogg warned of unintended consequences from a different section of House File 295. Language banning local ordinances about containers for merchandise was designed to stop the city of Dubuque from banning plastic bags, but as written, the bill might prevent local governments from regulating sidewalk sales or door-to-door peddling.
Facts about House File 518
Senators substituted the House workers' compensation bill for the Senate's bill during the March 27 floor debate. Bleeding Heartland discussed here the important differences between the original draft and the amended version House Republicans approved on March 16.
All but one of the amendments rejected during Senate debate on House File 518 came from Democrats. Most of them went down on party-line votes of 29 to 21. The exception came from Republican floor manager Breitbach. His amendment would have improved the shoulder language and fell only two votes short of passing. Three Republicans (Breitbach, Tim Kapucian, and Bill Anderson) joined the 20 Democrats and independent Johnson in voting for it. Notably, Anderson introduced the workers' compensation bill in his capacity as Senate Commerce Committee chair. That bill's shoulder provisions were even more cruel than the language in the amended House File 518. I have sought comment from Anderson on his change of heart. Perhaps he didn't understand the implications of the first draft.
I can't recall another example of an amendment supported by the floor manager and original sponsor gaining so little support from the majority caucus.
William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register on what House File 518 will cost some Iowa workers:
State analysts said specific provisions of the bill regarding shoulder injuries will reduce benefit payments by an 68 percent, or $760,000, for an estimated 176 shoulder injuries each year. The legislation provides for community college training to enable a worker who has sustained a shoulder injury, which is common in meatpacking and other occupations, to return to the workforce.
A change in what is known as permanent partial disability injuries to the body as a whole will reduce benefit payments by 10 percent, or $1 million. In addition a change for interest calculated on workers’ compensation payments will cut the annual interest rate by an estimated 5.5 percent, providing cost savings of $60,000. Training program payments will be capped at a maximum of $15,000 per participating employee.
Former administrative law judge Marlon Mormann handled workers' compensation cases for years. He testified against House File 518 at a public hearing and slammed the Republican bill in a letter to the Des Moines Register: "why are we screwing the working class out of their workers compensation protections? [...] All this legislation does is shift the burden of work injuries to taxpayers and workers."
Mormann shared with me further analysis on why making shoulder injuries "scheduled member" rather than "body as a whole" will be so harmful to injured employees, as well as potentially dangerous for their colleagues (emphasis added):
The [Second Injury] fund is funded by both insurance companies and self insureds, plus tax dollars to administer through the attorney general's office. Before changing shoulders to scheduled member injuries the entire burden is borne by the employer causing the injury. With this change the shoulder injury permanent disability is now born by all the state's self insureds, insurance companies and taxpayers. The company causing the injury has shifted their permanent disability burden over to three new groups. It is a windfall for the employer and extra work for the injured worker as the SIF rarely if ever settles a case and is most often underfunded. Most of the SIF cases go to hearing causing significant delay for the injured worker in getting compensation, extra attorney fee costs, taxing other public welfare avenues such as SSI [Social Security Insurance] and taxing private insurance short term and long term disability plans in cases of permanent total disability. It is a huge disincentive to prevent shoulder injuries. If a company has a problem with shoulder injuries due to working conditions they now have little incentive to fix the issue. The second injury fund is totally out of control of the workplace problem that caused the injury in the first place. This is bad public policy as the burden is shifted to the SIF which has no control over the work environment.
During House and Senate debates, several Democrats criticized a different section of the workers' compensation bill, which would disqualify employees from receiving compensation if testing showed any trace of alcohol or drugs (for instance, from a glass of wine the night before or a joint smoked three weeks earlier). Mormann's take on that idea:
Section 1, the intoxication defense is ridiculous. It asks for the mere presence of a drug or alcohol. Thus if someone tests with a detectable level of anything it is now intoxication which caused the accident. This is in no way related to reality. If VP Smith has a lunch meeting and has one lite beer, then incurs an accident on the way back to the office, Smith now is presumed to be intoxicated and the intoxication is responsible for the accident. The presumption is not scientifically defendable. The presence of a chemical in no way proves nor relates to intoxication causing an accident. It should be deleted in its entirety or modified to relate to the amount of drug or alcohol that based on current science would render a person intoxicated. For example, in the case of alcohol testing .08 would create a presumption.
Here's Mormann's take on other portions of the bill, which have received less attention (emphasis added):
[Section 9]X is a wrongful taking. It cuts off PPD [permanent partial disability] if claimant had any injury that causes permanent total disability. It is a windfall to other employers who cause an injury where it is not fully paid out at the time of PTD. It makes no sense to end PPD where another injury causes PTD. It is just a way to cut benefits. Public policy should not reward an employer for causing an injury in such an arbitrary way.
Section 10 is much like 9x above. It does not make sense to cut off a PPD benefit where PTD has been awarded. Thus, if VP Smith has a leg amputated and is receiving PPD for the lost leg, then goes to work for a new company and has an injury causing PTD, the leg PPD stops. A windfall for the first employer and poor public policy for Iowa. This is just stupid. I can kind of see this if the claimant worked for the same employer for both injuries but not where different employers cause the injuries.
Section 11 causes forfeiture of PTD benefits if a claimant earns about $430 in a week. This makes no sense to me at all. The statewide average wage is about $860. PTD benefits can go up to about $1,600. This would cut off a $1,600 a week payment completely if someone earns $430 per week. This is not good public policy. It discourages PTD claimant's from trying to go back to work. It should be an offset of 2/3 for every dollar earned against the PTD payment so as to encourage workers to go back to work. Not a cut off of benefits completely for earning $430. It is the worst provision in this bill. It is a windfall for business and poor public policy for Iowa. We should encourage people to get off Comp by finding other jobs or starting businesses not punish them for earning $430 a week.
Thanks to Matt Chapman for sharing his notes from the Senate debates on the minimum wage and workers' compensation bills.