Monday January 12 will be the opening session of the 2009 General Assembly .Â This year’s session timetable is here .Â As was the case the pass two years, both the House and the Senate have Democratic majorities.
We urge you, as the session progresses, to take the time to communicate with your elected representatives.Â Go to this link , and find your representative’s name, click on it, and you’ll get phone numbers, email addresses, information about committee assignments and links to bill sponsorships.Â I will be in contact with Peter Cownie  and Pat Ward , the House and Senate members who represent me here in West Des Moines.
I exchanged emails with Peter last week.Â This is his freshman years in the Statehouse, and he managed to get assigned to Appropriations, Economic Growth, Educatio nand Labor committees, and on Appropriations, he is the ranking member of the Economic Development subcommittee.Â He told me that this year is pretty much all about the Budget.
Which leads me to Friday Night’s Iowa Press  on IPTV.Â Senator Mike Gronstal (D-Senate Majority Leader from Council Bluffs) and Representative Pat Murphy (D-Speaker of the House from Dubuque) were grilled by Dean Borg (the host), David Yepsen from the Des Moines Register, and Mike Glover from the Associated Press.
The message from Gronstal and Murphy was the same one that Peter heard… it’s about the budget.Â We’ve already seen Governor Culver make two swipes at state spending to try and get the budget aligned with expected revenues.Â Gronstal started responding to the budget question from Glover by saying that committees will be working hard on cutting expenses, and then proceeded to hit the first shortsighted decision which is the canceling of plans for a new state office building.Â Gronstal said: “we need a new state office building, Wallace needs to be replaced but not today.”Â On the one hand, if we don’t have the money, we don’t have the money… but on the other hand the cost of the new building, which “we need” will jump up every year we wait.Â On the third hand, we could reduce the size of government and eliminate the need for the Wallace Building altogether, but that’s not likely to happen.Â This is one project that needs more careful review in my opinion.
As they discussed ideas such as leasing the Lottery (an idea that’s been floated around lately) and allowing open positions in government to stay vacant, it became clear that Gronstal wasn’t quite prepared to express a confident opinion about anything yet… he said he wasn’t going to reject any idea until looking at the details.Â Glover asked about what has been at the heart of the Lottery question for decades, which is the possibility that leasing it to private interests could quickly lead to expanded gambling in Iowa (as if any more expansion is going to really matter any longer), which Gronstal rejected out of hand.Â Yepsen went on the offensive, asking about campaign contributions from gambling interests, and Gronstal didn’t like it:
Yepsen: The gambling industry makes campaign contributions to state legislators. How much does that have to do with this decision? If the gambling industry wants to buy the lottery from you and you’re getting thousands of dollars in campaign donations doesn’t it get sold?
Gronstal: No, David, I don’t think that’s true at all. Look, I think it’s an interesting idea, it’s one worth considering. If we go through that process we very well may decide, no, it doesn’t make sense. But why reject the idea of considering it? I think that’s fairly silly to reject even considering an idea. I’m actually really surprised at your critical questions. The legislature has often advocated considering privatization.
Yepsen: We always ask critical questions, Senator.
Gronstal: But the idea of privatization shouldn’t be rejected out of hand.
Yepson then took the opportunity to jump to a question that should be bugging all of us: AFSCME, the state workers union, is asking for a 5% pay raise for workers next year, and another 5% the year after that.Â While people in the private sector are losing their jobs, not getting raises even close to 5%, and the key question of how every state worker makes 30% more than the average citizen.Â Gronstal made one smart-mouthed response about CEOs (that was just inappropriate), and then said he wouldn’t comment on it because of the fact that the state is actively engaged in negotiations, and it’s the Governor’s job, not the General Assembly.Â Yepsen kept the heat up, Murphy tried defending the salaries by talking about what some of the state workers do (covering maybe 5% of those workers… don’t get me wrong, I want police and fire protection paid well, but we’re talking about a lot of overpaid workers).
Bottom line on the union is that we won’t get any serious discussion about this from Democratic leaders because they’ll lick the union bosses’ shoes just to ensure they continue to have votes in 2010.Â And we’ll be left holding the check.
There was a good conversation about the use of the state’s Rainy Day Fund and the general Cash Reserve.Â It was good to hear that the leaders would consider usnig the RDF if necessary to ensure Iowans that are struggling from the weather and economic disasters of 2008 are helped appropriately… I agree that the Cash Reserve should be left alone as that is needed to ensure that we don’t need to borrow money if revenue shortfalls start to impact cash flows.
Also good conversation around the numerous proposals for local option sales taxes and the possibility of introducing flexibility for local governments to collect fees to offset property taxes.Â Gronstal actually said something I can strongly agree with: property taxes are too high.Â The trouble is, some fees are just another property tax, so I’m not exactly keen on that.Â Local option sales taxes are fine, and all the state is doing is allowing the local governments to decide to impose them… the state doesn’t pay or benefit from that EXCEPT that the pressure on the state to help out is reduced.
They also discussed the proposal to raise the gas tax by a nickel to help create jobs and improve the existing transportation infrastructure.Â I’m a bit torn… I like the fact that it helps keep people employed, but I hope we don’t end up wasting money on unnecessary projects.
They also hit on teacher pay, and corrections facility needs.Â The most revealing statement of the evening came next, however.Â Yepsen asked if Gay Marriage would be debated this year.Â Both politicians flatly said “No.”, with Murphy adding that they were going to “let the courts make that decision”.Â It shouldn’t amaze me that these guys are clearly incapable of true leadership, but I suppose when you know you lack both a credible position and will lose power if you do the right thing, having the Iowa Supreme Court there to bail you out is certainly a reasonable option.
Gronstal ended by saying this year is about the Budget and Disaster Recovery.Â I wonder whether we’ll ever recover from the 2009 session?