January 31, 2015

Iowa’s senators among 62 who voted to authorize Keystone XL Pipeline

Iowa’s two Republican senators have voted for legislation that would authorize construction fo the Keystone XL pipeline. Senator Joni Ernst afterwards told reporters she was a “proud co-sponsor” of the bill.

“My colleagues and I promised our folks back home that we would govern in a responsible way and that’s what we are doing,” Ernst said during a telephone conference call with Iowa reporters. “We are moving legislation that the American people have asked for.”

The pipeline, which would carry tar sands crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, would not extend through Iowa. A court ruling earlier this month cleared the way for its passage through neighboring Nebraska. The U.S. State Department estimates 42,000 people would be employed during the two-year construction phase.

“This will help us create new jobs, invest billions of dollars into our economy and also (build) new energy infrastructure,” Ernst said.

The U.S. House has already passed its version of the bill and Republican leaders in the House have yet to decide whether to pass the slightly different Senate version of the bill or create a conference committee of House and Senate members to hammer out a final draft. The legislation will set up the first official clash with the new Republican-led congress, as President Obama has promised to veto the bill.

Senator Chuck Grassley, in a written statement, said the pipeline is “a privately funded, shovel ready infrastructure project that would support a lot of good-paying jobs.” Grassley suggested President Obama is “stuck between the unions that want these jobs and the environmentalists who don’t want any more use of fossil fuels.”

In 2014, a similar bill failed to clear the Senate. Grassley voted for it, but Democrat Tom Harkin, Iowa’s other senator at the time, voted no.

Legislators question plan to close MHIs in Clarinda, Mount Pleasant

Rich Shults

Rich Shults

A panel of legislators grilled the state official who was dispatched to defend Governor Branstad’s proposal to close the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant.

Rick Shults, the director of mental health and disability services for the Iowa Department of Human Services, testified before a budget subcommittee on Thursday.

“We clearly are having difficulty in recruiting staff,” Shults said. “…The wards are outdated and they’re poorly configured. When I go to those facilities it causes me concern. There are nooks and crannies and they’re not as expansive and there are just some challenges there and there are high costs associated with these facilities.”

Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, countered the costs for caring for patients with acute mental illness are higher at the Cherokee and Independence Mental Health Institutes which will remain open.

“I mean, it’s flying in the face of a lot of things here, Rick…you know?” Heaton said during the 90-minute question-and-answer session with Shults. “I just can’t quite understand,”

Heaton said there aren’t enough “psych beds” in private facilities in southern Iowa and closing the two state-run facilities makes things worse.

“Iowa is ranked fourth-worst in the country as far as our mental health services are concerned. We’re at the bottom,” Heaton said, pounding his fist on the table. “…It’s a mess.”

Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, said he doubted the agency’s claim that many patients who’re now being served in the state’s Mental Health Institutes can easily find care from private providers.

“You’re painting this rosy picture about how we’re going to have all these crisis services at the same time we’re ripping money out of the system,” Bolkcom said. “It’s to meet the bean counters’ numbers in the basement, the Department of Management. They’ve got to cut money out of this budget to pay for this historic property tax cut.”

Other legislators said they’re fielding complaints from county sheriffs who are often responsible for transporting patients to the Mental Health Institutes. Representative John Forbes, a Democrat from Urbandale, said it will be a 500-mile round trip for some departments.

“What’s the human cost to the families of these patients who are now going to be instead of 20-30 miles away, 250 miles away?” Forbes asked. “These patients need their families close by to help them get through these very difficult times in their lives.”

Shults, the DHS administrator, countered that many hospitals around the state provide in-patient treatment for severe mental illness, plus he said the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and Broadlawns Hospital in Des Moines will be able to take some patients who would have been sent to the state-run facilities. The DHS expects to shift the elderly sex offenders who’re in 24-hour nursing care in Clarinda to private nursing homes.

A court ruling is expected in late February on whether Governor Branstad had the authority to close the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo last year. If that ruling goes against Branstad, legislators say that will dramatically alter the discussion about closing the Mental Health Institutes.

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 Grassley ready to hold hearings on Attorney General nominee

Loretta Lynch

Loretta Lynch

In one of his first moves as the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley has carved out a big chunk of his schedule this week for hearings on President Obama’s nominee for Attorney General. Loretta Lynch is a 55-year-old North Carolina native who’s currently the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Eastern District.

Grassley, a Republican, says Lynch has an excellent shot to become the nation’s top lawyer. “Of course, she’s a viable candidate,” Grassley says. “Now, that might sound like I’ve made up my mind I’m going to vote for her. That decision will come after a day of questioning tomorrow which could go into, almost maybe ten, 12, 14 hours, I don’t know how long it’ll take.”

Grassley says he’s already met with Lynch one-on-one, but he says little often comes from those meetings. He places more importance on the hearings, beginning Wednesday, where she will be under oath and answering questions from each member of the panel. “There’s always a presumption, sometimes overruled by Congress not approving, but at least to start with and very general throughout history, a presumption a president ought to have a cabinet that he wants,” Grassley says. “So, things lean in her favor, just from a standpoint of that.”

Still, Grassley says that’s not enough of a basis to influence his vote, noting, he’s voted against President Obama’s nominees in the past. So far, Lynch has been “well-received,” Grassley says, as far as her personality and her background. “I suppose with 46 Democrats probably would all vote for her so it’s a case of getting five or six Republicans,” Grassley says. “Maybe she’ll get 30 Republicans, who knows?”

The hearings will begin Wednesday morning. Grassley and Lynch will make opening statements and then she’ll be questioned by each individual committee member. Thursday’s hearing will feature outside witnesses invited by both Republicans and Democrats. The current Attorney General, Eric Holder, announced in September his plans to step down when a new nominee is confirmed. Holder has been in the office since 2009.