End of 2010 legislative session thread

The Iowa House and Senate adjourned for 2010 today, wrapping up the legislative session in just 79 days. In the coming weeks I will post about various bills that passed or failed to pass during the session. For now, you can read wrap-up posts at Iowa Independent, IowaPolitics.com, the Des Moines Register and Radio Iowa.

Democratic legislative leaders said the House and Senate “succeeded in responsibly balancing the budget without raising taxes while laying the groundwork for Iowa’s economic recovery.” Governor Chet Culver described the session as “a real victory for Iowans, particularly hardworking Iowa families.” He also hailed passage of an infrastructure bill including the final installment of the I-JOBS state bonding program. AFSCME Iowa Council 61 praised several bills that passed this year, such as the government reorganization bill, the early retirement program and a budget that saved many public employees’ jobs.

Republicans and their traditional interest-group allies saw things differently, of course. House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen, Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley and Iowans for Tax Relief all emphasized the use of one-time federal dollars to help cover state spending. Their talking points have made headway with Kathie Obradovich, but the reality is that much of the federal stimulus money was intended to backfill state budgets, and rightly so, because severe state spending cuts can deepen and prolong an economic recession.

Overall, I am not satisfied with the legislature’s work in 2010. Despite the massive costs of reconstruction after the 2008 floods, legislators lacked the political will to take any steps forward on floodplain management. Despite the film tax credit fiasco, not enough was done to rein in tax credits. Many other good ideas fell by the wayside for lack of time during the rushed session. (It strikes me as penny-wise and pound-foolish to save $800,000 by shortening the legislative calendar from 100 to 80 days.) Some other good proposals got bogged down in disagreements between the House and the Senate. Labor and environmental advocates once again saw no progress on their key legislative priorities, yet this Democratic-controlled legislature found the time to pass the top priority of the National Rifle Association. Pathetic.

On the plus side, the 2011 budget protected the right priorities, and most of the projects funded by the infrastructure spending bill, Senate File 2389, are worthwhile. Some good bills affecting public safety and veterans made it through. In addition, Democrats blocked a lot of bad Republican proposals. Credit must also go to the leaders who held their caucuses together against efforts to write discrimination into the Iowa Constitution.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Read Todd Dorman on the Iowa House’s “parting gift to local government officials who like to play secret agent on your dime.”

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Grassley votes no as Senate passes bill extending various benefits, tax credits

Yesterday the Senate approved HR 4213, the Tax Extenders Act of 2009, by a 62-35 vote. Tom Harkin voted for the bill, as did all but one Democrat. Chuck Grassley voted against the bill, as did all but six Republicans (roll call here). Harkin’s office summarized some of the $140 billion bill’s key provisions:

o    Extend the current federal unemployment benefits program through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the federal funding of the state share of Extended Benefits through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend eligibility for the temporary increase of $25 per week in individual weekly unemployment compensation through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the 65 percent subsidy for COBRA coverage through Dec 31, 2010.

o    Extend the Medicare payment fix for doctors.

o    Extend FMAP, the federal share of Medicaid payments, to give state budgets some relief.

Last week, Congress passed a 30-day extension of the federal unemployment benefits program (through April 5th) and the extension prior to that continued unemployment benefits for 2 months (from Dec 2009 to Feb 2010).

The Hill reported that about $80 billion of the bill’s cost “goes toward prolonging increased levels of federal unemployment aid and COBRA healthcare benefits for the jobless through the end of December.” According to the Washington Post, the main Republican objection was that the bill will add to the deficit. It’s notable that Republicans never let concerns about the deficit stop them from voting for unaffordable wars or tax cuts for the wealthy. But unemployment benefits that help struggling families while stimulating the economy and creating jobs are too expensive for Republicans.

The Senate bill approved yesterday also included an extension of the Biodiesel Tax Credit through the end of December. Most Iowa biodiesel plants are not viable without this tax credit, and consequently many shut down production in January of this year.

House Democrats may want a conference committee to reconcile the bill the Senate passed yesterday with a $154 billion jobs bill the House approved in December. That House bill included “significant new spending for infrastructure projects, as well as aid to states to prevent layoffs of key personnel such as teachers, police and firefighters.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has reportedly promised to “bring up a bill that included the infrastructure and state fiscal aid measures from the House jobs bill” before the Senate’s Easter break.

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I-JOBS bonds sold well, will cost less to repay

Most of the bonds that will fund the I-JOBS program were sold this week, and Iowa’s solid credit rating fueled strong investor interest. According to State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald,

investor enthusiasm and high market demand for the Iowa bonds helped drive down the interest rate to 4.31 percent, which resulted in a $42 million yearly payback for the state and a roughly $12 million annual savings over what originally was budgeted to repay the borrowing. […]

“Investors were impressed with the state of Iowa and put their money on the table to show it. There was strong support for the bonds from Iowans and from national institutional investors,” he added.

“This is where our balanced budget, our surpluses that we have and our history of running the state – we’re not California or even Minnesota or Wisconsin or New York right now. All those states are having trouble and we’re doing well,” the state treasurer said. “In fact, one of the investment bankers said Iowa is a refreshing contrast to the other states that have been coming to the market.”

Over $600 million of the I-JOBS bonds have now been sold. Another $115 million of bonds will be issued in 2010.

Speaking to me by phone today, Fitzgerald explained that the I-JOBS bonds are rated AA (a notch lower than the state of Iowa) because they will be repaid out of gaming revenues. We would have had to issue A-grade bonds if Iowa were like other states, which have exhausted their reserve funds and are borrowing simply to meet budget obligations. Investors liked the fact that the I-JOBS bonds will fund capital improvements and not ongoing government spending, Fitzgerald said.

Republicans like Iowa House minority leader Kraig Paulsen and Iowa Senate minority leader Paul McKinley have discounted the importance of Iowa’s AAA bond rating. It’s clear today how wrong they were. If Iowa’s overall financial condition were not strong enough to warrant the AAA bond rating, repaying the I-JOBS bonds would cost $55 million annually instead of $43 million.

A press release from the governor’s office noted that Iowa is among just 11 states that have a AAA bond rating. I’ve posted the full text of that release after the jump.

Once the proceeds from the I-JOBS bonds come through next week, funds will be available for various infrastructure projects, from renovating the Iowa Veteran’s Home in Marshalltown to rebuilding flood-damaged facilities to upgrading sewer systems around the state. Those projects will create jobs while improving the quality of life in many communities.

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