Cohoon: 'Solutions looking for a problem' describes legislative agenda

2017-03-19 | The Hawk Eye

March 19--WEST BURLINGTON -- The Iowa Legislature is set to adjourn for the year one month from the date of Saturday's public forum with much left to be decided at the Capitol.

The budget for fiscal year 2018 has yet to be decided or publicly debated, overruling wage laws in cities and counties hasn't come before the Senate, state funding for Planned Parenthood is still uncertain, changes to workers' compensation is on the table, a voter identification bill is making its way through the legislature -- and those are only a few of the major pieces of legislation being discussed this year.

About 100 people gathered at West Burlington City Hall Saturday morning to make their opinions known about the goings-on in Des Moines.

State Reps. Dennis Cohoon, D-Burlington, and Dave Kerr, R-Morning Sun attended this weekend's forum, along with state Sen. Tom Greene, R-Burlington.

Although the crowd wasn't as large or raucous as the group of about 200 people who attended last month's forum, the legislators' constituents continued to demand answers about controversial bills circulating at the statehouse.

Much of the discussion centered on how Iowa has fallen short about $250 million in revenue this budget year, despite low unemployment and a relatively stable economy. The Revenue Estimating Conference told legislators last week they were short $131 million from its original estimates, not including the $118 million trimmed from state agencies and programs earlier this year to address a shortfall.

"I think the ag impact on our state's economy is huge," said Greene, noting low commodity prices dragging down farmers. "Revenue is growing, but not at the rate expenditures are. Our spending is, I believe, excessive compared to our revenue. We've got to get that back in check."

Several in the audience called attention to the amount of tax credits doled out in Iowa over the last decade, lamenting the "corporate welfare" they believed contributed to the state's budget woes.

The Des Moines Register reported in January the Iowa Department of Revenue estimated a total of $12.1 billion worth of tax credits and exemptions were awarded since 2010.

How best to spend state dollars would ultimately come down to priorities, Cohoon said. And because the Republican Party holds a majority in the Capitol and controls the governor's office, GOP priorities are coming to the forefront and being enacted.

"The term we've been using is 'solutions looking for a problem," Cohoon said of the Democrats' characterization of the majority party's agenda this year. "The thing that bothers me the most is that the legislation we're doing this year, for the most part, seems to be doing harm to the people instead of making Iowa better."

Three topics dominated Saturday's discussion: workers' compensation, women's health care and voter identification.

Workers' compensation: House File 518 passed the Iowa House Thursday and is expected to be debated on the Senate floor this week. It recommends reducing workers' benefits for injuries related to pre-existing conditions, allows employers to deny benefits to injured workers who tested positive for drugs or alcohol, limits the collection of attorneys fees, reduces late fees for employers failing to extend benefits on time and reconfigures the benefit classification of a shoulder injury. Amendments adopted as part of the final legislation include striking a provision ending workers' compensation benefits at age 67. It also recommended workers' afflicted with a shoulder injury be evaluated by the department of workforce development for potential placement at a local community college to be trained a new field. The schooling would be paid for by a workers' employer up to $15,000.

Women's health care: Senate File 471 passed the Senate Tuesday, banning abortions in Iowa beyond a woman's 20th week of pregnancy. Exceptions to the proposal were made for women whose health would be seriously compromised by continuing the pregnancy or if a doctor determined the fetus was not viable between the 20th and 24th week of pregnancy. A similar measure failed to pass the House earlier this session and has yet to be scheduled for debate. Republicans have voiced support for removing state funding for Planned Parenthood, but no bills have been debated in the House or Senate.

Voter identification: House File 516 passed the House March 9, requiring all voters present state-approved identification at the polls. Under the proposal, the secretary of state's office would be responsible for issuing a free ID card to any registered voter in the state without a drivers license, non-operators ID card, United States passport, or military ID card. Election officials would be tasked with using the information on a voter's identification card to "determine whether the person offering to vote appears to be the person depicted on the identification card."

The next forum date hasn't been finalized, but it currently is set for 9 a.m. April 8 at the Burlington Public Library

Water quality

At the Greater Burlington Partnership's monthly Eggs Issues forum Saturday morning, much of the discussion centered on water quality and infrastructure.

Des Moines County conservation direction Chris Lee addressed a bill recently put forth by Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, proposing a three-eighths cent sales tax increase to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

Approved as a constitutional amendment by Iowa voters in 2010, money has yet to be allocated to the trust fund -- "a permanent and protected funding source dedicated to clean water, productive agricultural soils and thriving wildlife habitats."

The bill recommends offsetting the sales tax increase with cuts to income tax.

Burlington city planner Charlie Nichols described significant water infrastructure needs in town, including sewer separation and replacing water mains.

Nichols said Burlington still has 46 miles of combined sewer systems they are required to separate, totaling at least $12.3 million worth of work to be completed by 2025.

As for the city's pipes, 50 percent of water infrastructure is over 100 years old, he said.

Over the next five to 15 years, $174 million will be needed to repair and replace the pipes, some old enough to be constructed from sand.