Iowa Politics Roundup: “Religious Conscience Bill” Looks Unlikely to Move Forward Print
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 11 February 2011 13:59

The sponsor of a bill that contains the Religious Conscience Protection Act, which opponents have dubbed the “Marriage Discrimination Act,” says currently “there is no intent” to move the bill forward in the legislature this year.

More than 50 people packed the Iowa House lobbyist lounge this week, largely opposing the proposed legislation. Rabbis and key players on the issue from the Iowa Catholic Conference, One Iowa, and The Family Leader were all there.

“The substance of the bill is important to some Iowans,” said Representative Richard Anderson (R-Clarinda). “There are issues with the bill. As I said, I have some issues with the bill. We don’t intend to move it forward at this time.”

House Study Bill 50 would have provided an exemption for religious corporations and others from any requirement to solemnize a marriage, treat a marriage as valid, or provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for purposes related to the solemnization or celebration of a marriage, if doing so would cause the entity to violate sincerely held religious beliefs.

Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, said the bill creates a path to discrimination, targets minorities, and “crosses a line that should never have been crossed.” She said the bill is simply unnecessary because churches are not currently required to sanction a marriage against their religious beliefs.

The Rabbi David Kaufman of the Temple B’nai Jeshurun said he was shocked by the legislation and said the state needs to treat all citizens of the state equally. “This country was founded on the principle of protecting minority rights,” he said.

Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference, a key backer of the bill, said the religious community has concerns about the impact of same-sex marriages on issues such as adoption, school curriculum in Catholic schools, and the licensing of therapists.

“Our interest in this bill is primarily to have a conversation about what same-sex marriage might mean for religious organizations such as Catholic Charities,” Chapman said. “There’s things that have already happened in other parts of the country. In terms of housing, we certainly don’t want to take away housing rights from people.”

Former state Representative Danny Carroll of The Family Leader also voiced support for the legislation. “There is no more basic fundamental freedom than the right of conscience and religion and religious expression,” Carroll said. “For families ... the freedom to conduct their private affairs consistent with their religious convictions is an American tradition that goes back centuries.”

But Alicia Claypool, chair of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, said this legislation would drive a truck into Iowa’s civil-rights law. She compared it to laws that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly “separate but equal” status for black Americans. “I don’t think we want to go back to the era of Jim Crow laws,” she said.

House Republicans Release Budget Targets, Remain Far Apart from Democrats on Budget

Iowa’s split government became increasingly evident Thursday as House Republicans pushed forward with making state budget cuts and providing tax cuts, while House and Senate Democrats worked to prevent them.

“We have a long road in front of us,” Representative Tyler Olson (D-Cedar Rapids), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, told “We’re a long, long ways apart.”

House Republicans on Thursday released their plan for a $5.9-billion budget that they said spends $347 million less than the current year’s budget, $386 million below what they expect will be proposed by Senate Democrats, and $162 million below what’s proposed by Governor Terry Branstad.

“This is an honest, transparent budget that is sustainable,” said Representative Scott Raecker (R-Urbandale), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. “This budget will provide for core services in public safety, health and human services, and education in the state of Iowa.”

The GOP budget reflects a general-fund spending reduction of 5.5 percent. It spends 98 percent of anticipated state revenues, rather than the 99 percent allowed by state law. And it provides $383 million in tax relief.

“The two things that House Republicans have committed to Iowans in particular is we would spend less than what comes in,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha). “The ongoing revenue for next fiscal year is right at about $6 billion, so this is under that. And the other thing is that we would not balance the budget using one-time money, and this budget does not use one-time money to balance it.”

It is the first time in years that the Iowa House and Senate have not released joint budget targets, despite having joint budget subcommittees with members and chairs from both chambers.

Olson criticized the House Republican budget plan. “House Republicans have the wrong priorities,” he said. “They are spending $383 million on tax breaks for corporations and those who don’t need it instead of keeping 20,000 Iowa kids in preschool and supporting our K-12 schools. The Republican budget relies on budget gimmicks and one-time money to reward corporations while making it harder for Iowans to see where their tax dollars are being spent.”

Olson said Republicans are cutting spending more than 5 percent while the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency has projected that revenues will increase 4 percent. “So Republicans are making a choice,” he said. “They like to say that things just can’t be afforded; we can’t afford preschool. But they’re choosing not to fund preschool as the revenue estimates show.”

House-Senate budget subcommittees will now take the budget targets released Thursday and move forward with their plans on how to spend that money, and where cuts will be made. Budget subcommittees are expected to approve their bills in the various areas of state government by February 24, and spreadsheets reflecting their priorities and cuts will be released sometime earlier that week.

However, it is yet to be seen how the House Republican budget targets released Thursday mesh with the Senate Democratic targets expected to be released next week. Democrats are expected to use the full $6.388 billion allowed by state law under the 99-percent spending limitation, instead of the $5.9 billion set by House Republicans.

Suburban Legislators Expected to Increase After Redistricting

Iowa legislative leaders said they expect that redrawn districts based on 2010 Census data will likely give the Iowa legislature a more suburban feel.

“The legislature is going to become a little bit more urban, but probably also significantly more suburban,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal.

Gronstal said Iowa already has a legislative district with seven counties, and that district will probably get larger based on the new population numbers.

Thursday’s release of U.S. Census Bureau data for Iowa is the starting point for the process of redrawing the boundaries of Iowa’s legislative and congressional districts.

With the data in hand by February 15, the deadline to produce the first maps of the proposed new districts will be April 1, said Ed Cook, the senior legal counsel for the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA), which will spearhead the process. Cook confirmed Thursday to that he plans to submit the maps to the legislature on March 31.

Iowa will also be moving from five to four congressional districts.

Legislative Leaders Welcome Discussion of Repealing Bottle Bill

A bill that would repeal Iowa’s 1978 bottle bill will advance to the full House Environmental Protection Committee, despite opponents of the law saying they never asked for a repeal.

“We need to look at curbside recycling,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) said Thursday. “I’m not under any illusion that that’s a bill that ends up on the governor’s desk this year. But I think that’s a discussion that needs to take place. ... [The bottle bill] has served the state extremely well, but no one even contemplated curbside recycling at that point in time.”

Bills proposed in both the Iowa House and Senate would repeal Iowa’s beverage-container-control law (more commonly known as the “bottle bill”), which requires Iowans to pay a 5-cent deposit on cans and bottles for all carbonated and alcoholic beverages. That money is returned if Iowans bring the empty containers to a grocery store or redemption center.

Representative Ross Paustian (R-Walcott), a farmer and the bill’s floor manager, said Thursday that the bill will be brought out of subcommittee next week and taken to the full committee, although he acknowledged that it could die there.

“I think it’s a mess at the grocery stores,” Paustian said. “My daughter used to work at a couple of Hy-Vees, so she knows firsthand what it’s like, and she’s relayed that to me many times. I’d like to see the grocery stores do what they do best, and that’s sell healthy, wholesome, safe foods. So it’s a burden for them. I just think with the recycling programs we have, we are way ahead of when the bill was passed. We had nothing back then.”

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association and the Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Stores of Iowa are among those backing the bill.

“We think that it’s time to move to a different system,” said Scott Sundstrom, a lobbyist for the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. “We have never asked for a repeal of the bottle bill standing alone. We think we need to go a better system.”

Sara Bixby, director of the South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency, argued against repeal of the bottle bill.

“By repealing the bottle bill and going with something as proposed here, you’re gutting everything that we’ve done for the last 20 years on our current recycling programs, on our current composting programs,” she said. “This is not the right place to start.”

Jim Obradovich, a lobbyist for the Iowa Recycling Association, Redemption Centers of Iowa, Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations, and the Iowa Environmental Council, said repealing Iowa’s bottle bill would close 70 redemption centers and cause at least 200 people to lose their jobs.

“I don’t think that’s the policy we want to have in the state of Iowa, especially during tough economic times – passing legislation that specifically closes these facilities and put these people out of work,” he said.

Senate Majority Gronstal welcomed the discussion about possible repeal of the bottle bill.

“I think people are engaged in a very serious education campaign about the next generation of recycling efforts in this state and what makes the most sense in terms of keeping things out of landfills, doing more recycling,” Gronstal said. “I think it’s a good discussion to be had. Whether they’ve got the right bill remains to be seen, but I commend them for introducing the bill.”

Recall Bill Dies in Subcommittee

A bill that would have allowed for the recall of elected officials in Iowa was rejected by a House subcommittee on a 2-1 vote.

“School-board members make really tough decisions. They close buildings. They merge with other districts. They whole-grade share with other districts,” said Mary Gannon of the Iowa Association of School Boards. “They are making the tough decisions at the ground level. ... We shouldn’t be kicking those people out of office for making the right decisions for what’s best for the kids in their district.”

House File 177 would have allowed for the recall of an elected official by the electors of that political subdivision or election district. A petition for recall must have the signatures equal to at least 20 percent of the total votes cast for the office in question – with a minimum of 50 signatures required. If the office-holder does not resign from office, a recall election will be held.

“We don’t have a recall process in the state of Iowa. There’s several other states that do have a recall process,” said Representative Nick Wagner (R-Marion), who proposed the legislation. He said a recall process would give “voters an extra voice.”

But Representative John Wittneben (D-Estherville), a former city council member, sharply criticized the bill as “quite ridiculous” and said it would discourage people from running for elected office. He said he didn’t see making an unpopular call as a just reason for a recall. He also said the cost of the proposed special recall elections would bankrupt small counties.

“On our city council, when we started banning burning barrels, everybody in town came out of the woodwork, and they didn’t want that to happen. And after it happened, everybody realized it was a good thing. But if we had been subject to recall, we’d have lost everybody on our city council,” Wittneben said. “You really think people are going to want to serve on the school board or the city council knowing that every time they make an unpopular decision, they’re going to be recalled?”

New Report Sees Inefficiency in Business Tax Breaks

In a report titled “Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Remedy – Iowa Business Taxes Are Already Low,” Peter Fisher of the Iowa Fiscal Partnership argues that business tax breaks are an expensive and inefficient way to attempt to stimulate a state economy.

“Proponents of business tax breaks claim that taxes are a significant factor in the location choices of businesses, and that a state can tax-cut its way to economic growth and generate tax revenue in the process,” the report says. “As we will see, there are good reasons to be skeptical of such a claim, and several decades of research on the relation between state taxes and growth confirm that such claims are vastly overblown and sometimes completely misleading. Business tax breaks turn out to be an expensive and inefficient way to attempt to stimulate a state economy.”

The report says there is a strong case for state taxation of corporations, which benefit from the investments that state government has made in education, infrastructure, and public-safety services.

It says tax breaks will have little if any positive effect on private-sector employment, because they only have a small impact on business costs, while much larger considerations include production costs and location.

“In fact, the revenue losses may well produce immediate public-sector job losses,” the report says. “Furthermore, the private-sector-employment effects of such tax cuts could be reduced or even eliminated by a long-term deterioration in the quality of public services, which themselves have been shown to be important to businesses making location decisions, and which provide an important part of the foundation for the state economy.”

The report comes as Governor Branstad has proposed cutting the small-business income-tax rate in half and making it a flat 6 percent, at a cost to the state of $200 million. He’s also proposed reducing commercial property taxes by 40 percent over the next five years, taxing new investment at 60 percent of its valuation, and rolling back taxes on existing commercial property by 8 percent a year over five years for a cost of $500 million.

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