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News Analysis: March 17, 2008

posted on March 19, 2008 at 12:01 PM

Associated Press reporter David Pitt and Paul Yeager discuss the status of the smoking debate in the Iowa Legislature, who is running for the Iowa statehouse in 2008 and the impact of the current economic downturn impact nationally and on Iowa. David Pitt speculates that the Hawkeye state may be somewhat insulated from the downturn because of Iowa's rising alternative energy market.

Yeager: David, it's been a little while since we've been on this program and it seems like you could just as well write the script from two weeks ago. It's talking about the smoking debate. Several things have changed. Kind of catch us up to speed, where we're at right now.

Pitt: We're back to the smoking ban bill, it's a statewide ban, it's been passed back and forth between the House and the Senate a few times and now it's apparently going to go to a conference committee in which a group of members from the House and members from the Senate will get together and they'll discuss how they want to resolve the differences in the bills.

Yeager: And we have huge differences in this bill where it comes from casinos, VFW's. What are some of the other stumbling blocks that the two chambers couldn't get around on the first pass?

Pitt: Well, it sounds like the largest issues are the exemptions in the bill. One chamber allowed exemptions for VFW halls and the veteran's home in Marshalltown. Another version of the bill exempted casinos. The most recent version of the bill exempted bars and restaurants to which a lot of people say well, why are we even passing a ban on smoking at all because it's aimed at kind of people who won't go into a restaurant and don't want to smell cigarette smoke. It's also geared toward people who are forced to work in environments where there's a lot of smoking like casinos. So, those are the big differences. What are we going to exempt, if anything, and so where are we going from here?

Yeager: Made it a public health issue on some fronts otherwise it's a right of business, it's a personal right, don't take my right away, you're just the government infringing.

Pitt: Right and it's not really along political lines it seems. It seems to be an individual thing. There are some lawmakers who really believe that this should be an individual -- and the Governor has said he thinks cities should be able to or local governments should be able to decide. Others say it should be a business by business decision, you know, they should be able to decide whether they want smoking or not.

Yeager: And this was a session that was supposed to be remarkably slow because it's an election year cycle. We have plenty of elections coming up, we already have election plans but this has kind of been railroaded by this issue. But let's look ahead. The filing deadline was Friday. Where are we at in the House and in the Senate, at least the statehouse, on who is filing, who's not, who's got challenges and who doesn't?

Pitt: This is a big election year because all of the House seats are up for election and half of the Senate seats. So, 25 in the Senate and 100 seats in the House. And it looks like Democrats feel that they have a really good chance here. They have had a majority in both chambers for a while and they feel like they have a really good chance this year of gaining seats. I think Mike Gronstal, the Democratic leader in the Senate said this is the best field of candidates they have had in a couple of decades or something like that. So, I think they feel really confident that they have enough candidates. And there are a number of people like in the Senate, for instance, I think it's six Republicans are not running for re-election and one Democrat. So, those open seats give an opportunity for there to be some seats captured by the other party.

Yeager: A wide open seat, not an incumbent facing a challenger in the fall. One thing that always seems to make the news nationally is the economy. We talk about it in Iowa. They always say the Midwest is more insulated from what goes on in the coasts. But what is going on nationally? You recently wrote a story for the Associated Press on the national front with some Iowa ties. Kind of catch me up.

Pitt: The interesting thing is the AP looked at all 50 states and their state budgets to try to determine how the economy is affecting the states and we found that there are some sectors of the economy and some states because of their geographic location are really suffering. Of course, those states that had really huge gains in their housing market, you know, where houses were way overpriced in the Sun Belt, for instance, are really seeing some issues there because those housing values have declined and tax revenues declined. Some states are facing multi-billion dollar deficits in their budgets and they have to make that up.

Yeager: They weren't planning in some cases?

Pitt: Right and it hit quickly. I think this whole housing market issue and the economy in general has happened relatively quickly and so it has affected some state budgets pretty severely, New York, California, some of the bigger states. But in Iowa, you know, we're somewhat insulated from at least the immediate impact because we have a smaller economy in our state but also because we're one of the agricultural based economies and ag states seem to be fairing very well as do states that have oil and gas reserves. States out in the West, Texas, some states that have a lot of oil, gas, Wyoming has a lot of coal reserves so if you're in that energy sector, you know, energy, gas prices is one of the things that is really hitting us hard and making our economy slide. But those states that have that commodity, that raw material to make gas and oil are doing really well and a lot of them have huge budgets, they have huge reserves.

Yeager: It's helped kind of cushion them, as you say, and also sets them up for new economy because it's new industry like in Iowa's case.

Pitt: And one of the things about Iowa's economy is that we are positioning ourselves well to be in the wind energy sector and we still have a few coal fire plants here. But our economy is really becoming more diversified and a lot of the biofuels plants that are in Iowa, ethanol and biodiesel, all of that seems to be serving to kind of diversify the economy a little bit. But I think there are some people who do expect, perhaps by summertime, to see a bit of a slide even in Iowa, even in the smaller states if the national economy continues to decline because there's just no way to completely insulate yourself.

Tags: Iowa news