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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

March 25, 2019

Des Moines Register. March 20, 2019

Iowa should ban tactics restricting employment opportunities for hourly workers

Hard work is supposed to pay off in the United States. Dedicating time and effort to a job should help people advance to better positions with higher earnings.

But that doesn’t happen for low-wage workers whose employers hold them hostage by requiring them to sign restrictive employment agreements.

Non-compete clauses have long been used by companies to protect trade secrets and prevent top talent in technology or sales from joining rival firms. These contracts forbid workers from taking new jobs in the same industry for a given period of time.

But now these agreements are proliferating in low-wage industries. This prevents employees in restaurants, beauty salons, home health agencies and other occupations from moving to similar companies or starting their own businesses.

Workers may not even realize they have signed contracts with non-compete clauses that prevent them from taking a better-paying job with a competitor in their area.

The Iowa Legislature should ban imposing such restrictions on low- and middle-wage workers. The agreements limit economic opportunity, kill entrepreneurial endeavors and prevent workers from moving to better-paying jobs — the very things Republicans, who control the Iowa Legislature, say they value.

Massachusetts recently adopted a law banning non-competes for low-paid workers and requiring compensation for departed workers bound by the clauses. Other states, including Illinois and Idaho, have moved to limit the agreements.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller understands the fundamental unfairness of restricting mobility for workers. He was part of a recent multi-state settlement putting an end to “no-poach” policies at four national fast-food franchisers — Dunkin’, Arby’s, Five Guys and Little Caesars.

The agreements, which workers may not know they’re subjected to, prohibit them from moving from one franchise to another within the same restaurant chain. That means someone working the drive-thru at one location is unable to take a higher-paying job at another location.

“This practice gives franchise locations less incentive to give raises to employees and reduces competition for workers,” Miller said. “This drags down wages for millions of Americans.”

Non-competes can have the same effect. Nearly 30 million people have signed one, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Treasury.

“The prevalence of such agreements raises important questions about how they affect worker welfare, job mobility, business dynamics, and economic growth more generally,” according to the report. People may not be aware they are subject to an agreement, let alone the implications for the future. They may not be able to find new employment even after being fired without cause.

And while such agreements may be understandable in Silicon Valley, it is common for hair salons to require employees to sign contracts imposing a one-year restriction and 5-mile limit on where they can work. That means a young Iowa woman cutting hair at a strip mall for $10 per hour cannot take a job at a salon down the street for $10.50 per hour without fearing repercussions.

The home health-care industry, which also pays low wages, has seen a boom in restrictive agreements imposed on workers.

In addition to non-competes, non-solicit agreements may allow caregivers to work for a competitor, but restrict them from taking clients or employees with them. Direct-hire provisions require customers to pay a fee, usually $5,000 to $10,000, if they hire an agency caregiver directly.

Here’s how this sort of situation could affect you: Suppose you have been using in-home caregivers from an agency and you find one who works well with your family. She agrees to work for you full time. But when she quits the agency, you find out you have to pay her former employer thousands of dollars to avoid violating an agreement that you may not even realize you signed.

This is the fundamentally wrong response to a shortage of qualified caregivers in Iowa, said John Hale, owner of a consulting firm focusing on issues affecting older Iowans. Instead, he said, “home care employers ought to be paying, benefiting, training and treating people better so they have much less reason to want or need to look elsewhere.”

Iowa has a shortage of workers to fill jobs in numerous fields. Conceivably, that should drive wages up. It should create competition and job opportunities for the most qualified people.

That can’t happen if workers — including those who rely on public benefits — cannot move on to better jobs. If Republicans really embrace free-market concepts, they should ban practices that hinder upward job mobility for Iowans.

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Quad-City Times. March 19, 2019.

Bridging the gap: Fixing Iowa’s broken infrastructure

It’s no secret that Iowa ranks toward the bottom of states in the share of its bridges with serious deficiencies.

For years, at least a fifth of Iowa bridges have been rated as “structurally deficient.”

In 2017, Iowa ranked first in the nation, with more than 5,000 bridges on that list.

It is true that we have more bridges, given our robust network of roads, so it follows we might have the largest number of deficient bridges. But, at 21 percent, we also had a greater share of our bridges ranked deficient than any state in the nation except Rhode Island, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

In fact, our share of structurally deficient bridges was more than twice as high as the national average.

We’re encouraged that Scott County plans to move on a half dozen of those spans over the next two construction seasons, as the Times’ Jennifer DeWitt reported yesterday. But, as a whole, Iowa’s counties and cities still are lagging when it comes to clearing the backlog of deficient spans. According to federal data, about a quarter of the county-owned bridges in the state are deemed “structurally deficient,” which is about the same as it was 10 years ago.

About a fifth of city bridges are deficient, also about the same as it was in 2007.

Structurally deficient doesn’t mean a bridge is unsafe to drive on, but it does mean the span rates poorly in some respects and is in need of improvement.

We’re not doing so bad in Scott County, where fewer than 10 percent of our bridges are rated structurally deficient. But some on the list are among the most highly traveled in the state.

The Talbot/Centennial Bridge and the Division Street bridge over Duck Creek in Davenport were on the 2017 list of deficient bridges. Between them, they carry an average of more than 50,000 vehicles a day, according to the builders association.

Meanwhile, some of our nearby rural counties have a fifth of their bridges on the list. In some counties in Iowa, it’s much higher.

Finding the money to fix these deficiencies isn’t easy, especially in a county with a small budget. The sheer number and age of county-owned bridges also makes this challenge daunting.

The state of Iowa, as DeWitt reported, has made a concentrated effort to clear its backlog of faulty bridges.

That effort got a boost from the 10-cent gasoline tax increase that was signed into law by former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2015. In addition, state DOT officials have told us previously the I-JOBS initiative, approved under former Gov. Chet Culver, played a key role. The number of state-owned bridges rated structurally deficient nose-dived in the years after that funding was approved.

In fact, the state DOT reports that just 43 of its bridges are now structurally deficient, or about 1 percent of the total. And since 2006, the share of its deficient bridges has been cut by about 80 percent.

We think that’s pretty impressive. But we also recognize it has taken money to get the job done.

We hope that counties can make progress on their backlog, but we fear the legislature is poised to make it more difficult.

Republican lawmakers are considering a bill that would limit the ability of local government to raise property tax dollars, which no doubt would make it harder for supervisors to fix these deficient spans.

We have seen property valuations increase in this county in recent years, which in some ways is a welcome change from what happened during the Great Recession. The flip side of that is it has created upward pressure on property taxes.

We have previously written that some governments locally have been more restrained than others in leaning on higher valuations to raise revenues.

Either way, limiting the increase in property taxes will have an impact on the expenditure side of a local government’s ledger.

It is true the increased gas tax is being shared with local governments, but counties also rely on property taxes for infrastructure expenses. Meanwhile, the promise of massive federal investments to rebuild roads and bridges, supposedly an area of bipartisan compromise, has been mostly illusory.

Iowa has long had to deal with a higher-than-acceptable level of bridge deficiencies.

The good news is the state has shown that a devotion of resources and focus can make a real difference. But if the legislature continues with its property tax limitation plan, local governments will surely find it harder to catch up.

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Sioux City Journal. March 21, 2019

Cities should keep traffic camera revenue

Traffic camera obsession at the Iowa Statehouse continues during this year’s legislative session.

We long ago lost track of how many sessions have included time spent debating, but taking no action on this issue. It’s uncertain if this year will produce anything more than additional talk. As of today, bills to both ban and regulate traffic cameras remain alive.

Our preference, as we have said before, is for speed and red-light cameras to remain legal traffic enforcement tools within a uniform set of rules, including fines, in the name of safety on roads.

We support a model for traffic cameras passed by the Senate, but not passed by the House, in 2017. That bill would have kept traffic cameras in place, but required local officials to justify placement of cameras on state and local roads and allowed the equipment only in high-risk and high-crash areas. Under the bill, money generated from traffic fines would have to be spent on road construction or public safety. In our minds, that represents a reasonable compromise.

A House bill under consideration this year is patterned along those lines, but would allow cities to retain only 40 percent of revenue produced by traffic cameras after expenses, with the rest going to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

Not surprisingly, cities oppose this proposed money grab by the state. We share their opposition.

If, as the House bill would require, the state wishes to make sure money produced by traffic cameras is, in fact, invested in public safety, fine, but local leaders made decisions to install traffic cameras in Sioux City and other cities in Iowa because they believed they make their local streets safer. Whatever revenue derives from these local decisions should be local, not state. Sioux City’s money should stay in Sioux City; it shouldn’t be sent to Des Moines.

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