May 28, 2015

‘Significant gap’ remains between Republicans, Democrats in state budget negotiations

CapitolA key legislator says all the “tweaking” that can be done has been done and state budget negotiations are nearing an impasse. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs is among the handful of legislative leaders who’ve been meeting privately for weeks, trying to bridge the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

“I would say we have significantly closed the gap,” Gronstal told reporters this morning. “We closed it a little more yesterday, but I would say there’s still a significant gap.”

Gronstal, who is the top-ranking Democrat in the legislature, said that spending gap is less than $100 million and the “biggest sticking points” remain. Democrats want to spend more on public schools than do Republicans and Democrats are pressing for more spending on government health care programs.

“To the extent we underfund, don’t provide enough resources for health care, we raise all the rest of Iowans health care plans because of uncompensated care in hospitals and doctor’s offices and other health care providers across the state,” Gronstal said.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha, the legislature’s top Republican, said negotiators have “made progress,” but it’s difficult to bridge the gap.

“Iowans picked a Democratically-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House. That’s not necessarily a recipe for a quick resolution,” Paulsen told reporters. “It doesn’t mean we’re not committed to finding it.”

Republicans are insisting on a $7.1 billion overall spending plan for the state budgeting year that begins July 1. Democrats and Republican Governor Terry Branstad favor an overall spending level that’s about $200 million higher. Paulsen said Republicans in the House have proposed a budget that fits with the amount of taxes the state is expected to collect next year.

“Let’s remember that the ongoing revenue is $180 million, roughly, more than we had last year,” Paulsen said. “I mean, only in government is $180 million of new spending a cut.”

For the past several weeks, the discussion among legislative leaders has centered on ways to use some of the state’s billion dollar surplus on some one-time projects or programs. Paulsen says Republicans are willing to do some of that, but Gronstal suggests that well has been tapped out.

“We are nearing the end of our ability to tweak things any further,” Gronstal said shortly after 9 a.m. this morning.

The next state budgeting year starts July 1st and Gronstal gave this answer when asked how this budget dilemma might get resolved: “I’m not making any predictions on that, but in a timely way. We will not engage in a game of shutdown.”

Gronstal, Paulsen and a handful of other legislators plan to meet late this morning to resume budget negotiations. There are a few policy matters involved as well. Senate Democrats, for instance, stuck anti-bullying policies for schools into a catch-all budget bill. Paulsen, who talked with reporters shortly after 10 a.m., gave this answer when asked if House Republicans might accept that approach to making those policies state law: “I didn’t show up this morning prepared to say no to a whole host of things, so we’ll just roll with it.”

It’s unlikely either the full House or Senate will meet for votes on Thursday or Friday.

Congressman Loebsack criticizes process for Trans-Pacific trade deal

Congressman Dave Loebsack.

Congressman Dave Loebsack.

The lone Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation is criticizing the way the Obama Administration is presenting a pending trade deal to congress. Congressman Dave Loebsack, a Democrat from Iowa City, says forcing members of congress to go into a “secret room” to look at the proposal Trans-Pacific Partnership is the wrong approach.

“That’s not the way to create a public policy in America that affects so many folks and potentially could do great good, could do great harm as well,” Loebsack says. Members of congress are not allowed to take notes while reading the proposed trade deal involving the United States, Japan and 10 other countries.

Loebsack says he and his congressional colleagues must turn in their cell phones and other electronic devices, too, while viewing the documents. “The agreement isn’t finished yet. We’ll see what it looks like in the end,” Loebsack says. “But, for now, I think it’s really important that folks know this isn’t being exposed to the light of day, in that sense.”

The U.S. Senate voted last week to give President Obama “fast track” authority so congress cannot press for amendments to trade deals, but must merely accept or reject the package. Loebsack says he has a “lot of concerns” about that.[capDLtrade3] :23 :for the deal.”

“I’m a member of congress who represents 770,000 in 24 counties and this trade deal is going to affect a lot of people very differently,” Loebsack says. “…I have a difficult time buying the argument that I should just turn over my authority to the president of either party so the president can negotiate a deal and then come back and ask me, ‘Yes or no,’ — whether I’m for the deal.”

The U.S. House will vote on “fast track” authority for the president in June and Loebsack, at this point, sounds like a no. “At the moment, I’m having a lot of difficulty with the trade promotion authority, the fast trade authority,” Loebsack says. “I’m not tending in that direction by any means.” Both of Iowa’s Republican senators voted for the bill, arguing expanded trade is important to Iowa’s economy.

Many of the countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations — including Australia, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand — have been reluctant to conclude the trade talks without the guarantee that the U.S. congress wouldn’t try to make changes in the deal.


Senator Grassley says Trans-Pacific Partnership important to Iowa

Senator Chuck Grassley

Senator Chuck Grassley

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says Iowans who farm and those who produce a host of other products that could have a global marketplace should pay close attention to the pending agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Grassley, a Republican, says the treaty between the U.S. and 11 other nations is very important to a long list of industries, topped by agriculture.

“The agreement would ease tariffs among the partners,” Grassley says. “It’s important for many farms and businesses in Iowa that export their products around the world. The agreement is close to completion but it needs the process of Trade Promotion Authority to be concluded.”

Just before the Memorial Day break, the U.S. Senate passed Trade Promotion Authority, which enables President Obama to proceed with trade negotiations. The measure has yet to win approval in the House though Grassley is optimistic of swift passage when the recess is over. “Trade supports good-paying jobs,” Grassley says. “Iowans work hard and use their brains to create. They deserve new opportunities that come from expanded trade.”

Congress doesn’t have the ability to negotiate deals with other nations, so a number of times since World War Two, Congress has passed Trade Promotion Authority which gives the president the power to broker key trade deals.

“The president is given authority to negotiate,” Grassley says. “Those guidelines are very strict and he just can’t negotiate anything he wants. When it’s all said and done, anything the president signs can’t go into effect until it’s passed by both the House and Senate.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is between the U.S. and the following 11 nations: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Ernst traveling to Vietnam & Singapore this week

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst is traveling to Vietnam with a U.S. delegation led by Arizona Senator John McCain, a former Prisoner of War in Vietnam.

The trip is timed to mark the 20th anniversary of normalized relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. Ernst and the rest of the group will visit with top government and civic leaders in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

Later this week Ernst, McCain and four other U.S. senators will visit Singapore for the annual meeting of defense ministers and policy makers from the Asia-Pacific.

Up to $13 million in state incentives approved for Sioux City pork plant

The Iowa Economic Development Authority has approved state incentives for projects in six cities that officials say will lead to the creation of more than 1,300 new jobs.

The biggest project is in Sioux City. That’s where a new pork processing plant will be built. Officials say more than 1,100 will be employed there once the plant is up and running. The state is providing tax incentives for the project worth up to $13 million.

The other projects getting state awards today are in Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Fort Dodge, Colfax, Urbandale and Des Moines.

ConAgra is getting a package of state tax incentives worth up to $3.9 million for expansion of its facility in Waterloo and Red Star Yeast is getting $25,000 from the state, plus state tax breaks for expanding its operations in Cedar Rapids.

State officials have also awarded a half million dollar state loan for a plant in Fort Dodge where prescription drugs for animals will be made. Beck’s Hybrids is getting $200,000 from the state, along with tax breaks, for construction of a sales and distribution center along Interstate 80, near Colfax. A company called BirdDogHR that has outgrown its headquarters in Urbandale and is getting a $215,000 state grant for relocating in the same suburb rather than move out-of-state.

Finally, the City of Des Moines is getting $36.5 million from the Iowa Reinvestment District Program. The money is to be used on development of the entertainment district in the capital city’s downtown. The centerpiece: a new convention hotel that would connect to the Iowa Events Center.

Governor hoping for a budget ‘breakthrough’ soon

State Capitol

State Capitol

Iowa lawmakers got an extra early start to this Memorial Day weekend. Senators have not met to debate at all this week and most of the 100 members of the Iowa House gathered for just one day to vote on bills. However, legislative leaders have been holding countless private meetings this week with Governor Terry Branstad’s top staff, to try to draft a spending plan for state government operations.

“Hopefully there will be a breakthrough and things will come together,” Branstad told reporters during an interview at the statehouse Thursday.

Lawmakers face a looming deadline of July 1, 2015. That’s the first day of the next fiscal year and there’s no budget plan in place. The main problem is Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the House, plus the governor is a Republicans, so any spending plan must bridge partisan differences. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal said after weeks of closed-door meetings, there is an “understanding” between the two sides, but no deal.

“They’ve shown an openness to working with us,” Gronstal told reporters Thursday.

The largest stumbling block? Legislators can’t agree on how much general state aid to send to Iowa’s public schools for the academic year that begins in August. The governor is urging legislators to make that spending decision for each of the next two academic years.

“I just talked to a constituent whose daughter wants to move back from out-of-state. She’s a teacher, but she’s been told by the school systems that until this budget gets resolved, we’re not going to be able to make decisions on hiring,” Branstad said. “Well, that’s not a good situation.”

A legislative insider said “little tiny steps” are being taken to span the distance that separates Republicans and Democrats as they seek to agree on an overall spending plan for state government operations. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, said there is a “real possibility” a budget deal might be struck next week.

“I think people are working in good faith,” Paulsen told reporters Thursday. “We’ll continue to have conversations.”

House Republicans have proposed an overall spending target that is $166 million less than what Republican Governor Terry Branstad and Senate Demorats have proposed. Branstad said he will ensure the final budget plan is “workable and sustainable for the long-term” rather than some kind of a “political deal that doesn’t meet the needs to Iowans.”

“As the chief executive, ultimately, you know, the buck stops with me to be able to deliver the services,” Branstad said Thursday. “I want to be sure we can do that.”

In 2011, legislators waited ’til June 30 to get a final state budget draft done, voted upon and sent to the governor’s desk for his review.

Senator Ernst favors effort to cut the benefits of former presidents

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst.

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst is touting legislation to reform the system for providing former presidents with certain perks and benefits. “Taxpayers should not be on the hook for subsidizing former presidents’ lives to the tune of millions of dollars,” Ernst said in a conference call with Iowa reporters today.

The perks for former presidents include office space, staff, and travel expenses. Ernst noted in fiscal year 2015, former U.S. presidents cost taxpayers more than $2.4 million in travel, office space, communications, personnel, and other expenses.

The Presidential Allowance Modernization Act would reduce those benefits. “The bill sets former presidents’ monetary allowance and pension at $200,000 each per year,” Ernst said. “It also places reductions on perks if the former president earns more than $400,000 per year in income.”

A similar measure was approved by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. “At a time when we are more than $18 trillion in debt, it is critical that we stop talking and start cutting wasteful spending,” Ernst said.

Congress approved benefits for former presidents in 1958. Ernst said there’s nothing in the proposed legislation that would cut the funding of the security or protection of a former president. According to a Congressional Research Service report last year, taxpayers spent over $420,000 on a more than 8,200-square-foot office in Dallas for George W. Bush. Former President Bill Clinton’s office in New York cost taxpayers $415,000.