Weekend open thread: New leaders and new traditions

Governor Kim Reynolds took acting Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg on a whirlwind tour late last week to Osceola, Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, and Gregg’s home town of Hawarden (Sioux County). Hundreds of people showed up for the Hawarden event; much smaller crowds turned out at the other venues. At each stop, Reynolds and Gregg praised former Governor Terry Branstad, and Reynolds repeated the four key goals she had laid out in her first speech as the state’s top official.

Early signs point to a highly political rather than policy-oriented Reynolds administration. The new governor’s top appointees are veterans of many Republican campaigns. Chief of staff Jake Ketzner worked on Branstad’s campaign in 2010 and managed the governor’s 2014 re-election bid; in between, he ran Representative Steve King’s 2012 campaign against Christie Vilsack. Deputy chief of staff Tim Albrecht spent most of his career as a spin doctor for GOP candidates or elected officials before joining a Republican-oriented political communications firm in late 2013. You don’t put guys like this in charge of your office if you’re a “policy wonk” or interested in reaching out to constituencies that felt ignored during Branstad’s tenure. These choices suggest that Reynolds plans to wage partisan warfare, day in and day out.

Over at Iowa Starting Line, Pat Rynard commented on how the Reynolds administration is already blurring the lines between official state events and 2018 campaign activities. Expect much more of this in the months to come.

Speaking of political games, progressive activists put up a parody site at ReynoldsGregg.org, pushing the message, “Kim Reynolds and Adam Gregg are Iowa’s new team, but unfortunately they have the same old failed priorities” (see screen shot below). Rynard recalled that GOP operatives including Albrecht relentlessly mocked Jack Hatch’s campaign for making the same mistake in 2014. At that time, quite a few of Iowa’s political reporters wrote stories about Republicans grabbing HatchVernon.com and the @HatchVernon Twitter handle. So far, those media outlets have not publicized the same incompetence on the part of the Reynolds team.

Other passages worth noting: earlier this month, the Iowa Board of Regents chose Michael Richards as president and Patricia Cownie and president pro-tem, replacing Bruce Rastetter and Katie Mulholland, whose terms ended April 30. Rastetter opted not to seek reappointment to the board, tacitly acknowledging that Iowa Senate Democrats would never have allowed his confirmation. Mulholland sought another six-year term, but for reasons that remain unclear, Branstad passed her over. Regent Larry McKibben had expressed interest in the board presidency, but he gave up without a fight and formally nominated Richards. I didn’t have a preference between McKibben and Richards; from my perspective, neither could possibly do worse in that job than Rastetter. This weekend, the Ditchwalk blog took an in-depth look at Richards: part 1 focused on his background and how he got the top job on the board, while part 2 looked at his early actions in the new position, speculating about whether Richards can fix the board’s “colossal credibility problem” after years of administrative abuses by Rastetter.

In March, Sean Bagniewski won the election to succeed Tom Henderson, the long-serving chair of the Polk County Democrats. Bagniewski announced on May 23 that former Senator Tom Harkin gave his blessing to have Iowa’s largest county Democratic organization hold an annual “Steak Fry” fundraiser. The inaugural event is scheduled for September 30 at Water Works Park in Des Moines; headliners have not yet been announced. Bagniewski joked, “One of my friends asked me how it felt to land the Steak Fry. It’s like adopting a baby gorilla. Where do you put it? How’re you going to feed it? How much is this thing going to cost?”

Final note: the New Leaders Council, “a nonpartisan program to recruit, train, and promote the next generation of progressive leaders,” is holding a fundraiser in Des Moines on Thursday, June 1. Money raised will support the five-month training program for next year’s New Leaders Council fellows. Local organizers hope to attract a more diverse class and are “doing more focused outreach to underrepresented communities” with a goal of having a 60 percent non-white and 55 percent female cohort of fellows for 2018. I enclose below more details about this week’s event and the training program.

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Iowa Senate leader stripped two Republicans of committee chairmanships

In an unusual move between the first and second years of a legislative assembly, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix took committee chairmanships away from two members of his caucus this week. Senator Jake Chapman is the new leader of the Commerce Committee, replacing Bill Anderson. Senator Craig Johnson, who was just elected for the first time last November, now chairs the Transportation, Infrastructure, and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee, replacing Rick Bertrand.

Dix handed the more significant demotion to Bertrand, who no longer serves on any appropriations subcommittee. Anderson’s remaining committee assignments still include a spot on one appropriations subcommittee as well as a position on the powerful Ways and Means panel.

Senate Republicans didn’t publicize the changes, which took effect on May 24, on their website or social media feeds. The snubs to Bertrand and Anderson attracted little notice amid the transfer of power from Governor Terry Branstad to Kim Reynolds. Senate GOP communications staff, Johnson, Bertrand, and Anderson did not respond to my requests for comment. When I reached Chapman by phone on May 24, he confirmed his new committee chairmanship but declined to speculate about the reasons, saying, “I don’t make those decisions.”

My first thought was that Dix punished Bertrand for throwing a bit of a tantrum (starting at the 6:12:20 mark of this video) during the final debate on Senate File 471, the bill banning almost all abortions after 20 weeks. But when senators first considered the same bill in March, Chapman had tried to suspend the rules to force a floor vote on “personhood” language. Johnson was among sixteen Republicans to support that breach of Senate protocol. Anyway, my initial hunch wouldn’t explain what Dix did to Anderson, who has never called out his GOP colleagues during a Senate floor speech, to my knowledge.

My best guess is that Bertrand and Anderson paid a price for missing too many votes this year. Follow me after the jump for details.

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Branstad disregarded 99.8 percent of public comments on Leopold Center

In one of his final bill signings, former Governor Terry Branstad disregarded almost all the public input his office received regarding the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Last month, Republican state lawmakers voted to redirect revenues from a fertilizer fee that had provided the bulk of the center’s funding for 30 years. They zeroed out a separate line item which had covered most of the center’s other operating costs.

After GOP legislators ignored feedback from hundreds of Iowans who came to the Capitol or submitted written comments in support of the Leopold Center, attention turned to Branstad, since the governor has the power to veto line items from budget bills. Legal counsel Colin Smith informed me today that Branstad’s office “received approximately 907 emails” on this subject, of which only two favored eliminating the Leopold Center. More than 900 e-mails and “all but a handful” of more than 500 phone calls on this issue supported maintaining the center.

In other words, at least 99.8 percent of more than 1,400 constituent contacts urged Branstad to allow the Leopold Center to continue its work.

However, Branstad vetoed only two line items, which would have removed language about the Leopold Center from Iowa Code. He left in place provisions that redirected most of the center’s funding. Some income from the ISU Foundation remains, but that is insufficient to fund new research on topics such as water quality, conservation practices, soil erosion, and local food systems.

The ambush on the Leopold Center was a favor to corporate agricultural interests, which sought to divert fertilizer tax revenue to ISU’s narrowly-focused Nutrient Research Center, where agribusiness will likely have more control over the agenda. No one even pretended to make a substantive case for defunding the Leopold Center. Yet Branstad reduced a respected institution to a shell, ignoring almost every Iowan who appealed to him.

Before being sworn in as governor yesterday, Kim Reynolds told Barbara Rodriguez of the Associated Press, “I’m going to travel the state and I’m going to go into communities and I’m going to talk to Iowans and I’m going to listen. […] What are we missing? What are we doing right?”

A key test for Reynolds: will she–unlike her mentor–be willing to change course when Iowans overwhelmingly oppose her administration’s policy? Or will she “listen” politely, then have staff follow up with a form letter after she does whatever Republican ideologues or business lobby groups ask of her?

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We can fix the Affordable Care Act for $30 each

Jon Muller offers a short-term solution for a problem facing tens of thousands of Iowans. -promoted by desmoinesdem

I just read that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City is pulling out of the Affordable Care Act Exchange Market. This is on the heels of an earlier announcement by Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Iowa, which last month announced it too was retreating from the individual insurance market. Aetna and Medica have also said they will not sell individual policies to Iowans in 2018.

Keep in mind, these developments come at a time when enrollments started to fall after the Trump administration announced it would not enforce the penalties put in place by the last administration for the current year, penalties that were just beginning to get to the point of altering behavior. Indeed, Wellmark BCBS of Iowa stated that as one of the reasons for its departure from the market. The insurance companies were also afraid (with good reason) that their loss subsidies would not be extended into 2018. Neither Congress nor the President would offer up any such assurance.

It’s important first to understand what this means.

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Adam Gregg will "operate" but not "hold" office of lieutenant governor

Seeking to avoid a lawsuit, Governor Kim Reynolds has picked State Public Defender Adam Gregg as her lieutenant governor to “serve in an acting capacity, fulfilling all duties of the lieutenant governor’s office through the January 2019 inauguration.”

Attorney General Tom Miller issued a formal opinion this month stating that Reynolds will not have the authority to name a new lieutenant governor. Reynolds and many other Republicans attacked Miller for what they called a “partisan” decision, but apparently the new governor doesn’t want to roll the dice on how the Iowa Supreme Court would resolve this question.

Instead, Gregg will have the title of lieutenant governor and the salary associated with the position. According to the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Tim Albrecht, “Gregg will ‘operate’ the office of lieutenant governor, but not actually ‘hold’ that office.”

The Reynolds administration acknowledges that Gregg will have no place in the line of succession. Under Article IV, Section 19 of the Iowa Constitution, if there is a vacancy in the governor’s office and the lieutenant governor becomes “incapable of performing the duties pertaining to the office of governor,” the Iowa Senate president “shall act as governor,” with the Iowa House speaker next in line to hold those powers.

I sought comment from Miller and others on whether the state constitution allows someone someone to hold the title of lieutenant governor while serving “in an acting capacity.” (The constitution does not discuss that concept, as far as I can tell.) Miller will hold a press conference later this morning, after which I will update this post. Gary Dickey, who researched these questions as legal counsel for Governor Tom Vilsack in 2004, said via e-mail today, “I know of no limitation on giving titles to employees of the office. Whether they want to call him Lieutenant, vice, or deputy means little so long as he does not attempt assume the constitutional right of succession in the event that Governor Reynolds can no longer serve.”

Today’s news release and background on Gregg are after the jump.

UPDATE: Miller told reporters today that the “fundamental question” in his formal opinion was related to succession questions. He said he’s “pleased” Reynolds took action today “that would not alter the succession provision,” complying with his opinion on the key constitutional question. He added that the governor can designate anyone she wants to perform certain roles on her behalf. Miller noted, “The one question that remains is the title, acting lieutenant governor. It’s a new position. It’s not a constitutional provision or position,” and it’s not part of the constitutional framework. His staff will do further research on that position. “The key fundamental question here” is who succeeds and Reynolds “complied fully” with his opinion about the Iowa Constitution. Asked whether Reynolds had ruled out any legal challenge, Miller replied that he wouldn’t “I wouldn’t go that far” to make such a “broad statement.” But making clear that Gregg is outside the line of succession “dramatically” changes the landscape for such a lawsuit.

As he said on May 1, Miller said he supports amending the state constitution to allow a lieutenant governor who assumes the governor’s office to appoint a new lieutenant governor.

Miller confirmed that no one on Reynolds’s staff consulted him about their plans. He said the governor’s senior legal counsel Ryan Koopmans called the Attorney General’s office around 9:30 this morning to inform them about the decision.

Asked to comment on Republican Party of Iowa Chair Jeff Kaufmann calling his opinion a “ridiculous partisan stunt,” the attorney general repeated that he was persuaded by the weight of the evidence, including “overwhelming” case law from other states.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Shooting star

Until this month, I had never seen today’s featured wildflowers “in real life.” Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) is as eye-catching as last week’s wild chervil is unobtrusive. Also known as prairie shooting star or pride of Ohio, the plant is native to more than 20 states east of the Rocky Mountains, but it is rarely seen outside “high-quality habitats” including prairies, upland forests, and fens.

The Illinois Wildflowers and Minnesota Wildflowers websites have botanically accurate descriptions of shooting star foliage, flowers, and seed capsules. I took all of the enclosed pictures at Rochester Cemetery in Cedar County in early May. This never-plowed patch of prairie is well worth a special trip or at least a short detour if you’re traveling along nearby I-80.

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