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Democrats Promise Quick Action to Protect State Ban on Corporate Campaign Contributions PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Saturday, 23 January 2010 17:06

Iowa Democratic legislative leaders on Thursday promised to act "extremely quickly" to maintain the state's ban on corporate contributions to campaigns, following the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to strike down the central part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and allow corporations to spend as much as they wish to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress.

"We're going to do everything in our power to try to prevent this corporate decision from influencing our politics and if there's any options we have ... then we will move extremely quickly to pass legislation if we need to," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines. "We'll do everything we can to try to fix this situation. It's very troubling. It's very concerning."

But Republicans said Thursday's Supreme Court decision in Citizens v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned a ruling made 20 years ago, was a victory for free speech because it upheld the First Amendment rights of individuals and businesses.

"The First Amendment to the Constitution clearly states that Congress shall make no law 'abridging the freedom of speech,'" said U.S. Representative Steve King, R-Kiron. "The Constitution protects the rights of citizens and employers to express their viewpoints on political issues. Today's Supreme Court decision affirms the Bill of Rights and is a victory for liberty and free speech."

Iowa is among 24 states with a ban on corporate contributions to campaigns.

Charlie Smithson, director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, wrote quickly Thursday morning to state lawmakers to inform them about the impact of the high court's decision.

"The Supreme Court ruled today that the prohibition on corporations making contributions to candidates and PACs is unconstitutional," Smithson said. "I have yet to read the decision in its entirety, but it appears that Iowa Code section 68A.503 prohibiting corporate contributions is unconstitutional and unenforceable. Thus, corporations could legally make contributions from their operating funds.  Clearly this is an issue that we will need to discuss this session."

Smithson later noted, however, that there is a potential argument that the ruling would still prohibit direct contributions to candidates but would permit corporations to engage in independent expenditures that expressly advocate for or against candidates.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the issue is a priority and maintained that it has nothing to do with political party.

"I think it would be outrageous if Blackwater was able to have direct influence on political campaigns. Absolutely outrageous. We've got to find a way to deal with that," Gronstal said. "If Enron was in charge of things ... the amount of impact this could have on elections is severe."

"I fear for the survival of democracy," Gronstal said.

But House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said a corporation running ads for or against a candidate would be no different than ads currently run by unions such as AFSCME, so he's not sure that the Supreme Court ruling will result in any new competitive advantage.

"That already exists for all sort of other types of entities right now," Paulsen said. "The reality of it is in the state of Iowa, the law before this decision included LLCs, partnerships, sole proprietorship-type businesses and the unions. All that's been added is now corporations are added to that list."  

Paulsen said his biggest concern is that campaign contributions are publicly disclosed.

"I don't know that this changes any of our disclosure laws," he said. "I think Iowa's disclosure laws are pretty good. Some would argue that maybe we should have to disclosure a little more often. But that would be my primary concern."

Massive Reorganization Bill Advances to Senate Floor

A government reorganization bill estimated to cost the state $1.7 million this year but then save the state $28.9 and $66.7 million fiscal years 2011 and 2012 has passed the Senate State Government Committee on a 10-4 vote.

The proposed legislation would have no impact to other funds, such as local governments, this year but is expected to save those funds $14.2 million next year, and $42.4 million the year after that.

All of those numbers are far short of the $250 million Democratic leaders hoped to save. The fiscal impact also falls short of what was proposed by the governor's consultant, Public Works of Philadelphia, who offered 90 cost-saving recommendations that had the potential to save $341 million in the first year, and nearly $1.7 billion in the next five years.  

However, the reorganization bill does not contain an early retirement plan that is expected to save the state another $60 million.

Senator David Hartsuch, R-Bettendorf, called for a vote to defer on the bill just as the committee was ready to vote on it, saying he doesn't think there is enough information on what he called an omnibus bill.

"When we look at the size of this bill, the number of people that have interests in this, I don't think we've had adequate public discussion on that," Hartsuch said.

Senator Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington, immediately called for a Democratic caucus, and then said he would be willing to stay as long as it takes to pass the bill. "I would ask that if the other side needs more time, we give them the time, but that we stay and pass this bill today, and I object to deferring," he said. The vote to defer was defeated 10-4.

Democrats rejected claims from Republicans that the reorganization bill didn't allow for public comment, didn't have enough transparency and didn't accurately project savings.

"Under no circumstances do I think the depiction of this committee's work here today should be described as without public input," said Senator Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls. "There have been a number of opportunities for the public to provide input to this."

Senator Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, said he was disappointed that Republicans were not more supportive of the bill after an interim committee voted unanimously to recommend passage of many of the aspects of the government reorganization bill.

Senator Staci Appel, D-Ackworth, said many groups including taxpayers, state employees, the executive branch and the board of regents have all had a chance to weigh in on government reorganization. "Everybody's really had time to air and talk about it," she said. "It might not be perfect, but it will continue to move that way as we go forward to the floor."

Iowa in the Running for 'Race to the Top' Funds'

Governor Chet Culver has signed a bill designed to improve Iowa's chances of being awarded up to $175 million from the competitive "Race to the Top" grant program.

Iowa's seven largest school districts have chosen not to compete for a share of the $175 million because of a memorandum of understanding that would have required the school boards to negotiate with teachers unions on school improvement plans. Those seven districts house 20 of the 35 schools identified as persistently low-achieving.

The legislation aimed at helping Iowa's application to Race to the Top was signed into law about two hours after the Iowa House voted 56-37 along party lines to give final legislative approval to the bill. The Iowa Senate had approved the bill earlier in a 32-17 vote.

"I think it's embarrassing that we are forcing through legislation that the districts that we claim to care about are choosing not to participate in," said Representative Chris Rants, R-Sioux City. "What are we doing? The school districts that we want to help, the school districts that are failing, are not going to participate."

Ames, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Sioux City and Waterloo are among those that wouldn't get any federal grant money because they chose not to sign a memorandum of understanding that would require school boards to negotiate with teachers unions on school improvement plans. The union could also cause a school to lose its Title I funds.

"Make no mistake people, this is a gift to the union," said Representative Jodi Tymeson, R-Winterset, a licensed teacher and retired National Guard officer. "This is about expanding collective bargaining."

An amendment by House Republicans to remove the language allowing a teacher's union representative at the bargaining table during school turn-around strategy discussions failed, 39-52.

"After two months of negotiations, I'm extremely disappointed that school boards and administrators from the largest seven districts have walked away from our kids," said House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque. "Iowans know and trust their teachers to help our kids succeed.  If we are going to turn around low performing schools, we need everyone at the table, especially the teachers who work with our kids everyday."

Legislature Moves Forward on Banning Texting While Driving

Legislation banning Iowans from text messaging while driving has more legs at the Legislature this year with a national push underway for such legislation and new statistics showing an increase in both texting and accidents, a key lawmaker said.

"Once you get to see the number of accidents caused and how much of a distraction texting really is while driving, it really becomes a point of public safety, one that needs to be addressed," said Representative Brian Quirk, D-New Hampton, chair of the House Transportation Committee.

A subcommittee including Quirk, Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, and Rep. David Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, a retired state trooper, held its first meeting on the issue. The legislation is expected to combine elements from several different bills, including House Files 2021 and 2074.

Quirk said legislative leaders have indicated that if the bill comes through committee, it will be taken up on the House floor. It's still up for discussion, however, whether talking on the cell phone while driving would also be included in the proposed ban. Quirk noted that such communication is sometimes necessary among businesses or while driving in rural Iowa.

"To take that tool away from those folks, I think, is going to cause some problems," he said. "I'm a little apprehensive about banning cell phones. However, it's also a learning curve. So when we discuss the graduated drivers license (for new teen-age drivers), that may be part of the discussion too, is to ban cell phone use under the graduated drivers license program." 

Kate Moore, 16, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School with a 500-texts-a-day texting habit who last summer won the grand prize at the LG National Texting Championship in New York, spoke before the legislative subcommittee against texting while driving.

She acknowledged that a large majority of high-schoolers still want to text at red lights and in traffic.

"It's one of the few issues that I'm really passionate about and I feel like if there's a teenager, a U.S. national texting champion teenager, saying that I feel this way about it, maybe, if I can just change one person's view on it and make them stop texting, then I'd feel like I'd be successful," she said.

Governor Chet Culver has said he would sign a bill limiting the use of cell phones while driving, although he's not sure exactly how a bill on the matter this session would address the issue.

"I support the concept of doing more to limit distracted driving and increase public safety," Culver said. "How we get there exactly will be unclear. But I think the statistic really back up the fact that there are a lot of dangers and a lot of risks associated with distracted driving, and I think it's likely there will be some consensus, enough consensus anyway, to get a bill done this session."

Two Reports Recommend Digital Recording in Classrooms

The final report of the judicial branch's DART Committee said digital recording technology can reliably record words spoken in court and produce accurate transcripts, but a letter sent separately by the 10 of the 18 committee members to chief judges said the move wouldn't save money and strongly advocates for keeping court reporters.

"We write separately to express our opinion that Iowa's certified court reporters are an invaluable asset to the state's judicial system," wrote the 10 committee members. "Court reporters are much more than just transcribers of the record in a court proceeding. They demonstrate well-honed skills in managing courtrooms and in assisting trial judges in navigating the volume of cases handled in Iowa's courthouses every day."

"It is not feasible simply to install DART equipment as a replacement for certified stenographic court reporters," the letter said. "A qualified, effectively trained and certified court employee must manage the DART system in every courtroom."

The report of the Digital Audio/Video Recording Technology Committee estimated it would initially cost $6.3 million to $7.9 million for all 316 courtrooms in 99 counties to be equipped with mid-level equipment. That would increase to between $7.9 million and $9.5 million for high-end equipment.

But committee members said in the letter: "The implementation of DART will not achieve a reduction in costs. Rather, on top of the significant outlay of hardware expenses, DART will require more personnel spending as qualified support staff will have to be hired to provide legal secretarial, clerical, court attendant and administrative support currently provided by most court reporters."

A separate report released by the Conference of State Court Administrators said state courts should move to digital recording as the method for making the verbatim record, with the possible exceptions for complex civil and capital criminal cases where real-time or stenographic reporting are specifically designated.

That report contrasts with the letter written by 10 DART Committee members to chief judges, which concluded that an Iowa certified court reporter must be responsible for the record in a felony, juvenile, or civil jury trial to maintain the high standard demanded for Iowa appellate review.

Despite the two favorable reports on using digital audio recording technology in courtrooms, "the court has no plan to displace court reporters," Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus said in her Condition of the Judiciary speech before a joint session of the Legislature.

Ternus said the evaluation of the technology is just the first step in determining whether Iowa courts should join 26 other states and federal courts in using it.

Branstad Officially Launches Campaign

Former Republican Governor Terry Branstad officially launched his 2010 campaign for governor at the State Historical Building on Tuesday, briefly outlining five major goals he has set for Iowa as he begins a 17-city tour of the state.

Branstad said he would "start by getting Iowa's fiscal house in order," highlighting a $900 million budget surplus the state had when he left office and the current budget shortfall that he valued at nearly a billion dollars.

"In just a little over a decade that massive surplus has been squandered," Branstad told supporters and the press. "So balancing the state budget and restoring fiscal discipline to state government is our highest priority. When we get that done, the rest of our dreams and goals are possible."

Branstad's other goals include creating 200,000 new jobs for Iowans, growing family incomes by 25 percent, reducing the cost of government by at least 15 percent and improving education.

"Government spending has skyrocketed, yet our population has remained relatively the same," Branstad said. "We have more government than we can afford. We must reduce its size and scope, we must set priorities and we need to be more efficient."

Although Branstad's speech was short on details for accomplishing his goals, he said the record employment and budget surplus the state experienced under his watch "didn't happen by accident."

The same day Branstad launched his effort, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Michael Kiernan kicked off a 13-city "Terry vs. Terry" tour at the State Historical Building, outlining what he said are contradictions between former Republican Governor Terry Branstad's record in office and his current campaign for re-election.

"You can't have it both ways," Kiernan said. "You can't say you want to run based on your experience, your leadership and your record, and then run against your record."

Kiernan pointed to sales taxes, balancing the budget, eliminating federal deductibility and bonding as four areas where Branstad's past and present don't match up.

"We find it kind of ironic that today Terry Branstad is announcing his candidacy for governor at the State Historical Society," Kiernan said. "As we talk about the elections of 2010, the real question is, 'Are we going to turn back the hands of time or talk about the future?'" is an online government and politics news service with a free Web site at Reporter Andrew Duffelmeyer contributed to this report.

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