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NEW FEATURE! Iowa Capitol Report: Disaster-Relief Bills Signed Into Law PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
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Friday, 06 February 2009 09:30

chet_culver.jpgIncome guidelines prevented Shannon and Jeff Gardemann from qualifying for assistance from the state's Jumpstart program after the flood destroyed their home in Cedar Rapids, so they're hoping a $56-million disaster-relief bill signed into law this week by Iowa Governor Chet Culver will provide them some much-needed help.

"We basically are paying for two places now. We've got the damaged property in Cedar Rapids, and then the new home," Jeff Gardemann said. "The passing of this bill will help people like us pay help pay down SBA loans and get back on track in life and just get Iowa moving again ... and we're grateful. All we can say is thank you. Appreciate it."

Culver and Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge hailed the unanimous legislative approval of the relief bill, calling it a "bipartisan success story" and "one more step forward to our state's disaster-recovery efforts" as Culver signed the bill into law.

"It's not very often you see a bill of this magnitude without one single dissenting vote," Judge said. "You all have been tireless advocates for your constituents. And I want you to know that no matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, you will always have a partner with the Culver-Judge administration when it comes to working towards relief from these disasters."

With less fanfare than the $56-million disaster relief bill, the governor also signed a bill to allow Cedar Rapids and other president-declared disaster areas the ability to impose a local-option sales tax for disaster relief three months early.

The bill was largely intended for Cedar Rapids, which was worst hit by the floods. Residents can vote as soon as March to tax themselves an extra penny per dollar, with collection of the revenue beginning as soon as April 1. The current law would have begun revenue collection on July 1.

The legislation is designed to provide communities impacted by last summer's storms the opportunity to decide locally whether to use the option of additional sales tax revenue to assist with disaster recovery. The law only applies to communities that do not already have a 7-percent sales tax.

After the bill became law, the Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously approved a March 3 referendum asking voters to tax themselves an extra penny per dollar to pay for flood relief. If approved, Cedar Rapids would use 10 percent of the tax for property-tax relief and 90 percent for flood relief, including the buyout, rehabilitation, and construction of housing. The tax would be in effect for five years and three months.

Infrastructure Plans Move Ahead

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs( said Thursday that Culver's plan to bond for $700 million for infrastructure projects has "broad support" from both House and Senate Democrats.

Expect to see two bills this session on bonding, he said. One would bond for $160 million for infrastructure projects approved last session, and another would include other projects, with both bills adding up to about $700 million.

But Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley (R-Chariton) said the bonding plan would continue the state's spending problem. "Washington, D.C., has bailout fever, and I'm afraid that Governor Culver has caught the sniffles," McKinley said. He said while Democrats are looking to create temporary work with the bonding plan, Republicans are more interested in creating jobs that are sustainable.

Key Democratic and Republican leaders of the legislature's transportation committees also said they will push forward with a bill to raise the state's gas tax by 8 to 10 cents to help fill an estimated $267-million annual shortfall in highway and bridge projects.

Budget Cuts Hit Judicial Branch

Courthouses across Iowa will close February 16, as all judicial workers except judges and magistrates take an unpaid day off.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus ordered the closing in response to an expected reduction in the judicial branch's operating budget. To lessen the effect on the public, the court scheduled the closing on Presidents' Day, a federal holiday. "It is expected that additional days of unpaid leave may become necessary," Ternus said.

"[I]n order to address the expected current budget shortfall and in recognition of the fact that upcoming budgets may require further austerity, the court finds it must with great reluctance reduce the level of service it provides to the public," Ternus wrote. "These necessary hardships unfortunately will be borne by the public at large and also by employees of the judicial branch."

Appearing before a legislative committee later in the week, Ternus said the work of Iowa's court system is "indispensable to the function of government" and urged lawmakers to make justice a higher budget priority than the "frills" of state government.

"The time has come to make some hard choices about funding programs and expenses that people want and those that people need," Ternus said. She listed recreational trails, historical exhibits, cultural performances, entertainment venues, historic-preservation projects, and library enhancements as examples of things that should be a lower priority.

"I have no doubt that Iowans like these types of programs, but are these expenses as fundamental and critical as ensuring civil justice, social order, and public safety?" Ternus asked. "No. They are not. They are frills, I'm sorry to say. They are frills we probably cannot afford as we face a situation that is being called the worst financial crisis since the Depression."

Under one of many budget-saving proposals that will be considered, hundreds of Iowa court reporters could be replaced with electronic equipment to record court proceedings.

Steve Davis, a spokesperson for the Iowa Judicial Branch, acknowledged the proposal will be considered this month by the Iowa Judicial Council, which is made up of Ternus, the chief judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the chief judge of each of Iowa's eight judicial districts. But he said no final decisions will be made.

Iowa Power Fund Still a Priority for Culver

Culver used a meeting with members of the Wind Energy Club from Iowa Lakes Community College to announce that he's asking legislators to put another $25 million into the Iowa Power Fund.

"Exactly how close we get to that $25 [million] is unclear given the budget challenges," Culver said, "but I think there is a lot of support generally for continuing to invest in the Power Fund, especially since it's been so successful."

The Iowa Power Fund was promoted by Culver in his campaign for governor. The idea was to put $25 million in the fund each year for four years. Culver said the $30 million invested so far has leveraged $190 million in private and federal money.

Meanwhile, Iowa has surpassed California and now ranks second in the nation in wind-energy capacity, according to a new report by the American Wind Energy Association.

Iowa is home to six wind-manufacturing companies: Acciona, Siemens, Clipper, Hendricks, TPI, and Trinity. The amount of Iowa's installed capacity of wind energy can power about 825,000 homes and provide about 18 percent of Iowa's electric needs, said Tom Wind, vice chairman of the Iowa Power Fund board.

"In recent years, Iowans have worked tirelessly to build upon our natural strengths and make Iowa a national leader in renewable energy," Culver said. "As this report shows, those efforts are paying off."

Democrats Pick Des Mines Council Member Kiernan to Lead Party

The fate of Culver's re-election in 2010 has been put in the hands of Michael Kiernan, a Des Moines city-council member and lifelong Democrat who led Culver to victory in his first statewide race in 1998.

Kiernan, 33, was on Saturday elected as the new chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party unanimously on a voice vote by members of the 55-member State Central Committee. There was no one else nominated as chair to replace Scott Brennan.

"My job is very simple: This is about a win in 2010," Kiernan said. "We have over 100,000 new registered voters in this state who are Democrats, hundreds of new activists. I think our key is to keep these folks in the party, to bring them home permanently. I think they've stopped by for a visit, and it's our job to reach out to those new voters and bring them home permanently."

Kiernan was recommended by Culver and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin to be chair of the party. He described his new job as state Democratic chair as a family tradition. His dad was a Democratic county supervisor, and his mother was a county activist and secretary of the State Central Committee.

"So for me, this has been a long road," Kiernan said. "A little emotional today because it's been a family tradition. Democratic public service has been at the top of our family's forefront for years, and I'm very proud today to step up and lead this party."

Some of Iowa's elected leaders say it's too early to look ahead to the 2010 gubernatorial race, but Kiernan acknowledged that the effort to get Culver re-elected is "absolutely" underway. He said it certainly doesn't hurt that Culver already has $1.5 million in the bank.

"The GOP is going to determine their nominee, and we'll be ready for their nominee. But they've got a long way to go," Kiernan said. "The governor's never stopped any constituent work or outreach. He's a constant campaigner."

Kiernan said he learned about Culver's work ethic back when the governor was a teacher and coach at Hoover High School and lived in a small house in Beaverdale. "Here's a guy who's not afraid of hard work," Kiernan said. "He will work harder than anyone I know on the staff. He will go and keep going. He's got more energy than the Energizer bunny."

The Iowa Capitol Report is produced by, an online government and politics news service. For more information go to

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