- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2017

Des Moines Register. February 15, 2017

How minimum wage bill could strip civil rights

Statehouse inertia is replaced by mindless obstructionism of local efforts.Almost lost in the debate over the Iowa Legislature’s efforts to block cities and counties from increasing the minimum wage within their borders is a parallel effort intended to limit local civil rights protections.

The House bill now under consideration would ensure that Iowa has a single statewide minimum wage, which is a worthwhile goal, but it would do so by eliminating the ability of cities and counties to pass a minimum wage that’s higher than what is established by state law.

Right now, the state minimum wage is $7.25, but in the past year, Polk, Johnson, Linn and Wapello counties have approved gradual increases in the minimum wage that will top out somewhere between $10.10 to $10.75. They did so because the statewide minimum wage has been locked in at $7.25 for eight years, and Iowa is now surrounded by states that pay more.

The bill now being considered would re-establish $7.25 as the minimum wage in every corner of Iowa - unless, of course, the Legislature agrees to raise that amount, and no one is holding their breath waiting for that to happen.

Then there are the less-noticed provisions of the bill, including one that strips employment-related civil rights protections from Iowans who live in cities or counties that provide greater job protection than what is afforded under federal or state law.

As things stand now, Davenport and Iowa City residents can’t be fired or denied employment due to their marital status or familial status - but under the state law, that’s not prohibited. While the state law protects against age discrimination for everyone over the age of 40, Cedar Rapids’ civil rights ordinance is more expansive and covers everyone 18 or older.

Some cities and counties provide additional protections against discrimination in housing, education and public accommodations, but the bill being considered in the House doesn’t speak to those protections, which is telling. The bill is specific to employment discrimination - indicating the effort to curtail local civil rights ordinances is driven entirely by business and industry.

Another indicator: A separate provision of the bill actually prohibits cities and counties from passing local ordinances that impose new standards on “containers used for consuming, carrying or transporting merchandise.” That provision is in direct response to city councils and boards of supervisors that have considered ordinances banning grocers from using plastic bags or requiring retailers to at least offer paper, biodegradable or reusable cloth bags for customers’ purchases.

Grocery bags have nothing at all to do with the minimum wage or with civil rights. But the House bill is simply a vehicle through which the Legislature hopes to block locally elected officials from doing anything at all that causes business and industry any amount of discomfort.

“This is a very far-reaching and very scary bill that the people of Iowa should be appalled by,” Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “It was either poorly written, or it was written by a genius who knows exactly what it would do: It would gut local government.”

The irony here is that local governments have taken it upon themselves to address these issues only because the Iowa Legislature has refused to act. Now, state lawmakers have taken it upon themselves to prohibit local officials from filling that vacuum and doing the work for them.

It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the days of “do-nothing” legislative sessions that were marked by political paralysis. As discouraging as inertia in state government can be, it’s preferable to the sort of willful obstructionism that prevents even our local leaders from getting things done.


Quad-City Times. February 16, 2017

Amended collective bargaining bill a win for taxpayers

Legislation that would overhaul collective bargaining in Iowa is far from perfect. It’s rushed for political expedience. It’s chock-full of carve-outs that create first- and second-class public employees. It’s still unclear how one-size-fits-all health care insurance would adequately serve a workforce that includes state scientists and school maintenance workers.

No, the proposed sweeping limitations to Iowa’s Chapter 20 collective bargaining law aren’t ideal. But, at the end of the day, the amended version, rolled out Tuesday by Republicans in Iowa Legislature, are an improvement over the original pitch.

In the political reality of the moment, this new bill is worth supporting.

The original draft would have gut collective bargaining for unions representing state and local employees. Basically all but base wage would suddenly literally be off the table, essentially robbing the vacation days and other benefits that are key to negotiations and define the worker/management dynamic. It would have left employees without course to challenge wrongful terminations. It would have imbalanced the public sphere, while giving short shrift to hundreds of thousands of public employees.

On Tuesday, lawmakers reacted to the countless calls, emails and chants rising from protests throughout the state.

The amended package would reinstate bargaining for grievance procedures, seniority benefits and release time. It would permit court challenges to Civil Service Commission decisions.

Even the most vocal opponents to the GOP move to limit union power admit that the amendments are an improvement over the original draft.

No one should be surprised that Republicans instantly moved to rollback worker protection and throttle unions after seizing complete control of the Statehouse. It’s the conservative cause celebre right now, kicked off in Wisconsin in 2011.

Fact is, the partisan rush-job - a clear attempt to limit statewide rage - walked blindly into traps that should have been obvious from the outset. Take, for example, the new cut-out for transportation employees. They’d be on par with cops and firefighters, under the amended draft. Not doing so could cost Iowa millions in federal funding. Wisconsin and Michigan learned this lesson years ago.

Quelling criticism with speed clearly took precedence over research here.

It’s disingenuous to act as if political motivations aren’t front and center in all of this. Unions amass thousands of foot-soldiers every election cycle, typically for Democrats, that knock on doors and spread the message. Unions themselves are massive campaign donors. Republicans can only win by the union decline seen in Wisconsin after collective bargaining was rolled back.

But, all that aside, the taxpayer does stand to gain from the overhaul. Health care costs annually spike, particularly at local government and school districts. And, year after year, union power ensures it’s the taxpayer that picks up most of the tab. A single, statewide health care cohort equates to better rates and a better deal for taxpayers.

Republicans won total control in November. This is a central party platform at Statehouses throughout the country. And, in all likelihood, Iowa’s version will pass easily within days if not hours.

The first draft was a poorly conceived bill. It’s improved after a series of amendments. And taxpayers can be counted among the winners when it happens.

Right now, that’s the best anyone can hope for.


Sioux City Journal. February 17, 2017

Is it time to legalize fireworks in Iowa?

It isn’t among our priorities for this year’s Iowa legislative session and we aren’t losing sleep about its chances for passage, but a bill to make the sale, purchase and use of fireworks legal in Iowa isn’t something we oppose.

We revisit this issue today because fireworks legislation is progressing through the Statehouse again this session. (A fireworks bill was passed by a Senate committee and is eligible for Senate floor debate.)

We understand both sides of this discussion.

On one hand, we respect opposition by organizations representing firefighters, emergency services providers and health care providers due to dangers associated with fireworks.

On the other hand, we acknowledge majority support of legalized fireworks among Iowans. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll conducted in February 2016 showed 66 percent of Iowans favored legalizing fireworks. (Forty-three states allow some or all types of consumer fireworks.)

Also, we appreciate the economic benefits of capturing part of a business Iowa loses to border states (including Nebraska and South Dakota) each year.

As we have said in this space before, we support revisiting the debate about legalized fireworks within these parameters:

1) Lawmakers should listen to and consider input from police, sheriff’s and fire departments.

2) Minors should be prohibited from purchasing fireworks.

3) Use of fireworks should be confined to a limited number of days either side of Independence Day. Fines for violation should be stiff, to provide a deterrent.

4) Reasonable boundaries about what is sold should be established. We don’t need our state becoming a war zone over the Fourth of July.

5) Local governments should have the power to restrict sales and use of fireworks when public safety might be threatened (for example, during a summer of drought).

Any effort to meet demand in the state for legalization of more fireworks should embrace prudent safety steps and respect for all Iowans.


Burlington Hawk Eye. February 17, 2017

Good faith or mean-spirited?

An apathetic electorate shouldn’t be a problem this weekend when state lawmakers participate in three legislative town halls planned in the area.

They come on the heels of a tense week in Des Moines, when Republicans muscled through bills rewriting Iowa’s collective bargaining laws for teachers, snow-plow operators and other public employees.

More than 1,100 public-sector employees staged a spirited rally Monday at the Statehouse in advance of debates in the House and Senate. Legislators talked all day and into the night Tuesday and Wednesday. Whether any minds were changed is an open question. On Thursday, leaders in each chamber halted debate and forced a vote. The measures passed generally along party lines. Gov. Terry Branstad is waiting only for the print to dry so he can sign it into law.

Proponents argued the change is necessary to give local school districts, counties and cities extra leverage to help them pinch their budgets - or as Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said, put “taxpayers back in charge.” Those on the other side contend it was a mean-spirited effort to bust the strongest unions left in the state.

Even though collective bargaining was not a campaign issue in the fall, Republicans seized upon it once they gained control of the Senate in November. The GOP already had a majority in the House and Branstad wasn’t facing re-election. Nobody was standing in the way to knee-cap a persistent irritant, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (When was the last time AFSCME and Republicans saw eye-to-eye on an issue?)

As Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, said earlier in the week, “This isn’t all of a sudden a sudden issue.”

Heaton acknowledged, though, it caught him by surprise, and he cautioned his colleagues, “You don’t just pop a bill this extensive.”

Republicans failed to heed the warning. They wanted to seize the opportunity while they could. Heaton was one of six Republicans to vote against the effort, concerned mostly with the aggressive tactics he fears will backfire.

So now is gone a system that has served Iowans well since 1974. With collective bargaining in place, the state has not had to contend with any work stoppages by public employees. Somehow in their effort to scuttle Chapter 20 - the portion of the Iowa Code governing collective bargaining - Republicans unwittingly acknowledged local governments have done an abysmal job negotiating union contracts or they haven’t tried, as Burlington City Manager Jim Ferneau did three years ago when he renegotiated a contract already in place.

The requirement unions must recertify their memberships periodically failed to disguise Republicans’ contempt for organized labor - if there ever was an effort to mask it.

This weekend, Reps. Dave Kerr, R-Morning Sun, and Sen. Tom Greene, R-Burlington, will be in southeast Iowa to defend their votes. They are invited to the Greater Burlington Partnership’s members-only Eggs and Issues breakfast Saturday, where they likely will face friendly faces. A public forum will follow at 9 a.m. at West Burlington City Hall, 122 Broadway St. in West Burlington.

Another forum is at noon today in Fort Madison. It, too, is a members-only event. Lawmakers expected there opposed the measure: Heaton, Rep. Jerry Kearns, D-Keokuk, and Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant.

Civility may have been absent inside the Statehouse this week. Hopefully, local comments, gestures and behavior for or against the measure will be civil here. Democracy needs all the help it can right now.


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