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Big issues loom as legislative session nears end

Monday, April 7, 2008

The bottle bill, the smoking ban, the state budget -- Iowa's legislators have some big issues to decide with only 12 session days left this year.

Senator Dave Mulder and Representative Chuck Soderberg, stopping in Le Mars Saturday morning, said the next few weeks before the session ends on April 22 will be busy ones.

State budget

Soderberg and Mulder said they haven't seen the full proposed budget in the House or Senate, and they don't know how much of an increase it will bring.

"The governor did propose a $6.4 billion budget, and that's about a $1 billion increase from last year," Soderberg said.

A total of 13 appropriations bills have to pass for the full budget, Soderberg said, adding that the majority party -- the Democrats -- will control them.

Smoking ban

A final bill for a proposed smoking ban in public places in Iowa has yet to be voted on.

Mulder said he was hoping for one that didn't exempt any place like bars, for example.

"But I think the bill will exempt casino floors," he said.

"They (legislators) have admitted it is a financial issue," Soderberg added.

Other possible exemptions include the state fairgrounds and state parks.

"I don't want this decision to be made based on what will make more money," Mulder said. "Other states are saying, 'Just get your foot in the door.'"

School until 18

Recent talks about changing the mandatory school enrollment age to 18 probably won't materialize into any law this year, Mulder said.

If it did, though, he saw some issues with it. Schools would be compensated for the student staying in school with the regular $5,500 per-pupil the state gives, but keeping kids in school would involve more than money, he said.

"If we haven't convinced them in 16 years that school is the place for them, how are we going to convince them in their 17th or 18th year?" he asked. "Something as to change in our schools. As they get older, it's more difficult to motivate them."

Controversial bills

The legislators urged citizens to watch the bills on collective bargaining and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

"Over the weekend, Culver received ten thousand calls on collective bargaining, and that did make a difference," Mulder said.

The collective bargaining bill, which would shift power from the local school boards, city councils and county boards to the employees, originally started as just a housecleaning-type issue but, at the last minute, a 14-page ammendment was added that would give more power to the bargaining employees.

"Right now the governor is asking, 'What will I get if I sign this,'" Soderberg said. "The bill is somewhat being held as a negotiating tool. There's a lot of horsetrading going on with a lot of bills. In the next two weeks we'll see a lot of negotiating."

Statewide SILO

Iowa legislators still have to decide whether to make the School Infrastructure Local Option (SILO) sales tax a statewide one-penny tax. If so, the revenue would be divided equally per-student across the state, rather than divided by county as it is now.

One citizen urged the legislators not to make statewide SILO tax a constitutional amendment because it would make it harder for citizens and communities to ever make changes.

Le Mars Community Schools superintendent Todd Wendt urged the legislators not to pass a SILO bill with any extras like the consitutional amendment clause on it.

"And watch out for preferential treatment for places like Iowa City and Cedar Rapids," he said. "The best thing would be for that to be a clean bill."

Mulder noted that if the statewide SILO bill passed, there would be a lot of people making sure the money stays for school infrastructure.

"And if schools don't need it, it should be for property tax relief," he said.

Iowa's roads

Local contractor Cal Kooiker asked the legislators where the Time 21 bill -- which would allocate more money for Iowa's roads -- stands.

"It's getting really tight," Kooiker said. "We're going to have to start closing roads before too long. It's not just the interstate. It's gravel roads around here."

There are proposals to increase registration fees for pickups and changing the law so that vehicle owners wouldn't see their registration decrease until the seventh year of ownership, rather than the fifth.

"That money would go into a constitutionally protected Road Use Fund," Soderberg said.

One proposal, he said, would generate an extra $22 million, a far cry from the $200 million state engineers are asking for.

"It's a start," Kooker said.

Mulder noted that in recent years, education has been a priority issue for the majority party and there were some big increases there.

"Now that's over, those priorities have to change," Mulder said. "Time 21 may be one of the big things, and watch health care."

Bottle bill

Neither the House or the Senate have seen any action on the bottle deposit bill.

"The best possibility right now is the one expanding the types of containers accepted and keeping the deposit at 5 cents with 2 cents going to the recycling centers," Mulder said.

The distributors would have to pay up that extra penny, he added, noting that distributors in the states that have bottle deposits made a total of $91 million in unclaimed deposits last year.

Cheryl Juhl, one of the owners of the local redemption center, told the legislators that several centers are looking at closing if they don't get an increase this year.

"Distributors contribute a lot ot both parties; neither party is better," Mulder said. "Money talks in a lot of ways. Unfortunately their voice is bigger than yours."

Wrapping up

The bottle bill, Soderberg said, may get tacked onto the "Standings Bill," the last bill the legislators vote on for the session, usually a stack of random bills that haven't gone through yet.

"I call it the Christmas tree bill or the Heinz 57 bill -- there's hardly anything that won't be in it," Soderberg said. "I think we'll see a pretty big bill this year."

Even with some big issues to wrap up on Capitol Hill, Soderberg said he thought they wouldn't extend the session.

"I would still anticipate getting done on time," he said.

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