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Session Recap: ‘Historic’ — not label of pride

Posted April 25th, 2017 to Blog

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4/22/17

IFP Statement: ‘Historic’ session not a label of pride

Legislative session hits working families and traditions of good governance

Basic RGB

Statement of Iowa Fiscal Partnership • Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

To describe the 2017 Iowa legislative session as “historic” is not a label its leaders should wear with pride.

Iowans needed a legislative session that worked to raise family incomes and expand educational opportunity. Iowans had long demanded water-quality improvement measures. Many called for lawmakers to address the lack of fairness, adequacy and accountability in a tax system laden with special-interest breaks and costly subsidies to corporations.

Instead, Iowans got a continued ratcheting down of funding for PK-12 public education. There were significant and serious cuts in post-secondary education that will lead to tuition increases. We saw cuts to early-childhood education and other programs that serve our most at-risk children and neglect of the child-care assistance program that helps working families struggling to get by.

The Legislature continues to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. Their ultimate action on water merely diverts resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety.

Lawmakers largely left the tax issue to the next session. An overture in the House to reform Iowa’s reckless system of tax credits was a welcome acknowledgment that this issue needs attention, but devils in the details make further discussion of this issue during the interim even more welcome.

Perhaps as troubling as the destructive nature of policy content this session, Iowa’s image of adherence to good governance took a big hit. The most controversial policy changes came not through collaborative, public discussion in committee, let alone the 2016 political campaigns, but were often dumped into lawmakers’ laps with little opportunity for amendments.

In what could accurately be called a “session of suppression,” lawmakers achieved:

  • Wage suppression, with a bill to preempt local minimum wage increases while refusing to raise Iowa’s repressive, 9-year-old minimum of $7.25.
  • Workplace suppression, gutting collective bargaining protections for public employees, and making it more difficult for Iowans recover financially from injuries on the job.
  • Health-care suppression, achieved in workers’ compensation legislation while also refusing to reverse Governor Branstad’s disastrous move to privatize Medicaid.
  • Local suppression, whacking at local government control in a variety of areas: minimum wage, legal defenses against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), fireworks sales, and collective bargaining options.
  • Voter suppression, with a bill to make it more difficult for many citizens, particularly low-income and senior voters, to exercise their right to vote.
  • Suppression of children’s healthy development, with additional cuts to Early Childhood Iowa and Shared Visions that will reduce access to critical home visitation, child care and preschool services for some of our most at-risk youngsters.

Some legislators may boast of a “historic” session. History will mark 2017 as a low point in Iowans’ respect and care for each other, a legacy that will not be celebrated when future Iowans look back on this session and the closing act of Governor Branstad’s long tenure in office.

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The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit, Iowa-based organizations — the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. Reports are available at www.iowafiscal.org, and on the websites of the two partner organizations, www.iowapolicyproject.org and www.cfpciowa.org.


Talk is cheap

Posted November 20th, 2012 to Blog
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

There are three principal problems with the Governor’s proposed Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and they can be summed up in three words: Talk is cheap.

Solutions to this problem start with enforcement, and that takes money. The state of Iowa shortchanges water quality, underfunding it even compared to what we did a decade ago. Our March 2012 report, Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, found that this water-quality funding decline came despite greater needs for water protection and public willingness to fund it.

Second, inadequate enforcement of environmental rules for Iowa’s livestock industry has resulted in the state’s censure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and this threatens our ability to write permits and otherwise enforce our obligations under the Clean Water Act. The strategy bases enforcement on voluntary acceptance of state rules. This has not worked.

Finally, it says much about Iowa’s commitment to water quality — or lack of commitment — when the state proposes a major nutrient reduction strategy and offers no new money to get the job done. The strategy proposes nothing to make sure Iowa does better in assuring clean water for its residents, for states downstream, and the future.

In short, we need a strategy that recognizes the serious water quality problem we have and offers a realistic approach to addressing it. This must be more than a goal — but a guarantee to all Iowans.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director


Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

Posted November 13th, 2012 to Blog

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

How ironic that we have reason to ask that question, a week after a presidential election that capped three-plus years of courting of Iowa voters, and a few days before a potential 2016 candidate visits to start all of it brewing again.

Yet the question is unavoidable. Consider two pieces in today’s Des Moines Register.

First, the Register reports, the federal Environmental Protection Agency may take over water quality enforcement in Iowa due to weak efforts by Iowa’s state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As IPP’s David Osterberg recently told EPA officials to hold DNR more accountable because the state is underfunding water protection.

“EPA should help the agency in bargaining with a legislature that has shown itself to be less concerned with water quality protection than tax cuts. … There is no question that if EPA simply accepts the agency’s agreement to try to do better, water quality will not improve in this state.”

If the EPA admonishment of Iowa’s lax environmental enforcement were not enough, we also are waiting for the state to offer its long-overdue decision on how to proceed on health reform. The 2012 election affirms the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed, so the state’s dragging its heels on creating a health insurance exchange no longer makes sense — if it ever did.

Yet, we now have a real question of whether it’s a good idea for the state to move ahead on its own with an exchange, where Iowans can shop for affordable insurance and not be denied coverage, or having the federal government do it for us. As the Register opined in an editorial today, “It is too important for this state to mess up.” Citing problems implementing temporary high-risk pools, and political dealings in previous legislative attempts to create an exchange, the Register noted:

“Iowans need the coming insurance marketplace to work for them in years to come. But state leaders have shown they are not the ones to design it.”

Can we govern ourselves? Apparently national candidates will come calling in Iowa without worrying about that. So maybe we should answer if for ourselves.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


Osterberg: Reduced funding impedes DNR’s ability to do its job

Posted July 31st, 2012 to Budget, IFP in the News, Op-eds

David Osterberg, Executive Director of IPPBy David Osterberg, Executive Director, IPP

PDF — As published in the July 31, 2012, Des Moines Register

The Des Moines Register’s July 19 editorial “EPA Letter Should Be a Wakeup Call” rightly pointed out the considerable headwinds facing efforts to clean up Iowa’s waters, most notably the inability of Iowa legislators to stand up to the powerful farm lobby in this state.

The EPA’s investigation clearly showed that there are serious inadequacies in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to watch over Iowa’s animal feeding operations.

We know that this is not the fault of DNR staff members, who work hard and make do with the limited resources they have. It is, instead, a problem of the agency not getting the resources to do its job from the Legislature and the governor.

If it were not for the efforts of groups like Citizens for Community Improvement, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project, who submitted a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back in 2007 outlining their concerns, the public (and the EPA) might be unaware of DNR’s inadequate job keeping our waters clean.

DNR data are showing that permits applied for and issued for animal feeding operations in the first half of 2012 are higher than the 12-month totals seen in most years.

The EPA was already concerned that DNR staffing levels devoted to monitoring these feeding operations had fallen over the last decade and now there are even more facilities to inspect. The EPA believes this decline in field staff plays a role in preventing the DNR from carrying out its duties.

The DNR cannot carry out its responsibilities without adequate funding. As the Iowa Policy Project pointed out in a March 2012 report on Iowa water quality funding, inflation has slowly eroded the agency’s budgets for water quality.

Some programs have seen dramatic declines in funding (up to 70 percent) since fiscal year 2002. It would take at least $5 million per year just to get these programs back to funding levels of a decade ago, funding levels that probably were inadequate even then.

Iowans spoke two years ago when they overwhelmingly supported the creation of a trust fund devoted to protecting the state’s natural resources. The DNR has a new director in Chuck Gipp, who understands agriculture and has in the past shown a willingness to work on environmental initiatives.

Gipp needs to explain to legislators and his boss, Gov. Terry Branstad, that when the EPA steps in, it is a signal to Iowans that their state leaders have fallen short.

The way to keep the EPA out is for our lawmakers to give the DNR the resources the Iowa department needs to protect what Iowans want protected — our rivers, lakes and streams.

 

David Osterberg is executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, a public policy research organization in Iowa City. Osterberg served in the Iowa House of Representatives from 1983 to 1994.

Contact: dosterberg (at)iowapolicyproject.org.