Public retirement funds, other hot buttons await Iowa lawmakers

Iowa State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald is shown at the e State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald is shown at the e State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Democrats have sounded the alarm: Republicans are coming for public workers’ retirement funds.

Republicans have responded: That’s nothing more than political grandstanding and fear mongering.

Public employee pension reform is one of the hot-button issues — including cellphones while driving, the bottle bill, immigration, death penalty — that could command state lawmakers’ attention during the legislative session that starts Monday.

Some Republicans, including former Gov. Terry Branstad, have said the state public workers retirement system requires changes in order to make the program sustainable so workers can continue to receive the benefits they expect.

Iowa’s public employee pension funds are funded at more than 80 percent, according to multiple independent studies, and that typically ranks it among the healthiest public pension funds in the nation.

Statehouse Democrats in December called a news conference to warn that Republicans may propose changes to the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, or IPERS, and that those changes would mean fewer benefits paid to retirees.

“IPERS and Iowa’s other public pension plans are secure, strong and sustainable. Some current legislative proposals to change IPERS could break the promise we have made to hard working Iowans since 1953,” Democratic state treasurer Michael Fitzgerald said at that news conference. “The retirement contributions Iowa workers have made to these funds have been invested well, and the benefits are reasonable. There is no need to make the type of changes Gov. Reynolds and Senate Republicans are talking about.”

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Gov. Reynolds and statehouse Republican leaders, however, insist they are not talking about making changes to IPERS this session.

“I think we can chalk that up to fear mongering,” said Rep. Linda Upmeyer, the Republican Speaker of the House.

Sen. Bill Dix, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, did say Senate Republicans may hold some hearings and presentations on the subject during the session and that the state’s public worker pension programs may need changes in the future.

Just not this year, Dix said.

“One thing that Iowans really should expect, especially people within the IPERS system, is that long-term, you have a sustainable system there,” Dix said.

In other hot-button issues:

CELL PHONES/DRIVING

In 2017, the state made texting while driving a primary offense. In other words, police now may pull over and cite a driver simply for texting while driving. Before the change, officers could cite a driver for texting only after stopping the driver on another offense.

Some legislators and groups, including some in law enforcement, believe Iowa should take the next step and ban all hand-held phone use while driving, with limited exceptions.

Most leaders said they think the new law should be given more time before additional restrictions are approved.

“This has helped. This has certainly moved the needle in the right direction,” Upmeyer said of the new law. “I just think it’s a good idea to kind of let things settle a little. We’ve only had six months (of the new law). ... I really think it’s beneficial to let us get at least a year of information, and then we can contemplate what else might be prudent and necessary.”

BOTTLE BILL

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It’s an annual debate. Is this the year changes are made to the state law that adds a 5-cent deposit to soda and beer containers as a recycling incentive and also requires grocery stores to accept and refund returned bottles and cans?

It’s a definite maybe, leaders say.

“I do get the feeling, from what I’m hearing, that (various interested groups) are making strong inroads to a different way of handling Iowa’s recycling,” Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said. “But I’ve served in the Legislature 18 years, and I think the bottle bill has come up nearly every one of those 18 years, and no one has seemed to find a solution that works better than the bottle bill.”

IMMIGRATION

The Senate in 2017 passed a bill that would require local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal officials enforcing immigration laws and create financial sanctions for agencies that do not.

Dix said he thinks the House this year should pass that bill, which the Senate approved late in the 2017 session.

Upmeyer said she wished Congress would enact federal immigration reform. And while she questioned agencies that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, she stopped short of saying the House will pass a bill fining so-called sanctuary cities this year.

“I don’t know how active it will be,” she said.

DEATH PENALTY

Some Republican senators wish to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished in Iowa roughly a half-century ago. A bill was introduced last session and may be pushed again this year by those Senate Republicans.

“We have several individuals who definitely support us taking a look at that,” Dix said. “I really don’t know at this point how broad that is in the caucus.”

SPORTS BETTING

A pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling could open the door for states to legalize gambling on sports contests. Currently, that betting is legal only in Nevada and, to a lesser extent, in a few other states.

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Leaders said they have not discussed the issue with their members or that they wanted to wait for the Supreme Court ruling to determine whether Iowa should, if given the opportunity, legalize sports betting.

MEDICAL CANNABIS

The state last year expanded its medical cannabis program to add more ailments and allow for the production and sale of medical cannabis in Iowa.

Advocates believe the program should add still more diseases and conditions and increase the legal amount of THC in order to provide helpful treatment from some of those conditions.

Democrats support expanding the program further, and Dix noted the Senate’s bill included more covered illnesses and a higher legal THC level.

Upmeyer said the new law should be given time and deferred to the newly established state board that oversees implementation and enforcement of the state program.

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