Outsourcing is getting out of hand at the Iowa Statehouse

GOP changes restricting the collective bargaining rights of most public sector unions is just one of the ideas Iowa lawmakers have imported from other states. Above, Ben Murry of Madrid listens to deliberations Feb. 14 over the controversial collective bargaining bill in the Iowa Senate. (KC McGinnis / The Gazette)
GOP changes restricting the collective bargaining rights of most public sector unions is just one of the ideas Iowa lawmakers have imported from other states. Above, Ben Murry of Madrid listens to deliberations Feb. 14 over the controversial collective bargaining bill in the Iowa Senate. (KC McGinnis / The Gazette)

Iowans take a lot of pride in the moments when the nation turns its lonely eyes to us.

In 2009, when Iowa became the first Midwest state to legalize same-sex marriage, there was much written about our state historically being far ahead of the national curve on civil rights issues. When state legislatures elsewhere pull shameless political shenanigans to draw gerrymandered districts, folks lamenting such developments point to Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting structure as a model.

And maybe you’ve heard about how Iowans play a fairly prominent role in picking presidential nominees. First in the nation. That’s how we roll.

Don’t get me started on tenderloins, sweet corn and state fairs. These are just a few examples.

And yet, oddly enough, Republicans currently running our Statehouse, the nation’s most majestic, I say, seem determined to outsource important policy decisions to other states.

Last session, they swiftly scrapped a 40-year-old, bipartisan, Iowa-crafted collective bargaining law governing public employees in favor of Wisconsin-style union busting. They even got a digital pep talk from Badger State Gov. Scott Walker as they ripped up Iowa’s law.

Former Gov. Terry Branstad delivered our once Iowa-managed Medicaid health insurance program into the hands of private managed care companies, hoping to emulate other states, including Kansas. The administration of his successor, Gov. Kim Reynolds, now has hired the former director of Kansas’ troubled Medicaid program to run Iowa’s troubled program. I see more trouble ahead.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, says he’s determined to cut income taxes in Iowa, looking to states such as Kansas, which enacted deep tax cuts in 2012. Kansas’ cuts led to massive budget problems, and a big chunk of those tax cuts eventually had to be repealed. Dix says that’s because Kansas didn’t cut its budget enough.

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Iowa has been forced to cut spending and dip into its reserves to cover serious budget problems spawned by flat tax revenues. But Dix says we haven’t cut taxes enough. His ultimate goal is to make Iowa more like South Dakota by eliminating Iowa’s state income tax entirely.

I’m not saying borrowing ideas from our fellow laboratories of democracy is all bad. For instance, I’d love to see Iowa join the 29 states that have real medical marijuana programs.

But this is getting out of hand.

Iowa Republicans long have had South Dakota envy when it comes to taxes. I’ve been hearing amazing tales of the riches of Dakota Dunes since I was old enough to hold a notebook.

Never mind that Iowa is more than three times larger in population, has nearly three times as many public school kids and is home to seven times as many cities with populations over 20,000. More than a few GOP dreamers still believe its tax system would be a great fit here.

Being income-tax free has not saved South Dakota from the current farm downturn. In terms of real GDP growth, from the beginning of 2016 through the second quarter of 2017, South Dakota ranks 49th nationally and Iowa ranks 50th.

Both states are dealing with tax revenue shortfalls. Sluggish sales tax collections in South Dakota fell $34 million below expectations during the current budget year. Flat revenues in Iowa may spawn midyear cuts of anywhere from $50 million to $90 million.

South Dakota does have several thousand video lottery terminals, which is something Iowa might have to think about if it drops the income tax. South Dakota’s 4.5 percent sales tax is lower than Iowa’s but with far fewer exemptions. Groceries, for instance, are taxed, explaining why there’s a busy Fareway in Sioux City, just across the border. Paychecks for South Dakota public school teachers rank near the bottom nationally.

Don’t get me wrong, South Dakota is a fine state. I’m just not convinced we need to adopt its tax policies. It would be much better if Iowa lawmakers actually asked Iowans what sort of tax changes they want or don’t want, and not just the Iowans, or outside groups, who contribute mightily to their campaigns.

Sadly, it seems like that classic approach has fallen out of fashion.

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Branstad privatized Medicaid without consulting providers and clients who would be most affected. Ditto with his decisions to close state workforce development, mental health and juvenile facilities. Collective bargaining changes were crafted behind the scenes with little or no input from Iowans who would be affected. Tax cut plans likely are taking shape in a similar process, accessible by invitation only.

But, hey, at least we have elections to hash out these vital issues.

Branstad-Reynolds didn’t tell voters during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign they planned to privatize Medicaid. GOP legislative candidates in 2016 talked of tweaks when asked about collective bargaining, and I heard a lot more about boosting funding for schools than cutting taxes. Campaign mailers and ads focused largely on tarring their opponents. Forums where voters could to pin candidates down on issues were scarce and often skipped. Expect more of the same in 2018.

So if you’re turning your lonely eyes to our fabulous, gilded Statehouse, hoping for some Iowa-style leadership on issues affecting your community, you may be out of luck, or feel like an out-of-stater. But you can always try making your case in Madison, Pierre or Topeka. I’ve heard they have some influence in Des Moines.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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