Osterberg to the Climate Marchers: State action works

State government can work to improve the economy of Iowa and at the same time reduce the effects of climate change.

David Osterberg — People’s Climate March Iowa 2017
David Osterberg
David Osterberg

I’m pleased to be the Master of Ceremonies at the People’s Climate March in Des Moines on April 29. The event begins at 1 p.m.

I plan to make the point that state government can work to improve the economy of Iowa and at the same time reduce the effects of climate change.

Way back in 1983, Democrats and Republicans together passed a law — signed by Governor Terry Branstad — that required the state’s investor-owned electric utilities to try renewable energy.

Utilities hated the idea and fought complying with the law for years. Yet now, 35 percent of the electricity generated in the state comes from wind power. Once we changed the direction that utility executives were looking, they found that renewables would work. They found that those who said that the intermittent nature of solar and wind could not be easily integrated into a production system. They were wrong.

The paper the Iowa Policy Project released March 30 shows that even though more than one-third of Iowa electricity comes from wind, our overall electric rates were lower in 2015 (latest data) than when the wind industry really got started in 1998.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IPP Co-founder David Osterberg was a member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 1983-94. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Health care ‘reform’ just keeps getting worse

The bottom line: worse health care coverage at higher cost to millions, loss of coverage entirely to millions more, in order to finance tax cuts for corporations.

The House Republican plan to replace Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) with the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which a few weeks ago failed to even come to a vote, has been reincarnated. The new version of the AHCA has apparently won the support of the Freedom Caucus in the House, but in so doing has become significantly worse for millions of Americans.

Here are the key points about this new attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare:

  • Despite repeated promises to keep the most popular part of Obamacare, the provision prohibiting insurance companies from refusing to cover those with pre-existing conditions, the new version returns us to the bad old days. While a particular state may choose to keep the prohibition, there is no longer any nationwide requirement that insurance companies issue affordable policies regardless of pre-existing conditions.
  • Nationwide standards for health insurance policies will be rolled back; plans will no longer be required to cover services such as mental health, maternity care, or substance abuse treatment.
  • The nationwide prohibition on lifetime and annual limits on benefits will be gone, meaning the possibility of medical bankruptcy will loom once again for many.
  • The modified version of the bill still effectively ends the Medicaid expansion; about 150,000 Iowans now covered under that provision could lose insurance altogether.
  • The bill still cuts $840 billion from Medicaid over 10 years, most of the savings going to wealthy individuals, drug companies, insurance companies, and other corporations.
  • Premiums and deductibles will still rise for large numbers of persons buying insurance on the exchanges, especially for the elderly, those with lower incomes, and those in high-cost states or areas, such as most of rural Iowa.
  • Under the bill, there would be no limit on the premium an insurance company can charge based on medical history; thus someone with pre-existing conditions could in theory be offered coverage, but at a cost that is simply unaffordable. There is little difference between this situation and straight denial of coverage. A state could choose to prohibit this practice (i.e., to keep the Obamacare provision in place), but few states chose to do so before Obamacare.

While the proponents of this revised plan may argue that it keeps the prohibition on gender discrimination, a woman would pay substantially more for a plan that included maternity coverage. Such coverage would not be a required part of all plans, but instead would be an expensive option.

Just how this revised bill would affect overall coverage rates, premiums, and out-of-pocket costs, awaits a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. But it is quite possible that the bill will be voted on in the house without the benefit of that analysis. Part of the pressure to pass the bill now comes from the desire on the part of the Trump administration to come up with large savings to the federal government that can then be used to finance cuts to corporate and individual income taxes.

The bottom line: worse health care coverage at higher cost to millions, loss of coverage entirely to millions more, in order to finance tax cuts for corporations (and probably millionaires as well).

Posted by Peter Fisher, research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Also see Fisher’s March 2017 policy brief for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership: “Replacing ACA: What you need to know about the AHCA.”

Lost legacy of science and research?

You drink the water. You breathe the air. Concerned Iowans may yet save the Leopold Center, but the clock is ticking.

Editor’s Note: The Cedar Rapids Gazette published a version of this piece online Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

While Iowans and others celebrate Earth Day on Saturday with a March for Science, many legislators have already tripped over their own votes.

Besides several cuts to higher education Iowa legislators have taken aim at particular scientific centers at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

With the state’s second largest city and its largest university both almost recovered from massive flooding, they attacked the Flood Center at the UI, which may survive with a 20 percent cut to reward how its data and research have helped citizens of the state.

Certainly as troubling is the pending elimination of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU, and the farming out of duties at the Energy Center at ISU to the Iowa Economic Development Authority. So much for independent research.

One thing lost in these assaults is a sense of institutional memory. Those of us who started the Leopold Center some 30 years ago found agreement to assure Iowans a lasting resource independent of industry control and other research funding. And it has worked.

Much of the research on how to reduce agricultural damage to water quality has been started by the Leopold Center — more than 600 research projects, according to Leopold’s director, Professor Mark Rasmussen.

You drink the water. You breathe the air. Are you comfortable that Iowa’s premier research universities are being blocked from conducting research on topics including water quality, manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development?

In fact, as Rasmussen notes, many practices recommended in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce agricultural pollution — including streamside buffers, erosion control measures, and bioreactors — “were first researched through Leopold Center funding.”

Now, the history of the Leopold Center is being reinvented by lawmakers attempting to erase a three-decade, bipartisan commitment to sustainable funding of independent research. They would eliminate the publicly directed mission and turn it over to businesses.

It is hard to know if these attacks are driven by politics or corporate interest. Maybe it is just Iowa’s version of an attack on science generally.

Either way, the bill eliminating the Leopold Center has passed the Senate and Iowans have only a short time to demand more from their elected officials in the House and the Governor. Voices rising helped to save the Flood Center with only a cut. Concerned Iowans may yet save the Leopold Center, but the clock is ticking.

 

David Osterberg, a state representative from Mount Vernon from 1983-1994, is co-founder and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. Osterberg and fellow legislators Ralph Rosenberg and Paul Johnson were co-authors of the law that created the Leopold Center at Iowa State University.

Look west, or to locals, for leadership

Iowans could take a lesson from leaders in Oregon, who had the courage to look at their residents’ economic challenges. Just repealing local minimums does not meet that test of leadership.

Those concerned about a “patchwork” or “hodgepodge” of minimum wage laws across Iowa might want to take a look west — far west — to Oregon.

In contrast to Iowa legislators’ calls for “uniformity” no matter how inadequate a uniform minimum wage may be, the Beaver State has embraced the idea of different minimum wages.

A 2016 law effectively sets three tiers of minimum wages — one for the Portland area (Metro), one for selected other urban areas (Standard), and one for more rural counties (Nonurban). Currently, the minimums are $9.50 in Nonurban areas, and $9.75 in the Standard and Metro areas. As of July 1, they will be $10, $10.25 and $11.25, respectively.

As the Oregon law moves forward, the three tiers will rise in steps each July 1, ultimately to between $12.50 and $14.75 by 2022. A formula will index those rates starting in 2023.

Quite a contrast from Iowa, where we still sit at $7.25 as a statewide minimum, with five counties (Lee County the latest, on Tuesday) choosing to set a higher minimum for their workers. State officials who have balked at raising Iowa’s statewide minimum have retaliated with legislation to repeal the raises and prohibit future such actions, the bill as of Wednesday morning still awaiting the Governor’s almost certain signature.

Oregon’s hybrid approach of a state policy setting a small range of local minimums may or may not be optimal, but it does recognize the value of a meaningful state minimum reaching to all corners of the state, and the fact that not all labor markets are the same — they differ by locality.

In Iowa, the local option exercised thus far by five counties under their home-rule authority is a middle ground that permits careful judgment when state edicts prevent it.

But Iowans could take a lesson from leaders in Oregon, who had the courage to look at the economic challenges faced by their residents, and to address those challenges in meaningful public policy. Just repealing local minimums does not meet that test of leadership.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Who will attend the signing ceremony?

billsigning-pensYou pass a bill, presumably you’re proud of it, and would like a picture with the Governor signing it. And you even might get a pen.

There are usually plenty of pens.

The Iowa House and Senate have now both passed a bill removing authority of local governments in Iowa to pass minimum wage increases above the state’s meager $7.25. Four counties have done so, and these ordinances will be repealed.

Who wants their picture with the Governor authorizing a pay cut for some 85,000 Iowans? The Governor, who set a campaign goal in 2010 of a 25 percent increase in family incomes (see his website), might think twice about attending himself.

In any event, we can’t make it.

And neither can anyone at $7.25.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Today’s virtual House graphic: Risky fix to non-problem

The proposed constitutional amendment is a gimmick that would hamper Iowa lawmakers’ ability to meet critical needs. If you want lower funding of K-12 education and higher tuition for the Regent universities, this is one way to get there.

Under the radar at the Iowa Statehouse, a significant and dangerous change is being promoted through a proposed constitutional amendment to cap spending in a state where spending is below the U.S. average.

The amendment — approved by the Senate and soon to be considered in the House — is a gimmick rather than real reform. In fact, because the amendment would require two-thirds approval of both legislative changes to prohibit spending more than an arbitrary limit, it would impede elected representatives from making the kinds of public investments in Iowa’s children, the state’s infrastructure, and our environment that the people of Iowa say they want. To learn more about this issue, click here for Peter Fisher’s brief report for the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Editor’s Note: The Iowa House of Representatives now denies the ability of lawmakers to use visual aids in debate on the floor. To help Iowans visualize what kinds of graphics might be useful in these debates to illustrate facts, on several days this session the Iowa Policy Project is offering examples. In today’s graphic, we illustrate the realities of state spending in Iowa, often inflated in political rhetoric.

Curtains for tax reform

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched.

If there’s anything we need less of this legislative session, it is back-room dealing where major changes in public policy are hatched, then rammed through the Legislature without sufficient public vetting.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix is quoted in media that a tax plan is coming in the next two weeks. It’s staying under wraps until then — a terrible disservice to the responsible setting of public policy. Senator Dix should pull back the curtains, right now.

But, since the senator is not going to let the rest of us in on his big secret tax plan, we should all go into this recognizing at least two major points at the start:

(1) Iowa taxes are in the middle of the pack or below average by any responsible measure, something the business lobby and far-right ideologues never want to acknowledge; and

(2) any discussion of tax changes should take a comprehensive approach that should be grounded in widely accepted principles of taxation.

Point 2 is something that is always a problem in Iowa. The typical approach is to target one tax, cut it, and move on to the next one. Meanwhile, the impact on the overall adequacy and fairness of the tax structure (two of the important tax principles), and on the critical public service that the tax system supports, is left to a “let the chips fall” mentality.

Take the curtains away, Senator Dix. It’s the business of all Iowans, right now. A late-session rush job to make a major overhaul of Iowa taxes is not only wrong from a civics-textbook standpoint, but it is bound to create problems that its authors cannot predict.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org