Iowa’s labor community is ready to play defense as the Republican majorities in the Iowa House and Senate prepare to gavel in for the second year of the 88th General Assembly.
Secretary-Treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO Charlie Wishman said there’s a limit on what can be accomplished proactively with the current setup inside the Capitol, with full Republican control.
“We’re not going to be able to see the fundamental change that needs to happen for workers likely until there’s a new governor,” Wishman said. “Unless for some reason Governor Reynolds really changes her view on things, we’re not going to be able to do the things that are really going to be benefiting Iowans.”
Instead, the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO and Democratic lawmakers are waiting to see what the GOP tries to push through this year.
State Senator Tony Bisignano said he expects it to be a relatively mild year at the Capitol since it’s an election year.
That may be why both he and Wishman have been told the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System and pensions won’t be touched this year.
“I sit on the pension committee and I got a very clear statement from the leadership of the committee, the House and Senate Republican co-chairs, that they would not be doing any pension legislation this year that would in anyway effect the dynamic of a pension or its benefits,” Bisignano said. “Not to say somebody won’t file something that will be negative, but I don’t think as an agenda item that we’re necessarily going to see that coming from the Republican agenda.”
Wishman said the IFL will be vigilant and make sure to oppose any proposed cuts to IPERS or the 411 program or anything that has to do with retirement.
“The House has said that they have no plans to make any benefit changes to IPERS and we very cautiously take them at their word,” Wishman said. “But, there is a lot of our membership where — especially after collective bargaining and some of those types of things that happened — there’s not a huge trust factor.”
State Senator Todd Taylor has a list of bills he authored in the labor committee last year that are still alive since it’s the second year of this legislative general assembly.
One bill he introduced would raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. He’d also like to invest more in educational opportunities at community colleges. Increasing access to apprenticeship programs and just generally better funding education were both on Wishman’s list as well.
Wishman said there’s been a desire inside the Trump administration to weaken apprenticeship standards, and that’s not something he’d like to see trickle down into the state of Iowa.
But, he said he would like to see more funding go to addressing the skills gap in the state.
“I think that for us, we feel that schools have been underfunded for years and there needs to be a higher increase in school funding to make up for some of those past years,” Wishman said, speaking about school funding at all levels.
Everyone’s also keeping a close eye on House File 531. The bill strips workers of up to 13 weeks of unemployment benefits if a plant or business closes.
Wishman said in the original version of the bill, the Republican sponsors wanted to institute a one-week waiting period for workers to be able to collect their unemployment benefits.
The House eventually stripped that out, which Wishman said was a positive move, but the bill never gained support from the IFL.
There’s also been some talk of Republicans wanting to drug test welfare recipients.
“In reality, that’s not the biggest population of drug users and so it’s more costly than effective,” Taylor said. “I’d like to see more effective things.”
A Des Moines Register story about allegations of human experimentation at the state-run Glenwood Resource Center has captured the attention of Democratic lawmakers.
Minority leaders in both the Senate and House told Iowa Public Radio they’d like to investigate what’s been happening at the state’s mental health facilities.
Other state-run institutions faced the ire of labor leaders in the state earlier this year.
Four staff members at the Independence Mental Health Institute were attacked over a nine day period.
AFSCME Council 61 responded with a statement saying staff members are: “Fed up with poor training, mandatory overtime and low morale.”
House Minority Leader Todd Prichard told IPR the state is under-funding the mental health system.
“You hate to say it, but if we don’t support this department and give it the tools that it needs in terms of resources and funding and staffing, then you’re not going to appreciate the results that you get,” Prichard said in an interview with Iowa Public Radio. “And that’s really what’s been happening.”
When IPR asked Republican Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds if she’d propose more funding for the facilities, Reynolds said the state is “still in fact-finding mode.”
She also said she is creating a new position to focus on the oversight of the facilities.
Polk County Representative, Marti Anderson said it’d be nice to have more funding at the mental health facilities so they’d be more adequately staffed.
“Recently, with the Republican majority, is what we are doing is fighting things that they put up on labor rather than having any power to propose anything new,” Anderson said. “We’re hoping next year we’ll have a majority and we can get back our collective bargaining and all of the things that have been ruined.”
Overall, Wishman said he feels like he hasn’t heard as many priorities from the House, Senate or the Governor as he has in previous years.
“Normally by now we hear from the House and from the Senate and from the Governor what their priorities are for the year,” Wishman said. “And we really haven’t heard much.”
Taylor said this should be an interesting year over in the house since their leadership changed and the majority is closer. House majority leader Linda Upmeyer resigned as Speaker of the House earlier this year. Pat Grassley will step into Upmeyer’s role.
“I also feel unfortunately that with the Republican trifecta they feel like if we’re going to get some more of our priorities done we’ve got to do it now,” Taylor said. “So I don’t think we’re finished seeing their mean-spirited priorities.”
by Paige Godden