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.