1/15/08

Rebuilding the middle class by forced unionism

In 2007 the Democratic-controlled Iowa General Assembly raised the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, increased teacher pay from 42nd in the nation to 25th and accomplished nearly all of its Plan for Prosperity.

With those accomplishments in 2007, many Statehouse insiders are curious what they plan for an encore.

There is still work to be done, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said in an interview with IowaPolitics.com.

“We are excited about what we accomplished,” Gronstal said. “We put together a package for the middle class to make sure our citizens are healthy and have access to a better life.”

Democrats have touted their efforts to maintain fiscal discipline, while repaying $182.8 million of the $300 million owed to the Senior Living Trust Fund.

Republicans and Democrats have already sparred over spending.

“We want to make sure to keep our fiscal house in order,” said House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, mirrored Murphy’s take on the budget. “We will again fund our priorities and be vigilant in protecting the state’s pocketbook from Republican attempts to spend recklessly,” he said.

House Minority Leader Christopher Rants and Senate Minority Leader Ron Wieck, both Sioux City Republicans, question that logic, considering Democrats are in the majority. Rants said it took Gov. Tom Vilsack two terms and Gov. Terry Branstad one term to increase spending by $1 billion. He said under Gov. Chet Culver the Dem-controlled Legislature accomplished that feat in 2007.

“There is some really bad news for middle-class Iowans,” Rants said. “They are laying out an agenda they simply can’t afford. I hate to be right in this case, but it is.”

Wieck vowed he and Senate Republicans will fight additional spending in 2008.

“We are going to be the Iowa taxpayers’ spending watchdog,” Wieck said.

Gronstal isn’t apologizing for the funding priorities Democrats made last session. He cited the strides Democrats made to raise teacher pay, fund higher education and repay the Senior Living Trust Fund.

“We did spend a significant amount of money,” the Senate majority leader said. “We make no apologies for that.”

Read below for a summary of top issues that could come up this session.

PROPERTY TAXES

It is nearly impossible to convene a legislative session without discussing property taxes, and legislative leaders don’t expect 2008 to be any different. But Republicans and Democrats have a different take, as expected, on the issue.

The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency recently released findings that said property taxes could increase by nearly a half-billion dollars statewide in the next five years due to the formula to compute valuations on agricultural land, which is based in part on the price of a bushel of corn. With ethanol pushing corn prices to an all-time high, the LSA report suggests that could raise property taxes on ag land. In turn, residential property values are tied to ag land, which could be troublesome for Iowans, Rants said.

“If you think your property taxes are high now, you haven’t seen anything yet,” he said. “How much more do we expect middle-class families to pay?”

Wieck reiterated his fellow Sioux City lawmaker’s position.

“I say they haven’t really taken everything in account,” Wieck said. “It could be worse. To lower property taxes, we have to cut spending. (The Democrats) are not going to listen to us.”

Gronstal said the added property tax revenues can assist in reforming the current system in the state.

“It is the most absolute perfect time (to address it),” Gronstal said. “It is a perfect time to tackle this issue in a constructive way.”

An interim committee has been looking at the issue, but a solution doesn't look likely to come in this session.

FAIR SHARE

Senate Democrats passed a version of the so-called "fair share" bill last year, but the House could not muster the votes among its Democrats to send the bill to Gov. Chet Culver for his signature. House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, has said everything's on the table going into 2008 when asked if the lower chamber will address fair share in the upcoming legislative session.

The change would require non-union municipal, county and state workers to pay union dues because they receive the same benefits as organized labor. Iowa has been a right-to-work state since the 1940s, which means workers aren't forced to join unions. Opponents of the fair share proposal say it amounts to forced unionization, while proponents say it's only fair for workers to pay for benefits they get from unions' advocacy.

Murphy’s counterpart, House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, anticipates fair share being among the issues lawmakers will discuss. In fact, he already has an amendment sitting on the corner of his desk to file when all the speculation becomes a reality.

“I will fight fair share,” Rants said. “This is (something) they are going to have to carry me out of the chamber.”

Statehouse Democratic insiders reiterate leadership faces difficulty securing the necessary votes to get it passed out of the House – especially in an election year. Rants said he is hearing similar rumblings at the Capitol.

“They are in a jam,” he said. “They are going to have a difficult time with the votes. Plus, they have the Federation of Labor breathing down their necks. This is worth $15 million to organized labor. So, I have a feeling we will have a debate.”

EDUCATION

Teacher pay was addressed in 2007 as the Senate and House came together to raise the average teacher pay in the state from 42nd in the nation to 25th. Education continues to be an area Gov. Chet Culver wants to focus on. If cuts must be made to the budget, education is a hands-off area, the governor stressed this fall.

While 2007 was the year of the teacher, Republicans want 2008 to be the year of the student, Rants said.

Senate and House Republicans want to see more emphasis placed on student standards. Enhancing student standards has been topic of discussion at the Iowa Statehouse for more than five years. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack urged more rigor to be placed in the state's curriculum.

A Democratic House insider said educational standards are also important to House and Senate Democrats. The goal is to make sure students are prepared to enter college and the global economy upon graduating from high school, the source said.

"Dems are committed to improving student achievement and ensuring our kids have the skills they need to compete in today's global economy," a Democratic Statehouse insider said. "What the Republicans passed in 2006 set goals but had no teeth or enforcement. Last year, the language was changed to the model core references. The bottom line is the requirements are still standing: students graduating in the 2010-2011 school year will complete four years of English, three years of math, science, and social studies."

Higher education will also be an issue Democrats continue to fund. Tuition increases were in the low single digits, said Gronstal, adding that is beneficial to Iowa families.

“We have to be diligent and focused on maintaining the commitment to continue in the right direction in higher education,” he said.

GAS TAX

Murphy, Gronstal and Culver have maintained a united front in saying that the issue likely won’t be on the table when lawmakers convene.

Culver said with high fuel prices that he doesn’t want that to be an option. He said he wouldn’t support such an increase, and asks the Legislature to explore other options.

“It seems clear of the governor’s reluctance to raise the gas tax,” Gronstal said. “This is not the time to look at a fuel tax increase.”

Gronstal asked Republicans to join in the discussion to come to a bi-partisan agreement on how to raise revenues to meet transportation needs. With fuel prices predicted to reach $3.50 per gallon or more by next summer, Wieck said he will join Democrats in exploring all options.

“I am on board with that position,” Wieck said of exploring other options than raising fuel taxes. “The question is, how do we do that? We have to find another way (than raising taxes).”

A couple ideas being bandied about include phasing in an increase in pickup registration fees over the current $75 annual registration fee. Gronstal estimates that increase could generate an estimated $55 to $60 million.

Another option is to use local option sales tax money from the sales of vehicles to help supplement the transportation budget. That could also raise $55-$60 million annually, the Senate majority leader said.

“This has to be done in a bi-partisan manner,” Gronstal said. “Roads don’t begin and end in Democratic districts.”

HEALTH CARE

Eight percent of Iowans – nearly 270,000 people -- do not have any kind of health coverage. Most states average an uninsured rate of 15 to 20 percent, said State Rep. Ro Foege, who co-chairs the Legislative Commission on Affordable Health Care Plans for Small Businesses and Families.

“We have bitten off a huge chunk to take on health care,” said Foege, D-Mount Vernon. “We have some big challenges ahead of us.”

The commission has held public meetings across the state to get input from Iowans. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, and former Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, are also involved in the project. The meetings are drawing significant crowds.

“People are concerned about what we are going to do,” Foege said. “People are anxious what that change is going to be.”

Legislative leaders say they could address this in January, but Foege said it is likely three to five years and $200 to $300 million away from a major fix becoming a reality. The first goal of the commission would be to see every child covered by insurance, the Mount Vernon Democrat said. The commission also wants a new outlook on health care.

“I think we can chip away at it,” Foege said. “We are looking for outcomes and results-based medicine. We want to look at incentives to focus on health and not sickness.”

Commission co-chair Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, discussed the group’s proposal this week at the Statehouse. He said the 79 recommendations proposed by the commission address universal coverage, medical homes, tele-health, cost containment and transparency.

House Republicans are all addressing health care. Rants is calling for more portability in health insurance for Iowans. The House minority leader said his caucus will propose reforming health insurance in the state, calling for Iowans to improve their health and wellness and reducing the costs of health care.

“If a person has a health plan that covers their bad knee or high blood pressure now and they switch jobs or change to an individual plan under the same company, they shouldn’t suddenly have their coverage restricted,” Rants said. “What has changed? Nothing, you are still covered by the same insurance company and you shouldn’t be subject to any pre-existing condition restrictions. House Republicans will fight throughout the session to provide health care portability to Iowans.”

DON’T RULE THESE ISSUES OUT

-- Smoking is a hot-button topic in many communities across the state. Some cities have implemented smoking bans in restaurants and other public places. State Rep. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, pushed for a statewide smoking ban in 2007, but the initiative didn’t gain much traction. Statehouse insiders expect that be addressed again when the legislature convenes.

-- An interim legislative committee addressed the state’s prison system and needed infrastructure improvements. Its recommendations included spending $120 million on a new prison in Fort Madison and spending $25 million to expand the Newton Correctional Facility. Lawmakers could act on some of those recommendations in 2008.

-- Alternative energy and renewable fuels were a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail in 2007, and Iowa officials want to build on that momentum and past legislation to make Iowa a leader in the industry.

“Now is the time for our nation to cut our dependence on foreign oil and embrace innovative, clean-burning and American-made forms of energy,” Culver said. “Produced here in the heartland of the nation from the crops that feed the world, ethanol and other biofuels are helping Americans meet the energy challenges we face. As the nation’s number one producer of ethanol and the second-leading producer of biodiesel, we stand ready to do our part here in Iowa.”

(iowapolitics.com)

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