March 3, 2015

Giving workers unpaid time off to go to 2016 Iowa Caucuses

State-capitolA bill that would force many businesses to give workers unpaid time off so they may attend the 2016 Iowa Caucuses has cleared a three-member subcommittee in the Iowa Senate.

Ken Sagar, the president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, says it’s a way to increase participation in the Caucuses. “One way to maintain our first-in-the-nation status, I believe, is to push more people into the process and show the nation that yeah, we do take politics seriously,” Sagar says.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters argued her third place finish in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses was caused, in part, because low wage employees and shift workers could not get time off to attend the Caucuses. Iowa Democratic Party executive director Ben Foecke says this bill would address those concerns.

“It’s second shift folks that would be affected by this bill. The overnight folks — we’re not having Caucuses at 3 a.m., no matter what happens,” Foecke says. “This will allow a lot more people to participate.”

The bill would require workers to notify their boss at least 72 hours before they want time off to go to the Caucuses. Nicole Crane, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, says that’s not enough time for some manufacturers to make adjustments in the production line.

“So we just want to make sure if this is something the legislature wants to do that there are safeguards in place for those employers who really can’t afford to have those employees leave and shut down their operations,” Crane says.

The bill does give businesses veto power over time off for Caucus attendance if the worker’s absence would endanger public safety or cause “severe economic disruption” to the business.

Under the current party rules, you must be present at your precinct meeting on Caucus night in order to vote in the event which serves as the kick-off for the presidential nominating season. Democrats last year started a conversation about changes that would expand participation and, for example, the party plans to have someone on staff coordinate babysitting services for parents who want to caucuses.

Senator Grassley: Netanyahu speech not disrespectful to the president

Senator Chuck Grassley

Senator Chuck Grassley

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says he’ll be paying no heed to the dozens of Democrats who plan to skip today’s speech by Israel’s prime minister before a joint session of Congress. Some are upset that Benjamin Netanyahu did not go through the White House to give the address.

Grassley, a Republican, was asked if Netanyahu was disrespecting President Obama. “No, not at all,” Grassley says. “We have a separation of power between executive and legislative. We can do whatever we want to as long as it’s constitutional and as long as it doesn’t hurt the interests of the United States and I don’t see a speech hurting the interests of the United States.” Grassley says the speech is generating “more controversy…than is necessary” and he’s looking forward to the speech.

Grassley says, “The joint session gives Congress and the entire American people, maybe even the world, an opportunity to hear directly from the leader of our close ally on the latest security threats from the volatile Middle East and from Iran.” Netanyahu was quoted Monday saying the Israeli-American alliance is stronger now than ever before. Grassley says he welcomes the input from this statesman on the growing number of threats in that region of the globe.

“The threats include the Islamic State terrorists and in regard to Iran, with the possibility of their acquiring nuclear weapons,” Grassley says. “I’m interested to hear the Israeli prime minister’s perspective.”

Iowa’s other senator, Republican Joni Ernst, does plan to attend the speech as well. Ernst released a statement: “As we face ever increasing global challenges, especially in the Middle East, it is crucial we recognize our relationship with Israel and stand behind our longtime friend, trusted ally and important partner for our nation. A nuclear Iran is a threat to Israel – and our nation – and we ought to hear from our best ally in the Middle East on this important issue. The United States must confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions and take the necessary steps to support Israel in their right to defend itself.”


Suburban lawmaker questions tax break for fuel used in farm, construction equipment

Harvesting miscanthus.

The Iowa DOT estimates the state could collect about $40 million a year from farmers and construction companies if the tax exemption for so-called “red dye” fuel was lifted — and a few lawmakers are questioning why that tax advantage is being maintained.

Farmers and construction companies that primarily operate diesel-powered machinery off of the state’s roads buy fuel that has a dyed with a red tint, to signify it is not subject to the state’s fuel tax.

Representative Ralph Watts, a Republican from Adel, says the size of farming operations has grown significantly and heavy farm equipment is now being driven on more miles of road to get from field to field.

“If you live in a rural area, you meet them all the time,” Watts says. “The heavier equipment with cleated tires place more stress on the roadway than vehicles with road tires.”

That “additional stress” is taking a toll on rural roads and bridges, according to Watts.

“The need for moving manure from hog confinements has become a huge factor for rural roads where the movement of manure is done by large tank wagons pulled by farm tractors over the roads,” Watts says. “My personal experience in watching this happen showed me those movements literally pulverize the existing gravel, which requires replacement.”

Watts tried, but failed this past week to get his fellow legislators to go along with charging just a 10-cent-a-gallon state tax on red dye fuel.

“Some misguided miscreant might ask: ‘What do you have against farmers?'” Watts said during House debate of the bill that raised the state’s motor fuel tax by a dime a gallon. “I have nothing against farmers. Although I am not a farmer, I am a member of the Farm Bureau — at least I was earlier this morning.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau opposes the idea of taxing the diesel fuel that’s used in farm equipment. Only eight other members of the Iowa House joined Watts this past Tuesday to try to force a debate over his proposal, while 87 voted against Watts and his idea was permanently tabled.

Quinnipiac poll shows Clinton top Democrat in Iowa for 2016

Hillary and Bill Clinton at the 2014 Tom Harkin Steak Fry.

Hillary and Bill Clinton at the 2014 Tom Harkin Steak Fry.

A new poll of likely Iowa Democratic Caucus participants finds Hillary Clinton with a huge lead among the party’s potential 2016 presidential candidates. Peter Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. He says it appears if Clinton runs for the nomination, in Iowa at least, the race is hers to lose.

“She’s got 61-percent when Democratic Caucus goers are asked for their first choice,” Brown says. “Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is next with 19-percent and no other candidate breaks into double digits.” Today’s Quinnipiac Poll of Democrats in Iowa follows the university’s poll released Wednesday tracking the Republican side. That poll found 25-percent of likely Iowa Republican Caucus-goers would support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a race for the White House.

Scott Walker

Scott Walker during an Iowa visit in January.

“Governor Walker is ahead by roughly 2-to-1 over his nearest competitors,” Brown says. While it appears Walker is poised to become the front-runner in Iowa, Brown is quick to point out that the Iowa Caucuses are still 11 months away and the winner is no shoe-in for the GOP presidential nomination.

“The caveat, looking at the Republican race, is that there are many candidates. At this stage, a dozen or more have said they’re interested in running,” Brown says. “But, in the last two Caucuses — in 2008 and 2012 — the winners of those Iowa Caucuses did not even come close to winning the Republican nomination.”

According to this week’s Quinnipiac Poll, the closest competitors for Walker are Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (13-percent), physician Ben Carson (11-percent), former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (11-percent), and Florida Governor Jeb Bush (10-percent).



Bill would give Cedar Rapids a chance to land ‘smoke-free’ casino

Wally Horn

Wally Horn

A bill that would give Cedar Rapids another shot at landing a state-licensed casino has cleared a senate subcommittee. Gary Grant, a lobbyist for the City of Cedar Rapids, is calling on legislators to decide whether state gambling regulators should reject license applications over fears a new casino would hurt existing casinos.

“We understand that what we’re asking is an incredibly uphill climb and there may not be an appetite to do what we’re asking you to do, but we do think that it is time for the legislature to review the future of the gaming industry in Iowa,” Grant said.

The bill would require the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to issue a state license for a new “smoke-free” casino. Frank Chiodo is a lobbyist for the casino in Riverside which he said would be “economically devastated” by a nearby casino in Cedar Rapids.

“So we have major concerns in regards to this,” Chiodo said. “We believe it goes around the Racing and Gaming Commission.”

Susan Cameron, a lobbyist for the Ameristar Casino in Council Bluffs, warned there’d be a financial hit to the state if Iowa gambling regulators grant another casino license.

“We do think there is a lot at stake for the state in that we do pay very high taxes off the top and that comes back to the state in revenues,” Cameron said.

Senator Wally Horn, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, was the subcommittee’s chairman. Horn told the lobbyists capitalism is all about competition.

“I don’t know if Casey’s talked to Kum N Go when they decided to (enter into) competition or not. I don’t think so,” Horn said at the end of the subcommittee meeting. “…These other gaming places that say: ‘Hey, it’s going to hurt us,” — probably, but we’re going to have competition. It’s going to be better for the people going there winning money.”

The two other members of the subcommittee came from areas which already have state-licensed casinos and one of them supported giving Cedar Rapids another chance at a casino. Senator Dick Dearden, a Democrat from Des Moines, said Cedar Rapids deserved the “economic advantage” of a casino, to recover from devastating flooding.

“I really felt that Cedar Rapids got shortchanged,” Dearden said. “There’s no community in the state of Iowa that suffered as much as they did in ’08.”

But Senator Rick Bertrand, a Republican from Sioux City who was also on the subcommittee, opposed the bill. Bertrand said it is the job of the Racing and Gaming Commission to “protect the health” of the casino industry and he said denying a license to Cedar Rapids was the right decision.

“I feel for my friends in Cedar Rapids and the economic impact it would have,” Bertrand said. “but at this point, I just think we need to respect the gaming industry, their decisions and the process.”

The smoke-free casino bill is now eligible for a committee vote in the senate. A lobbyist for the City of Fort Dodge says they’ll try to amend the bill so Fort Dodge could compete against Cedar Rapids for the state’s first “smoke-free” casino license.

Biodiesel gets a new state tax break

renewable-fuelsThe brand new state law that raises the tax on gasoline and diesel by 10 cents a gallon includes a first-ever tax break for soybean-based biodiesel, similar to the tax advantage for corn-based ethanol blends.

Grant Menke, the policy director for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says the industry believes this new tax break will spur usage and make blends of biodiesel more widely available.

“With the federal policy landscape as uncertain as ever and no real end in sight to that, we’re thankful to the Iowa legislature for showing leadership to drive higher use of a higher biodiesel blend,” Menke says.

The federal tax breaks for biodiesel expired at the end of 2014. The state fuel tax charged to ethanol-blended fuels is and will continue to be two-cents-per-gallon lower than what’s charged on regular gasoline. Now, the state tax on diesel that contains at least 11 percent soybean-based biodiesel will be three-cents-per-gallon less.

“We really think with this differential, it’s a point of sale benefit that consumers can choose at the pump, so they will be saving taxes by choosing higher biodiesel blends,” Menke says.

Currently in Iowa, gasoline is taxed at 21 cents per gallon, but gasoline blended with at least 10 percent ethanol is taxed at only 19 cents per gallon. Diesel has been taxed at 22.5 cents per gallon with no incentive for biodiesel. The 10-cents-per-gallon tax increase for motor fuel sold in Iowa goes into effect Sunday, along with the new three-cent per gallon break for biodiesel.

(Reporting by Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton; additional reporting by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson)

Cold air seeping into not-yet-opened Fort Madison prison

Tom Courtney

Tom Courtney

State officials say the water has been shut off to sections of the new state prison in Fort Madison as contractors work to figure out why cold air is leaking into the recreation building and “mechanical alleyways.”

Senator Tom Courtney, a Democrat, lives about 20 miles from the not-yet-opened prison and prison officials briefed him on the situation Tuesday. “First off, they said that the pipes never froze,” Courtney said this afternoon. “They said they turned them off because they thought they would freeze.”

A written statement issued by the Department of Corrections early this afternoon indicated the situation was uncovered as the prison’s new heating and cooling system was being tested. The prison was supposed to open nearly a year ago, but problems with the heating and cooling system as well as the system for ventilating smoke out of the prison have delayed the opening indefinitely.

Bobby Kaufmann

Bobby Kaufmann

Representative Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton, has been heading a House Oversight Committee investigation of the prison delays and Kaufmann said today he’s getting “conflicting reports” about this latest glitch.

“Some are saying it’s because the geothermal system isn’t actually fully functional in times of duress. Others are saying there is potentially leakage on the roof,” Kaufmann said this afternoon “Either way, this is absolutely unacceptable and insane that we’re continuing to have new issues.”

Kaufmann said legislators “aren’t getting straight answers” about the entire prison project.

“This is a boondoggle,” Kaufmann said. “It really is.”

Courtney said he’s at least relieved the water pipes didn’t freeze and break.

“They say nothing froze, nothing was hurt. They’re trying to poo poo it, saying it’s kind of normal,” Courtney said. “…I guess I kind of halfway believe that.”

But Courtney, like Kaufmann, indicated legislators are growing more and more frustrated by the situation.

“There’s been a lot of falsehoods told on this thing and now nobody wants to believe anything,” Courtney said.

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said he would prefer not to be interviewed for this story.