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2008 Legislative Session Discussion

posted on March 21, 2008

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Borg: Closing in on the target. The 100-day target for Iowa's 2008 legislative session is April 22nd. Progress perspectives from Iowa statehouse reporters on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at thinkindependently.com.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, March 21st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowa's legislature is starting to have contractions. The second self-imposed contraction, legislators call it the funnel, comes next week purging legislation that isn't ready for floor debate. As the thinning process continues, though, a couple of hot topic bills are in the mix and one is Governor Chet Culver's aim to sweep more kinds of bottles and cans into Iowa's 30-year-old recycling law along with stalled legislation that would be banning smoking in public places and a new issue emerging this week, collective bargaining. We're getting background perspective from statehouse reporters today -- Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover, Iowa Public Radio Statehouse Correspondent Jeneane Beck and Lee Newspaper's Capitol Bureau Chief Charlotte Eby. Charlotte, I said there was a new issue that emerged this week and it was a surprise, collective bargaining.

Eby: It was, without warning House Democrats moved forward on Wednesday with a measure that would significantly expand the leverage that public employee unions have at the bargaining table. It would allow them to discuss and bargain on a wide range of new issues including worker safety, other types of working conditions, staffing levels and even class sizes for teachers.

Borg: Why, Mike, is that significant?

Glover: That is significant because it allows -- currently the collective bargaining law allows public employee unions to negotiate with their employers and we're talking counties, cities, the state, schools but over a very limited range of topics mainly wages and stuff like vacation, things like that.

Borg: That was a bargain struck way back when it was first announced.

Glover: 1974 and I have to say, Dean, I was working in the state when it happened. But the point being is it's a very tightly controlled law. You can only negotiate over a very limited range of things. Now you have a situation where if this bill becomes law, and I think it will eventually, teachers can go in and negotiate over class size issues, how much time they should have to prepare for class, review discipline and termination. Workers will all have a voice in that and that would be something that employers would have to negotiate. It's a very significant thing. And you said it was a surprise and it was that it came up this week but we shouldn't have been taken aback by that. Think back to Governor Culver's Condition of the State speech where he said we shouldn't be afraid to debate emotional topics like labor relations. We all thought he was talking about fair share that was debated last year but there are a wide range of labor management issues out there and he said we ought to be ready to talk about them and they are.

Borg: Jeneane, from what Mike just said, yes there was a hint in Governor Culver's Condition of the State Address if you can interpret that, you know, this reference to don't be afraid. But it did come right out of the blue. Was the timing significant though?

Beck: Yes, the majority leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, admits he timed this vote so that there wouldn't be a lot of debate. He attempted to quell debate, they didn't take up this amendment to this more non-controversial bill in committee, they didn't let Republicans know it was coming, the amendment suddenly surfaces, Republicans are hot under the collar. So, from there the debate just went crazy. And they said that school board administrators didn't have time to come lobby their lawmakers on it. They said city administration officials didn't have time to come tell legislators what they thought about it. And those groups both think that it could increase their government budgets as more perks or benefits are negotiated for unions. And so that is the fear.

Borg: Kay, that is part of the strategy I would guess to pull a stealth like this out of the hat because the opposition doesn't have time to organize.

Henderson: The opposition, as it were at the statehouse, was trying to dig in and they were actually calling folks at home, even waking folks up to tell them that this was happening. And one person who is part of the opposition admitted to me that this was a brilliant tactic because they weren't prepared, this was not on the list of items which they thought most likely that Democrats would pursue. Of course, Republicans have been charging that this is payback to unions who back Democrats in the fall in 2006 and help them win control of the legislature.

Glover: And it's more than a little bit of disgenuence going on here. Anybody who thinks this is a surprise is lying to us. Democrats got elected with the backing of public sector unions. Republicans get elected with backing of business and anti-union forces. Anybody who thinks a pro-labor bill emerging in the Democratic legislature is kidding you. Of course, elections have consequences. Voters in 2006 elected a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic Governor. Did they do that expecting that Democratic controlled government would not do anything to the people who elected them?

Henderson: And Mike mentioned earlier a proposal called fair share which would have required that as they negotiate contracts folks who are covered by the union contract but choose not to be members of the union and pay the union dues would have to pay a fee for certain negotiated services ...

Borg: That came up a year ago and hit a firestorm.

Henderson: Exactly and so this is a separate proposal which I think by any stretch of the imagination is more far reaching. It affects thousands upon thousands of public employees across the state.

Glover: Which really stuck me, Kay, that there was this enormous firestorm over the fair share proposal which is really a very limited proposal which doesn't affect a lot of people. First of all, before it could go into force an employer would have to agree to it. So, it would affect not very many people. This would affect every public employee in this state, every teacher in this state would have a broad range of things they can negotiate. This is far more sweeping.

Borg: Charlotte, based on what Mike has just said and I only ask for your perspective but I'm going to ask is this bill, if it eventually makes its way and gets signed by Governor Culver, as Mike has predicted he thinks it will pass, do you think this is the major legislation that could come out of this session of the legislature?

Eby: I think so, it's very far reaching. As we talked about it was historic back when collective bargaining laws were passed more than three decades ago. This affects so many people throughout the state. And it also has some financial implications. That is what Republicans want to talk about. They want to say this will raise your taxes at the local level, people will have higher property tax bills as a result of this and they'll take that to the campaign trail.

Borg: Are there political implications?

Beck: Well, of course there are political implications. Those that supported Democrats before might be happy about this, at least the unions will be happy. They have been upset that in this first two years of the Democratic control that they hadn't received sort of any payback yet so they'll be happy. But Republicans will definitely campaign on this and there is an anti-union sentiment among Republicans and even some sort of independent voters. So, yes, this will definitely have ramifications. I would say the only thing that could rival this is if anti-smoking legislation is approved. That would be the only other thing that I think could rival this in landmark legislation this session.

Glover: And I find more than a little hypocrisy going on at the hill with all this massive outrage I hear from Republicans. When voters elected a Republican legislature and a Republican government the two years that Terry Branstad had a Republican legislature within two months that Republican legislature enacted the entire legislative agenda of the Association of Business and Industry and nobody said a thing about it. It was expected. We elected Republicans, they're going to enact Republican legislation. Well, this year they elected Democrats and they're going to enact Democratic legislation.

Borg: Kay, let's go to that smoking ban. It's been alluded to here already. Are we going to be smoke-free statewide in public places?

Henderson: It's hard to look at the membership of a ten member conference committee which was appointed this week and see that there is an easy path to agreement among those ten people. To resolve this issue they have taken five members of the House and five members of the Senate and appointed them to this panel to try to hammer out the differences between what the House would like to see pursued if there is a statewide smoking ban and what the Senate would like to see pursued. If your listeners aren't up on what's behind this the Senate has basically voted to require that all public places in Iowa be smoke-free including casinos, bars and restaurants. The House has twice voted to allow smoking to continue at the casinos and they also have shown a great preference to allowing bars and at least some restaurants to continue to allow their patrons to smoke. So, bridging that gap seems to be difficult, I think even more difficult when you look at the membership of the committee and what each of those people have voted for in the past and the fact that the people who are leading that committee are freshmen lawmakers.

Glover: I think there is a solution here that is I think where they're going to end up. First of all, I think there will be a statewide smoking ban enacted before it's out. And the exemptions that have been talked about are bars and restaurants, casinos, the Veteran's Home in Marshalltown and veteran's facilities. Well, the Veteran's Home in Marshalltown and veteran facilities is not a huge deal. I think the initial compromise, the final compromise will be they'll allow smoking in casinos and they'll allow smoking in the veteran's places and they'll ban it in bars and restaurants. That is the middle ground that I think will end up on the books this year.

Borg: Charlotte, I'll go back to you now. I thought just looking and observing that the beverage container proposal to enlarge that beyond soft drinks to water containers and things like that by Governor Culver in his Condition of the State, I thought that was dead this session. All of a sudden it seems to have been given CPR by the Lieutenant Governor this week.

Eby: It has indeed. It actually was the House Environmental Protection Committee that revived this legislation. Donovan Olson leads that committee and he has really pushed is colleagues to adopt some more environmentally friendly practices just around the statehouse.

Borg: With little jam from the Governor's office?

Eby: I think so. I think they're also getting some feedback from the public. A lot of environmentalists, even just regular folks that don't want to see so many bottles and cans littering the roadside say, you know, it's time to do this. I'd like to get money back when I take my water bottles back, I'd like to be able to take those back to a store or a redemption center.

Borg: But, Jeneane, the grocers strongly oppose that. Is that lobbying going to prevail?

Beck: Well, it's interesting because I thought this was dead when Senator Mike Gronstal who leads the Democrats in the Senate told the grocers essentially don't worry, we're not going to pass anything and then it did come out of a House committee. But this is very complicated and there are ...

Borg: What's complicated about it?

Beck: Well, what's complicated is we all think it's just a matter of slapping five cents on these containers and taking them back to the store. But when you talk about manufacturers who now have to create a different kind of bottle because they want to sell it in Iowa and they have to label it and then distributors have to figure out, okay, which locations do I sell these at compared to other states that border us that don't have the bottle deposit law. It's more complicated than you think and that is why it doesn't get done is because there are so many competing groups. Iowans I think in majority do think it's a good idea to include these containers. But I don't think they understand the complications behind the scenes and what groups may have to raise the price of that water and Gatorade because of the deposit.

Glover: And I think you're right in one thing, Dean, the initial proposal that Governor Culver made to increase the deposit on bottles, increase the handling fee for people handling them, that is dead, that's not going to happen. I think at the end of the day they will expand the list of containers that the bottle deposit bill covers and I think in part because you have a Democratic Governor who in most approval ratings shows he's fairly popular, this is one of the centerpieces of his legislative agenda. You have a Democratic legislature that is going to find a way to give him something. They're not going to give him everything he wants but they'll find a way at the end of the day to give him something. They'll expand a number of containers. I don't know they'll go all the way but they'll give him something on it.

Borg: But if that happens the grocers lose all the way around, they don't get any more money and they're going to have more bottles and cans.

Glover: There are winners and losers in everything, Dean.

Borg: Thanks for your insight. Let's go down to something else and that is potholes, Kay. Road use tax fund is short, a big hole in that, several million dollars?

Henderson: $200 million annually.

Borg: Right, annually. And we have potholes and there is a proposal not only for potholes, well before the potholes to have an increase in the gas tax. But then gas went up and it didn't seem to be politically wise to do it. Wouldn't you think that this is the timing that's good to do it?

Henderson: Well, Governor Culver several months ago before the legislature even convened said he would not sign a bill which raised the gas tax. Now as we've come out of this winter and roads are revealed to be in incredibly poor shape, we're driving into potholes with our vehicles every day people are starting to talk about if there ever is a time to raise the gas tax it's now because people see the effects of maintenance deferred on Iowa's road system. There is also the argument that with gas ranging in price so rapidly, one day it's $3.09 a gallon, the next day it's $3.05 a gallon that consumers might not see a two or three cent increase per gallon in their gas tax.

Borg: They won't see the fluctuations?

Henderson: It gets lost in the incredible fluctuations that we're seeing at the gas pump right now. And so if ever there is a time to raise the gas tax it's now. However, there is legislation moving at the statehouse on both the House and Senate side which would instead raise significantly the license fees which Iowans pay when they purchase a new vehicle. It also would impact the fees which pickup truck owners buy although there are competing proposals whereby the House is more inclined to be nice to farmers ...

Borg: Bottom line, are they likely to go up or not?

Henderson: This one is hard to tell because there is certainly a behind the scenes movement in the past couple of weeks to try to give that gas tax a little bit of a boost.

Glover: The gas tax is not going to happen this year, fees will happen and the reason gas tax is not going to happen -- Kay is exactly right -- the Governor publicly before the legislature came in took the gas tax off the table, said I will not sign it. He can't flip on that in the middle of a session. I think the same problem they had when the gas tax increase came up last year they're having this year which is they have not taken this issue to voters. Everybody says voters now see the holes in the roads, voters are now willing -- well, take it to the vote, say I want to run for the legislature and I want to raise the gas tax to fix your roads and make your highways better. If you get elected then it will happen. So, it will have to go to voters before it happens.

Eby: And one of the arguments that they can make when they go to the voters on the gas tax is that the burden won't fall squarely on Iowans. You have out-of-state truckers on I-80, I-35 that will pay for part of this.

Glover: Most of it.

Borg: And Jeneane, there's still time -- I talked as I entered this program about the funnels and we're getting near a target date and so on ...

Beck: Tax legislation is exempt from any of those deadlines. They can work on tax and fee legislation right up to the last day and it may take right up to the last day and I do agree with Mike that the gas tax probably won't happen this session. But the fee increases on your annual registration of your vehicle, those are going to go up, get ready for it. And they admit that and I think both sides are bound and determined they have to do something on that because of the shortfall.

Glover: And they've done a very smart thing and Kay referred to it is they have put those higher fees only when you buy a new vehicle. So, if you've got a car right now when you go to register your car again next year it won't change at all.

Borg: Grandfathered in.

Glover: Grandfathered in so it doesn't affect anybody right now. It only affects those people going to buy a new car.

Borg: What about, Jeneane, the statewide sales tax?

Beck: Well, also exempt from the funnel deadline so you can see that negotiation continue until the last day.

Borg: And that is an extra penny that all 99 counties now have for school infrastructure needs.

Beck: It essentially, you wouldn't notice any more when you go to buy that blazer or tie, Dean, because it is already on the books in 99 counties but it would be a statewide tax so that the money would be more evenly distributed among districts that don't have a lot of sales tax revenue. So, rural districts ...

Borg: Why is that being stalled then?

Beck: Well, because there's so many competing interests. A lot of rural districts like this because they'll get more revenue out of that. There are some larger districts that are sales tax rich and don't want to share their revenue with those rural districts. You also have some liberal lawmakers who think that the sales tax is regressive and hurts lower income families more than it does higher income families and in some places they can pass bond referendums for their schools so they don't feel an obligation to do this and then you also have very conservative Republicans who say, you know what, this was supposed to be a locally voted on issue, I don't want to take it away from voters and make it statewide. They should get to decide every ten years ...

Glover: Let's say I'm a resident or superintendent of the Des Moines school system, I have a local option sales tax on the books and I keep the money and use it for my schools. Now, under this I raised the money for the sales tax which is mostly purchased in the City of Des Moines and I give it to Indianola to help them build their schools. Am I going to like that if I'm a Des Moines resident? Probably not.

Henderson: And there was also a development this week, there were some very controversial proponents of this, components of this whereby there was an increase tax on vehicle fees that people who are crafting this proposal have agreed should not be part of it. In addition they are going to do something called a preamble, and I think we all memorized the preamble to the U.S. Constitution during our schools days, this is not something we're going to memorize but it addresses a key concern of many Republican members that this money never be used for anything other than bricks and mortar projects in Iowa schools. So, they are going to specify that the legislators intend for this money to always be used for bricks and mortar, not for teacher salaries.

Beck: Or property tax, it could be used for that as well. And the final caveat, they've said we agree to sunset this tax in 20 years and force the legislature to vote again because they are concerned that this would just be in perpetuity and no one would ever get a chance to speak on this issue.

Glover: And the legislation next year could reverse all that with one word called notwithstanding.

Borg: Was this week a filing deadline? Last week, okay, we're a few days past it then. But what does that tell you and other people about future control of the legislature?

Glover: It tells us what we knew going in which is Republicans have a fairly steep hill to climb to get control of the legislature. In the Senate it's a very difficult task for them. Republicans are defending 14 Senate seats, Democrats are defending 11 Senate seats. Of those 14 Senate seats six Republicans are retiring so they have six open seats to defend. Democrats have one open seat to defend and it's a very Democratic district, they can't lose. So, it's a very tough hill for Republicans in the Senate. The House is a much more complicated thing. There are 39 incumbent Republicans running again and there are 49 incumbent Democrats running again. So, the Democrats start off one short of retaining their majority because you assume that unless extraordinary things happen the incumbents probably win. So, it's a steep hill for Republicans.

Borg: So, now we know the candidates, that filing deadline was late last week. We know the candidates now in all the legislative districts?

Glover: There is an opportunity this summer at state party conventions to nominate candidates in districts where they couldn't find one earlier. The history dictates those candidates don't do very well.

Borg: And Jeneane, Tom Harkin is running. Of course, we now know whether or not he's going to have significant opposition.

Beck: He'll have opposition. I don't know yet whether you want to call it significant.

Borg: I shouldn't have used significant.

Beck: But there are a couple of Republicans who have offered themselves up as a candidate. One of them is George Eichorn and I was surprised when I saw the headline that he was going to run for the Senate. I thought he meant the Iowa Senate. This is a gentleman who lost his House seat, a Republican who lost his statehouse seat and so he doesn't run from a strong position of power as a losing representative in the Iowa House to now run for the U.S. Senate. But nevertheless his name is on the ballot. So, Tom Harkin will have opposition eventually when one of these Republicans is selected.

Glover: Steve Raske, a Cedar Rapids businessman is probably the most serious candidate running against Tom Harkin. The last FEC fund he had $58 in the bank and debts of about $20,000. We don't make predictions in politics but I would predict that Tom Harkin is going to run unless the Republicans nominate Charlotte.

Borg: Charlotte, you're going to have the last word on that one.

Eby: The eventual Republican nominee is going to have to fight against a $3.4 million war chest that Senator Harkin has amassed. He has been described as having the best ground organization in the state for Democrats. He's going to be tough to beat.

Borg: And that's why I use significant because it does depend a lot on that war chest, as you say, for campaigning.

Henderson: The other really interesting thing about Harkin was during his announcement tour of the state where he was telling folks that he was running he really adopted the language that Barack Obama has been using on the campaign trail. He mentioned change a few dozen times in his eleven minute announcement speech.

Glover: And in that announcement speech the most significant theme of that announcement, I know Charlotte picked up on this, he didn't make that pitch to Democrats because he's assuming his democratic base is safe. He made that pitch directly to Republicans. I want Republicans to join my team which tells me Tom Harkin doesn't want to win this race, Tom Harkin wants a blow out.

Borg: Well, and he'd like to have that because he's had some really nip and tuck ones.

Glover: This is the first time in Tom Harkin's political career which goes back more than 30 years that the Republicans are essentially giving him a pass.

Borg: Governor Culver is not running this year, Mike, but can you see that he's setting the stage for re-election?

Glover: Well, he's actively putting in place a re-election campaign. He's clearly setting out a set of policy proposals that he can use as a set of accomplishments. He's got a campaign team in place. He's got the capacity to raise money. He's actively doing that. Yeah, he's running again and I haven't heard of a significant Republican who is running against him.

Borg: Ed Fallon, Leonard Boswell, how is that shaping up, Jeneane?

Beck: Well, it's been interesting. Things are a little tusky between the two. They are exchanging words often and I think I saw that former Representative Fallon this week is trying to figure out where to attack Leonard Boswell. He's been attacking his record but he's trying to be careful not to make the mistakes that Republicans have which they have often called him ineffective and sort of said he's old. And I think Ed Fallon is trying to steer away from that. He's saying well I respect his war service, I respect his record but I can do better. So, I think he's trying to walk this fine line of how do I criticize this man when clearly it has failed in the past for some Republicans.

Henderson: You picked up on something, again, that has been discussed at the presidential campaign level, talking about NAFTA and trade policy. He really hammered Boswell over the past week about a trade policy.

Glover: And one of the things he's got going for him, Ed Fallon has a very tight network of very liberal supporters who are very highly organized, very highly motivated and they will vote and there's not much on a ballot in this primary on June 3rd and so turnout we expect will be relatively low and so that tightly organized network of liberal backers could be important.

Borg: In our final seconds you're a student of the caucuses. Update us on -- I know it's four years away ...

Glover: The debate has already started, they're already meeting trying to figure out a way to create a calendar which will keep Iowa first, they'll create a calendar at the national nominating conventions this summer. That will only begin the debate. The debate will rage on for the next four years. The problem Iowa will have is that several states moved in this cycle and got away with it. That's going to encourage other states to move too. But when they adopt the calendar this summer don't think that's the end of the debate, that's the beginning.

Borg: We are at the end of our conversation here. Thank you very much for your insights today. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're talking with one of Iowa's freshman Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley of Waterloo who just announced that he's running again representing Iowa's first congressional district. He wants to keep it in the Democratic column as he runs for that second term. You'll see our conversation with Congressman Bruce Braley at the usual time, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Archive editions of Iowa Press can be accessed on the World Wide Web. Audio and video streaming is available as are transcripts at www.iptv.org.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities where faculty teach and students learn. Iowa's Private Colleges employ over 10,000 Iowans and enroll 25% of Iowa's higher education students. More information is available at thinkindependently.com.


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