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Iowa News Analysis: February 19, 2009

posted on February 23, 2009 at 12:10 PM

In the news analysis, Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio talks with host Paul Yeager about labor issues including fair share, prevailing wage, the Atalissa bunkhouse, the House Oversight committee and gas tax.

Paul Yeager: Jeneane, you've had a busy week on your post at the Iowa statehouse.  The big debate on Thursday was supposed to be about prevailing wage, it's been something that has been delayed but what's going on with some of these labor issues this week?

Jeneane Beck: They are a hot topic this week.  A couple of labor bills got kicked out of committee or subcommittee last week.  This prevailing wage bill requires that contractors pay the prevailing wage in accounting when they bid on government projects whether that be school infrastructure, city infrastructure, county infrastructure, those kinds of projects. 

Many people say this builds the wage base in those counties and helps middle income families.  Other argue, well, taxpayers pay for those projects and it's more costly.  So, you're going to see lengthy debate.  I think one of the reasons the debate has been postponed and we're seeing that schedule get pushed back is because this is a tough vote for some democrats. 

If you are from a rural community where wages are maybe a little bit lower and you're talking about a higher wage, a prevailing wage there are some concerns that this will be very difficult on property tax payers that foot the bills for these kinds of government projects.

Paul Yeager: That was one argument I saw was about property tax.  But it seems to be that labor is a big issue.  Last year we saw fair share was a discussion.  Is this taking cover for that issue and debate later on in the session?

Jeneane Beck: Well, we might see fair share come back up.  There is legislation that allows you to choose your own doctor if you are injured on the job.  There's also legislation that gives public employees more bargaining rights. 

All of this is against the backdrop of reports that we're now seeing that maybe the union contracts for state employees is going to be zero pay increase for the upcoming year. And I think of it as buying a car. If you go to the dealership and they say I can't change that sticker price, I can't go any lower but guess what I can throw in a couple of free oil changes maybe that's what is happening here. 

Maybe the governor and the democrats have said I can not pay you any more in the upcoming year but look at some of these other perks I can provide you.  So, there may be some give and take going on that way which is why labor is getting a large hearing at the statehouse.

Paul Yeager: Also government oversight in the house had a busy week and the issue they are talking about is the story that came out of Atalissa, Iowa.  That is between Iowa City and Davenport on the eastern part of the state.  This is about the way some guys were treated when they worked at a packing plant.  Give me the background on that.

Jeneane Beck: 21 mentally disabled men who were originally from Texas but have lived in Iowa many of them more than 20 years housed at a 100-year-old schoolhouse owned by the city of Atalissa working for Henry's Turkey Service which shipped them up to Iowa so that they could work at this meat packing plant. 

The fire marshal closed the building and said it is unsafe for living conditions. There was no heat. They were running everything through power cords and space heaters and he said it's unsafe. Government oversight began looking into it.

Earlier in the week they talked to city officials, they also talked to the Department of Human Services and said why had this never come to your attention?  There seems to be some confusion of who had oversight. Was it DHS? Was Department of Inspections and Appeals there before and didn't notice the problems? That's what they're trying to find out. 

But today they started to pull back and say let's put our hearings on hold because basically investigators said you're going to interfere with our process.  It's an ongoing criminal investigation involving 11 agencies both state and federal anywhere from the FBI to the Department of Criminal Investigation to Social Security Administration, a lot of people looking into this.

Paul Yeager: So, this is far from being done on that issue.

Jeneane Beck: We're going to hear a lot more about it.

Paul Yeager: And one other here in our final minute, Jeneane, we'd like to talk about an issue that apparently last year was no it's not going to happen and that's the gas tax.  But there have been plenty of studies, in fact, a couple of economists testified this week.  What is behind this story again?

Jeneane Beck: Well, there is a huge shortfall in funding for roads and bridges.  The DOT says we need $28 billion over the next 20 years, where are you going to get that?  The gas tax is not keeping pace. 

Some say it's time to increase it by as much as eight cents.  It's currently 21 cents a gallon, the state gas tax, they think that would bring in $168 million annually in additional revenue for roads but many say, including the governor, this is the wrong time to do it in a recession.

And I'm wondering if the governor is telling them something different behind the scenes or if they're just ignoring him because as many times as he has said he's not fond of this we still have legislators that are saying we've got to push this.

Paul Yeager: However, there has been yet to be a true, absolutely no I will not sign it.

Jeneane Beck: No, he has not said he would veto it and governors hate to get put in that corner so we'll see.  It's very early on in the process, it's only in subcommittee so we'll see.

Paul Yeager: We'll see how much that would generate.  Very good, Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio, thank you so much for stopping by The Iowa Journal.  

Tags: Iowa news


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