Iowa City Press-Citizen. Jan. 27, 2013.
No need to put 'Right to Work' in state constitution
It looks like the Iowa Legislature might be gearing up for yet another overheated, rhetorical battle over the state's "Right to Work" law.
House Joint Resolution 1 — which is sponsored by all 53 Republican members of the House — would ask Iowa voters to inscribe the 66-year-old state law into the state constitution. The legislation is likely to go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate — other than to allow many Democratic lawmakers to pay lip service to their loyalty to labor.
This all seems much ado about nothing.
It's been said that the anti-union marketing genius who coined the phrase "Right to Work" has ensured that the debates over such laws focus squarely on a right held sacred by Americans: the right not to have to join any organization you don't want to belong to.
And indeed, ever since Iowa enacted its own "Right to Work" law in 1947, defenders of the law have touted how Iowans can't be forced out of jobs covered by a union if they refuse to join the union.
Although it took decades, pro-union activists found a language for debating this issue that appeals with equal strength to the average Iowans' sense of right and wrong: "fair share."
At various times over the past decade, the Iowa Legislature considered legislation that would require workers who are not members of a union but who are included in the union's bargaining unit to pay a fee to cover the services the union is required to provide to them.
The argument is that because the union provides services to the non-member — collective bargaining for a contract, representation during disciplinary action, etc. — the non-member should be forced to pay his or her "fair share" for those services. From this perspective, it's not a question of being forced to join a union; it's a question of not skipping out on the check after you've already been served.
In terms of winning hearts and minds over this issue, however, the "fair share" proponents have more work to do.
As an editorial board, we've repeatedly opined that we're fine with Iowa remaining a "Right to Work" state — one in which union membership is not compulsory in any bargaining unit. And in past years, we've weighed in against any proposed "fair share" legislation.
But, frankly, neither side has proven that the issue is one of paramount importance for Iowa or any other state. Proponents and opponents of both sides trot out statistics about economic development and wage levels, but such factors depend upon so many different variables that there really can't be a direct cause-and-effect relationship between a state's economic potential and its "right to work" status.
Instead, the battle over "right to work" remains one primarily of rhetoric.
We agree that while states have a responsibility to ensure that workers have the right to organize, states are not necessarily required to force workers to join such organizations. And we also agree that when good unions are able negotiate better benefits for their members, then they'll likewise be able to persuade non-members that their services are worth paying for.
But there is no need to write a "Right to Work" provision into the Iowa Constitution.
Sioux City Journal. Jan. 27, 2013.
This must be the year for education reform
From the beginning, we have applauded and supported the administration of Gov. Terry Branstad for its pursuit of education reform. In a July 2011 editorial just after a two-day Education Summit in Des Moines, we urged Iowans — elected and appointed state and local government and education leaders, school administrators, classroom teachers and parents — to seize the moment for reform by embracing a commitment to building the "world-class schools" necessary to properly prepare our children for the world of tomorrow.
The first seeds of education reform were planted during last year's legislative session. This year, lawmakers must go further.
In his Condition of the State speech earlier this month, Branstad laid out a comprehensive plan for reform of public education in Iowa. After falling far short of the meaningful reform he wanted last year, the governor fashioned a new plan for this year. In building the plan, Branstad heard recommendations made by members of five task forces comprised of legislators and a cross-section of education representatives, including administrators and teachers.
The Branstad plan is bold, but not extreme or radical. We look favorably on his proposals to increase starting pay for teachers; provide new career paths for teachers; give first-year teachers a reduced workload so they can spend time being mentored by veteran colleagues; provide raises for educators who assume additional responsibilities, such as mentoring; give outstanding college students who agree to teach math and science in Iowa schools for at least five years tuition reimbursement and a hiring bonus; improve evaluations for both teachers and administrators; and expand Iowa Department of Education online learning opportunities.
Taking these steps would meet key goals of strengthened accountability in our public school system and improved student performance, in our view.
As is true of property tax reform, we believe the state can afford to make this important investment in Iowa's future because its budget and overall fiscal condition are strong. In our minds, the bigger question is this: Can we afford not to make this investment?
We understand the Branstad plan must be studied and debated in detail within what is a split-control Legislature, but we urge our lawmakers to not settle for tinkering at the edges again this year and to make substantive education reform a signature achievement in this year's session.
Branstad wants lawmakers to finish education reform by the end of February - and before they take up allowable growth for next year. History makes us skeptical about this because too often we have watched the biggest issues of legislative sessions put off to the end.
Representative Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, told us his goal is to move education reform out of the House Education Committee he chairs within the next couple of weeks. If both the House and Senate commit to making it a priority, he believes it's possible to complete education reform next month.
If the Legislature is, in fact, going to put off debate over K-12 state aid for next year until education reform is finished, then it's absolutely paramount reform gets done as early as possible. We do not wish to see local school districts left endlessly waiting under a cloud of uncertainty about state aid. Districts need this information to complete their budgets for the next school year. Holding them hostage to education reform for the next three months isn't in anyone's interests.
At the 2011 Education Summit, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke in compelling fashion about "stagnation" in Iowa's public schools. We found his remarks sobering. They should have served as a wake-up call to shake our state from status-quo complacency.
The Des Moines Register. Jan. 27, 2013.
IowaCare is poor substitute for comprehensive insurance
Washington lawmakers reformed health care because voters demanded it. When millions of Americans are a broken leg or heart attack away from financial ruin, people eventually get fed up. Congress and President Obama acted because this country's system of paying for health care is broken.
Yet opponents of reform would have us believe everything was just fine before Washington intervened. Gov. Terry Branstad is among them. He offers no clear plan to get low-income Iowans insured, but he opposes an opportunity under the law to expand Medicaid and help them. In addition to leaving thousands of Iowans uninsured, the governor wants to continue covering thousands in a state program called IowaCare that is a poor substitute.
Meeting with The Des Moines Register editorial board recently, he said he may pursue another federal waiver to continue IowaCare. That makes no sense for poor Iowans or the state budget.
IowaCare began in 2005 to cover low-income Iowans ages 19 to 64 who were not eligible for Medicaid and Medicare and couldn't afford other insurance. With Washington's approval, the state has used federal money to get them limited coverage. Though the program has been better than leaving them with no insurance, many enrollees are forced to drive across the state to visit approved providers in Des Moines and Iowa City.
Iowa's waiver expires at the end of 2013. What will more than 60,000 Iowans do then?
Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, almost all of them could be covered by the expansion of Medicaid. They could have comprehensive insurance, including prescriptions and mental health services. The could visit doctors in their hometowns. The federal government will pay for 100 percent of their care for the first two years and almost the entire bill after that, which is more than the federal matching rate for IowaCare.
Instead, Branstad wants federal permission to continue an inadequate program that will cost the state more and provide care that is much less convenient for the patients. And the logic is baffling.
The governor says he is opposed to a Medicaid expansion because he is concerned about the federal government's ability to pay for it going forward. Yet he's more than happy to ask that same federal government to let Iowa use federal money to cover people in the IowaCare program. The health reform law is paid for anyway, Kirk Norris, president of the Iowa Hospital Association, said. The only question is whether Iowa is going to take the money.
The state's hospitals hope he does. Norris wants the governor to expand Medicaid. "We are taking care of these people anyway," he said. When they are uninsured, hospitals do not get paid. When they are enrolled in IowaCare, hospitals may not be reimbursed for all services they provide.
Obtaining a waiver to continue IowaCare is a bad idea. There is no guarantee the federal government would grant it, and Branstad has outlined no plan if they don't. Washington is doing everything it can to finally get all Americans health insurance. Iowa's governor should have the same goal.
Telegraph Herald. Jan. 27, 2013.
Water quality in Iowa: Will voluntary steps do the job?
The joke goes something like this: A guy in a hotel lobby is on his hands and knees, obviously searching for something. A second man walks up and says, "Can I help you? What are you looking for?" The first man replies, "My watch, I left it in the bar." Puzzled, the second man asks, "If you left it in the bar, why are you looking in the lobby?" The timeless reply: "Because the light is better out here."
That oldie comes to mind when considering Iowa's strategy to clean up the state's waterways, which are not getting any better. By far, the biggest contributors to water pollution are the chemicals that are washed off Iowa farmland. Yet, while the state is mandating expensive pollution-control projects for municipalities, for farms it proposes to keep the remedies voluntary.
Any joking aside, though the light might be better elsewhere, such as in municipal water treatment plants, Iowa won't achieve significant improvements in water quality until it looks squarely in the darker corners, specifically the farm-chemical runoff issue.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources' recently released list of problem bodies of water is not encouraging. Not only has the total number of "impaired" waters increased, so has the number in Category 5, the worst level (requiring remediation).
Category 5 waters are all around us. In these parts, they include the Mississippi, the Maquoketa, Catfish Creek, Little Turkey River, Upper Iowa, Volga and Wapsipinicon. But that's just part of the list.
Considering that water-quality reporting methods and standards have changed over the years, adding waterways to the list, it's possible that water quality is not that much worse. Yet, after paying millions and millions of dollars the past 20 years on water quality, taxpayers should be concerned that things aren't getting any better, either.
When chemical fertilizers wash off farm fields and find their way into waterways, the nutrients in them — nitrogen and phosphorus — which are good for crops but in excess are bad for water quality, negatively impact drinking water, aquatic life and recreational opportunities. More and more nutrients from farm after farm wash downriver, to the point that a "dead zone" covers thousands of square miles outside the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. (The zone varies from an area as small as Delaware to one the size of New Jersey.) U.S. farms are responsible for most of the nutrients reaching the Gulf.
"The data are clear," stated a 2010 report by the Iowa Policy Project. "The fertilizers applied for corn and soybeans production are the largest sources of nutrients in Iowa and the leading cause of water pollution in Iowa's rivers and streams."
Iowans want clean water. Two years ago, they approved the Iowa's Water and Land Legacy Amendment to create a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Their landslide approval might have been helped by the knowledge that it won't cost them anything unless the Legislature increases the state sales tax. But it's the thought that counts.
But Iowans should question the state's thoughts behind getting tough with local governments operating sewage treatment plants, which account for relatively little water pollution, while continuing to address the biggest source of water pollution — farm chemical runoff — through voluntary measures that Gov. Terry Branstad last week described as a "collaborative approach."
Yes, agriculture is Iowa's lifeblood, and it would be economic suicide to clamp down on farming practices so hard that it strangles this industry. Improved conservation practices, which reduce soil erosion, and location-specific application of fertilizers should help reduce some of the runoff. But is the state's Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy a case of too little, too light and too late?
As retired Department of Natural Resources employee Mark S. Edwards complained in a letter to The Des Moines Register, "These voluntary strategies will do little to slow the expanding debt of pollution. They will leave us with lifetimes of still trying to clean up the mess from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. I question the lack of real education, wisdom or concern we have for our homeland."
Federal officials have their doubts, too. The Environmental Protection Agency questions how Iowa intends to measure actual results of its plan, asks the whereabouts of specific action steps, benchmarks and time lines.
Iowa should not throw its agriculture baby out with the (contaminated) bathwater. But it is reasonable for Iowans to expect state government to take a firmer approach to cleaning up its rivers, lakes and streams than just encouraging and hoping farm operations will do the right thing.