Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Iowa Legislative Session Roundup

From Stateside Dispatch...

With Iowa lawmakers facing not only fiscal problems similar to many states, but the need to pass flood and tornado recovery bills, lawmakers met both challenges by the end of the session. However, the rest of the agenda for progressives saw a mix of wins and losses, with most high profile reforms falling short, but many good progressive policies becoming law. And, the leadership of Iowa legislators stepped up to support the Iowa supreme court decision support marriage equality for same sex partners, refusing to advance a proposed constitutional attack on the groundbreaking decision.

Budget and Taxes: The state's $6.3 billion dollar balanced budget avoids tax increases and adds $441 million to the state's rainy day fund for what will surely be a challenging fiscal situation next year.

Floods and Tornadoes: Lawmakers devoted a total of $360 million for flood recovery, including rebuilding local infrastructure, fire stations and housing, as well as floodplain management and watershed and water quality grants for flood prevention projects and soil conservation practices.I-Jobs Stimulus Package: Partly using a $715 million bond issue, the governor's I-Jobs package highlighted the stimulative effects of the borrowing with a package including $115 million for repairs to bridges and roads; $600 million for repairs at flood-damaged buildings and houses, sewer systems, construction of homeless and domestic abuse shelters, energy projects, a public high-speed Internet systems; $115 million for flood repairs at the University of Iowa and more construction at a veterinary lab at Iowa State University. The spending leveraged many hundreds of millions in federal matching grants, making the work accomplished by the bonds incredibly cost effective. Using Recovery Funds: The state spent about $500 million of federal stimulus funds, mostly to prevent layoffs of state employees and to preserve a promised boost in teacher pay.Tax Reform: A proposed tax overhaul focused around repeal of the deductibility of federal taxes [H 807] failed to be enacted despite broad leadership support. Similarly, a bipartisan plan to increase the gasoline tax 8 cents dedicated to road maintenance died when the governor declared his opposition. Governor Chet Culver did, however, sign a bill requiring that any business receiving a research tax credit from the state of more than a half million dollars have its name made public.

Legislators will likely face even worse choices next year and have established a commission to produce plans for government reorganization to cut costs. "We've got to...[f]igure out those things that we should continue to do and ways to do them more efficiently and figure out those things that we're going to walk away from," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Grondstal.

Same-Sex Marriage: As we've previously highlighted, Iowa's Supreme Court struck down a decade-old law that banned same-sex marriage. Legislative leaders beat back an effort by conservatives in the Senate to reverse the unanimous ruling and made it clear that they will oppose any constitutional amendment that seeks to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court decision. In a joint release by Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy, they praised the decision and said "the only lasting question about today's events will be why it took us so long."

Health Care: As we've highlighted, Iowa made big strides in health coverage with one of the most comprehensive bills moving in the states this year. Sponsored by Sen. Hatch, the legislation builds on a 2008 law that created a path for Iowa to achieve health care for all kids and address health care cost and quality. S 389 will extend eligibility for public programs to children in families up to 300% of the poverty line, covering 30,000 of the state's 40,000 uninsured kids, and establish a "soft" mandate that eligible children be signed up (there are no penalties for parents who fail to enroll their children). The program will use state funds, federal SCHIP support and the federal stimulus package. The bill also reins in prescription drug costs, improves the quality of care, and provides more coverage options for businesses and families. Additionally, the bill expands health insurance eligibility for legal immigrant children, implement the new federal law that removes the 5 year wait for legal immigrant children to become eligible for SCHIP funding. In one failure, mental health coverage requirements were not expanded as progressives had hoped [H 234/S 418].

Wind Energy: The governor put his signature on S 456, which utilizes unused tax credits to promote small wind energy projects across the state, and H 817, which provides economic incentives for wind component manufacturers who are looking at building or expanding in Iowa. The state ranks second behind Texas in wind energy production and is home to 1,999 wind turbines that produce nearly 2,800 MW of electricity each year. "With more than 2,300 green-collar jobs created through wind energy, creating new jobs in the green economy will be key to our future successes," said Gov. Culver at the signing ceremony. On another environmental issue, conservation funding was held steady or increasedthrough stimulus and bonding, a significant victory given the low state revenue.

Other Key Progressive Victories:

Pay Equity:S 137 brings Iowa into compliance with federal wage discrimination laws, but will provide protection for women in work places with as few as 4 employees. The federal bill provides protection just down to 15 employees.Child Labor and Wage Law Enforcement: Responding to massive abuses uncovered in local agriprocessors, the state increased employer penalties for child labor violations and the state labor commissioner will have more authority in dealing with all wage violations.Consumer Right of Action:Iowa is no longer the only state without a consumer right of action. The Attorney General's office has been receiving 4000-5000 complaints a year because that was Iowans' only recourse under state law when harmed by a business or product. A new law, H 712, allows consumers who have been the vicitims deceptive businesses to sue directly and allows plaintiffs to get their legal costs paid as well. Unfortunately, a very large number ofprofessional groups were exempted such as insurance companies, attorneys, a variety of licensed health care professionals, architects, engineers, insurance agents, banks, and credit unions.Gender Balance on City and County Boards: Iowa state government boards and commissions have been required to seek gender balance since 1987, but a new law will now require that gender balance be sought on city and county boards, where women presently make up just 20% of those serving. The law provides an exemption if after 90 days an applicant of the right sex can't be found [H 243].

Some Notable Failures

PayDay Loans: Even though Iowa has highest average use of abusive payday loans in the nation, a reform bill failed to move.Labor Rights: The legislature failed to advance any of the top four organized labor priorities in this session: open-scope bargaining rights for public employees [H 821]; the Fairshare Act [H 555]; choice of doctor for worker's compensation care [H 795/S 155]; and prevailing-wage requirements for public contracts [H 333]. The prevailing wage bill even passed the legislature last year only to be vetoed by the governor, he claimed, over process issues. Business groups smeared the proposal as an eviceration of Iowa's "right to work" law and were able to peel off a handful of majority Democrats, mostly from conservative districts. Labor has been a big part of the Democrats recent advances and are clearly stinging from the lack of progress, but leaders remain optimistic and will continue to educate and pressure members on these issues. Government reforms: The Senate didn't agree to the House bill closing exceptions to Iowa's open records and open meetings laws because senators felt it lacked an adequate enforcement mechanism; and a post-election audit bill passed the House but died in the Senate as well.

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