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Branstad-Corbett PLA Scuffle Ends

So the morning papers and various digital gizmos carry word of a grand compromise between Gov. Terry Branstad and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett ending a five-month scuffle over a Project Labor Agreement for the convention plex.

The city rescinds the PLA which it forged with local unions in December, hoping to make sure at least half of complex construction jobs went to local workers. Branstad issued an executive order on his first day in office in January banning PLAs on virtually any public works project in the state. The guv said his order applied to the convention complex and his office withheld $15 million in state funds for the project.

It looked like this here showdown would be settled in a courtroom. At one point, Branstad said he would not compromise. But now, the city has agreed to back down while also promising the trades that there will be a PLA on other projects that don't need state funds, the big hotel remodel, etc. Corbett gets $15 million for his grand project and an escape hatch from an ugly mess.

All's well that ends, I guess. Although I'm a little disappointed that we'll probably never get an definitive answer on whether Branstad's order, as it applies in local projects like this one, oversteps his executive authority. The order as written is remarkably broad and sweeping and seems to extend the governor's power far beyond the executive branch he controls. It reads a lot like legisaltion, and that, as the term implies, is usually the job of the Legislature.

Essentially, the legislature approved a state grant program in a a bill signed by a governor, in this case the Big Lug. Then, Branstad takes office and issues an order that in turn modifies the terms of that legislation, and for that matter, any legislation that hands out state dollars for a local projects, without any legislative input or approval. Enforcing his order amounts to the deappropriation of millions of dollars simply by executive edict.

I'm not sure why any lawmakers, regardless of party, would be OK with that sort of precedent. Republicans who think it's swell now won't feel that way when a Democratic governor takes Branstad's precedent and runs.

The order's wording is so broad that it could be interpreted to bar PLAs for any project that gets public money of any kind:

"... I order and issue this Executive Order prohibiting the use of Project Labor Agreements by the State of Iowa and its Political Subdivisions on Public Works Projects effective immediately:

a. “State Funds” as used in this order includes any tax payer dollars or other funds of the State, including, but not limited to, general fund obligations, funds derived from the assessment of fines, fees of any sort, income taxes, corporate taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, taxes on gaming revenues, funds derived from the proceeds on the issuance general purpose, appropriation and/or revenue bonds, projects funded from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund, projects funded by road use tax funds, projects funded in whole or in part by state grants, financial assistance, loans, forgivable loans, loan guarantees, subsidies, tax exemptions and tax credits.

b. “Political Subdivision” as used in this Order includes a city, county, township, school district, area education agency, institutions under the control of the State Board of Regents, community colleges, or any other local board, commission, committee, council, association or tribal council that receives or uses any State Funds."

But it sounds like, for now, Branstad won't be wielding his order that way in Cedar Rapids, which is good news.

I would have liked to get a ruling on the broader, constitutional implications, but no dice. Attorney General Tom Miller had a chance to weigh in earlier this year but punted.  There's still a federal lawsuit, but I don't think that will result in any decision on its state constitutionality.

So Branstad's order gets a pass, just as a looming budget deal and temporary stop-gap spending measure at the Statehouse will likely mean we'll never get to see the broad emergency powers he claims to have to keep the government operating past July 1. Good for the state, bad for constitution geeks.

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