State-mandated unionism an emotional issue in Iowa

One downside to all the presidential campaigning in Iowa is how it crowds out discussion of important issues in the Legislature. Come early January, the presidential commotion will clear out, and all politics will become local once again. So here's an early look at what we can expect from the 2008 session.

- Budget. The governor and lawmakers spent too much last year - about a 10 percent increase - so they've got to cool it now. The boom farmers are enjoying is offset by the bad trends in the housing market, and the experts say lawmakers won't have a lot of extra tax money to throw around.

- Health care. It's a big issue with a big price tag. Lawmakers are studying what they can do to cover all children and all adults in Iowa. Since there's no new state money to spend, any solution will lie in squeezing hospitals and insurance companies.

- Right to work. The unions want a law allowing public-employee unions to collect fees from non-union members for work the union does on behalf of all workers. There weren't enough Democratic votes for the idea in the House this year, but there might be next year. Some Democrats would like to drop this emotional question for the 2008 session and debate it in 2009, when they hope to have a few more Democratic House members.

- Infrastructure. That word will become a buzz phrase for the 2008 session because more money is needed for highways, schools and new prisons. Lawmakers will struggle trying to find the dollars.

For roads, look for legislators to keep high new-car registration fees around longer and make pickup trucks start paying a fair share. A gas tax will be discussed, but since it's an election year, the prospects for it are iffy. Majority party Democrats say they'll do it only if large numbers of Republicans vote for it, too. Democratic Gov. Chet Culver is cool to the idea, but is keeping his options open.

Also, there will be a discussion of making the local-option sales tax for schools, which has been approved in all 99 counties, a statewide sales tax. But some lawmakers say schools won't need the extra penny for repair work forever. They believe they'll need that extra penny for the general fund someday, thanks to all the spending increases they've promised but haven't covered.

As for prisons, look for some on the left to try to weaken prison sentences to let criminals out earlier instead of building more capacity.

- Commercial property taxes. Don't look for much to happen. One reason some lawmakers don't want to give an extra penny of sales tax to local schools is they know the state will need the money to buy down commercial property-tax rates someday, just not in 2008.

- Environment. Water quality and hog odors are emotional issues in Iowa. The greens and the populists are angry that a Democratic Legislature isn't doing more to curb odors and limit big hog lots, but cooler heads are saying Iowa can't hurt the pork industry.

Private discussions are under way between state environmental officials and leaders of mainstream farm groups to find some middle ground. Keep holding your nose.

- Gay marriage. A Polk County District Court judge says it's legal. Republicans want a state constitutional amendment to overturn the judge and ban it. Democrats don't want to go on record voting against an amendment before the election. So look for Democratic leaders to stall by saying the Iowa Supreme Court is considering the case and should speak before the Legislature weighs in.


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