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.