Monday, November 7, 2011

Running scared

Candidates in the Iowa Senate District 18 race really have a monkey on their backs: Their respective political parties. As you've maybe heard by now, the outcome of Tuesday's special election in Linn County could be really important. Republican Cindy Golding and Democrat Liz Mathis both say they're focused on issues of particular importance to the district and its residents. It seems like they probably can't help but feel the pressure from their political parties, though. In recent elections, Democrats have lost the governor's mansion, control of the House and their grasp on the Senate has gotten to the slimmest of margins. Well, if Mathis loses this election, their margin will be its slimmest. They'll have the same number of senators as the Republicans, meaning they will have to share control in some fashion. It'll also change the chamber's dynamic since even getting all Democrats to vote the same way won't guarentee passage of a bill. With the possibility of tie votes, senators will have to work harder on compromise. Sounds like Democrats are teetering on the edge of "political irrelevance." While Republicans will be in the same boat, a victory Tuesday may feel like one more step toward "complete power." They've already taken control of the House and Republican Terry Branstad is governor. A victory may give Republicans the power they need to force debate on gay marriage, which could eventually result in putting a referendum before voters on an amendment outlawing the Supreme Court-approved practice in Iowa. It seems like Gov. Branstad may have had  ulterior motives for appointing former seatholder, Democrat Swati Dandekar, to the Iowa Utilities Board., which required her to give up the Senate posititon. In the meantime, the two people actually at the center of this race are toeing the party line on the topic of gay marriage, while insisting that's not their focus. In fact, they're even coming out with similar-sounding blase positions on other issues of statewide significance, like a gas tax increase. Both say it shouldn't be raised in spite of reports on the extremely poor condition of the state's bridges, which would benefit from the increased revenues. Any wrong move could put them at a disadvantage when voters step into their polling places. Hmmm, maybe the candidates are as scared as their respective political parties about how this election could turn out.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A kiddie pool in every front yard!

It all started with Judd Saul's opposition to a lock box ordinance. Within months, he had morphed from a disgruntled citizen to a candidate (a not unheard of progression). Now running for Cedar Falls City Council, Saul tried to latch onto another "issue" in a memorable way. Seeing the not-so-svelt Saul in swimming trunks and flippers was perhaps a little too memorable for those in attendance at the Aug. 22 meeting. While an eye-catching gimmick, there was almost literally no substance to Saul's concern. He was there to oppose a proposed ordinance regulating temporary swimming pools. The ordinance --- not on the council's agenda that night --- was pushed by one councilman. The rest of the council gave the idea a "cool reception" at a committee meeting two weeks earlier, according to The Courier. He seems to have tapped into the tea party concern with government overreaching. The only problem is that his "Exhibit A" is a lousy piece of evidence. It appears unlikely the swimming pool ordinance will get much beyond the hearing stage --- which itself seems like a hazy, distant possibility. His prior opposition to an expanded lock box ordinance, expounded upon earlier in this blog, was also a very weak argument that an out-of-control government needed to be reined in. Some people even advanced a ridiculous argument that firefighter access to their homes or businesses through the lock boxes would leave them open to theft, murder or rape. Opponents did amass quite a collection of alarmist nuts on that issue, though, apparently from across the country. We'll see on Nov. 8 if Saul can coax those voters out of their homes or businesses, where they doubtless are vigilantly guarding their stuff from a possible incursion by the city's public safety workers. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A straw (wo)man for the GOP

The first thing that should give you pause about Michele Bachmann is her penchant for making false statements. Now, she says much of this stuff in the service of partisanship, but it's not the spin raising concerns. It's that you can collect any number of her statements --- as this cartoon does --- and Bachmann is just not telling the truth. If Barack Obama is a terrible president leading this country down the wrong path, is it really necessary to make up something saying he is the reasonn grocery costs have increased? "Oh, it's bad how much  federal spending has grown under Obama, but let's say he's responsible for your higher grocery bills. That'll really get people mad." I suppose like her Elvis birthday quip, it could all be sloppiness and inattention to detail. When I consider her words, though, it looks more like a mix of poltically expedient statements and calculated lies meant to scare and enrage people. The expediency comes when Bachmann is confronted with something that could really anger that tea party base. Like, the fact that she and her husband received government subsidies through the farm inherited from her father-in-law. The calculated lies are more like saying the top 1 percent richest people in this country pay 40 percent of all federal taxes. Or that we could wipe out unemployment by abolishing the minimum wage. So, when she pulled off a win of the Iowa Straw Poll last month in Ames, her lack of credibility said something about Republicans --- at least those who are recklessly supporting her in this state. After the recent ordeal with the U.S. credit rating (for which I'd place most of the blame squarely on Republican shoulders), the GOP choice of Bachmann should lead to a "credibility rating" downgrade for the party. Since the straw poll, though, potential caucus voters have begun leaning more toward the newest entry into the race, Rick Perry. Nationally, too, Bachmann is falling behind other candidates in the polls. Of course, with the wild things he's said from Texas seceeding to the reception Ben Bernake would get in that state, Republicans supporting him still have a credibility problem.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Consensus-building Branstad's way

After laying out an ambitious agenda following his inauguration, Gov. Terry Branstad and the Legislature battled over a number of issues. The resulting extra-long session culminated with Branstad and House Republicans getting their way in some cases and Senate Democrats getting their way in others. The two sides met repeatedly to try and work things out, but could never come to agreement. Everyone held out as long as possible before finally making some concessions. For Branstad, seeking consensus seemed to be out of the question. The governor came into every situation knowing what he wanted and pushing hard to make it happen. But with the legislative session weeks behind him, Branstad hosted the Iowa Education Summit at the end of July. He emerged from the two-day event praising the merits of seeking consensus to help form an education agenda in advance of next year's legislative session. (Notably, one of the Branstad priorities that eventually ended in compromise had to do with changing the approach to state support for preschool.) But some of Branstad's recent actions may be instructive when it comes to understanding his approach to consensus-building. There was his lengthy effort to push David Miles and Jack Evans, president and president pro-tem on the Board of Regents, out of their positions. After initially refusing to resign, the pair stepped down from their leadership positions while staying on the board, which governs the state's universities. That cleared the way for the board to elect Craig Lang president and Bruce Rastetter president pro-tem, GOP loyalists who will presumably follow Branstad's playbook. Branstad found a way to emphasize his message when one bureaucrat didn't give in to his resignation request. He gave a fat pay cut to Chris Godfrey for insisting on finishing out the six-year term as Iowa workers' compensation commissioner he was appointed to in 2009. A special incentive, of sorts. The terms for both the regents and the workers' compensation commissioner are set at six years precisely so they don't always coincide with the terms of governors and are, hopefully, insulated from politicization. If Branstad is hoping to build consensus in any number of areas, he might have considered not vetoing several provisions that are getting his political opponents fired up, some passed with broad bi-partisan support. One was a bill to increase the earned income tax credit for families making less than $45,000. Another was a prohibition on bonuses for state government executives. The third called for maintaining the current number of unemployment offices across the state. He may be building a consensus with those vetoes, but it's between Democratic lawmakers and constituencies like low-income working families and union members affected by the vetoes. They may already lean toward Democrats, but a good leader finds room in his priorities and agenda for such people, as well.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Whose stature will grow in the Straw Poll?

Republican candidates are gearing up for the Ames Straw Poll Aug. 13 and a debate two days earlier. How candidates do in the straw poll is an indication of their grassroots support in Iowa as they prepare for the first-in-the-nation caucus early next year. The results will  likely determine the political future of certain candidates. But media and other organizations have repeatedly taken the pulse of voters in recent months with their own polling. What they've found is Michele Bachmann shooting from obscurity to being a contender with Mitt Romney, who generally leads in the polls. Bachmann plays up her Iowa roots when she's in the state and formally launched her presidential bid here. Although Romney leads the pack, he hasn't necessarily gained more traction in the time Bachmann gained favor with voters after a debate in New Hampshire. That could indicate Republican voters' concerns that Romney isn't really against ObamaCare --- since he pushed through something similar as governor of Massachusetts and hasn't denounced it. As a result, Romney and other candidates --- mostly polling in the single digits --- look like dwarfs next to Bachmann with their diminutive favorability ratings. Many of them still have squishy personas to all but the closest political watchers and their ardent supporters. So, they can easily get characterized by any negative waves they make or anything distinctive about them --- good or bad. "Michele Bachmann and the Seven Dwarfs" engages in some of those characterizations. There's Newt Gingrich's troubled, floundering campaign. You've got Romney and Jon Huntsman who --- along with Gingrich --- won't be showing up at the straw poll as they try to lower any expectation about how well they have to do in it. Despite a lot of effort, Tim Pawlenty's poll numbers haven't increased in contrast to fellow Minnesotan Bachmann. Pawlenty, who sometimes get characterized as yawn-inducingly boring, says he doesn't need to win the straw poll to remain viable, but he does need to have a good showing. Rick Santorum, who's at least competing for Mr. Conservative, has been dogged in recent years by an Internet prank to associate his name with something that would make his supporters blush. Googling his name may cause the uninformed to think there's a sleaze factor with him. Ron Paul may sound too much like a hippie for some Republicans curmudgeons with his anti-war views and some of his other libertarian tendencies.  It's been months since Herman Cain made a bizarre and unnecessary pronouncement about Muslims in his administration, but he's still dealing with the fallout. We'll see if the straw poll shows that any of the candidates have moved beyond these perceptions.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Government takes control, one lock box at a time

Since they were already in an anti-Government mood, a bunch of Cedar Falls residents seized on the City's plans to expand the requirement for lock boxes at businnesses and apartments. After all, wasn't this something being done by the Government? Well, then it had to be bad. And everybody hates unfunded mandates, so let's call it that. Of course, if the Government funded the purchase of lock boxes, that would be an expansion of said Government and, therefore, bad. Those poor city councilmen just can't win! And then the firefighters, there might be a bad apple in the bunch. It's getting to be that you can't trust anyone who draws a paycheck from or even volunteers for the Big Bad Government. Pretty soon you're going to need your own militia and bucket brigade! Luckily, those Cedar Falls folks had the technology to let others know how the Government was tramplinig their private property rights and plotting to seize their stuff! They recorded council meetings and created videos for You Tube. Soon the entire internet was buzzing with the Government conspiracy. And that meant it was time for Fox News and The Washington Times to let the Patriots out there know what the Government was trying to do in Cedar Falls. Since the Government prevailed in this fight, now the Cedar Falls folks say they'll file a lawsuit. The fight against the Government and its trampling of private property rights and imposing unfunded mandates never ends!  

Friday, June 17, 2011

Newt's sinking ship

Newt Gingrich seems to be running a presidential campaign anchored in something other than reality. One of the staff members from Newt's  Iowa campaign, who quit en masse after he returned from a cruise of the Greek Isles, said it was the candidate's tactics that led to the departures. The cruise was apparently the dramatic last straw, criticized even by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. Had Newt and his wife planned their Greek cruise long before he was thinking seriously of getting into the race? If so, I'm betting presidential vacations in a Newt administration would make George W. Bush's visits to his Crawford, Texas, ranch and Camp David look like a real grind. If this vacation was something he hatched after planning to make a run, what was he thinking? But of course, it wasn't just him --- because they make their decisions as a couple. Perhaps Newt has finally figured out how to be part of a marriage. While that's generally good, manifesting it in this way isn't going to help his presidential aspirations. Even if wife Callista has equal input in planning Newt's schedule, that doesn't make those good decisions when you're running for president. Republican activists in Iowa and early primary states will likely have "fundamental strategic differences" with the campaigning couple. Newt's made enough lousy decisions that he can't even pay people in Iowa and the early primary states to work for him. Does Callista also get equal blame for sinking his presidential run?

Monday, June 6, 2011

The new sheriff rustles up a budget ... er, something ...

Gov. Terry Branstad exudes  confidence. Whether he's explaining how his policy prescriptions will transform Iowa's economy and grow jobs or insisting that the state's lawmakers will be able to come to agreement on the budget before it goes into effect July 1, Branstad seems quite certain things will work out. And it will all be done according to his vision of fiscal responsibility --- which he says has been lacking almost the entire time since he left office in 1999 after four terms as governor. After all, there's a new sheriff in town and he's not going to let lawmakers get away with this sloppy budgeting or excess spending any more. The budget deal seems elusive, though. With Democrats holding a slim majority in the Iowa Senate and Republicans solidly in control of the House, principles are at stake! Uncompromising Democrats have started a "countdown to shutdown," claiming the government is in danger of shutting down if Branstad and Republicans don't bend a little bit more their way. They are also arguing that Republicans have invented the budget crisis, saying the state's coffers will be overflowing with cash in the new fiscal year. As a result, more than a month after the rank-and-file have gone home, lawmakers like Democratic Senate Marjority Leader Mike Gronstal and Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen are still in the midst of negotiations. Much of the debate centers on the overall size of the state's budget, whether it will be a one- or two-year budget, property tax reform proposals, the amount of spending for K-12 education and the approach to providing state-funded preschool. Branstad and legislative leaders will say they're making progress and then we hear talks have broken down. Each side seems to regularly blast those on the other side of the political aisle. The full House is actually back in session today after putting together a bill including some key compromises with Democrats. Democrats, of course, have voiced skepticism that it can pass in the Senate. The new sheriff says there's plenty of time to negotiate a budget deal, that they've got this thing locked up tight. But where's that budget deal? And who exactly is locked up in the jail? Budget talks look promising and then they break down. The new sheriff talks tough, but he's been foiled more than once by those sneaky budget talks. I think I'll keep my eye on that shutdown clock.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Newt for president? Surely you jest!

Hosting the first-in-the nation caucus is a sacred duty for Iowans. As a result, it's a great place for visiting politicians considering a run for president to test the waters. The accompanying media coverage doesn't always mean great PR, though, as Republican Newt Gingrich found out last week while kicking off his "once in a century" presidential campaign. Early in the week, he received a blunt rebuke from Iowan Russell Fuhrman during a stop in Dubuque. Fuhrman told Gingrich he is an embarrassment for comments calling Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to reform Medicare radical "right-wing social engineering." He then gave Gingrich a piece of advice:  "Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself." He's got a point. Leading up to this latest snafu, there have been a series of comments by Gingrich or disclosures concerning him that have made the former Speaker of the U.S. House look foolish. There was his attempt to explain cheating on his wife with a staffer (who now his wife) while pursuing the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lies related to the  former president's 
infidelity. He has also suggested everyone should pay something for their health care, making it harder to convince people that he wants to repeal "Obamacare" --- reforms already approved by Congress and championed by President Barack Obama. Then there was the report that he or his current wife carried a debt of $250,000 to $500,000 at the jewelry store Tiffany's --- a big red flag for a constituency that is increasingly focused on wiping out the national debt and deficit. So, maybe it's only a matter of time before something dumb Gingrich has done or says makes him an even bigger fool.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Squeezing out the last drop of blood

Making Iowa's tax system "equitable" --- the idea behind the Republican/Branstad reform plan passed by the House last week --- is not equitable. Business and industry exists to make money. There's no reason to abolish a mechanism ensuring they pay taxes on a larger percentage of their property's value than homeowners. There is apparently broad consensus at the Statehouse that business taxes are too high. So, why not go with the Democratic plan? That would cut taxes businesses pay to the residential rate for the first $30,000 of value. After that, it would go up to the existing rate for businesses. This targets the tax cut to small business while providing a benefit for all businesses. Everyone loves small businesses and every politician loves to aim their legislative efforts at that kind of business. The only thing is (BROAD  GENERALIZATION ALERT!), Republicans really love big businesses and are always looking out for their interests. Republicans and Branstad say these lower taxes will attract more business to Iowa and spur growth of existing businesses. That is basically a tenent of trickle-down economics: Lower taxes to spur economic growth and pretty soon you'll be bringing in more revenue that ever before! There's never been any particular reason to believe that logic, and certainly not to accept it as a panacea solving all problems. Local governments --- cities, counties, school districts --- are concerned that the bottom line of this solution to "high taxes" would be sucking tax money from their coffers. But $500 million less annually for local governments across the state just means cutting costs and finding efficiencies, advocates of this plan say. We could start just educating kids through eighth grade, shut down public safety departments on weekends and let those roads revert to dirt trails --- you know, the way they were in the 1800s. Some Republicans have said, though, that local governments should have less taxing authority. There's no equity in the Republican/Branstad plan because tax money is precisely where local governments get their revenues to provide vital services that give us an excellent standard of living. Their primary purpose is not to make money by selling people products (like the businesses that would get the windfall under this plan). Even if Republicans are right in suggesting that local governments wouldn't lose tax revenues, opponents argue that the plan would result in taxes being shifted from businesses to homeowners. I'm sure that's the kind of equity all Iowans can get behind.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Principles, pledges and posturing

As the Iowa Legislature starts another week of the 2011 session, it makes you wonder how much actual negotiating is going on. You'd think coming to agreement on each of the bills that still need to be passed and signed into law would be the top priority for the Republicans, Democrats and the governor. Instead, people are starting to wonder about  a shutdown and noting that Branstad was governor during the last time that was threatened, in 1992. The Legislature has piled up quite a stack of unresolved budget and spending bills, along with other contentious issues from abortion to secretly videotaping livestock operations. So, maybe the small groups of House and Senate leaders left at the Legislature would spend full days every day talking about what they need in these bills to reach that point and adjourn. Instead, everyone is still repeating their principles and pledges --- along with trashing their opponents. Branstad has to have two-year budgets and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen says they're just trying to reduce government costs. To Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal all their talk is just a "gut punch to the middle class." Everything is so stalled that lawmakers may only accomplish what they absolutely have to --- approving a budget. Is it all just posturing for the base with an eye on politics? There certainly are differences between the various parties to these negotiations and they're important. They indicate divergent philosophies that really do matter and can shape state government. But, again, politics is truely about compromise and real leadership means figuring out how to bridge those gaps. In the process, everyone has to give up something. That's what is going to allow the Legislature to adjourn.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A compromising position

They've all got campaign promises and competing ideals to uphold, but it's time. Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad need to put it all aside and do one of the most vile things a politician can do: compromise.  Spending bills have been slow to come to the governor since each house of the Legislature is  controlled by a different party with competing aims and interests. When the Democrats and Republicans did figure out how to compromise, Branstad vetoed all or part of the bills. He's got his own set of campaign promises and ideals that cannot be broken! The period where lawmakers receive daily expense payments, or per diem, ended Friday. That is typically tied to the ajournment date, but nobody's sure how soon it will happen with so many budget and spending bills  yet to be approved and signed. Closed door meetings of the Legislature's leadership are now under way. But freshmen Republicans, with their tea party sympathies, may be pushing their leaders to positions the Democrats can't accept. What the two sides do come up with could conflict with Branstad's promises of a two-year budget and a package of tax reforms that he suggests will spur employment growth in Iowa (which is related to his pledge to create 200,000 jobs). We'll see how much impact reality has on those promises and ideals.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

No budging on the budget

Gov. Terry Branstad has made it very clear that he will only accept two-year budgets from the Legislature. The Democratic-controlled Senate, though, felt obligated to test his resolve in the matter. It's common for teenagers to push the limit --- especially when Dad proclaims that something will only be done his way. The Senate passed a one-year transportation budget and sent it to the governor. Branstad vetoed that bill and reminded the state's lawmakers that he was not interested in their small-minded attempts at budgeting. He wanted something grander. Two years! It would bring Stability and Prosperity! Branstad claimed the Legislature and the former administration had been quite irresponsible --- paying ongoing expenses with one-time money, approving expenditures but not funding them and swiping money from one part of the budget to pay for costs in other areas. Democrats are now defending themselves by leveling their own accusations --- that Branstad's two-year budget is essentially a power grab. Lawmakers would have limited ability to make any changes to the budget next year under a two-year spending plan. Branstad would basically be able to veto anything he didn't like. Frankly, this seems like a reasonable concern. Any time the executive branch tries to expand its power (no matter who's in the office) it's worth resisting that effort. Still, Branstad has since vetoed a portion of another spending bill forged through a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. He voiced concerns with the approach to tax relief in one measure, which he vetoed. Another tax relief measure in the bill, though, was also contrary to the approach Branstad has said he wanted to take. In the end, the governor decided he could live with that measure and signed it into law. Turns out, the measure he vetoed was pushed by the Democrats while the measure left in the bill was pushed by the Republicans. Surprise, surprise, it looks like Dad has a favorite son.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who will be left standing?

Behind their carefully-worded statements, Iowa's five congressmen still want to hold onto their seats. But --- as I've imagined current 4th Congressional District Rep. Tom Latham thinking --- "in which district?" Well, Iowa is in the midst of its once-a-decade redistricting plan and it's losing one of districts, so someone's got to go. It's a political equivalent of musical chairs. The number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives is based on population and Iowa's growth has been slower than other growing states. The Legislative Services Agency plan throws Republicans Steve King, currently representing the 5th District, and Latham into a new 4th District. It also throws Democrats Dave Loebsack, currently representing the 2nd District, and Bruce Braley, representing the 1st District, into a new 1st District. No incumbent lives in the new 2nd District, but much of it is the same chunk of southeastern Iowa that Loebsack now represents. Democrat Leonard Boswell --- the only incumbent not paired up --- remains in a reconstituted 3rd District that swallows the southwestern corner of Iowa that King now represents. King's supporters in that area are not happy about this. The official statements released by each congressman except Latham seem to stake out one of the new districts. Latham lives at the edge of his new district and is very close to the three others, all of which include some territory he now represents. King has stated he will be on the ballot, but also suggested he'd like to avoid a matchup with Latham. Might he challenge one of his three Democratic colleagues? Of course, more than one of the current representatives may not survive after the new congressional districts are put in place. For example, there's been a lot of speculation the Christie Vilsack, wife of the former governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, may want one of the seats. Since the Vilsacks lived in the new 2nd District and there's no incumbent there now, that may be a good guess. Another guess is that she may based herself out of the Des Moines area and run in the new 3rd District. Or she may not run. And redrawing the districts may even open up opportunities for new challengers or past electoral opponents. When challenged, incumbents don't always win (but it's a good bet). The Iowa Legislature --- which is also affected by the plan --- can choose to accept or reject the plan. The earliest either house will vote is April 13. Many have speculated that the Legislature will approve the plan. If not, the LSA draws up a new plan.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shooting down the school dress code bill

Last week's passage and quick signing of a bill establishing a mourning dove hunting season in Iowa provided a cartoon metaphor too good to pass up. The talk in my office even among the hunters was, essentially, "What's the point?" They didn't see any reason to hunt a tiny bird that would yield very little meat. And, who knows, maybe at least inwardly they were chaffing at the idea of hunting down a symbol of peace, an argument made during debate by Rep. Deb Berry. Opponents of dove hunting will likely continue to ask why hunters want to kill this bird. Advocates now have one more retort to include in their arsenal, maybe while they're waiting in line to buy their dove-hunting licenses: "Because I can!" Which (finally) brings me to the point of this metaphor. The same day the Iowa Senate swiftly approved a mourning dove hunting season, the chairman of that body's education committee said another bill would not be put up for a vote. Sen. Herman Quirmbach said the school dress code bill had little support on his committee. Another factor in his decision was the amount of emails he had received from detractors. The bill is part of the ongoing fight between Waterloo Community Schools and a large group of parents and students adamantly opposed to a dress code the Board of Education originally passed in May. It includes changes to state law that make it either easier or legal --- depending on which side of the debate you're on --- for schools to put in place the kind of "restricted dress code" Waterloo now has. The bill's sponsor in the House, which passed it 91-9, suggested the bill was being single-handedly blocked by Quirmbach. And now with the second funnel deadline for bills to get out of committee upon us, it's dead. I guess the opponents win this round.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Putting the squeeze on Iowa's casinos

Gov. Terry Branstad's proposal to cut corporate tax rates in half while boosting casino taxes to 36 percent hasn't gained a lot of traction. However, the scheme, intended to spur job growth for small businesses, is getting some pushback from those who fear their jobs will be on the line if casino taxes rise. Casino operators have suggested that  squeezing as much tax revenue out of them as possible will lead to layoffs and even closing some of the 17 state-licensed businesses. (In the case of Isle Casino & Hotel Waterloo, operators and the association that holds its license are warning it could lead to a smaller amount of donations for area projects.) It's a delicious irony that Branstad, who campaigned on a pledge to create 200,000 jobs in Iowa by cutting the corporate tax rate, has that factor complicating his proposal. It's likely that Branstad sees casinos as a "lemon" in economic development terms. Some have argued that casinos don't really help a state's economy, only diverting money that would otherwise be spent on different entertainment options. The casino component of Branstad's plan is intended to fill the revenue gap that will occur with lower corporate tax rates. (And of course, those newly-created jobs will bring in more tax revenue for the state.) Branstad professes not to want to hurt casinos, but believes they have done well enough to handle a little subisdy for his trickle-down experiment. It's easy to imagine, though, that community boosters will side with their area's casino rather than support Branstad's proposal. After all, why trade actual jobs at a local business for the possibility of jobs that might be created by letting some unnamed corporations pay less in taxes? There's no guarentee any lost jobs will appear in your own community. That could make it hard to convinice lawmakers to support the proposal.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Trashing collective bargaining

Remember that rally earlier this month staged by union supporters at the Statehouse in Des Moines? Afterwards, they packed the Iowa House of Representatives for a two-hour public hearing. For a moment, it looked like a Wisconsin-style worker uprising was fomenting. Or, at least for a very, very brief moment. But just because there wasn't going to be an uprising didn't mean opponents were going to roll over and give up. When the House started debate on a  Republican-backed collective bargaining bill a week ago,  minority Democrats proposed a whopping 103 amendments. That tied up the bill in debate for the rest of the week. Finally, House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer cut off debate Friday with a noon vote, approving the bill along party lines. Now all the House needed to do was send the bill on to their colleagues in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which had no intention of considering the legislation. It headed to the Senate labor committee and was immediately declared dead. This was a foregone conclusion, making the House vote an empty political victory. Let's be clear, though, this was still a political victory. It can help Republicans as they campaign in the next election to take control of the Senate --- as well as Democrats who want to recapture control of the House. Politicians of either stripe could use the situation to motivate their bases so similar legislation would either become law or be stopped. One important point is that this bill really was nowhere near as sweeping as legislation approved and signed into law in Wisconsin. On the other hand, Republicans may view it as a first step heading in that direction. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Oh, what a relief it is

Let's face it. Some bills before the Iowa Legislature stink. So it's kind of a relief when they're flushed away and nobody has to think about what to do with this awful legislation anymore. Lawmakers just finished "Funnel Week," which eliminated a long list of bills from consideration. The Funnel is the deadline for most legislation to clear at least one House or Senate committee. Among those that didn't make it are a bunch purely designed to push a political agenda, largely proposed by Republicans in the House. For example, a measure to ban most abortions. If it became law, the legislation would have been immediately challenged. Plenty of states have placed restrictions on abortion. But opponents would like to make a broad challenge to abortion with the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized it. An Iowa Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage is the reason for another bill which would have changed the process of choosing judges in Iowa. Other bills would have allowed businesses to deny services to people due to religious beliefs, required drug testing for welfare recipients and eliminated the requirement to get a permit for carrying a handgun. The first two would have been laws that promoted hate and fear, writing discrimination into our legal code. The handgun proposal is part of a continuing push by the gun lobby. Proponents suggest the only way to understand the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution is to erase every regulation and restriction related to gun ownership. They have been successful with a law that went into effect taking away a sheriff's discretion in approving gun permits. I don't buy the argument that requiring a permit to carry a handgun is in any way infringing on the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cat herding and budget building

The long, drawn-out budget approval process is in full swing at Waterloo City Hall. That includes work sessions over multiple weeks. The mayor lays out how much of a tax increase is required to preserve current service levels while council members declare the largest increase they will support. Mayor Buck Clark says the process is like "herding cats."  Two council members --- Harold Getty and Bob Greenwood --- have not yet attended the work sessions, but will reportedly be back at a session this week. At last week's session, Ron Welper was the only council member who was willing to sign on to a 7 percent property tax increase to preserve city services at existing levels, as advocated by Clark. Others were only interested smaller increases: 3 percent for David Jones, 4 percent for Quentin Hart and 5 percent for Carolyn Cole (who noted that the process is painful and "sucks"). Steve Schmitt also won't go above a 3 percent  increase, but was clear that he wouldn't touch public safety staffing to make the cuts under that scenario. Instead, he says, "lets start counting toilet paper rolls." There is a conundrum in cutting police positions. Two years ago, the council overrode a veto from then-Mayor Tim Hurley to accept a $350,000 federal grant to help pay for five police officers. But the city has to repay the grant if  it allows staffing levels to dip before three years are up. So, cutting those positions may not help the city financially.  Union wage concessions have also been discussed. Find the full range of cuts that have been considered here.  In the meantime, neighboring Cedar Falls passed its budget Monday with a smaller tax increase and no cuts. And they had no hand-wringing work sessions in advance and barely any discussion.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Steamrolling workers' rights

Union supporters Tuesday protested proposals by Gov. Terry Branstad and Republicans in the Legislature to limit public employees' collective bargaining rights. An Iowa House subcommittee was discussing the issue that day. Branstad had earlier laid out his own plans to reform the state's labor laws. Among his priorities are eliminating automatic step raises for another year of work and having workers pay more for health insurance. Another recommendation is allowing the governor or Legislature to set aside an arbitrator's ruling, which is made after a union and government employer come to an impasse. He's also using tough talk when it comes to unions, tellling a Lee Enterprises reporter earlier this month that they have "totally" had it their way. "They rolled over the previous governor, and that is going to change," he said. Former Gov. Chet Culver gave him cover for such a statement by essentially declining to negotiate contracts with state employee unions so they could settle before his term ended. Branstad had requested that his admininstration be included  in the negotiations. While Branstad makes a valid point, I think he owes his revived political career to a different steamroller that he's still driving (and that flatten Culver). Essentially, that's the tea party-fueled backlash against government, which is disgusted with business-as-usual and freaked out about spending levels. In that vein, Branstad is challenging union power in at least one other way. He issued an executive order after taking office last month prohibiting state funds from being spent on public works projects that use project labor agreements. The agreements give preference to contractors who spell out workers' pay and benefits. Branstad has threatened Cedar Rapids with the loss of state I-JOBS funds awarded earlier for remodeling its convention complex, which uses a project labor agreement. The Cedar Rapids City Council Tuesday approved contracts for the project despite the threats.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gun advocates gone wild

Gun owners are asserting their rights in Iowa this year with a spate of legislation that would allow them to own and carry weapons with the least amount of restriction possible. On Jan. 1, a law went into effect that took away county sheriffs' discretion to deny an applicant's permit to carry a concealed gun. Essentially, it creates a uniform standard across the state. It also means law enforcement no longer has a say in what type of gun training is an acceptable prerequisite to receiving a permit. Among the acceptable, apparently, are  online "gun training" courses. The bill was passed by the Legislature last session and signed by former Gov. Chet Culver. For gun rights advocates, that victory seems to have set the tone for the current legislative session. Most prominently, the stand-your-ground bill is going through the Iowa House. Some opponents have dubbed this "House File 007, license to kill." It expands peoples' ability to defend themselves with a gun anywhere they have the legal right to be. Currently, that applies only to a person's home and workplace. Critics have pointed out this changes the expectation that someone should try to descalate a situation --- or just run away --- before turning to deadly force. Practically, what that means is prosecutors have less ability to charge those who shoot someone. Not surprisingly, in at least one state where a similar law has been passed, "justifiable homicides" have risen from a small number to more than 40 each year. The Des Moines Register reports that has been the case in Florida since its law went into effect in 2005. Sounds more lawless than lawful to me. That fact highlights an important point: Gun advocates' legislative push is really more about their rights than anybody's safety.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cutting away the fat (tax rates, school funds)

The level of state funding for school districts is a major point of contention this year in the Iowa Legislature. House Republicans last week proposed no increase in funding for 2011-12. Senate Democrats have proposed a 2 percent increase. Gov. Terry Branstad is pushing a two-year budget with no increase in the school funding formula, called allowable growth. Branstad and the House GOP are focusing on passage of an austere budget making deep cuts to many programs because of expected shortfalls due to the use of one-time money during the current year. As a result, they say there are no additional funds available for K-12 schools. The short supply of cash hasn't gotten in the way of their tax-cutting agenda, though. Branstad proposed cutting the corporate income tax in half. A plan to cut individual income taxes by 20 percent across the board has moved forward in the Republican-controlled House. But it turns out that cutting taxes while claiming large budget reductions are necessary is not as crazy as it sounds. You see, the extra money incorporated and unicorporated citizens get to keep will stimulate economic growth and job creation (thus, producing more tax revenue). On the other hand, the education boondogle that the state's trapped in does nothing but suck up more money every year. With no apparent taxpayer benefit, it's unreasonable to give school districts more to deal with inflation, higher insurance costs and salary increases. Maybe schools should try something innovative and incorporate.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Casino taxes --- Branstad's ace in the hole

Gov. Terry Branstad has made good on a campaign promise to cut the corporate income tax in half. But his budget proposal doesn't ask anyone to put their faith in his "voodoo economics." The proposal, unveiled last Thursday, would allow corporations to keep $200 million more of their profits during the next two years under the theory that they will reinvest the windfall in such a way that it will "trickle down" to the state's unincorporated citizens. That will be sorely needed if legislators embrace another idea of his to cut $194 million from existing programs,  resulting in layoffs of up to 1,500 state employees. Anyway, another provision in the proposal ensures that skeptical legislators wouldn't have to go over to the supply side to embrace this budget. He's steeply raising taxes on a very specific type of corporate entity: casinos. Their tax rate would go from 22 percent to 36 percent, a 14 percent increase. Branstad estimates that the tax increase would raise $381 million in fiscal years 2012 and 2013. That is probably one of the few tax increases the socially conservative base he needs to keep happy wouldn't grumble about. But it's still going to find opposition from casino owners and possibly the charitable organizations that benefit from gambling license requirements to donate a percentage of their profits. The Black Hawk County Gaming Association, which hands out Isle Casino Waterloo's donations, has already sounded the alarm that their contract might be written in a way that a tax increase reduces the casino's contributions. It's still uncertain if the Iowa House or Senate will embrace this component of the budget proposal.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I can almost reach my rights ...

The ability to vote is a cornerstone of the freedoms that make America great. Sometimes, though, those freedoms get out of hand. Take Iowa, for example. For more than 15 years, people convicted of a felony or an aggravated misdemeanor who have already finished serving their time in prison or jail have been automatically granted the right to vote. And for who knows how long, registered voters have been able to show up at the polls, sign in and cast a ballott without ever having to show a photo ID. It's maybe never been required, if you can believe that. But don't worry. Gov. Terry Branstad has already rescinded the executive order that allowed ex-cons to automatically vote and hold office once they got out of prison. Now, after they pay any fines and restitution, they just have to go through the simple process of petitioning the governor to regain those rights. It only takes three to six months, if they ever pull things together enough to take care of it. And Republicans with their new House majority are pushing legislation that would require every single person to show a photo identification in order to vote. That's pretty easy for those of us with a driver's license. Unfortunately, a chunk of the population that skews heavily towards the poor, disabled, racial minorities and elderly doesn't have a state-issued photo ID. The proposal would remove cost barriers that might stand in the way of some getting an ID. That's great, if they ever pull things together enough to take care of it. In both cases, the ability to vote will remain just out of reach for at least a segment of those affected. Branstad and GOP legislators treat voting like a sacred priviledge that's in danger of being desecrated. There's one problem with that: Voting is not a priviledge --- it's a right that belongs to all citizens. What's more, they have no proof of any systemic "desecration" that would warrant tightening voting rights. There is no widespread voter fraud in Iowa. A concern that felons can begin voting before paying all the fines or restitution associated with their conviction can be addressed without petitioning the governor. Just wait until they finish paying those before their rights are automatically restored. Read views for and against Branstad's action on the felon voting rights.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A hole full of malfeasance

A trio of freshmen Republican legislators drafting impeachment measures against the four remaining Iowa Supreme Court justices have the wrong priorities. Kim Pearson announced last month she was drafting the measures joined by Glen Massie and Tom Shaw. New House Speaker Kraig Paulsen has said he won't stand in the way of their effort, although Gov.-elect Terry Branstad says it's the wrong approach. A much better way for the newly elected House members to make a mark would be to offer constructive ideas for plugging a potential $600 million budget hole. Opponents of gay marriage won a huge victory when all three justices up for retention in the Nov. 2 general election were thrown off the bench. That didn't change the court's unanimous 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. And there's no guarentee that throwing the rest off and getting a whole new slate of justices would lead to overturning the ruling, either. After all, the justices were doing the job they were appointed for. Just because a large group of voters don't agree with how the justices interpreted the Iowa constitution as it relates to one case doesn't mean they were committing malfeasance, the grounds for which they would be impeached. What does seem like malfeasance is pursuing these impeachment charges.