The hyperbole and hypocrisy surrounding changes Republicans made to Iowa’s public-employee bargaining law a couple of weeks ago were something to behold.
Given the lack of public input and the speed with which the legislation was written and passed, I doubt anyone, including the law’s authors, can accurately predict how this will play out. Ink from the souvenir pens Gov. Terry Branstad used in a rare private ceremony to sign the 42-page bill was barely dry before the new law was challenged in court in what could be a long and confusing case.
During my 40-plus years as a reporter, I recall no other significant issue that was passed by Iowa lawmakers in such a vitriolic atmosphere with such one-sided support. When Republicans were challenged about their tactics, they said Democrats had used similar measures in the past.
Indeed, in 2008 when Democrats controlled the Legislature, they accelerated passage of an expansion of public employee union bargaining rights while then-Gov. Chet Culver, also a Democrat, was on spring break.
Culver’s fellow party members hoped he would quickly sign the bill when he returned. But he didn’t. He thought long and hard and ultimately vetoed it, saying the bill went too far. That angered other Democrats and probably contributed to Culver’s defeat by Branstad in 2010.
Then, during Culver’s final days as governor, he did something no one saw coming. He unilaterally approved pay raises that amounted to a double-digit percentage increase for some state employees over the next two years, thereby igniting the political fire that has now effectively gutted Iowa’s public employee bargaining law.
Branstad and others were rightfully upset about what Culver did, and they tried unsuccessfully in court to block the pay raises. When that failed, Republicans began planning their own changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws.
After making significant gains in last fall’s election, during which there was no significant talk of collective bargaining reform, Republican lawmakers quickly wrote and passed their bill last month. How successful they are in the long run won’t be known until the lawsuits play out. In the meantime, I’ll suggest that Iowa Republicans learned nothing from congressional handling of health care reform. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was highly partisan legislation that was passed by one party with zero bipartisan support, as was Iowa’s new collective bargaining law. When the ACA was passed, everyone knew it contained flaws and that without changes it would do little or nothing to lessen spiraling health care costs.
Congressional Democrats said they would fix the flaws with future legislation. But the original law, and the unilateral way it was passed, angered Republicans, who refused to cooperate. That’s basically what’s happened in the Iowa Legislature now. Republicans rammed through collective bargaining changes, just like Democrats did with the ACA. The outcome will be a similar stalemate.
I say that because the collective bargaining bill was far from perfect. To make it work in an effective way will require cooperation and understanding — neither of which exist today. In fact, the bill’s most innovative aspect — health insurance reform — was never adequately explained or developed.
Gretchen Tegeler of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, among others, believes there are significant savings for both the state and individual employees, if all public employees at state and local levels, including schoolteachers, are placed in a single health insurance pool. From where I sit, that was a significant part of the motivation for the law the governor signed on Feb. 17.
But nowhere does the new law explain how or when that will happen. Nor has anyone explained how state government plans to implement such a significant change.