Lawmakers Work to Adjourn 2009 Session Next Week Print
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
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Friday, 17 April 2009 17:49

Iowa lawmakers are focusing on budget, bonding, federal deductibility and sex offender legislation as the Legislature works to adjourn the 2009 session next week, but other bills such as one that would increase Iowa's compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17 is a "long shot" at this point, Democratic legislative leaders said Thursday.

"Listen, we're going to get the work done we need to get done and then we're going to get out of here as quickly as possible," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. "That work includes everything that we can get enough votes to pass. We've got to pass a budget, we're working on that. I'm confident we will get a bonding bill. And there are a number of other issues that we may, in fact, find consensus on to pass."

Democrats late this week released initial details of their new $700 million bonding proposal. Bonding for infrastructure is a top priority this year for Gov. Chet Culver, who called his plan I-JOBS and went on a statewide tour to promote the plan. However, the legislative proposal does not contain any money for roads and bridges as proposed by Culver.

"I continue to believe we'll get a bonding bill through this session of the Legislature," Gronstal said. "I think there are disaster-ravaged communities in this state that need our help and we're going to step up and help those communities. That makes sense, I think, to the vast majority of all Iowans."

But Republicans view bonding as an opportunity to spend more. They remain increasingly critical in the closing days of the 2009 session of budgetary decisions being made without details of how federal stimulus money will be used. They pointed to the thousands who showed up for Wednesday's Tax Day Tea Party at the Capitol as proof that Iowans are fed up with government overspending.

"If yesterday's Tea Party is any indication, Iowans are tired of the overspending and the attempts to constantly increase our taxes," Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, said Thursday. "They continue to take a head-in-the-sand approach to budgeting and it is not fiscally responsible and it will lead to unsustainable budgets for our state. Iowans want less spending, they want transparency and openness and they want their elected officials to listen to them."

Republicans also pointed to a spreadsheet released this week for the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund budget bill as an example of the hypocrisy. Rep. Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, called it a "porkulus bill" because he said it's full of pork like $500,000 for the Blank Park Zoo and $200,000 for the Tai Village Roadway.

"The concerns that we had appear are going to play out," said House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. "When we're all said and done, despite the talk of all the cuts and the 6.5 percent and the 1.5 percent across-the-board cut the governor did, when we're done fiscal 2010, there's going to be more spending than the state has ever done in its entire history."

Many issues remain as the Iowa Legislature tries to shut down next week:

* Sex Offenders: Proposed changes to Iowa's controversial law that prevents sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and daycares. Under the current proposal, the 2,000-foot rule would be changed so it would only apply to the most serious offenders. Convicted sex offenders would be prohibited from loitering or working within 300 feet of new "exclusionary zones" that includes places that groups of children frequent such as schools, libraries and child care centers without permission from administrators.

* Federal Deductibility: The House has 50 votes, the Senate has 26, according to Democratic leaders. "I'm actually a little surprised Republicans in the Legislature are against tax cuts," Gronstal said. "What a difference being in the minority makes. They're against tax cuts. We have a very modest proposal out there to provide tax cuts to Iowans in the middle class, Iowans who pay more than their fair share now. This effort corrects that."

* Marriage: Republicans will continue to call for a chance to debate a constitutional amendment that marriage is between one man and one woman in reaction to the Iowa Supreme Court decision in Varnum v. Brien legalizing same-sex marriage.

* Gessow: A motion to reconsider the confirmation of DHS Director Gene Gessow can still be taken up until the Senate adjourns for the year, although it appears unlikely that the votes will change. "One would hope Republicans would come to their senses, but hope is fading," Gronstal said.

* Labor Bills: The "choice of doctor" bill resurfaced in subcommittee Thursday and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said there was a chance for an agreement to make the bill less controversial. Paulsen called it "one last scramble" by Democrats to revive labor issues. "I don't see great success on any of those things, but again, we're being vigilant," Paulsen said.


The Iowa Senate this week rejected on a 31-19 vote Gov. Chet Culver's pick of Gene Gessow as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services. Also rejected 30-20 were Carrie LaSeur to the Iowa Power Fund Board and by a 32-18 vote Shearon Elderkin's appointment to the Environmental Protection Commission.

Confirmation of the governor's appointees requires two-thirds of the Senate, so majority Democrats need the help of at least two Republicans to confirm an appointee. They didn't get it..

"The Senate Republicans have very grave concerns about Director Gessow and those concerns stem from a failure of him to be forthright on the Atalissa issue," said Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton.

"The one thing we know from the citizens of Iowa, they're extremely frustrated and what we need is much more transparency in government, we need much more honesty and much more openness from officials in state government," McKinley said. "Certainly we did not believe that that was present when Gessow appeared before the oversight committee. ... We believe that Director Gessow was not forthcoming."

A day earlier, about 50 people in the human services field turned out at a news conference with Culver to speak in favor Gessow.
"I am here for one simple reason: To ask the Republican members of the state Senate to put partisan politics aside and to confirm Gene Gessow as director of the Department of Human Services," said Culver, who said he stood by Gessow as his choice.

"I think it's important to remind the minority party that the election is over," Culver said. "That one of the privileges a new administration enjoys is to appoint people to 160 boards and commissions and to appoint directors at the various agencies. After the next election, maybe that will change, but that's how it is for now and we hope that they respect that responsibility that I have."

Midnight April 15 was the deadline for the Senate to consider the confirmation of Gessow, who has been director for the past six months. A motion to reconsider was put on Gessow's confirmation, meaning that it could theoretically be taken up again before the end of the session. However, Republicans say they are unlikely to change their votes.

Culver said it's clear that Gessow is the right person to lead the Department of Human Services, and his record speaks for itself.
"Within hours of the stunning revelations at Atalissa, Gene Gessow successfully shepherded the men of Henry's Turkey Service to safety, sending 38 social workers to Atalissa immediately to help with the men's short and long term needs," Culver said. "And while serving on the Dependent Adult Abuse Task Force, he has made it clear: the lessons of Atalissa will always be remembered for Iowans with disabilities."

The governor said he still plans to ask Gessow, LaSeur and Elderkin to serve Iowa state government in other capacities. He must make new appointments to replace those who were rejected. A new DHS director will take office on May 1 and will have until April 15, 2010 to be confirmed by the Senate.

"We will find an opportunity for those individuals and hopefully including Gene to continue to serve in whatever capacity in might be," Culver said. "Governors have a lot of flexibility in terms of putting people into different positions and different boards and different commissions. If they think they're accomplishing something by taking down any one of these three people, the fact of the matter is, I will still find ways, if they're willing, to be a part of the Culver/Judge administration and to serve the people."

McKinley said the failed confirmation of Carrie La Seur to the Iowa Power Fund Board was largely because of her role in the decision by Alliant Energy not to build its Marshalltown coal plant. He said Elderkin misrepresented her positions and failed to be forthright.


The Iowa House currently has 50 votes for the bill that would eliminate federal deductibility, House Speaker Pat Murphy told reporters this week, adding that he's optimistic that the House will get the 51 votes needed to pass the bill before the session adjourns.

Murphy said two lawmakers switched their position on House File 807 from "yes" to "no" after Gov. Chet Culver changed the bill to make it a $52 million tax cut, rather than being revenue neutral.

"I think that slowed down the process, or I think we would have had that bill done two weeks ago," Murphy said. "Before the governor rewrote it, we did have 52. We do still think we can get to 51 votes and pass the bill, so it's still a live round."

Murphy's comments came as Iowans for Tax Relief President Ed Failor Jr. and a handful of Democrats were predicting the bill was dead for the session. But Murphy said "I'm still very optimistic that we'll get it passed."

A new fiscal note on the federal deductibility bill showed that Iowa income taxpayers would pay $500,000 more in fiscal year 2009, would see a tax cut of $27.3 million in fiscal year 2010, but then would pay $45.1 million more in FY2011, $154.9 million more in FY2012 and $153.9 million more in FY2013.

"The analysis shows in four of the next five years the bill will force Iowans to pay higher taxes," Failor said. "If the repeal of federal deductibility is such a good deal for Iowa taxpayers then why do the numbers never show it, and why has there not been debate on the bill?  It's because the more layers we peel off this onion, the more it stinks."

The new Legislative Services Agency analysis shows the impact to the state budget in fiscal years. That differs from the Iowa Department of Revenue analysis last week, which showed the effect on taxpayers in calendar years.

Murphy and House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Shomshor maintained that Iowans will see a $55 million tax cut under the bill, and that all of the $505 million resulting from eliminating federal deductibility will be given back to Iowans, mostly those who are middle- to low-income.

"We are collecting $2.9 billion right now and we will make sure that we collect $2.9 billion next year -- not a penny more, not a penny less," Murphy said. "We are making sure that whatever we eliminate in federal deductibility goes right back into the pockets of Iowans. The bill that's before us would still cut another $52 million in taxes."


More than 1,000 people -- some say as many as 3,000 -- showed up to the west steps of the Iowa Capitol Wednesday for an anti-taxation, anti-government rally called the Des Moines Tea Party. Organizer and West Des Moines businessman Charlie Gruschow said the goal is "to start another revolution across America."

"We hope that people will leave here inspired, informed and become active in their community," Gruschow said.

Frank Coll of Des Moines attended the event today and said he thinks the government has taken leave to do whatever it wants in recent years.

"I'm not worried about me because my life is about done," Coll said. "My son, my daughter-in-law, I'll do anything I can to help them. It's all revolved around taking our country back and that's what has to happen."

Coll said he would prefer for change to happen peacefully, but said force must be used if absolutely necessary. "I feel we can vote them out and get people in that have the traditional values and aren't going to sell us out," Coll said.

Gruschow said a series of tea parties took place across the state and the country today, including in Council Bluffs, Davenport, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Marion, Iowa City, Sioux City, Spencer and Waterloo.

"I've been involved in different rallies across Iowa for many years and I've never seen people as moved as they are today," Gruschow said. "Not just here in Iowa, but across the country."

Tina Lyon of Des Moines said she thinks a lot of the picket signs were clever -- hers was for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul -- but she came out to see how many people were interested in the same issues as her.

"Really I'm here to see how fired up how people really are," Lyon said. "I've been watching what's been going on at the Statehouse, and they've been pushing through a lot of things the people don't want. The real change should hopefully come in the next two years."

A common theme of the event was the U.S. Constitution, something many speakers and crowd members -- including Lyon -- said lawmakers are not paying enough attention to.

"First and foremost I think that our legislators need to be held to the oath of protecting the Constitution," Lyon said. "I think a lot of the problems we're experiencing have to do with not respecting the rule of law."

Gruschow agreed, saying "there's so many changes" that he'd like to see in government.

"Term limits would be a good place to start," Gruschow said. "Congress obeying the same laws that they pass for us to obey. And then we've got the issue of government spending and all the programs. They don't prosecute the laws that they have on the books right now. We're concerned."


Republicans unsuccessfully attempted this week to bring up same-sex marriage issue on the Iowa Senate floor as an amendment to a bill dealing with identity theft protection. It was the first such attempt in the Senate; three attempts have been made in the House since the April 3 Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, introduced the amendment that would exempt county recorders from being prosecuted or removed from office for refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple due to a matter of personal conscience.

Bartz said one county recorder had e-mailed him and said they had considered resigning instead of issuing same-sex marriage licenses. "The interesting part about this whole situation is that it is the county recorders who are stuck in the middle," Bartz said.
"The county recorders of the state of Iowa, given the duty of issuing the licenses, are now in a quandary," Bartz said. "They're in a quandary because they are elected officials of the state of Iowa and they are in a quandary because in some cases the principles that they believe in individually are contrary to the principles of the office they hold."

But Senate President Jack Kibbie ruled that the amendment was not germane to the bill, which makes changes to the duties of county recorders, the fees collected by the county recorders, and the county land record information system. Republicans immediately went to caucus after the ruling.

"This bill and previous amendments dealt with the electronic filings, would deal with land recording, it does not deal with the subject matter in this amendment," said Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg.

Meanwhile, the Iowa State Patrol confirmed that openly gay Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, received a death threat and other legislators, including Sen. Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, and Rep. Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, have received harassing phone calls and e-mails regarding their stance on the Iowa Supreme Court's Varnum v. Brien decision.

Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, called for civility in the same-sex marriage debate when he learned that some legislators had been harassed and threatened.

"I would just ask everybody in this chamber and all across Iowa that as we discuss issues, many of them controversial, and none as controversial as the Supreme Court ruling, that we engage in civil discourse," Johnson said. "We can do that and remember that our job here is to represent the people back home."


President Obama's visit to Newton next Wednesday to talk about energy will be a chance for Iowa to showcase its advancement in wind energy. The announcement of the president's visit came the same week that the American Wind Energy Association said Iowa had passed California and is now second in the nation in wind power generating capacity.

"We're excited that the president of the United States is coming to Newton, Iowa," Newton Mayor Chaz Allen said Thursday. "I think it's a testimony to the people of Newton and the resurgence after Maytag. We still have some issues we have to work through, but we've been to capitalize on the wind industry, which is one of his priorities, with TPI and Trinity."

Newton officials and residents were devastated in May 2006 when Whirlpool announced plans to pull all Maytag operations out of Newton. The company acquired Maytag in early April and quickly made plans to close the manufacturing plant in Newton and consolidate all administrative offices in Whirlpool's Benton Harbor, Michigan headquarters -- a move that would close the Maytag administrative offices in Newton.

But with the state's help, Newton has rebounded and two years ago attracted TPI and Trinity Towers, which both produce parts for wind towers and have created about 700 jobs in the community.

"We're transforming our community from a manufacturing town to a green town," Allen said. "We're learning how to do that; we're new to that. And the Iowa Speedway - we're a tourist attraction now. So we go from a stable, manufacturing - everybody goes to work, comes home - to events throughout the year at the Iowa Speedway and TPI and Trinity, it brings a different perspective. It's green. It's showing us that renewable energy is very important."

Obama's visit comes not only as Iowa received its new ranking from the American Wind Energy Association, but also as the Iowa Legislature is moving forward with several pieces of legislation to advance wind energy.

"In the Senate, we passed a ... requirement in Iowa, the first renewable fuel standard passed in this state that's designed to keep the 600 jobs that's out there now in the plants across the state and the other 12,000 jobs that are connected to this industry," Senate President Jack Kibbie said Thursday, who used Obama's words in saying that we must "reduce buying foreign oil from countries that don't like us."

"It's time to get over this kick of subsidizing foreign oil with American dollars and start fueling our country and our state with homegrown fuels," Kibbie said.

Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, said 175 windmills were recently completed in his district alone. "The president's going to be here to talk about wind and that's wonderful that Iowa's on the map in renewable fuels," he said.

The Iowa House also this week approved several bills dealing with wind energy.

One bill reshuffles tax credits for large and smaller-sized wind energy projects, and expands those tax credits to schools and universities who generate energy for their own use. Another bill creates small wind innovation zones for very small projects that individuals want to put up on their farms.

"I think this is going to be a good year for wind energy," said Rep. Donovan Olson, D-Boone, chairman of the House Environmental Protection Commission. "Iowa is second in the nation in wind energy and we like to think we're going to continue down that road to expanding that as an opportunity for Iowans, not only for jobs, but increase the amount of energy generated from renewable sources."

"At the end of the day, when we pass these bills, we'll have a good system of incentives for large, medium and small wind energy projects and we'll see a lot more growth in those areas in the upcoming years," Olson said.

Olson said Iowa is an attractive place for wind energy not only because it's windy, but because "we don't have that 'not in my backyard' concept with Iowans. Iowans embrace wind energy."

Newton, in particular, has received regional and national attention not only for being an example in renewable energy, but also for how it's recovered from the loss of Maytag.

"We were asked to go to Minnesota, we were asked to go to Kansas City, we were asked to go to Texas to present what we were doing in Newton to recover from losing a manufacturer such as Maytag," Allen said.

Newton officials haven't been given any further details about the specifics of Obama's visit. A Newton history buff said Obama's trip to Newton is the first by a sitting president since President Harry Truman came through town on a whistle stop tour more than 50 years ago.

"The people want the president at their establishment. Before he was president, when he was Senator Obama, he came and he ate at our Maid-Rite," Allen said. "I remember when he was campaigning, I got to meet him and we sat behind Berg Middle School. A senator from the United States, which was fun. We talked about our kids. Didn't talk about politics. His kids and my kids are the same age. It will be good to see him again."

The Iowa Legislature won't be shut down that day during President Obama's visit, but "it might shut us down for a couple of hours," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.

-- is an online government and politics news service with a free Web site at staff contributed to this report.

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