Legislative Session Roundups -- Iowa, Idaho, and Alabama

Legislative Session Roundups -- Iowa, Idaho, and Alabama

Thursday, June 8, 2009




Legislative Session Roundup: Iowa

With Iowa lawmakers facing not only fiscal problems similar to many states, but the need to pass flood and tornado recovery bills, lawmakers met both challenges by the end of the session.   However, the rest of the agenda for progressives saw a mix of wins and losses, with most high profile reforms falling short, but many good progressive policies becoming law. And, the leadership of Iowa legislators stepped up to support the Iowa supreme court decision support marriage equality for same sex partners, refusing to advance a proposed constitutional attack on the groundbreaking decision.

Budget and Taxes:  The state's $6.3 billion dollar balanced budget avoids tax increases and adds $441 million to the state's rainy day fund for what will surely be a challenging fiscal situation next year. 

  • Floods and Tornadoes:  Lawmakers devoted a total of $360 million for flood recovery,  including rebuilding local infrastructure, fire stations and housing, as well as floodplain management and watershed and water quality grants for flood prevention projects and soil conservation practices.
  • I-Jobs Stimulus Package:  Partly using a $715 million bond issue, the governor's I-Jobs package highlighted the stimulative effects of the borrowing with a package including $115 million for repairs to bridges and roads; $600 million for repairs at flood-damaged buildings and houses, sewer systems, construction of homeless and domestic abuse shelters, energy projects, a public high-speed Internet systems; $115 million for flood repairs at the University of Iowa and more construction at a veterinary lab at Iowa State University.  The spending leveraged many hundreds of millions in federal matching grants, making the work accomplished by the bonds incredibly cost effective. 
  • Using Recovery Funds:  The state spent about $500 million of federal stimulus funds, mostly to prevent layoffs of state employees and to preserve a promised boost in teacher pay.
  • Tax Reform:  A proposed tax overhaul focused around repeal of the deductibility of federal taxes [H 807] failed to be enacted despite broad leadership support.  Similarly, a bipartisan plan to increase the gasoline tax 8 cents dedicated to road maintenance died when the governor declared his opposition.  Governor Chet Culver did, however, sign a bill requiring that any business receiving a research tax credit from the state of more than a half million dollars have its name made public.  

Legislators will likely face even worse choices next year and have established a commission to produce plans for government reorganization to cut costs. "We've got to...[f]igure out those things that we should continue to do and ways to do them more efficiently and figure out those things that we're going to walk away from," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Grondstal.

Same-Sex Marriage:  As we've previously highlighted, Iowa's Supreme Court struck down a decade-old law that banned same-sex marriage.  Legislative leaders beat back an effort by conservatives in the Senate to reverse the unanimous ruling and made it clear that they will oppose any constitutional amendment that seeks to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court decision.  In a joint release by Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy, they praised the decision and said "the only lasting question about today’s events will be why it took us so long."

Health Care:  As we've highlighted, Iowa made big strides in health coverage with one of the most comprehensive bills moving in the states this year.  Sponsored by Sen. Hatch, the legislation builds on a 2008 law that created a path for Iowa to achieve health care for all kids and address health care cost and quality.  S 389 will extend eligibility for public programs to children in families up to 300% of the poverty line, covering 30,000 of the state's 40,000 uninsured kids, and establish a "soft" mandate that eligible children be signed up (there are no penalties for parents who fail to enroll their children).  The program will use state funds, federal SCHIP support and the federal stimulus package. The bill also reins in prescription drug costs, improves the quality of care, and provides more coverage options for businesses and families.  Additionally, the bill expands health insurance eligibility for legal immigrant children, implement the new federal law that removes the 5 year wait for legal immigrant children to become eligible for SCHIP funding.  In one failure, mental health coverage requirements were not expanded as progressives had hoped [H 234/S 418].

Wind Energy:  The governor put his signature on S 456, which utilizes unused tax credits to promote small wind energy projects across the state, and H 817, which provides economic incentives for wind component manufacturers who are looking at building or expanding in Iowa.  The state ranks second behind Texas in wind energy production and is home to 1,999 wind turbines that produce nearly 2,800 MW of electricity each year.  "With more than 2,300 green-collar jobs created through wind energy, creating new jobs in the green economy will be key to our future successes," said Gov. Culver at the signing ceremony.  On another environmental issue, conservation funding was held steady or increased through stimulus and bonding, a significant victory given the low state revenue.

Other Key Progressive Victories:

  • Pay Equity:  S 137 brings Iowa into compliance with federal wage discrimination laws, but will provide protection for women in work places with as few as 4 employees. The federal bill provides protection just down to 15 employees.
  • Child Labor and Wage Law Enforcement:  Responding to massive abuses uncovered in local agriprocessors, the state increased employer penalties for child labor violations and the state labor commissioner will have more authority in dealing with all wage violations.
  • Consumer Right of Action:  Iowa is no longer the only state without a consumer right of action. The Attorney General’s office has been receiving 4000-5000 complaints a year because that was Iowans' only recourse under state law when harmed by a business or product.  A new law, H 712, allows consumers who have been the vicitims deceptive businesses to sue directly and allows plaintiffs to get their legal costs paid as well.  Unfortunately, a very large number of professional groups were exempted such as insurance companies, attorneys, a variety of licensed health care professionals, architects, engineers, insurance agents, banks, and credit unions.
  • Gender Balance on City and County Boards:  Iowa state government boards and commissions have been required to seek gender balance since 1987, but a new law will now require that gender balance be sought on city and county boards, where women presently make up just 20% of those serving. The law provides an exemption if after 90 days an applicant of the right sex can’t be found [H 243].

Some Notable Failures

  • PayDay Loans:  Even though Iowa has highest average use of abusive payday loans in the nation, a reform bill failed to move.
  • Labor Rights: The legislature failed to advance any of the top four organized labor priorities in this session: open-scope bargaining rights for public employees [H 821]; the Fairshare Act [H 555]; choice of doctor for worker's compensation care [H 795/S 155]; and prevailing-wage requirements for public contracts [H 333].  The prevailing wage bill even passed the legislature last year only to be vetoed by the governor, he claimed, over process issues.  Business groups smeared the proposal as an eviceration of Iowa's "right to work" law and were able to peel off a handful of majority Democrats, mostly from conservative districts. Labor has been a big part of the Democrats recent advances and are clearly stinging from the lack of progress, but leaders remain optimistic and will continue to educate and pressure members on these issues.  
  • Government reforms: The Senate didn't agree to the House bill closing exceptions to Iowa's open records and open meetings laws because senators felt it lacked an adequate enforcement mechanism; and a post-election audit bill passed the House but died in the Senate as well.

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Legislative Session Roundup: Idaho

Idaho faced a historically bad budget projection, with projected consecutive negative growth in two years. This challenge resulted in the second longest session of all time, with the federal recovery act allowing significant opportunities for the legislature to use one-time funds to shore up the budget, even as reductions were made to education for the first time in state history.  Without a doubt, this was one of the most contentious sessions in state record.

TAX, BUDGET AND RECOVERY:  In a series of budget bills, the state reduced budgets for state agencies by $176 million (H 250) and tap dedicated stabilization and public education funds to balance the budget.  The state also enacted:

  • H 173 moves eligible retired state employees off of state insurance and onto Medicare once eligible and gives eligible state retirees $1,860 per year toward premiums for health insurance.
  • S 1227 appropriates over $35 million from federal stimulus monies for public water and waste management systems, the Idaho Education Network and transportation project grants, and reduces state personnel costs by 5%.
  • H 248 extends unemployment insurance benefits using alternative base periods , provides that certain part-time workers shall not be denied regular UI benefits, and provides for training extension benefits.  H 335 defines when extended unemployment insurance benefits will be triggered (only when the federal government covers the full cost of UI benefits)
  • Due to the education cuts, teachers will experience a one year freeze on experience-related salary increases (H 262).

Transportation:  A third of Idaho's roads and bridges rated as being in poor or mediocre condition, according to a legislative audit released this year which said the state needed to spend an estimated $300 million annually to preserve its existing highway and bridge infrastructure by 2013. Republican Gov. "Butch" Otter vetoed 35 budget bills in an attempt to get his own party's members in the House to increase gasoline taxes to raise $174 million to pay for road repairs.  Instead, the legislature voted for only a $50 million increase in transportation funding, and voted down six efforts to increase the gas tax.  The legislature did enact H 338 to remove the ethanol exemption from fuel tax, resulting in about $16.4 million of revenues for road maintenance, and S 1186 which approved bonding authority for up to $82 million of highway transportation projects. The state is also receiving almost $44 miilion in forest and road maintenance stimulus money.

Health Care: Budget pressures resulted in the enactment of H 123 to contain Medicaid costs and reduce reimbursements to providers and benefits to Medicaid recipients. In addition, the state enacted the following health care reforms:

  • H 192 creates the Idaho Health Carrier External Review Act which allows individuals already receiving health insurance the right to an independent review of a health carrier’s decision to deny a claim on the grounds that the service is not medically necessary or is investigational.
  • HB 108 allows children between the ages of 21 and 25 to remain on their parents' health insurance as long as they are still considered dependents.
  • In order to address the chronic shortage of physicians in the state, HJM 7 resolves to find federal funding to help establish a medical school program and SJM 101 urges Congress to provide additional funding for medical residency programs in Idaho.

Pay Day Loans:  Passed unanimously, S 1151 provides that payday loans made by unlicensed payday lenders are void and provides for a private right of action to recover borrowers' monies. It also provides the Department of Finance the ability to send cease and desist orders and to seek restitution for consumers.

Mortgage Reforms:  H 169 passed unanimously and repeals existing law relating to residential mortgages and preserves existing regulatory oversight language and incorporates the requirements of the federal Safe and Fair Enforcement Mortgage Licensing Act of 2008, including criminal background checks for mortgage brokers, the licensing and registration mandates for all mortgage loan originators, and the establishment of a state mortgage recovery fund which would reimburse individuals for damages caused by mortgage brokers, lenders, or loan originators. The bill also empowers the Director of the Department of Finance to investigate and rescind licenses granted under the chapter.

Reproductive Rights: Fortunately, a bill aimed at allowing providers of pharmaceutical care to refuse to provide abortion or contraceptive services died in the Senate after passing in the House.

Death Penalty:  H 107 eliminates the death penalty by firing squad, making Idaho the last state in the nation to do away with this antiquated option.

Child Care:  Under S 1112, child-care operators who care for seven or more unrelated children must be licensed, and those with four or more must get criminal background checks. Current law does not require child-care facilities to have a license unless they care for 13 or more children.

Election Reform:  Along with administrative changes consolidating election dates and providing funds for counties to buy new voting equipment (H 372), the state enacted S 1184 to reform legislative redistricting following a census to require that, whenever possible, counties, district boundaries and local voting precincts remain intact; while preventing past redistricting commissioners from serving on future commissions.

Environmental: H 7 was enacted to allow the Public Utilities Commission to designate priority transmission lines that improve Idaho's transmission capacity which will assist in bringing more renewable power sources on line.

Progressive Defeats and Missed Opportunities

  • Immigration:  S 1110 was passed without the Governor's signature and requires immigrants to show identification in order to receive public benefits and also requires states agencies toverify immigrant status through the SAVE program. In better news, the E-Verify bill which would have required businesses to use the federal program to check the immigration status of employees or face possible forfeiture of state, county or city licesnses for employing undocumented immigrants did not pass.
  • Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform: The legislature also missed opportunities to charge lobbyists with felonies for threatening or withholding contributions to legislators and executive officials, and to require candidates to file a financial disclosure statement publicizing income sources of $10,000 and real estate holdings of more than $5000, other than a personal residence.

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Legislative Session Roundup: Alabama

While lawmakers from both parties called this year's session "peaceful" and "amazingly productive", some observers, like The Birmingham News, were more likely to criticize missed opportunities.

Overall, the state used federal recovery dollars to avoid deep cuts to many state programs, and pass some important initiatives advanced by majority Democrats.  Key budget decisions and other bills from the session include:

  • Expansion of the state's ALL Kids health care program equal to 14,000 children (the result of a budget veto override) by including children in families up to 300 percent of the poverty level.
  • An education budget that utilized federal stimulus funding to preserve key programs and prevent any teacher layoffs.
  • The Alabama Housing Initiative, a program that will help 7,000 new homebuyers through low-interest loans and reduced upfront costs.
  • HJR 592 created a Statewide Public Transit Commission to develop a framework for establishing public transit systems in the state and making recommendations before the 2011 session.

Missed Opportunities on the budget included failure to enact a proposed highway stimulus plan which would have created 27,000 new jobs and spent $1 billion on road construction across the state and failure to use $100 million in federal stimulus funds to expand unemployment benefits to 20,000 more families.  Lawmakers also failed to shore up the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition, which supports 48,000 students but has lost half its value during the economic downturn.  Proposals to help working families by eliminating the sales tax on groceries also failed. And, the Governor vetoed S 93 which would have created Individual Development Accounts to help families build personal assets.

Other Missed Opportunities:

  • Ethics reform, to curb the practice of lobbyists spending as much as $250 each day on "hospitality" for a single lawmaker without having to report it, failed again despite campaign promises by lawmakers. Despite ranking 49th for its ethics and finance laws by the Campaign Disclosure Project, lawmakers failed to pass other ethics and campaign finance reform bills including bans on PAC to PAC transfers, subpoena power for the state Ethics Commission, and better campaign finance disclosure reports.
  • A ban on smoking in public places failed even though the adverse affects of second-hand smoke are extremely well-documented and a natural lobby opposing the measure is presumably non-existent, considering there is no tobacco-industry in the state and only 23% of adults smoke.

Defeat of Vote Suppression Bill:  On the positive side, lawmakers killed a bill requiring a photo ID in order to vote.

Telephone Deregulation: More negatively, advocacy groups strongly condemned a law removing the remaining minimal regulation of land-line telephone services.

Other News:

  • The Gun Lobby had a decent session. Lawmakers unanimously passed a bill that shields gun owners with a permit to carry a concealed weapon from public scrutiny, unless the gun owner had a criminal record.   
  • To the delight of beer drinkers with a distinguishing palate, lawmakers passed a bill increasing the amount of allowable alcohol by volume in beer from 6% to 13.9%.  The legislation, resulting from years of lobbying by the group Free the Hops, will open Alabama to upscale brews like many Belgian ales and American "craft" beers.
  • Lawmakers failed to allow the voters to call a constitutional convention, even though Constitutional reform is increasingly a priority for the state.  Here is why: Alabama has the longest constitution in the world.  It has approximately three times as many words as the Constitution of India.  This trivial distinction, however, houses a stew of complications for effectively and democratically governing the state.  The constitution centralizes power in the state capital, denying county governments the ability to make even the most mundane decisions, like how to regulate rodent control.  Many issues that are dealt with by statute in other states are written into the constitution.  The tax code is a particular problem, as changes to taxation require a constitutional amendment.  This is one of the reasons lawmakers were unable to eliminate the tax on groceries this year.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Interim Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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