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

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

Ten years and counting: Iowa’s inaction on the minimum wage

170118_capitol_170603-4x4It was the first bill Chet Culver signed into law as Governor of Iowa: an increase in the minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25 in two steps, to be fully in force Jan. 1, 2008.

“This is a historic occasion,” Culver said, Todd Dorman reported in the Waterloo Courier.

A historic occasion, and falling fast into history. Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, marks the 10th anniversary of that day. Low-wage workers have waited for an increase, through five state legislative campaigns and two gubernatorial elections.

They’ve heard promises and spin, facts and nonsense, and it all comes out the same: Iowa’s official policy is that businesses can get away with paying hard-working people, sometimes in unpleasant working circumstances, a measly $7.25 an  hour.

And the facts remain the same: Hundreds of thousands of Iowa workers would benefit from a minimum wage increase — over 300,000 from an increase to $10.10, over 400,000 from an increase to $12 — and there is no guarantee that they will even see a vote this year.

Perhaps the only reason they might is that four counties had the courage to take on the issue. The wage is now $10.10 in Johnson County, with Linn, Wapello and Polk counties following Johnson by approving increases that when implemented will set minimums from $10.10 to $10.75.

That is, if the Legislature permits them to stand. Governor Terry Branstad and the business lobby want a uniform wage — with no real indication whether that means an increase — and this could result in repeal of the local increases.

Understand: We do not have a monolithic statewide labor market. It makes perfect sense for local officials to respond as best suits their communities. And it is nonsense that seeing different requirements in different counties is a problem for businesses — other than the fact that they might not want to pay more.

Someday, we may see a statewide minimum wage set at a meaningful level, and indexed to inflation. There is no guarantee from this Legislature or this Governor — in fact, history shows it is unlikely.

So, as we mark the 10th anniversary of the signing of our piddling minimum wage, one that leaves Iowa behind 29 states and a growing number of cities and counties around the nation, we might want to consider how long we want Culver’s action in 2007 to be the historic one.

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

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly.

Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

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

Iceberg ahead — but how big?

When the decisions come to cut health care to Iowans, Governor Branstad won’t be around to make the tough choices. Is that what state legislators signed up for?

060426-capitol-swwThe Des Moines Register disclosed Wednesday afternoon in a copyright story that the private, for-profit companies now running Iowa’s Medicaid program are finding big problems in the first year.

With big policy decisions ahead on the future of Medicaid, not only in Iowa but in Washington with a new administration, it is reasonable to wonder if Governor Terry Branstad’s go-it-alone Medicaid privatization is only the tip of the iceberg — and how big the iceberg may be.

Besides the great uncertainty for health-insurance coverage for millions if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement, there is the idea that Congress might block-grant Medicaid. The goal would be to save the federal government money — not to assure health care for the most vulnerable as Medicaid now provides.

A block-grant approach means states would be allotted a share of funds for Medicaid, and when it is gone, that’s it — services would be cut. In that scenario, the decisions would be made in the states. As noted by Edwin Park of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Such a block grant would push states to cut their Medicaid programs deeply.  To compensate for the federal Medicaid funding cuts a block grant would institute, states would either have to contribute much more of their own funding or, as is far more likely, use the greater flexibility the block grant would give them to make draconian cuts to eligibility, benefits, and provider payments.

Maybe someone can provide the campaign literature from the 2016 legislative races that illustrates successful candidates’ thoughts on whose coverage would be the first to go. Who gets cut off? Someone will have to decide that if we go to a block-grant program.

It probably won’t be Governor Branstad making that tough decision, by the way. The new ambassador-to-be will be off doing diplomatic stuff in China when these hard decisions are made.

Is that what these new legislators signed up to do when they put their names on the ballot? But they could check in with Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst to find out if Iowa Statehouse job descriptions might change in the months ahead.

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