Monthly Archives: December 2008

New Year’s Eve Must Reads

Slow news day with the holiday approaching, but there are a few tidbits out there.

Several papers carry news of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s renewed effort to better enforce the state’s open meetings and public records laws. The Gazette’s story, linked above, Miller says his preference in the past was to let locals solve local issues, but he now wants to “serve notice” that the state will get involved when necessary. His office’s performance on sunshine has been partly cloudy, at best, which prompted lawmakers last year to consider creating a new state enforcement agency. With budget woes this year, that proposal has been shelved.

See, lawmakers know where to draw the spending line. Here. At your right to know. Courageous.

The Gazette and Radio Iowa have accounts of a curious conference call Tuesday featuring Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloran and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie. Radio Iowa notes that the call was organized by a Democratic-leaning group and was, on the surface, intended to deliver a partisan shove to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley on the issue of a federal stimulus package. But instead, the mayors struck a conciliatory tone. Phew.

I’m not sure why the mayor of a flooded town in need of big federal help would want to be within 100 feet of anything that could be interpreted as criticizing a senior member of the U.S. Senate. Odd.

Grassley, by the way, says he supports the stimulus concept but won’t commit to voting for a package until he sees details. Seems reasonable.

In a story that appears in The Gazette and Lee Newspapers, our man at the Statehouse Rod Boshart points to the big increases in vehicle registration fees that take affect Jan. 1. Pickup owners will see a sizable jump as the state tries to patch it’s its leaky Road Use Tax Fund.

And also, incase you didn’t know, 2008 was wet, according to Iowa weather gurus.

No must reads tomorrow. Happy New Year.

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Full-Time (Snow) Job

A reader cc’d me on an e-mail exchange with Linn County Supervisor Jim Houser over salary issues. I wrote a column Sunday criticizing the supervisors for rescinding a resolution they passed earlier this year dropping their job designation to part-time with a subsequent cut in pay, as of Jan. 1, 2009.

They approved the resolution and pay cut to diffuse a heated debate last winter over a proposed supervisor pay raise. But after getting re-elected last month, the current three-member board abruptly scrapped the deal last week.

Here’s Houser’s response to the reader:

I’m sorry for the misunderstanding you may have regarding the salaries for the Board of Supervisors. The action the board took last week does not affect our salary, but changes the boards status effective 1-!-09 from part time 32 hours per week back to full time 40 hours per week.

Rescinding the resolution keeps the position full time as it is today and the salary the same as it is today.

In determining our decision, we looked at the challenges that we have been through this year since the flood and all of the countless hours that we all have spent on the job. We also looked at the bringing on of the two new board members and the challenges facing our county in the future.

Our salaries are not set by us, nor do we set the salaries of the other elected officials. They are set by a County Compensation Board made up of seven people by whom the supervisors appoint two (of the seven) members and one each by the other elected. The only power the Board of Supervisors has on the elected official’s salaries is to accept the salary increase recommendation by the Compensation Board or reduce it in equal amounts for all the elected officials.

The Compensation Board determined years ago that the salaries of the Board of Supervisors, Auditor, Recorder and Treasurer should all be set at the same rate of pay. By doing this it was not to make any of us more or less important in our positions. Then by using the comparables as describe in the Iowa Code the Compensation Board determines our salaries. The requirements they must look at in determining the salary of the Sheriff and the County Attorney are different than all the rest of the elected officials. Thus there is a difference in their salary. The Compensation Board meets annually for salaries that take effect on July 1 of each year.

This makes our salaries split between two fiscal years and not on a calendar year. The wages paid to all the elected officials each calendar are usually a little less than stated on the salary schedule that begins on July I of each year.

I have enclosed for your review the salary schedule for this fiscal year which began this past July 1, 2008. Hope this information helps.

Sincerely,
Jim

 There are a few problems here. First, if defies logic to argue that changing the job designation has no impact on salaries. Of course it does. Remaining at part-time would mean a smaller paycheck in 09.

Second, Houser is technically right that rescinding the resolution keeps hours and pay the same as they are today. What he leaves out is that the resolution would have reduced supervisor pay between Jan. 1 and June 30. So rescinding it means the supervisors won’t be taking the pay cut they promised to take under public pressure last winter. That’s the issue here.

It’s also odd to suggest that the supervisors have no say in their salaries. Last January, had the supervisors stood up and told the compensation board to freeze or cut their pay, that’s probably what would have happened. Instead, they said nothing and let the commission approve a six percent pay hike. That’s how this whole thing started.

I understand this is politics, and it’s not unusual to use technicalities to fudge reality. But this is getting old, folks.

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Culver Pays his Own Way

Yesterday, I mentioned that Gov. Culver is going to the Outback Bowl to watch the Hawks and the Gamecocks do battle Thursday morning. Today comes word that he will be paying his own way.

Whew.

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Tuesday Must Reads

Veteran newsman Dave Franzman at KCRG TV9 in Cedar Rapids has an interview with ailing State Sen. Mary Lundby. She’s in hospice care as her terminal cancer worsens, but she’s still talking politics and giving lawmakers advice on the tough issues they face. No surprise.  

The Gazette’s Steve Gravelle has a front-page piece detailing a sharp rise in the number of Iowans receiving food assistance, aka “food stamps.” The number of households getting help is up 15 percent from last November and homes receiving food-only, a sign of temporary distress, is up 25 percent.

The Des Moines Register had a sit-down with Gov. Culver Monday. The Lug says state employees  may not get raises in 2009 and he’s considering merging departments, although details are scarce. The story barely even mentions disaster recovery, another sign that we still have a big job reminding the rest of the state that this thing isn’t over over here.

In another sign of economic woes, The Sioux City Journal has newsthat MPC, a company that bought a piece of ailing computer-maker Gateway, has shut down. The company had previously laid off 300 workers, and now the last 50 have lost their jobs. It’s a far cry from Gateway’s glory days, when the iconic cow-printed North Sioux City company employed thousands.

Over at Iowa Independent, Lynda Waddington has an email interview with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. He’s not happy about the use of his song, “Puff the Magic Dragon” as the basis for the satirical “Barack the Magic Negro.” The satire sparked controversy when it was included on a CD sent out by Chip Saltsman, a candidate to chair the Republican National Committee.

And on a lighter note, as the TV folks say, Matthew Wilde has a story in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier about a veteran who is selling his vast collection of GI Joe’s to help refurbish Veteran’s Memorial Hall. At one time he had about 300 of the action figures.

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Sightings

I ran into U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack at Barnes and Noble in Cedar Rapids Sunday afternoon. He was just sitting down in the cafe, preparing to dig into a freshly purchased copy of “Foreign Affairs” magazine.

We exchanged holiday pleasantries, and I learned he will be attending the Outback Bowl. He says it’s the first time he’s gone to a Hawkeye bowl game since Iowa played Washington in the 1982 Rose Bowl. The Huskies pasted the Hawks 28-0, so I hope he’s not a jinx.

Oddly, he’s the second top Iowa Democrat in a week to tell me, via small talk, of  Outback Bowl plans. Gov. Chet Culver told me last week that he also plans to sneak away to Florida for the game.

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Tax Time in the City?

The AP picks up a weekend Des Moines Register story detailing the initial Statehouse rumblings over a proposal that would allow cities to collect an income tax. From the AP version:

A measure that would allow cities to tax the income of residents to reduce their reliance on property taxes will be proposed to lawmakers when they convene next month.

Cities and counties generate more than 80 percent of their budgets from property taxes and many people believe the system is outdated.

The issue pits local governments and property owners against anti-tax groups that want government to cut costs rather than expand sources of revenue.

“I think it’s a 30-year problem in search of a solution,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who is co-chairman of a legislative committee that will debate the idea.

 This is, of course, of great interest to city leaders in Cedar Rapids, who have been pleading for years for lawmakers to give them more “tools” for raising revenue. They made the pitch again last week to Gov. Chet Culver, who was in town Tuesday for a flood commemoration.

The idea amounts to fighting words for conservatives. This from Krusty Konservative:

The tax proposal from the League of Cities should scare the daylights out of you. We are already taxed to the max. Our home assessments are already out of whack so that local government can generated their needed income without “raising” taxes. Chet Culver and the Democrats have raised taxes and fees, and will have to do it again to balance the books, and a gas tax increase still looms. And now the cities and counties want to tax your income.

I just have one question, when will we audit state government and get rid of government programs that are not needed or are duplicated by other state agencies? Sure, Governor Culver ordered a 1.5% across the board cut, but why can’t we make it 10%? I know it would hurt, but why should state government feel less pain in the pocket book than the citizens of our state?

 Matt Strawn, who is running for Republican Party of Iowa Chairman, also weighs in:

This proposal is political cover for Democrat legislators and Governor Culver. Numerous Democrat legislators campaigned, and won, on an anti-tax platform, while Culver himself is now saying tax increases have no place in the 2009 legislative session.

This policy is designed as a legislative slight-of-hand to allow those legislators and Culver to support higher taxes without having to vote for, or sign into law, a direct tax increase. Pretty clever, huh? Just watch, these legislators will attempt to claim with a straight face that a vote for this proposal is a vote that merely provides local municipalities the power to tax, not mandate that they do so.

 It’s possible lawmakers will do something to provide some “revenue diversification” for cities, but I seriously doubt the final package will include this proposal. True, Sen. Bolkcom is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, but he’s hardly been the source of slam-dunk tax proposals. He can’t make something like this happen without broad support among leaders and in his caucus. I doubt they’ll back it.

Lawmakers likely will be too busy foraging through the couch cushions for revenue to spend on their own priorities to spend much political capital helping out local governments. Last time the state hit a budget rough patch, the Legislature actually actually cut state aid to local governments.

That was also the year lawmakers created the “Program Elimination Commission,” which was supposed to sift through state government with a fine-toothed comb, looking for unnecessary programs. It was really PR window-dressing that eliminated exactly zero programs. Lawmakers would rather drain off-budget accounts and pray for a good economy to return than eliminate anything.

Most municipalities have done a much better job than the state of slicing fat from their budgets. But I still don’t they’ll be rewarded with big new taxing powers.

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Monday Morning Must Reads

Starting a new daily feature, picking a few interesting stories from print and blogs. Feel free to submit your own.

The Des Moines Register carries interesting news that U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin intervened on behalf of Agriprocessors in Postville four years ago to get the company federal help with building a sewage treatment plant. The program at issue was intended to help cities with public sewage improvements, not for projects benefitting a single company. But city leaders asked for Harkin to help the town’s biggest employer.

Teens aren’t buying diet pop at school, even after sugary soda was banned from soda machines, according to the Omaha World-Herald.  It’s now BYOS, or P, if you prefer pop. Now, officials are asking parents to step in. Go figure.

The blog Essential Estrogen notes that Sunday was the anniversary of Iowa statehood in 1846.

And Bleeding Heartland looks at a Congressional Quarterly analysis of voting records. Turns out Tom Harkin voted against President Bush More than anyone. Shock.

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