Saturday, January 31

Meet City and County Officials at FAIR! Budget Teach In 2/7/09

In my capacity of FAIR! Chair, I sometimes neglect to use my blog to remind people of events in Johnson County that they can take action and participate in. A week from today, Saturday Feb. 7th, FAIR! is sponsoring our 4th annual Budget Teach In: Making the Hard Choices: Providing Services During an Economic Downturn” at the Coralville City Hall from 10 am to 12 pm.

Speakers will include Johnson County Board of Supervisor, Rod Sullivan; North Liberty City Administrator, Ryan Heiar; Iowa City Council Member, Michael Wright, Coralville City Council Member, Mitch Gross; and Coralville City Administrator, Kelly Hayworth.

With the economic downturn and effects of the flooding of last year FAIR! thought it would be educational to discuss how budget decisions are made in light of these uncertainties (e.g., will services be affected, are taxes likely to increase, etc.). Additionally, we thought it would be important for county residents to hear how you view the move at the state level to shift some additional taxing authority to local government. If time permits, we'd also like to hear how communities are cooperating with each other on plans or services.

As in the past, we like to give attendees ample opportunity to address these decision makers about their concerns. For those of you who need extra incentive, there will be a casual coffee hour from 9 am to the beginning of the forum (which, just in case you can't make it, will be recorded for later playback) where you will be able to chat with the speakers informally.

Monday, January 26

Loebsack, Dvorsky, Sullivan, and Champion Make Appearance at Shelter House Fundie

Congressman Dave Loebsack made an appearance at a Shelter House (Johnson County's general shelter) benefit on Saturday night. Also there were State Senator Bob Dvorsky and his effervescent wife, Sue who shared her experiences at President Barack Obama's Inaugural. County Supervisor Rod Sullivan and his wife, Dr. Meliisa Fath were in attendence, as was Iowa City council woman, Connie Champion who is also a part of the capital campaign committee to raise funds for building the 70 bed shelter.

Thanks to the largesse of owners Jim and Maureen Mondonaro who footed the bill for all the incredible food and spirits that were enjoyed by the crowd in their newly renovated Mondo's Sports Cafe on the Coralville strip. The Mondanaros were among the many business owners who were flooded out of their location last June and chose to celebrate their new "home" by having a Grand Opening at which 100% of the funds went to the local shelter. A total of 370 people helped to raise over $18,000 for the capital campaign to build the new shelter facility on Southgate Dr.

Thursday, January 22

Obama: Yes We Can--Close Guantanamo

President Barack Obama wasted little time delivering on his campaign promise to close Guantanamo by making an executive order that it be completed in one year. This commitment, along with executive orders that commit the CIA and other interrogators to use the Army Code of Conduct procedures to interview prisoners are two signs that an Obama administration will be markedly different from his predecessor.

If he will use the same diligence to consider the closing of the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation"--formerly known as the School of the Americas, perhaps we will have a better shot at effective democracy in this part of the world in our lifetimes.

More: A story about a protestor at the SOA by Susan Greene.

Monday, January 19

MLK- ing It for All It's Worth

I, like most Americans, am very glad for the adulation that Barack Obama is being heaped with in the media and by the public and believe that he can live up to the hype. However, having lived through part of the civil rights movement and remembering exactly where I was when Martin Luther King was murdered, I take some exception to the easy comparisons between these two men. Martin Luther King's legacy is sealed while Barack Obama's is still being formed.

These men are both exceptional, but, for those who don't know, Martin Luther King entered college at the the age of 15 and graduated seminary at the age of 19. He completed his PhD studies at Boston College at the age of 26. Barack Obama, was the editor of the Havard Law Review and graduated Havard at the age of 30, after having been a activist in Chicago for three years.

Martin Luther King was 26 when he joined Rosa Parks and became the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and by 27 formed the Southern Christian Leadership Council that continues even today. By the time that Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois State House at the age of 36, Martin Luther King had visited Mohatmas Gandhi to study his method of non-violent activism, wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham, Alabama jail, helped form CORE, led numerous protests, been named Time's Man of the Year, and received the Nobel Peace Prize.

He also lived long enough to see his work attacked by Malcom X, segregationists, and to be called "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country" by the FBI (who also had him under constant surveillance).

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, he turned his attention to the Vietnam War and on poverty and racism. Poverty and a living wage were his cornerstone issues at the time he was assassinated in April 1968.

Certainly President Barack Obama has the opportunity to use his power to address the poor, who are still seeking justice from bad educational opportunities, higher unemployment and incarceration rates, and limited affordable housing. Perhaps he will turn to the teachings of King who said "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on."

Barack Obama can be a transformational figure in American life, but legacies are formed by the actions that are taken and the wisdom of those actions in uncertain times. Dr. Martin Luther King rose to those times with actions that had a sure-footedness to them. Hopefully, as a politician, Obama will be able to stand firm on those issues that bring justice to those who have been long denied. If he is able to do this, his legacy will be secured.

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Thursday, January 15

Just the Facts: Inauguration Firsts

We all know that Barack Obama will be the first African-American to be sworn in as POTUS, but here are some other inaugural firsts that you may not know about:

Presidential Inauguration “firsts” (from InfoPlease and the Senate web-site):

- George Washington’s first inaugural address was 135 words in length.
- John Adams was first to receive the oath of office from the Chief Justice of the United States
- Thomas Jefferson's inauguration was the first held in Washington, D.C.
- James Monroe was the first President to take the oath of office and deliver the Inaugural address outdoors; ceremony took place on platform in front of the temporary Brick Capitol (where Supreme Court now stands).
- John Tyler was the first Vice President to assume Presidency upon the death of the President.
- Abraham Lincoln was the first to include African-Americans in his parade.
- William Taft's wife was the first one to accompany her husband in the procession from the Capitol to the White House.
- Women were included for the first time in Woodrow Wilson's second inaugural parade.
- Calvin Coolidge's was the first inaugural address broadcast on the radio.
- Warren G. Harding was the first President to ride to and from his inauguration in an automobile.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first President Inaugurated on January 20th, a change made by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution; first time the Vice President was Inaugurated outdoors on the same platform with the President.
- Harry Truman's inauguration was the first to be televised.
- Lyndon Johnson was the first (and so far) only president to be sworn in by a woman, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes.
- Gerald R. Ford was the first unelected Vice President to become President
- Jimmy Carter's inaugural parade featured solar heat for the reviewing stand and handicap-accessible viewing.
- The first ceremony broadcast on the Internet was Bill Clinton's second inauguration.

Tuesday, January 13

Will Obama Get Us to Step Up Our Game?

The stakes for President-Elect Obama's stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are exceptionally high, as are the expectations of this nation. We are in the crossroads. On the one hand, we are are in dire economic straits, embroiled in wars that challenge us, and have an environmental crisis that demands our full attention; on the other hand, we have seen history made and have the leadership and opportunity to build a legacy that lives up to promise of a free people.

It is fitting irony that Barack Obama will begin his job the day after fallen Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King's life is celebrated. To say that Obama is standing on the shoulders of a giant is not crediting either his own accomplishments or ours as a nation. And, without Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, there could not have been a President Obama. Nor without Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson could we shed our oppressive past.

But there is much to do and very little time to reflect on our past. The Inauguration is heralded as historic, and rightly so. However, it is historic not only because of what has happened before, but because it marks what will be and what must come next.

And what will come? Congress has got to act decisively to pass legislation that helps people back to work, to keep their homes, to take care of their kids, and to improve the global environment. It must work with President Obama to roll back the damage done from the excesses of both the Clinton and Bush eras. The petty nature of politics has to be challenged to produce results.

And then, will we as Americans and world citizen's also do our part. Will we forego our lesser needs to address those huge needs that loom ahead? Will we move past our consumer-based view of government and participate in our democracy by fixing those things that government can't and supporting those things that government can?

We can not expect that any one person can make things better for the rest of us, if we don't join the march. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that it wasn't the time that King spent in the Birmhingham jail that made the change to civil rights or the march on Selma, it was Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, and the good acts by millions of nameless people that were inspired by King that caused the walls to tumble down. Now come the time to build up.
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Friday, January 9

Iowa Tax Reform or All My Axes Live in Taxes

As the legislature goes back to work this week, they will have the opportunity to consider a report by a state task force looking at changing property tax structures in Iowa headed by Iowa City's state senator Joe Bolkcom. Cities and counties generate more than 80 percent of their budgets from property taxes and the system, to many, is outdated. The issue pits local governments and property owners against anti-tax groups that want government to cut costs rather than expand sources of revenue. Death and taxes may be for sure, but fighting to the death over taxes is "for sure-er."

The report has taken a step in either opening the biggest can of worms that Iowa perhaps has ever seen or potentially addresses the inequities of taxation that have plagued the state for years. According to Bolkcom, “This is a billion dollar problem that has been more than 30 years in the making. ” Bolkcom, who is the chairman of the tax-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee, also said "We're proposing a menu of ideas for local governments. I think the revenues would be there to recover from last summer's [tornado and flooding] disaster."

The group has recommended that localities have more control over taxation such that the disparity of commercial property taxes are addressed.

The committee offered a three part proposal:

One, the Legislature should consider giving cities and counties alternatives to property taxes. The committee listed nine different alternatives including an income tax, cigarette tax, impact fees on new development and collecting money from nonprofit groups, which are currently tax exempt.

Two, 75% of the money raised by these alternatives must go to reducing commercial and residential property taxes.

Three, the remaining money must go to essential services, which may include rebuilding after last year’s natural disasters and public safety.

But will this help? I'll show both sides of the coin. But first a little discussion of how property taxes work in iowa.

How Do Property Taxes in Iowa Work?

The following is from the Iowa League of Cities:

Beginning in 1978, residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural classifications have been subject to an assessment limitation order, or “roll back,” that limits annual growth in property values to 4 percent. However, there is a further restriction in that the growth of residential property cannot exceed that of agricultural property. In essence, the growth of residential
property is capped at 4 percent or the growth in agricultural value, whichever is less. Since the law’s inception, residential property has always been rolled-back from its full valuation to comply with the law. The limitation can also be applied to industrial and commercial property when necessary.

Revenue Property Class in 2009 are:

Residential: 44.0803%

Commercial: 99.7312%

Agricultural: 90.1023%

Industrial: 100%

A Special Report with more detailed information on Iowa’s Residential Property Tax Rollback is available at

Property Tax Levies
Cities may levy up to $8.10/$1,000 of the taxable value on residential, commercial and industrial property and up to $3.00375/$1,000 on the taxable value of agricultural property
for their general fund (Code of Iowa Section 384.1). If a city is unable to meet the essential costs for services within the $8.10/$1,000 levy limit, there are several other levies available.

• A city may levy for the city’s contribution under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS), the Municipal Fire and Police Retirement System of Iowa (MFPRSI) and certain otheremployee benefits. On the state budget forms, these are levied in the special revenues fund column of the Revenues Detail (Form 631.B).

• Insurance premiums, including workers’ compensation, necessary for the operation of the city and the costs of self-insurance or risk pools may also be levied outside the $8.10/$1,000 limit. The levy rate is the actual cost of the premiums divided by the total property tax base. Insurance costs on projects or improvements covered by revenue bonds and insurance on proprietary fund activities may not be levied, as these activities should fund themselves. These revenues are typically credited to the general fund even though they are restricted.

• An emergency levy rate of $0.27/$1,000 of taxable valuation that can be used for any
govermental purpose (Code of Iowa Section 384.8). This is a special revenue that is
required to be transferred to the general fund for expenditure prior to the end of the fiscal

• A city may levy to cover principal and interest payments on general obligation bonds under debt service. Provided proper procedures were followed on lease-purchase or loan agreements, the annual principal and interest payments may also be levied under debt service. The debt service levy is the dollars needed to cover the annual debt obligations divided by the total property tax base.

Code of Iowa Section 384.12 lists several other levies available to the city for specific purposes, some requiring a referendum. Non-voted levy activities include funding for the operation and maintenance of a publicly owned transit system, liability, property and self-insurance costs, a joint county-city building lease and rent, operation and maintenance of a city-owned civic center. Activities requiring a voted levy include funding for instrumental or vocal music groups, memorial buildings, symphony orchestras, cultural and scientific facilities, aid to public transportation companies, library services and emergency medical districts.

Heads: Can of Worms?

The plan offered by the task group would give counties and municipalities the ability to tax locally. If you have ever been to Illinois, you will find local sales taxes varying wildly because of this. What this does is to give localities the option to increase some kinds of taxes while reducing others. In the formula offered by the task group, the majority of relief would go to those paying commercial property taxes and to a much lesser extent, residential homeowners and helping localities pay for flood recovery.

This plan seems to favor larger cities where commercial properties are predominately located. Will this help rural communities? I don't see how it can, as it would be a zero sum gain for those communities to replace one kind of tax with another and might actually hurt the smaller communities by residents shopping in other communities where the local taxes are lower.

For larger communities, this may help them to increase their tax revenues overall, but at the expense of hurting non-profit organizations and perhaps homeowners to spur local economic development. Remembering that many human service non-profits exist in county seats or higher population centers, taxing these groups would decrease the services that could be provided. Often non-profit groups voluntarily pay fees for police and fire protection.

Also, in communities like Iowa City where there is a very high level of commercial properties, the result could be a net loss of revenue, as the state could continue to rollback property tax rates and the city would be required to rebate tax money on top of that.

Taxpayers may opt to live in outlying communities that strategically decide to not have additional income taxes and this could lead to a lessening of growth for larger communities. Again, this would lead to a zero-sum gain for those communities who opt for alternative taxes. Also, anti-tax groups see this as another way for the state and localities to tax income rather than look for ways to reduce what they see as unneeded taxes.

Tails: Idea Whose Time has Come?

Because commercial property owners pay at the second highest tax rate and to be competitive with other states for new business development, the argument is that commercial taxes in Iowa are out of line with neighboring states and should be lowered. Iowa, compared to other states, is in the top five states with respect to commercial property rates. Lowering the tax rate for commercial properties will allow for more economic development in rural communities as well as more urban areas.

Additionally, by creating more tax equity, all taxes in Iowa can be lowered by spreading taxes to all consumers of state and locality services and by implementing an income tax or other taxing options that will allow communities to address their local infrastructure and other service needs. This will actually create tax efficiencies and reduce general taxation.

Localities who have "home rule" would actually have more control over their tax bases. As it stands now, each community holds its breath to see what the state tax revenue picture is shaping up to be and then rushing to put a budget together that fits the picture. This is hardly a way for a city or county to be proactive in planning for its future needs. By giving localities more authority, it gives more flexibility to them and also for those residents who want to lobby their elected officials to figure out what to spend or not to spend these taxes on, in addition to whether to collect them or not.

In conclusion, the debate on reforming property taxes in Iowa will be, no doubt, a heated affair as individuals and groups lobby for and against changes to the tax code (and the parties draw their lines in the sand) , but it will be valuable to follow and educate yourself about because whether it happens in this session or not, there will be changes.
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Thursday, January 8

The Skinny on the Fat

There is a boogeyperson in town and apparently he or she is eating us alive. Beginning in 1996, government officials like C. Everett Koop, the then U.S. Surgeon General began to combat "The War On Obesity". In 2006, Surgeon General Richard Carmona stated that "Obesity is a greater threat than terrorism." and said it could "dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist attempt" in the number of lives that could be lost to the effects of overweightedness.

We have seen the enemy and he is us (more of us than we'd like). But, not so fast (and not so fasting), there is more to the obesity problem than meets the eye. According to Mother Jones News writer Kiera Butler in her article The Waistland, apparently obesity can be "attributed to low-fat foods, lack of sleep, ear infections, intestinal bacteria, pollution, plastics, poverty, air conditioners, socializing with obese people, your mom's age when you were born, and your maternal grandmother's diet."

And it doesn't help that the way that obesity is measured "body mass index" has been changed so that "Overweight" (as defined by the World Health Organization's Obesity Task Force) is defined as a body mass index (bmi) of 25 or more, down from 27.8. I suppose I should mention that this case of less is more may have a non-scientific causation: 70% of the Obesity Task Force's funding comes from the two drug companies that make the popular weight-loss pills Xenical, Meridia, and Reductil.

Nonetheless, according to Butler, "In 1998, the US government adopted the new bmi standards, spurring fears of an "obesity epidemic." That move was hailed by the American Obesity Association, a lobbying group that's received funding from Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig."

So we are fighting an enemy that we should be able to see and we should be very scared, right?Apparently weight kills, but not in the way you'd think. Active obese people are almost 50% less likely to die of heart disease than sedentary thin people. Statistically, persons over 220 pounds are less likely to die in car crashes. Persons who are underweight are in equal danger of dying than their chubbier cousins.

Despite some uncertainty about the effects of obesity, it's gotten so bad that schools in states like Pennsylvania, Delaware, South Carolina, and Tennessee send "obesity report cards" to parents. Even locally there is a desire to replace beverages and snacks in school vending machines with "healthy choices."

Over on the Big Fat Facts site , they caim that "the obesity industries, including commercial weight-loss programs, weight-loss drug purveyors and bariatric surgery centers, will likely top $315 billion this year, nearly 3 percent of the overall U.S. economy."

Remembering drugs like Ephedra, Fen-Phen and many others have been linked to death, as have bariatric treatments, perhaps encouraging healthy diets, exercise, and a positive self-concept might be a better treatment plan.
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The Plant is Dead, Long Live the Coal-Fired Power Plant?

The coal-fired power plant planned for Waterloo, IA has been put on hold, but is it a permanent hold or just until the economic climate gets better? Thanks to the efforts of activist groups like Sierra Club and local grassroots efforts, Dynergy and LS Power have called off their joint venture which would have included the Waterloo plant. Bruce Williamson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Dynegy Inc., said in a statement on 1/2/09 “Today, the development of new generation is increasingly marked by barriers to entry including external credit and regulatory factors that make development much more uncertain."

This climate may not change in the near future, however, the Houston Business Journal reports that "LS Power will acquire full ownership and developmental rights associated with various “greenfield” projects under consideration in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan and Nevada, as well as other power generation and transmission development projects not related to Dynegy’s existing operating portfolio of assets. It will also receive about $19 million in cash during the first quarter for assets exchanged." While it appears for the forseeable future that the plant is off-line, it may be too soon to call the project entirely D.O.A. and meanwhile, there is still the matter of the plant in Marshalltown.

Monday, January 5

I Gotta Eat More Corn

The American Corn Growers Association who, by their own admission "is America’s leading progressive commodity association, representing the interests of corn producers in 35 states" is having their 22nd annual meeting in Coralville and has invited Jim Hightower to deliever the keynote speech. The Blog for Iowa had this first, so a tip of a ten gallon Resitol hat to them for that.

Other than being a certified Texas treasure, Jim Hightower can deliver the progressive and populist goods when he is carrying on about the things that excite him. If you have $125 to pony up, you can have breakfast with him and the ACGA, but if not, you can attend their conference for $30 bucks ($20, if you are a certifiable student) and learn a ton about El Maiz Grande.

According to the ACGA press release, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be - consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks. As keynote speaker at the ACGA 22nd Annual Convention, on January 16, 2009, Hightower will bring a hard-hitting populist viewpoint that rarely gets into the mass media. In all of his work he keeps his ever-ready Texas humor up front, practicing the credo of an old Yugoslavian proverb: "You can fight the gods and still have fun."

I haven't read his newest book (with Susan DeMarco) "Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow”--but from his columns and earlier books, I'll bet it will be great. I notice there is even a chapter on "clean elections"--so it's on my reading list.

One of my favorite Hightowerisms: "The only difference between a pigeon and the American farmer today is that a pigeon can still make a deposit on a John Deere. "

Sunday, January 4

Richardson Out Before He's In

In an apparently preemptive move, President-Elect Obama has pulled the plug on Bill Richardson's nomination for Secretary of Commerce bid, as Richardson has some ethical questions to address in New Mexico. Team Obama is looking to reduce the distractions on the confirmation process for his cabinet and his ability to govern coming out of the gate.

While this is a blow to Bill Richardson, he is understanding of the politicas at play and was contrite in removing his name from consideration. According to CNN, in a statement Sunday, Richardson said he asked Obama "not to move forward" with his nomination now.

"I do so with great sorrow. But a pending investigation of a company that has done business with New Mexico state government promises to extend for several weeks or, perhaps, even months," the statement reads. "Let me say unequivocally that I and my Administration have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact. But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process. Video Watch why Richardson bowed out »

"Given the gravity of the economic situation the nation is facing, I could not in good conscience ask the President-elect and his Administration to delay for one day the important work that needs to be done."
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Saturday, January 3

New Year's Resolutions? Go to Camp Wellstone

As a New Year's resolution, let me suggest Camp Wellstone to you. I am a "graduate" and two other area graduates ran for and were elected to local offices (90+ graduates have won local, state, and national offices). For anyone who is interested in progressive change in politics, I highly recommend the camp, both because it works, and because you meet really great people there.

There are three tracks at CW:
  • Electoral Campaigns: Tools and Tactics for Success
  • Citizen Activism: Grassroots Advocacy and Organizing
  • Being a Candidate: How to Run and Win a Progressive Campaign
The next Camp Wellstone is in St. Paul later this month. Watch this video for more information:

New Year, New Look for Popular Progressive

I got tired of the old look, so I've updated the template for the blog. I will likely keep tweaking at it until I like the totality of it. Let me know what you think.