Sorry, Republicans, Iowans don't think state government is too big

Republicans have complained for years about Democrats allegedly spending too much on “big government,” but a majority of Iowans think state government is about the right size, according to the latest poll by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register. The poll surveyed 805 Iowa adults between January 31 and February 3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. Respondents were asked, “In general, do you think the size of state government is too big, about right, or too small?” 52 percent said “about right” and only 39 percent said “too small.”

The Des Moines Register poll also indicates that Iowans would rather tap into the state’s tax reserves, raise fees and perhaps even raise taxes than impose massive service cuts or lay off hundreds of state workers.

The poll tested eleven options for balancing the budget and asked whether that option should be considered, strongly considered or taken off the table. The largest majority (76 percent) said consolidating some state government services should be considered or strongly considered. The Iowa legislature will pass a government reorganization bill this session, but the savings won’t be large enough to avoid other painful budget decisions.

The next largest majority (61 percent) supported considering taking up to $200 million from the state’s cash reserves. But even that probably wouldn’t be enough to balance the 2011 budget.

The other three options that at least half of respondents said should be considered were “increase fines, license fees and other user fees” (53 percent), expand gambling by allowing casinos to host large poker tournaments (51 percent) and raise the sales tax by 1 percent (51 percent).

The Register reported that several political observers found the sales tax numbers most surprising. I was more surprised to see the public evenly divided on raising the income tax. Some 48 percent of respondents said “lawmakers should consider raising state income taxes by a half percentage point; 50 percent said that idea should come off the table.”

The Register’s poll found much less support for “cutting services to thousands of Iowans” (just 33 percent favored considering that option, while 60 percent said it should be taken off the table). Only 42 percent favored considering laying off hundreds of state employees or consolidating school districts. Only 43 percent said legislators should consider eliminating all business tax credits. Just 45 percent said reducing the number of Iowa counties should be on the table.

My point is not that politicians should put blind faith in the wisdom of crowds. I don’t agree with every finding in this poll. I’d rather reduce the number of counties and scrap many business tax credits than raise the sales tax, and I find Iowans’ support for the film tax credit baffling.

The larger message from this poll is that Iowa Democrats should not cower in fear when Republicans bash “big government.” Offered a range of choices for balancing the state budget, most Iowans would prefer not to see services slashed. The Register’s November 2009 poll pointed to the same conclusion, finding broad support for spending increases Democrats have adopted in recent years.

Republicans will be cheered by the portion of Selzer’s latest poll that found one-third of Iowans called themselves supporters of the “tea party” movement, and a majority believe state government is spending too much money. To me that suggests the framing of the budget issue will be critical for this November’s elections. Democrats need to convince voters that they did all they could to find efficiencies in state government without cutting priority areas. If Republicans object, for instance, that the state could have saved tens of millions of dollars by ending the preschool initiative started in 2007, Democrats must point out that doing so would have cut off early childhood education for about 13,000 Iowa kids.

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Weekend open thread: Legislative preview edition

The legislative session begins this week, and budget issues are likely to dominate the proceedings.

Some state tax credits will be scrapped and others curtailed if lawmakers enact recommendations released on Friday by a commission Governor Chet Culver appointed. State Senator Joe Bolkcom, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee in the upper chamber, has vowed to pass as many of the recommendations as possible. I expect major pushback from corporate lobbyists against many of the proposals, however.

House Speaker Pat Murphy is not ruling out significant layoffs of state workers. It really is unfair to balance the budget mostly on the backs of state workers, especially since demand for state services increases during a recession.

I was surprised to see Culver’s chief of staff, John Frew, suggest a scaled-back version of “fair share” legislation could pass this session. If Democrats don’t have the votes for a prevailing wage bill, I can’t imagine they’ll get 51 votes for fair share, but I hope I’m wrong.

Kathie Obradovich previews other issues that are likely to come up during the legislative session.

Democratic leaders insist a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage is off the table, but Republicans will use every trick in the book to try to bring the issue to the floor.

Roxanne Conlin plans to visit all 99 counties in her Senate campaign, just like Senator Chuck Grassley has been doing every year for the past three decades.

In other news, Iowa may be on the verge of coming out of the deep freeze. I read today that the highest temperature recorded anywhere in Iowa since January 1 was 20 degrees Fahrenheit one day in Keokuk (southeast corner of the state). How are you surviving the cold? I’ve been wearing slippers, wool sweaters and extra layers. My kids still insist they are comfortable running around the house in pajamas and bare feet. Our dog could walk for miles, even on the days when it’s been below zero F when I’m out with him.

This thread is for anything on your mind this weekend.

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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 2)

Following up on my review of news from the first half of last year, I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from July through December 2009 after the jump.

Hot topics on this blog during the second half of the year included the governor’s race, the special election in Iowa House district 90, candidates announcing plans to run for the state legislature next year, the growing number of Republicans ready to challenge Representative Leonard Boswell, state budget constraints, and a scandal involving the tax credit for film-making.

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Iverson may challenge Bailey in House district 9

Two-term State Representative McKinley Bailey, an Iraq War veteran, may face a tough Republican challenger next year in Iowa House district 9. The Des Moines Register reports that Stew Iverson, former Iowa Senate majority leader and Iowa GOP chairman, is thinking about running against Bailey. Iverson told the Register that he’ll make a decision “sometime after the first of the year”:

Iverson called Bailey “a nice young man.”

“It’s not personal,” he said. “I just think we need a change in direction, and that’s why I’m considering it. I have nothing against him, but this is about the state of Iowa.”

Bailey defeated Republican incumbent George Eichhorn with nearly 55 percent of the vote in 2006. He was re-elected with just over 55 percent of the vote in 2008, even though his district was one of Iowa Republicans’ top targets. Corporate-funded conservative interest groups ran ads against Bailey and other first-term House Democrats in early 2008 as well as shortly before the November election.

House district 9 includes all of Wright County, parts of Webster and Hamilton counties, and a tiny slice of Franklin County. Bailey lives in Webster City, which has suffered a tremendous blow during this recession. Appliance maker Electrolux plans to shut down a Webster City factory employing about 850 people. Bailey is one of the “six-pack” of House Democrats who blocked key legislative priorities for organized labor during the 2009 session, but as far as I know, no Democrat has been recruited to challenge him in the district 9 primary. (If you know otherwise, please drop me a line: desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com.)

It’s notable that Iverson is considering the House race against Bailey, as opposed to trying to win back his old senate seat. After Iverson decided not to seek re-election in 2006, Democrat Rich Olive defeated James Kurtenbach in Senate district 5 by only 62 votes. I assume that Iverson is considering the House race because he knows Republicans have virtually no chance of winning back the Senate next year. He may also have little desire to work with some of the senators who voted him out as majority leader in the middle of the 2006 session.

Krusty Konservative isn’t thrilled with the prospect of an Iverson comeback, for what that’s worth.

Any comments about this race or other state legislative contests are welcome in this thread.

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AFSCME members will vote on deal to spare jobs

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will vote between November 19 and November 25 on the deal reached by Governor Chet Culver and the union’s leadership:

The agreement includes five mandatory unpaid furlough days between now and June 30, which is expected to save about $22.7 million.

The state’s contribution to employees’ deferred compensation also will be temporarily suspended until June 30, for a savings of $3.7 million.

The total savings of $26.4 million is expected to save 479 AFSCME jobs. Culver sought concessions from the union in order to avoid the layoffs of state workers, especially state troopers and correctional officers working in state prisons.

Under the terms of the agreement, no member of the union who is an executive branch employee can be laid off until June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Employees outside the bargaining units who are laid off will not be allowed to displace AFSCME employees.

The Des Moines Register has a few more details on the vote:

WHAT: A “memorandum of understanding” would require about 20,000 state workers to take five unpaid days off over the next seven months and sacrifice about $75 a month in state contributions to their deferred compensation, which is a supplemental retirement plan.

WHO CAN VOTE: Only active state workers who are currently paying dues to AFSCME will be eligible to cast a ballot.

WHEN: Voting will begin Nov. 19 and end Nov. 25.

WHERE: AFSCME will set up about 30 polling places across the state, such as at the Iowa Veterans Home and state prisons, for 12-hour periods.

Sounds like a pretty good deal to me. If I were in the union, I would vote yes. Losing some retirement contributions and a week’s salary will cause some hardship, but many private-sector workers have also seen their wages drop during this recession. Minimizing layoffs should be the top priority.

Does anyone think the AFSCME members might vote down this agreement?

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Layoffs for some, furloughs for others as Culver announces budget cuts

This afternoon Governor Chet Culver announced the next steps toward cutting $565 million from the 2010 budget. I’ve posted the governor’s statement after the jump, and you can find pdf files with more details about the cuts here. (UPDATE: The Des Moines Register posted this chart showing the cuts Culver approved.) Highlights:

Culver is ordering all of the 3,258 non-contract (that is, non-union) employees in the executive branch “to take seven days without pay between now and the end of the fiscal year. I do not believe it is fair for any state employee to not contribute toward our solution.”

Culver approved spending cut plans submitted by 28 department heads and approved, with minor changes, spending cut plans submitted by 6 other department heads. The Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs summarized the impact:

Altogether, the 34 approved plans will save the state’s general fund about $520 million, he said.

The approved plans call for a total of 180 layoffs and the elimination of 229 open positions. The total job loss, so far, is 410.

Here’s where there the layoffs will be: 79 from the Department of Human Services, 35 from the Department of Revenue, 10.8 from the Department of Inspections and Appeals,  13 from the Department of Education, eight from Iowa Public Television, eight from the Department of Public Health, seven from the Department of Economic Development, seven from the Department of Cultural Affairs, four from the Department of Administration, four from the Department of Management, two from the Alcoholic Beverages Division, two from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and one from the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board.

Forty-three state employees tentatively set for layoffs in the Department of Commerce will be spared. The 10 percent across-the-board cut will not be applied to the divisions of banking, credit union, insurance and utilities divisions, which are agencies within the commerce department.

Culver rejected the $45 million spending reduction plans offered by the directors of the Department of Corrections and the Department of Public Safety, saying,

I reject these two plans because I am hopeful that we can find an alternative to laying off hundreds of correctional officers, state troopers and law enforcement personnel.

I am rejecting these plans because public safety is essential to our daily lives.

That is why yesterday I sent a letter to the state’s three bargaining units – AFSCME, Iowa United Professionals, and the State Police Officers Council – who represent more than 16,000 state employees – asking them to join me in negotiations for amending their current contract.  This past Saturday, I met with AFSCME’s bargaining unit – which represents more than 13,000 state employees – to discuss ideas for moving forward.  We followed that meeting with a three hour session yesterday morning and the talks have been very productive.  And earlier today, I met with the State Police Officers Council representatives and those talks were productive.  Finally, I will meet with the Iowa United Professionals union leadership as soon as schedules permits, but our staff has been in daily contact with their representatives.

I seek substantive discussions with all three unions on issues that may impact our state budget cuts.  Our goal is to do everything we can to prevent layoffs related to essential public safety.

If we cannot reach agreement with the unions, then I will implement the layoff plans submitted by these two departments.

Unfortunately, we do not have an endless amount of time in which to reach an agreement and to have it ratified by each respective union. I expect to know by Friday, November 6 whether we will move forward in discussions with the unions or implement the layoff plans.

The president of AFSCME Council 61 issued a statement saying his union will negotiate with the governor in the hope of avoiding layoffs. Both sides are promising not to release any details about the discussion until the talks conclude, but no doubt some proposed alternatives to layoffs will leak out before then.

The Des Moines Register’s Tom Beaumont covered Republican gubernatorial candidates’ ideas for cutting the budget here.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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