Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Summary of 2009 Legislative Session

I plan on writing some about the 2009 Legislative Session, but haven't had time.

Here's a great summary of the session that I found at Covering Iowa Politics.

BUDGET/BONDING: Lawmakers approved a fiscal 2010 general fund budget of $5.78 billion but added $500 million of federal stimulus help for total spending of $6.258 billion beginning July 1. That compared with a revised $6.11 billion for the current year and Gov. Chet Culver’s fiscal 2010 recommendation of $6.46 billion. Majority Democrats also approved Culver’s multi-year infrastructure bonding plan of $715 million and $115 million mostly for University of Iowa flood recovery. The bonds are funded from several sources, most notably about $50 million in annual gambling profits for 20 years. The proceeds are expected to finance hundreds of infrastructure projects and create at least 22,000 jobs.

DISASTER RECOVERY: Lawmakers tackled disaster recovery from many angles, offering tax abatement for property owners who improve damaged properties, authorizing the sale of bonds to finance infrastructure improvements and policy changes to requires cities to participate in programs to lower homeowners’ cost for flood insurance. Included in the relief was $45 million in bonds targeted to Cedar Rapids, the $56 million Jumpstart program to help homeowners and businesses and funding for the Rebuild Iowa Office to coordinate recovery efforts.

TAX POLICY: Despite bipartisan effort to raise the state gas tax, the effort was abandoned after Gov. Culver, who had expressed reservations, finally said he would veto it. Near the end of the session, majority Democrats rolled out a plan to lower taxes for nearly 60 percent of income taxpayers while holding another 14 percent harmless. The plan encountered vigorous opposition because it ended federal deductibility, a provision that allows Iowans to deduct what they pay in federal taxes from their state tax liability. Lawmakers did decide to cap business tax credits at $185 million a year and require more accountability for refund incentives. They also raised court fees by $16.7 million.

CONSUMER PROTECTION: Lawmakers expanded health care coverage for children with a goal of having virtually all kids covered by the end of 2010. They also expanded the ability of consumers to seek damages by bringing a private cause of action against fraudulent businesses. Iowa currently is the only state without that provision. They also beefed up efforts to prevent dependent adult abuse and strengthen the state’s response when allegations of potential mistreatment arise – action triggered by the Atalissa bunkhouse situation.

LABOR: Lawmakers gave state labor officials and county attorney more tools to prosecute employers who fail to pay employees or violate child labor law. Maximum civil penalties of $10,000 can be levied per child labor violation and child labor criminal penalties were increase from simple misdemeanors to serious misdemeanors. Also, civil penalties were increased from $100 to $500 per pay period for failing to pay an employee’s wages. The time span for collecting jobless benefits was doubled for Iowans laid off due to the economic downturn.

PUBLIC SAFETY: Lawmakers overhauled the state’s sex offender laws, scaling back a law that bans some offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or daycare. The bill establishes exclusionary zones around schools and other public areas where sex offenders are prohibited from visiting. Lawmakers also voted to create a statewide electronic database to track sales of pseudoephedrine, an ingredient found in cold medicine that is used to make illegal methamphetamine.

EDUCATION: Majority Democrats protected the commitment to raise teacher pay to the national average by using a share of $386 million in federal stimulus money to fully fund a 4 percent allowable growth for K-12 schools and provide nearly $280 million for salary compensation. Money prospects were less rosy for other educational sectors that face spending cuts due to budget constraints. A couple of perennial issues lawmakers have argued over will be around for a fresh debate next year. The lawmakers again could not agree to increase the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17. Neither did they agree to change the start date for schools to prohibit schools from beginning classes before the fourth Monday in August.

AGRICULTURE: Efforts to ban so-called “puppy mills” appeared to have failed until funding for an additional state department of agriculture inspector was included in the catch-all $2.7 billion standings bill. Opponents said the bill would unfairly restrict reputable dog-breeding operations. Lawmakers also moved to restrict the application of liquid manure on snow-covered fields and frozen ground to keep it out of waterways. They also made changes to the grain indemnity fund to address volatility in the ethanol production market.

ENVIRONMENT: Gov. Chet Culver’s bonding plan passed by lawmakers includes $25 million for watershed, water quality and soil conservation projects, as well as flood rebuilding and prevention. Another $55 million would go to sewer infrastructure needs, in an effort to improve Iowa’s water quality. Lawmakers also approved incentives for small wind energy projects and for producers of wind energy components that locate and expand in Iowa.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Lawmakers cut spending for the state’s top economic development program, the Iowa Values Fund, by $5 million next fiscal year to $45 million. The bonding plan would spend $12 million for the Community Attraction and Tourism program and other $10 million for river enhancement projects.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Procedural hurdles and top Democratic leaders kept lawmakers from considering a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. The issue is guaranteed to resurface in the 2010 election-year session given that an Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage becomes effective next week. Several labor-backed changes that stalled this year are likely to resurface next year as well. Bicyclists likely will push a Senate-passed safety measure that stalled in the House. Likewise for a biodiesel mandate, expanded mental health insurance coverage and vehicle emission standards. Efforts to raise the state gas tax may rekindle next session but more likely in 2011.

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