Instead, fixing a budget with a gaping 'hole' will be Job One for '08
Despite the furor over potential legislative action to prevent gay marriage that has marked the opening of the 2008 state legislative session, the local representatives in both houses say that the real work of the winter will be trying to balance a budget that they agree is far out of whack.
Both Gary Worthan, the state representative from Storm Lake, and Steve Kettering, state senator from Lake View, were interested to see the hundreds of demonstrators swarming the capitol yesterday - and both told the Pilot-Tribune that they sympathize with statewide call to defend traditional marriage.
However, both said they expect party leaders in their respective houses to block the issue from ever coming to a vote on the floor this session.
"I'm hearing a lot of push from the constituents who want us to do something about gay marriage, but I think that leadership feels that they would rather just leave it and let the courts decide," Worthan reported from Des Moines Wednesday. "A lot of us, however, feel that the courts have already chosen to enter the legislative arena."
The result, Worthan said, is that there will be much talk and debate on the gay marriage issue, and probably no real action.
Fellow Republican Kettering said he will support legislation to restrict marriage to a man and a woman, but doubts that he will get the chance to cast such a vote.
"It was a huge rally today, and I had the chance to visit with some of the participants from our home district. Frankly, I doubt that leadership will allow it to come to a vote. The reason that will be used is that it should be allowed to run its course in the court system."
In the early days of the session, Worthan said he felt a reasonably bipartisan spirit. "I think it will be a fairly quiet session. We've probably had enough politics already in Iowa."
Kettering, however sees Republicans up in arms over some of Governor Chet Culver's early proposals - and senses that they are stirring some dissent among the governor's own Democrat party legislators as well.
What the local legislators agree on is that a bloated state budget will be a critical chore for the legislature to tackle in 2008.
"We're looking right at a big hole in the budget. We overspent last year, no doubt about it. There is a $350 million shortfall in the governor's proposed budget, and the ways that he is choosing to backfill that hole are going to be pretty controversial," Worthan said.
One early controversy is a proposed doubling of the can deposit from 5 to 10 cents, and expanding it to things like bottled water, juices, sports drinks and teas. The governor said he wants most of the new money to go to the perennially-underfunded REAP environmental fund, but Worthan is suspicious.
"I wouldn't want the can bill to be another bait-and-switch like we had last year with the cigarette tax. All the new revenue was supposed to go to health programs, but in reality, it was used to replace existing funding that was already being provided out of the general fund, and very little new money was invested into health at all despite this big tax increase," he said.
"The can deposit increase is just a new tax, and it could cost taxpayers as much as $40 million more. A lot of us are opposed to any new tax."
The state's spending is out of control, the Storm Lake representative believes.
With the development of alternative energy, the state is seeing revenue streams at all-time record levels - but spending is growing even faster, Worthan says.
"The year 1976 was the first time in Iowa history that a budget reaches $1 billion. Now, we have increased spending more than a billion dollars just last session and this one, even if we don't add another penny from here. Spending is up 20 percent in two years, and no matter how they try to spin that, it should set us back on our heels," he said. "We gotta slow down."
Kettering said that the Culver had called for bipartisanship - within the most partisan speech he said he has yet heard in Des Moines.
"The response was lukewarm even from members of his own party," the area senator said. "The spending is not sustainable. In times of record-level revenue, we have a governor trying to tell us it is necessary to raise taxes."
Kettering said he was disappointed with what Culver didn't say as well.
"Property tax relief for the middle class and commercial business, and a leadership position on the roadway situation were things I thought would be priorities. Those are big omissions."
Worthan was hoping to hear the governor make some strong statements on health care, but instead is hearing rumblings that some legislators will propose adding a new tax on medical and dental bills that patients face - an idea he strongly opposes.
Worthan notes that the legislature declined to pass a Medicade reimbursement increase last session - one that would have brought in much more in federal matching funding than the state invested. "We kissed away $40 or $50 million from the feds," he said.
A pressing issue is the nursing shortage in the state, Worthan added - saying that Iowa ranks 49th in the state in average nurse pay, and no one seems to have any answers.
The state also needs to find a way to create small insurance pools to help small businesses that struggle to afford health coverage for their employees to work together.
He would also like to see the state create initiatives to encourage people to get cancer screenings and other preventative care tests. "There would be some cost to that, but we would save big money down the road," he said.
"(Culver) ran out of money before he ever got to health care," Kettering said of the governor's condition of the state message.
On the plus side, Worthan applauded the governor for his attention to several issues - particularly support for a new study on odor control for livestock confinements, proposed to be done at Iowa State University.
"A lot of people may think this is supporting corporate farming, but a lot of young farmers are the ones building or managing the new livestock units. It has opened a way for some younger people to be able to get into farming," Worthan said. "With Storm Lake being the livestock town to the extent it is, we have to realize that livestock is important to the Iowa economy."
As a member of the veterans committee, Worthan was also pleased with Culver for budgeting funds to improve the condition of the long-term residential care facility for veterans at Marshalltown.
On education, he said he backs the governor in his push for funding for Iowa Opportunity Scholarships that should help the regent universities and the community colleges. However, he also wants to see the legislature support Iowa Tuition Grants, a funding source for students in need that is "super important" to private colleges like Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, he said.
Kettering's goals for the session include hopes to knock down several new tax proposals while keeping the budget in check.
He said the governor is proposing to raise taxes by over $100 million, and to pull funds from infastructure and one-time sources to make his budget appear balanced this year.
"We would just as well say that we're going to let our grandkids pay for that," he said.
A statewide one-cent tax to support schools is also proposed, to replace the local-option system now in place. While schools support the change, it would wring about $100 million more out of taxpayers, Kettering said - and there is no promise that the state would keep its hands out of the new money and pass it all on to schools.
He said another new tax is proposed on business vehicle use and goods purchased from out of state, which could harm small businesses.
"This will get hot on both sides," Worthan said of the budget debate. "I hope we take the governor's advice - come in, balance the budget and go home. There is no extra money to spend."
The two local lawmakers note both the challenge and enjoyment of public service as they prepare to run for new terms.
"I don't like being away from my wife all week, but this is a great bunch of people to work with," Worthan said. "They are smart, savvy people and they are well-versed in the needs of the state."
"It's too early to be frustrated," Kettering adds. "It can be hard to try to do this and still hold down your job back home, but it is rewarding to feel that you are representing those people."
He notes that in 2010, the state is scheduled to redraw legislative districts, which will impact elections starting in 2012. He isn't sure what that will do to his home district, as rural districts stand to get larger and fewer as more power is concentrated in the few urban and suburban regions that are seeing growth.