January 29, 2015

School start date bill clears legislative committee

state-capitolA bill to let school districts decide when to start classes in the fall cleared a three-member panel at the statehouse today. There were arguments on both sides, and the bill’s future is uncertain.

Ross Schoofs at Adventureland Park in Altoona says they lose money when school starts earlier in August. “Comparing August 15th when schools were back in session to a week earlier when they were not on August 8th, Adventureland’s attendance dropped 58 percent,” Schoofs says.

Senator Todd Bowman, a Democrat from Maquoketa, says it is evident the schools want to start earlier by the number of waiver requests. “Three-hundred-36 out of 338 school boards are asking for this,” Bowman says. Wayne Rose from the Newton KOA says business drops off even before school starts.

“Two weeks prior you can see people not coming to the campgrounds because of the mere fact that they’re trying to get their kids ready to go to school, shopping for clothes, that sort of thing,” Rose testified. But Emily Piper with the Iowa Association of School Boards, says changing the start date won’t help. “I think it’s a myth to assume the summer will be longer if we start in September,” Piper says.

Currently, state law requires schools to start no earlier than the week in which September 1st, but the Iowa Department of Education recently created criteria that makes schools show it would hurt the education of students if the didn’t approve an early start waiver.

Schools also argue that students take Advanced Placement tests in the spring, so starting school earlier in the fall gives them more time to prepare. A spokesman for the Iowa Lodging Association quotes a survey showing most Iowans favor a later start date for schools.

Idea of allowing Iowa youth to hunt with crossbows draws fire

Matt Windschitl

Matt Windschitl

A bill that would have let children under the age of 16 hunt deer with powerful crossbows during any of the three hunting seasons for adult hunters in Iowa has been tabled at the statehouse after opposition from the Iowa Bowhunters Association and others.

Representative Matt Windschitl, a Republican from Missouri Valley, said he didn’t want to “ruffle feathers” but had offered the proposal because he has childhood friend who wants to teach his own kids, who are around the age of seven, how to hunt with a crossbow.

“Without having them have the kick of a shotgun, a 20 gauge, because they’re going to be put on their rear end if they’re pulling the trigger on a 20 gauge ” Windschitl said, “so he thought this would be an opportunity or a way to take his children out with him, set the crossbow for them and have the opportunity for them just to engage in the hunt.”

Denny Bradley

Denny Bradley

Denny Bradley of Ottumwa, the president of the Iowa Bowhunters Association, says it isn’t exactly “archery” when a hunter uses a crossbow to kill deer.

“Those aren’t considered very ethical shots by bowhunters,” Bradley said.

Others cited concerns about injuries with crossbows, which can shoot long distances and have a trigger like a gun. Randy McPherran of Unionville has been teaching hunter safety courses for over 35 years and he said crossbows are “probably not” something kids should be handling.

“In case you’re not acquainted with crossbows — 180 pounds to string one of those. It takes mechanical equipment to set that,” McPherran said, citing “the danger factor of a crossbow.”

Dale Garner, chief of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife bureau, saw a man who leads of a similar agency in another state have an accident with a crossbow.

“He had his thumb higher than he should have and it took the thumb off,” he said today during a subcommittee meeting to consider the bill.

Luckily that Nebraskan was rushed to a nearby hospital to have the thumb re-attached. Hunting advocates say allowing children who are accompanied by a parent to use a crossbow during the rifle and bow hunting seasons for adults is a recipe for disaster. Don Avenson, a lobbyist for the Iowa Bowhunters Association, also warned that some less-than-ethical parents will use their child’s deer tag, shoot a buck themselves with a crossbow and then try to pass that off later as a shot with a bow and arrow.

“There is absolutely no question in our mind that those youth seasons are being used by adults to take big deer earlier than anybody else gets a chance at them,” Avenson said.

Iowa currently has a “youth” hunting season in September and children under the age of 16 who are accompanied by an adult can use a rifle, a muzzleloader or a bow and arrow to shoot during that season. The bill that would have allowed children to use a crossbow during any hunting season in Iowa has been tabled for the year and Representative Windschitl, the bill’s sponsor, vows to try to find a compromise with the hunting groups that might pass muster next year.

Group warns tax hikers will face ‘angry’ voters in 2016

Rob Solt

Rob Solt

The leader of a group created nearly four decades ago to lobby for a smaller state government and reduced taxes say Iowa legislators will pay a price in 2016 if they support a gas tax increase in 2015.

Rob Solt is president of Iowans for Tax Relief, a group urging lawmakers to vote against any bill that would raise the state gas tax.

“Legislators are sent up here to make tough decisions and the toughest decision they’re probably going to have to make this year is to pass a gas tax increase, which our polls show Iowans don’t want, or to take a look at are the resources there and can they just reallocate them,” Solt says. “And unfortunately at this point no one is willing to take a look at the formula.”

Here’s how the formula works: nearly half of the money raised by those taxes is kept by the state, with 20 percent going to cities and the rest going to counties. Solt suggests the state should keep less and share more with local governments.

“If we get a gas tax increase passed and the money goes through the formula and people expected to get their local road or bridge fixed and it absolutely won’t get done, I mean it will be such a miniscule amount that will get done at the local level, they’re going to be really frustrated,” Solt says. “And they’re going to get to the 2016 elections and say: What did I get for paying this additional amount? And I think it’s going to make people angry.”

It appears momentum is building at the statehouse for a gas tax increase, however. Key legislators yesterday said a vote on a 10-cent hike in the per gallon gas tax could come in February and the higher tax rate might take effect as soon as March. The Iowans for Tax Relief president questions the way the State of Iowa is spending its current portion of gas tax proceeds.

“If you drive through Iowa City, there’s 10 miles of colored, stamped concrete there,” Solt says. “…How can we not have enough resources when we can do colored, stamped concrete as a median divider, but we can’t do a project in Davis County?”

The state taxes every gallon of regular gas at 21 cents. Ethanol-blended gasoline is taxed at 19 cents per gallon. The state tax on diesel is 22.5 cents per gallon. Those tax rates were set in 1989. Gas tax revenue is declining because vehicles are more fuel-efficient and supporters of a gas tax increase say the state is at least $215 million short each year of what’s needed to fix up and expand Iowa’s transportation system.

‘Overall consensus’ toward 10-cent hike in state gas tax (AUDIO)

Brynes-and-Bowman

Representative Josh Byrnes and Senator Tod Bowman.

Key legislators say a 10-cent increase in the state gas tax has a good chance of passing the legislature in February and going into effect as early as March.

“I think the overall consensus is to go 10 cents now…We’re so far behind that we need to implement it right away,” Senator Tod Bowman, a Democrat from Maquoketa who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said this morning.

Representative Josh Byrnes, a Republican from Osage who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has been in the same private negotiating sessions with Bowman, Governor Branstad and legislative leaders.

“We’re trying to keep things as simple as possible,” Byrnes said. “The less complexity on this, the better.”

According to Byrnes, that’s why negotiators at this point are favoring an increase in the already-existing per-gallon tax rather than trying to pass some new way to finance road and bridge projects in Iowa. Senator Bowman said the need is great — an estimated $215 million yearly shortfall to address critical needs in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“I’ve never felt more optimistic about moving forward with the gas tax,” Bowman said.

The two committee leaders met early this morning with a large group of city and county officials as well as road builders who are in Des Moines to lobby legislators to boost the amount of money available to expand and maintain the state’s transportation network.

AUDIO of committee chairmen speaking at “Transportation Day” 2015

Byrnes cautioned against over-confidence.

“It’s moving forward and looking good and looking promising. That doesn’t mean that we rest, though,” Byrnes said. “I would tell you guys that since you’re down here today, make sure that you’re pulling out your representatives, your senators. I mean, you still have to apply the pressure, O.K.? This bill has not moved forward. It hasn’t been signed yet. Things can fall apart very quickly down here.”

Iowa Department of Transportation director Paul Trombino also spoke this morning at the “Transportation Day” event. He offered a point-by-point response to critics of a gas tax hike. Trombino said the state can’t cut in other places or shift things around to find enough money to meet the “critical needs” of Iowa’s transportation network, plus Trombino warned Iowa’s manufacturers will become less competitive if the system isn’t updated to reduce congestion in key areas.

AUDIO of Trombino’s speech

“If we choose to allow the system to continue to deteriorate, it will impede business and it will detract from quality of life,” Trombino said, “and ultimately it does not attract and maintain the workforce that we need for today and tomorrow.”

David Rose

David Rose

And David Rose of Clinton, the chairman of the Iowa Transportation Commission, dismissed the idea of closing some of the state’s little-used roads and bridges.

“We can’t do that because we are a unique state,” Rose said during his remarks at the “Transportation Day” event. “Every county in this state produces something that the world wants. (It’s) called food.”

The state’s per-gallon tax on motor fuel is deposited in the “Road Use Tax Fund” and, according to the state’s constitution, that money must be spent on the state’s road system. Key legislators say that’s one reason raising the gas tax is emerging as a favored option, since other means of raising money are not constitutionally protected and, in the future, might be diverted to other uses.

Contentious debate over state spending on schools

Chip Baltimore (file photo)

Chip Baltimore (file photo)

Last night Republicans in the Iowa House voted to increase general state spending on Iowa’s public K-12 schools by nearly $48 million for the next academic year. Democrats like Representative Art Staed of Cedar Rapids say that’s not enough and it will mean “fired teachers, larger class sizes, fewer supplies, outdated textbooks, outdated software, fewer course offerings.”

Representative Patti Ruff, a Democrat from McGregor, said shortchanging schools shortchanges the state’s future.

“You can’t have world class schools on a third-world budget,” Ruffs said.

Republicans rejected those arguments, saying schools will get an increase and it will be a large share of the new tax revenue that’s available for lawmakers to spend. Representative Chip Baltimore, a Republican from Boone, was indignant.

“I will not sit here and be beat about the head and told that I dont’ care about children,” Baltimore said.

He said state spending on schools has increased significantly in the past decade, but the overall performance of students hasn’t increased.

“Where does the money go?” Baltimore asked.

The groups which represent teachers, administrators and school boards in Iowa are asking legislators for an increase that’s about four times as much as Republicans propose. Now that a bill on the subject has cleared the Iowa House, this debate will now shift to the Democraticzlly-led Senate.

Wage theft victims tell their stories at statehouse

Justin Banks speaks at the news conference.

Justin Banks speaks at the news conference.

Four Iowans who say they’ve been the victims of wage theft testified at the statehouse Tuesday, part of an effort by Senate Democrats to build support for a bill that would require businesses to provide employees with a written record of how they’re to be paid.

Senator Bill Dotzler of Waterloo says he and other Democrats tried to make that state law last year, but Republicans in the House rejected the idea.

“I think that we’re actually encouraging bad actors to steal from Iowans by failing to require this basic paperwork,” Dotzler said during the news conference organized by Senate Democrats.

Valentine Ruiz of Conesville spoke through an interpreter as he talked about his case. State investigators determined he had not been paid for $1200 worth of work, but three years later he still hasn’t gotten a check from the business in West Liberty.

“If this is not theft, then what is theft?” Ruiz asked.

Juan Tristan of Des Moines runs a dry wall business with 30 employees and he said his company didn’t get paid for the last 45 days of work at apartment complex in West Des Moines.

“They told us as soon as you finish the job, you’ll get the full payment,” Tristan said. “…I just don’t supervise, I work myself and we kept working and we finished everything and we went and asked for the paycheck, they said that we don’t have nothing coming.”

Katie Wilson worked as a server at an Appleby’s in Coralville for about six years.

“I was devastated when I found out management was illegally taking my tips…It happened to all of my co-workers,” Wilson said. “Wage theft is an epidemic in the restaurant industry.”

Justin Banks worked as a server at the same restaurant for three years.

“Here in Iowa wage theft is a number one crime because there’s virtually no consequence to the employers who steal from the workers,” Banks said. “…The left and the right need to meet center, because this affects all your constituents.”

The current chairman of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry has said “grandstanding” on the issue of wage theft isn’t productive and legislators should, instead, provide “more resources” so state officials can enforce current laws. Senator Dotzler bristled at that.

“Getting paid for the work that you’ve done so you can feed your family, if they want to call that grandstanding, then I don’t know if they’ve got the same core values that I think most Iowans have,” Dotzler said.

Senator Rick Bertrand, a Republican from Sioux City, sat in the audience at yesterday’s news conference. He agrees with the business group. He said forcing more “paperwork” on every Iowa business isn’t the answer.

“If you have 20 kindergarteners out there and Tommy jumps in a mud puddle, why are we making all 19 (other) kindergarteners the next day show up in boots?” Bertrand asked.

Bertrand plans to introduce legislation that would set up a toll-free number workers could call to report allegations of wage theft.

“Senate Republicans are sensitive to the issue of wage theft,” Bertrand said. “It’s real.”

According to Bertrand, Republicans want to “inject more funds” into the state Workforce Development agency to enforce current law, but he can’t yet say how much money or how many new investigators Republicans would like to hire. Senator Tony Bisignano, a Democrat from Des Moines, is chairman of the Senate Labor Committee where this issue will be debated.

“In some industries, stealing from the paychecks of low-income workers has become a business model,” Bisignano said.

He plans to bring up the bill that would not only require a written record of the terms of employment, it would provide some “whistleblower” protection to Iowans who testify for fellow workers who wage theft victims.

Senator cites governor’s ‘little episode’, asks colleagues to pray for Branstad

Ken Rozenboom

Ken Rozenboom

No word — yet — on when Governor Terry Branstad might be released from the Des Moines hospital where he’s being treated for “flu-like symptoms.” Branstad fell ill yesterday, during a speech at Du Pont Pioneer in Johnston, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was admitted “out of an abundance of caution” according to his staff.

Senator Ken Rozenboom, a Republican from Oskaloosa, brought up the subject during a speech in the senate this morning.

“I simply want to remind the body here of our governor’s little episode yesterday and encourage you and ask you to keep him and his family in your prayers and also Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds who’s apparently been afflicted with something similar,” Rozenboom said.

Reynolds was coughing and sniffling yesterday, too, and was scheduled to see her doctor this morning. Both Reynolds and Branstad have cancelled all their public appearances today.

“Please keep them in your prayers as the day goes forward, so they can return to their work,” Rozenboom said.

Another state official — Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart — has cancelled his scheduled appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee today because he’s ill.