A roundup of legislative and Capitol news items of interest from Tuesday, April 9:
• Health insurance: Gov. Terry Branstad expressed confidence Tuesday that eventually all state employees will pay at least 20 percent of their health insurance premiums.
Noncontract state workers and members of the State Police Officers Council soon will make a 20 percent contribution to their monthly health insurance costs, but also will be able to participate in employee wellness programs whereby they can earn a $90 a month premium reduction that would trim their costs to about 5 percent, Branstad said.
The governor sought a similar provision for the state’s largest employees union, but an arbitrator last month ruled in favor of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) contract language that allows many members to participate in the state health plan at no monthly premium cost.
Branstad told members of the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress board that federal employees pay 25 percent of their health insurance costs and Iowa is one of only six states where some workers pay zero.
“We think two years down the road that we’re in a very strong position. We’re going to see that done. We just have to be tenacious and see that through,” he said.
• Lake Delhi reconstruction: The Senate voted 49-0 to approve HF 541 to exempt the reconstruction of the Lake Delhi dam on the Maquoketa River in Delaware County from certain Department of Natural Resources requirements. If signed by the governor, the spillway that was breached by a flood in 2010 could be rebuilt at its previous height rather than to the top of the dam, which is about 6 feet higher.
Supporters said it’s the spillway not the dam that determines the height of the pool.
HF 541 makes it possible for the owners to rebuild the dam without obtaining easements on upriver land that would be inundated by high water.
• China trip: Branstad told members of the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress board Tuesday that he has received word the trade delegation he will lead to China beginning Friday will meet with China’s new president, Xi Jinping, during his four-day, four-city visit on the ground in China. It also will include a meeting with the Chinese agricultural minister.
Branstad said the entourage now tops 50 members and includes three U.S. governors from Virginia, Wisconsin and Guam. He said his friendship with the new Chinese president is providing a competitive advantage and a favorable reception from that nation’s business interests.
“We think there is a real possibility of a significant Chinese investment in Iowa and we’ll be exploring those opportunities. There seems to be a real interest there,” he said.
• Public hearing: The House Appropriations Committee will have a public hearing from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, in the House Chamber at the Capitol on Senate File 296, a plan to expand Medicaid in Iowa. It passed the Senate 26-23.
Speakers will have three minutes or may submit written testimony by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with “Testimony” in the subject line. To sign up to speak, call 515-281-5129.
• Financial know-how: Thirty Iowa high schools were winners of $1,000 in a random drawing and hundreds of students took steps to increase their understanding of student loan debt as a result of the 2013 Iowa Financial Know-How Challenge sponsored by Iowa Student Loan, the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Jump$tart Coalition, Junior Achievement of Central Iowa and the Iowa College Access Network.
As part of the Challenge, teachers incorporated the online financial literacy tutorial Student Loan Game Plan into their classroom instruction. Students learned how to plan ahead and borrow less for college.
Half of the $1,000 prize is to be used to for financial literacy programs and the other half for scholarship funds.
• Gas tax: Branstad is not ruling out a possible gas tax debate yet this legislative session.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress board, John Smith of Cedar Rapids-based CRST International prodded Branstad to put more focus on transportation upgrades. Proposals seeking to raise the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon over three years have stalled for the time being in the split-control Legislature, but Branstad seem to indicate the issue may get attention once he and majority Republicans in the House and majority Democrats in the Senate reach a compromise on property tax relief.
“Once we get the property tax resolved so we can honestly tell people their taxes are going down, then I think we can look at this and see if we can try to work something out. It’s going to have to be done on a bipartisan basis. It’s going to have to take people in both houses working together to get it done, but I think there’s still a possibility of getting that done at the end of this session. But it won’t be easy and we’ve got to get the property tax resolved first,” the governor said.
• Immigration reform: Attorney General Tom Miller has joined a bipartisan group of 31 state attorneys general in urging Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and congressional leaders to support immigration reform.
They support a law enforcement strategy that focuses on public safety, targets serious crime, safeguards witnesses and victims, and considers national security implications for porous borders. Reform should eventually include a way to accurately, reliably and affordably determine who is permitted to work, ensuring an adequate labor force.