Friends and former colleagues remember Rich Olive

Former State Senator Rich Olive died of cancer yesterday at the age of 66. He represented Wright and Hamilton counties, along with some rural areas in Story and Webster counties, from 2007 through 2010. During that time, he chaired the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee.

Many Iowans who knew Olive through his work in the legislature agreed to share some of their memories with Bleeding Heartland readers.

Photo of Rich Olive at the capitol taken by Senate Democratic staff; used with permission.

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Iowa families get promises but no guarantee on autism insurance coverage

Iowa families hoping for guaranteed insurance coverage of autism services will have to wait at least one more year. Despite Democratic efforts to add an autism coverage mandate to the health and human services budget for fiscal year 2017, the compromise approved on the final day of this year’s legislative session excluded such language. Instead, lawmakers increased state funding for various autism-related grants and programs.

According to the lead Republican negotiator on the human services budget, families affected by autism will have insurance coverage by January 2017 without a mandate, thanks to Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s decision to sell policies through Iowa’s public insurance exchange. But those policies will not be available to Iowans living in dozens of counties, nor will they cover applied behavior analysis (ABA) interventions, which are effective but prohibitively expensive for many people with spectrum disorders.

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Never let it be said that the 2016 Iowa legislature accomplished nothing

In four months of work this year, Iowa lawmakers made no progress on improving water quality or expanding conservation programs, funded K-12 schools and higher education below levels needed to keep up with inflation, failed to increase the minimum wage or address wage theft, let most criminal justice reform proposals die in committee, didn’t approve adequate oversight for the newly-privatized Medicaid program, opted against making medical cannabis more available to sick and suffering Iowans, and left unaddressed several other issues that affect thousands of constituents.

But let the record reflect that bipartisan majorities in the Iowa House and Senate acted decisively to solve a non-existent problem. At a bill-signing ceremony yesterday, Governor Terry Branstad and supporters celebrated preventing something that probably never would have happened.

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Branstad names Bruce Rastetter ally Michael Richards to Board of Regents

Governor Terry Branstad appointed Michael Richards to the Iowa Board of Regents last Friday. Subject to confirmation by the Iowa Senate, Richards will serve the last five years of Mary Andringa’s term on the nine-member board, which oversees Iowa’s state universities. Andringa announced her resignation in late April, saying she had "underestimated the time required to fully serve in this role." (It soon emerged that she is a paid director for the Herman Miller furniture company, which received a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract from the University of Iowa last year.)

An alumnus of the University of Iowa undergraduate college and medical school, Richards has held management positions in various corporations, inside and outside the health care field. The official announcement of his appointment mentions several of those jobs as well as Richards’ philanthropy.

Richards continues a long tradition of major political donors securing spots on the prestigious Board of Regents. He made contributions totaling more than $40,000 to Branstad’s 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns. (Details on that giving are after the jump, along with the May 6 press release.) Last year, Richards gave $10,000 to Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, who is almost certain to run for governor in 2018, as well as $2,500 to Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer. He has given nearly $100,000 to other Republican candidates around the country.

Richards has been a close political ally of Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter. In 2011, he joined a small group of business Republicans led by Rastetter, who encouraged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to run for president. Last year, he joined Rastetter and most of that group to endorse Christie’s presidential campaign.

The Iowa Senate has confirmed hundreds of Branstad’s nominees unanimously or nearly so. During the legislature’s 2017 session, I don’t expect Richards to have any trouble winning confirmation to serve out Andringa’s term on the Board of Regents. The two appointees to that board whom senators rejected in 2013 had political baggage that Richards lacks.

UPDATE: Added below excerpts from Vanessa Miller’s latest report for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Democratic lawmakers see the Senate confirming Richards next year.

LATE UPDATE: News emerged in early June that Branstad was considering Richards for the vacancy before Andringa had announced her resignation, so I’ve added more details below. Branstad has known Richards for far longer than Rastetter has been one of the governor’s most influential advisers.

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Weekend open thread: "The resources we have" edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome. The Des Moines Register ran an extraordinary lead editorial on Saturday about a Des Moines police officer’s "pattern of misconduct" and "poor judgment." Click through to read the most strongly-worded warning about a law enforcement official I’ve seen in an Iowa newspaper.

An emerging compromise on higher education funding was one of the biggest state-level news stories of the week. The Iowa legislature’s joint Education Appropriations Subcommittee, co-chaired by Democratic State Senator Brian Schoenjahn and Republican State Representative Cecil Dolecheck, agreed on April 13 that the fiscal year 2017 budget for higher education will include an additional $6.3 million for public universities: $2.8 million for the University of Northern Iowa, $2.2 million for Iowa State University, and $1.3 million for the University of Iowa. Iowa Public Radio’s Joyce Russell noted that the increases work out to a little less than 3 percent more state funding for UNI, 1.2 percent for ISU, and less than 1 percent for UI.

The Iowa Board of Regents had requested an extra $20 million in state funding for the coming fiscal year: $4.5 million for UI, $8.2 million for ISU, and $7.65 million for UNI. Governor Terry Branstad’s draft budget had included a combined $8 million in additional state funding for the public universities. Last month, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said at least $8 million would be needed to avoid raising tuition. In a statement released April 14, Rastetter said the board would "immediately start discussions regarding tuition increases at our universities for Fall 2016."

More background and details on the higher education funding compromise are after the jump, but I want to highlight a couple of misconceptions. Russell quoted Dolecheck as saying "we did the best we can with the resources that we have," and quoted Schoenjahn as saying lawmakers tried to stretch "the precious resources we had" but couldn’t do more without raising taxes.

No. Just last month, the Iowa House and Senate approved a tax bill that will reduce fiscal year 2017 revenues by nearly $120 million: $97.6 million by harmonizing Iowa tax code with federal statutes, and around $21 million by reducing state sales taxes for manufacturing companies. Another $280 million was taken off the table long before this year’s budget negotiations began, when most lawmakers in both chambers approved an expensive commercial property tax cut in 2013. Leaders of both parties bragged about that tax cut at the time but did not acknowledge how the windfall for commercial property owners would affect the state’s ability to pay for other priorities down the road.

Speaking on behalf of the union that represents UNI faculty, Professor Joe Gorton said this week, "It seems clear to me that the regent universities are being sacrificed on the altar of corporate welfare." An Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis from January shows Gorton was closer to the truth than were Schoenjahn or Dolecheck. Business tax credits are expected to cost the state around $272 million during fiscal year 2017.

Writing at Blog for Iowa this weekend, Dave Bradley argued, "Had Branstad’s administration not given tax cuts to businesses without consulting the legislature we would probably [be] OK. […] while the special interests that the Republicans have given breaks to are no longer paying what they once did, Iowa’s parents will see higher tuition fees on their kids university bills." Fact-check: mostly false. Over many years, the legislature approved and failed to revise Iowa’s generous business tax breaks. Most Democrats in both chamber joined their GOP colleagues to pass the costly property tax cut three years ago. Just six state senators and thirteen representatives voted no; I’ve listed them after the jump. The Branstad administration did try to enact the manufacturing sales tax break without legislative approval last year, and was on track to succeed. However, the tax bill lawmakers negotiated and approved last month included a scaled-back sales tax break, superseding the Department of Revenue’s proposed administrative rule.

Speaking of money for state universities not living up to expectations, Ryan Foley of the Associated Press revealed on April 15 that Rastetter has paid only $1.5 million toward his 2008 pledge of $5 million to the University of Iowa’s football program. Before 2015, Rastetter had donated just $500,000 toward that pledge, raising "questions about whether the delay was part of the pressure he put on former university President Sally Mason." Excerpts from Foley’s article are at the end of this post.

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