The lion sleeps

BY ART CULLEN

We never heard the roar of the lion that the Iowa Legislature was trying to tame last session when it gutted the collective bargaining law. One would think that teacher salaries and benefits were spiraling out of control, and property tax rates with it. This week, the Storm Lake School Board allowed a 1% pay raise for teachers with no changes in other benefits, because those other benefits cannot be negotiated under the new state collective bargaining law.

A beginning teacher in Storm Lake will earn about $32,000 per year. Not bad but not great. The district health insurance policy is no better than ours, which we don’t think is fantastic. Certainly not “Cadillac.” More like mid-range Ford or Chevy. Over the past several years raises never broached 3% annually. State aid increases have been in the range of 1% to 2% per year. School property tax rates have been stable to declining.

So we’re not sure what problem we were solving.

We pay teachers and road workers and cops about what we pay a meatpacker. Nobody’s getting rich on the public dime.

But we have been able to trim sales taxes for manufacturers, allow tax credits to foreign companies to build more fertilizer warehouses and packinghouses, and cut income and property taxes for corporations.

The guys driving the snowplows get a raise of about 2% a year. The deputy right behind him on his way to an accident gets the same. The jail matron who gets spat upon doesn’t get free health insurance for her family. Now she can’t even ask for it under the state law.

Public employees are not allowed to bargain over layoff procedures, health insurance, working conditions or seniority rights. They may only bargain over salaries.

Even there, they have no leverage when the state refuses to fund education or the environment at the rate of inflation. Those guys out at 2 a.m. milking walleyes on Storm Lake in the cold spring so you might catch one this evening can’t negotiate anything about overtime or night shift differentials for extraordinary work demands.

Go ahead and keep cheating them. Keep treating them like sheep in a pen. Have them raise your children. Tell them they are slackers and they are eating us alive. Then drive on C-49 trying to get to work one snowy morning. Complain about your property taxes as an EMT saves your life on that icy roadside. Tell them they don’t deserve a say on how that ambulance is operated.

The teachers got a one-percent raise. How fat is that? Can we afford it, this state that likes to think it has the best schools in the country? How could we?

Recalibrations

It’s coming onto mid-June and the corn is well up and we sure could use a million-dollar rain. If that isn’t enough to worry about, the United States and Mexico announced that they reached a deal governing sugar imports to the US from Mexico that threatened to blow up as the North American Free Trade Agreement is under review. Corn growers are nervous. Campesino sugar growers, flooded out of maize production by Iowa corn washing over them, are angry with their government for potentially selling them out. The Wall Street Journal reports that the details of the agreement will be worked out over the next several days. Just before NAFTA renegotiation commences among the US, Mexico and Canada.

The devil is always in those details.

Buena Vista County’s economy is completely wrapped up in NAFTA. About 80% of our corn sweetener market is in Mexico. It is by far our most important corn export market. We are entwined in corn, soybeans, ethanol and immigrants through NAFTA. Pork slaughtered in Iowa is finished in Mexico for export to Japan. Iowa corn feeds the Mexican and Canadian pork and poultry industries. Mexico ships sugar into the US, but sugar markets continue to enjoy protection from imports, unlike corn. There is a constant tension between Midwestern corn and Southern cane. And there is a tension south of the border that resents price controls on exports to the US. These are not actually free markets. This is not actually free trade. It is calibrated trade.

It has been calibrated in Storm Lake since 1990.

Tinker with sugar and you tinker with corn and poor people in Mexico who end up here in desperation. Tinker with ethanol and you affect sugar. Mess with either and you make a mess with Hershey’s and Bing and Mars who complain about how protecting US sugar interests increases their costs and distorts markets.

The calibrations have been made to a certain point of stability. Over the next several days the details will emerge. A thread is unraveled. It unravels another thread. Be careful, very careful, over making deals. They can really throw a wrench into the calibrations 27 years underway. We worry about it more than the weather.