Iowa Politics Roundup: Legislature Moves Into Shutdown Mode Print
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 05 March 2010 14:55

With hundreds of bills dying this week in the Iowa legislature's self-imposed second "funnel deadline," lawmakers will now move into shutdown mode with the goal of adjourning in three weeks after an 80-day session.

"Several hundred bills are dying today," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Des Moines) said Thursday. "Next week, the legislative leaders will meet and start to map out shutdown strategy."

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate will work on floor debate in the week ahead, finishing up policy bills in the next week and a half before diving into budget bills.

House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) called it an unusual funnel week in which some bills simply disappeared. He pointed to how there were 25 bills on the debate calendar Wednesday, but only two were debated. Legislation considered "dead" for the year can resurface in a number of ways, whether it be through amendments or as leadership bills.

"We have some concerns about ... different policy pieces, how many of them are going to end up in appropriations and become funnel-proof bills, and how many of those ideas are going to actually end up in appropriations bills, particularly standings, where we don't even get an opportunity to really debate the matter," Paulsen said. "If we stay disciplined and we don't start dumping a whole bunch of policy into the appropriations bills, I think they have a shot of actually hitting the 80 days."

A key event as lawmakers wind down this session is a meeting Thursday of the three-person Revenue Estimating Conference, which could revise estimates of state revenues either upward or downward. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) said the event won't change the state budget unless it's bad news.

"If it generates a little more revenue, we do not expect at this point to use that revenue to add anywhere," Gronstal said. "We're going to manage through this budget, to the best of our ability, without using any new revenues that are identified in the March revenue estimate. If they take revenues away, we'll have to deal with that, we'll have to adjust our budget."

Surveys Show Economy May Be on the Mend

Two new surveys indicate the economy is improving in and around Iowa.

Increased levels in Iowa sales, capital spending, and employment projected for the coming six months has moved the first-quarter 2010 Iowa Business Council's Overall Economic Outlook Survey Index to 54.3 -- its first time in positive-sentiment territory since the third quarter of 2008.

The overall index is more than six points higher than three months ago (47.7), and 19 points higher than one year ago (35.3). The survey was completed by the 20 corporate members of the Iowa Business Council during the second half of February.

"The survey results are encouraging. We are beginning to see a broader base of confidence amongst Iowa's largest employers," said Tom Aller, president of Interstate Power & Light and chair of the Iowa Business Council.

Aller said issues remain about the strength of a recovery, and there's deep concern about the messages lawmakers are sending to companies that have an interest in locating or expanding operations in Iowa. "But positive outlooks for both sales and capital spending indicate expectations of improving business prospects for at least the next six months," he said.

Meanwhile, the Business Conditions Index for the Mid-America region in February soared to its highest level since April 2007, pointing to improving economic growth in the months ahead, according to a survey released by Creighton University.

The index, a leading economic indicator from a survey of supply managers in a nine-state area including Iowa, rose for a third straight month to 61.0 in February, up from 54.7 in January and 50.3 in December. Job gains were reported for two straight months for the first time since July 2007

"Readings over the past several months indicate that the regional economic rebound that is underway will pick up steam in the months ahead," said Creighton University Economics Professor Ernie Goss. "Even so, I am concerned that the economic problems in Europe, which are pushing the value of the dollar higher, will negatively influence regional growth."

For the fifth time in the past seven months, Iowa's Business Conditions Index was above growth-neutral. The index, a leading economic indicator from a survey of supply managers, jumped to 58.2 from January's 52.1.

"Over the past year, Iowa has lost more than 17,000 manufacturing jobs, or more than 8 percent of its manufacturing-job base," Goss said. "Almost 90 percent of the producer job losses were in durable-goods manufacturing. Based on our surveys, I expect no more manufacturing job losses, and minimal overall job gains for the state in the second quarter of 2010."

Culver Expected to Sign Reorganization Bill Soon

With a 98-1 vote, the Iowa House gave final legislative approval to a government-reorganization bill estimated to save state and local governments an estimated $126 million. The bill now goes to Governor Chet Culver, who is expected to be sign it into law on Thursday.

Senate File 2088 consolidates agencies, eliminates 14 different boards and commissions, reduces energy costs, combines state purchasing, requires a span of control of one manager per 15 employees by 2011 to cut down on middle management, and consolidates information technology.

Representative Christopher Rants (R-Sioux City) was the lone "no" vote on the bill. He said the $70 million in general-fund savings is not enough considering budget cuts coming in the Department of Human Services and other areas. "Pat yourselves on the back, say 'We've done a great job reorganizing state government,'" he said. "You all will be here to sort it out next year. I'm actually glad for the first time that I won't be."

House Democrats said total savings are about $265 million when the government-reorganization and early-retirement bills, as well as an executive order from Culver, are combined. "By eliminating waste and saving millions of dollars for Iowa taxpayers, our reorganization efforts will help balance the budget while keeping our commitment to education and job-creation," said Representative Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City).

Final passage came after the House accepted changes made by the Senate to the 350-page bil.

Culver Questioned About Stepping Into Debate on New Casinos

Culver's call for the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission to approve four new casino licenses drew criticism from Republicans, left commissioners reluctant to respond, and led legislative leaders to say those decisions should be left in the hands of the commission.

"I am convinced that we should move forward and create these jobs," Culver said. "I believe the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission should embrace the wishes of those Iowans who voted for gaming and approve the pending license applications for all of these four counties."

Culver said the economic impact of four new casinos would amount to more than $250 million, not including indirect spending.

Racing & Gaming Commissioner Paul Hayes said "the governor can do what he wants," but the commission will make its decisions based on the information it has received from the applicants. "We have criteria that are in the rules that we're charged with considering in granting or denying license applications," he said.

The Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission is slated to decide May 13 whether to grant a new casino license for the first time since 2005. Iowa citizens have gone to the ballot box and voted in favor of gaming in four additional counties: Lyon, Tama, Wapello, and Webster.

Paulsen questioned why Culver chose to involve himself in this process but not in another regulatory situation that involved Iowa jobs.

"If he wanted to interject himself into a process where there's a board, he should have done it when we were looking at that plant in Marshalltown," Paulsen said, referring to Alliant Energy canceling plans last spring for a "clean coal" power plant.

"His appointees killed a $1.3-billion investment and hundreds of jobs," Paulsen said. "And to compare those with what he's doing now, that just irritates me. That is what we should have done last fall, and he chose to sit on the sidelines."

Democratic leaders said the legislature will stay out of the commission's decision to approve or deny new casino licenses.

"If we get to the place where the legislature's going to decide how many and where the licenses are going to be, I think that's a very messy place," said Gronstal. "We respect the Racing & Gaming Commission to do their job. They've shown, I think, a good history of building a strong industry in this state that is secure and honest and is a benefit to Iowans overall. So I'm going to trust them to make those judgments."

Iowa Not Among First-Round Finalists for "Race to the Top"

Iowa was not chosen as a first-round finalist for the $4.35-billion Race to the Top competitive-grant program, despite moving at breakneck speed the first week of session to improve Iowa's chances of being awarded up to $175 million.

The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday announced 15 states and the District of Columbia as first-round finalists: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

"Clearly our application wasn't strong enough," said Representative Scott Raecker (R-Urbandale), a member of the House Education Committee. "The federal government and President Obama are certainly targeting to reform school efforts across this country. Charter schools are one of the initiatives within that. Iowa is known as having a fairly weak charter-school language; maybe we need to look at enhancing that."

McCarthy said lawmakers knew it was challenging to compete for the first round of applications.

"We moved quickly to try to meet that deadline," McCarthy said. "We made a good-faith run at it early on. We're going to make a good-faith run at it in Phase II, and we'll see what happens. But we knew it would be challenging, and we weren't basing any of these potential dollars in any of our budget bills, so we were not expecting it in terms of our legislative process."

Iowa's seven largest school districts had 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.

"There was always the question as to how strong our application would be because of the legislation that was passed," Raecker said. "If the grant is targeted to helping the lowest-performing schools, and many of the districts in Iowa with the lowest-performing schools refuse to participate in the grant, that doesn't strengthen your grant application."

Iowa was among 25 states that submitted applications to Race to the Top but were not chosen as first-round finalists. Those states and 10 others that did not apply in the first round of funding can submit applications for the second round by June 1. Second-round winners will be announced in early September.

Elaine Watkins-Miller, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education, said the department felt Iowa's first application to Race to the Top did set a good foundation. She said the state plans to apply again in the second round.

"We got the news and now we're just waiting," Watkins-Miller said. "I think it [the first application] set a good foundation. We're waiting for those comments, what that's going to tell us. Until we hear what truly was strong and what was not strong, I'm not sure what we can say."

Legislature Holds Off on IowaCare Plus Program

A bill that would have created an IowaCare Plus program was amended on the Senate floor this week, replacing that program with an interim study committee but retaining an insurance exchange and a provision expanding access to IowaCare users. The bill was approved 45-5.

The IowaCare Plus program would have provided Iowans with income between 200 and 300 percent of the federal poverty level with health-care-premium cost assistance. Implementation of that program would have been contingent on the availability of federal funding.

Instead, the bill will create regional networks allowing IowaCare patients to go to local hospitals instead of just the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City or Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines. It also creates an online insurance information exchange with the details of private and public options that are available to Iowans.

Republicans said the bill does not go far enough to address health-care affordability, portability, and accessibility.

They offered alternatives such as low-cost catastrophic health plans for those under 30, the Patients Right to Know Act, "prevention credits" that can reduce health-insurance rates, tort and lawsuit-abuse reform, expanded health-insurance tax deductibility to individuals and small business, and forbidding pre-existing exclusions when changing plans with the same insurance provider.

But Senator Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) said Republican proposals don't go far enough to deal with the skyrocketing costs of health care. He also said the IowaCare Plus program should have remained in the bill.

"I'm disappointed that we're going to continue to study something that we know needs to be addressed today," McCoy said. "I believe that is a failure of this body. I believe that is a lack of courage and wisdom and ... I believe we will rue the day that we allowed that to happen and we decided to waste another year twiddling our thumbs while real working Iowans continue to hurt."

Culver Gets Potential Primary Challenger

A former Des Moines school-board member who's been a vocal critic of Iowa's education system says he's mounting a primary challenge to Culver, but the incumbent said he'll wait to see if Jonathan Narcisse collects enough signatures to get on the June 8 primary ballot before commenting on his potential primary.

"We'll see if I have an opponent first," Culver said. "We have to qualify with signatures to get on the ballot. It's premature to start talking about a primary when we don't know for sure who's going to be on the ballot."

Narcisse, 46, kicked off a four-day tour of the state after announcing his challenge to Culver. He is the first candidate to challenge a sitting governor in a primary since 1994.

Narcisse is editor of the Iowa Bystander, publisher of El Comunicador and Iowa Fronteras, and a regular on the Deace Group Roundtable every Friday night on WHO radio.

Culver says he's "absolutely not" insulted by someone challenging him in the primary. "It's a great process and we'll have possibly healthy primaries on both sides," he said.

To get on the ballot for the June 8 primary, Narcisse will have to collect by March 19 at least 4,145 signatures from at least 10 counties, including at least 1 percent of the 2008 Democratic votes for president in each of those counties.

Narcisse said if he doesn't win the primary, he plans to run as an independent in the general election. His candidacy is considered a long shot but if elected he will be Iowa's first African-American governor.

This weekly summary comes from, an online government and politics news service. Reporter Andrew Duffelmeyer and other correspondents contributed to this report.

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