IA-Gov: Read the messages Fred Hubbell is testing with Iowa Democrats

Are Iowa Democrats more likely to support a successful businessman who is not a politician? Are they sympathetic to the argument that a self-funding candidate for governor is less susceptible to influence by special interests? Are they more impressed by private- or public-sector jobs Fred Hubbell has held, or by his charitable giving to causes like Planned Parenthood?

A recent survey of Democratic voters appears to be the Hubbell campaign’s first attempt to answer those and other questions.

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Read highlights from Art Cullen's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials

The best news out of Iowa last week was Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Our state’s journalism community has long recognized the quality of Cullen’s work. The same series of columns earned him one of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s Skip Weber Friend of the First Amendment awards last year.

Cullen will donate most of his prize money to non-profits, including charities assisting refugees and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, whose executive director Randy Evans helped Cullen press his case with Buena Vista County leaders who were withholding public records. Speaking to James Warren of Poynter and Jared Strong of the Carroll Daily Times Herald, Cullen went out of his way to credit his son, Tom Cullen, who “did most of the heavy lifting” while digging into who was paying for the legal defense of three counties sued by the Des Moines Water Works.

The Storm Lake Times posted all of the winning editorials on this page. Links to the individual columns are on the Pulitzer Prize website. I enclose below excerpts from those columns, from Storm Lake Times publisher John Cullen’s tribute to his brother, and from Art Cullen’s “thank you” column. I hope this post will inspire Bleeding Heartland readers not only to click through and read last year’s award-winning work, but also to bookmark the Storm Lake Times website and check its opinion page regularly.

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Resolution of lawsuit removes political case for Des Moines Water Works bill

Opponents of the legislative effort to disband the Des Moines Water Works got a boost yesterday when the water utility’s Board of Trustees voted not to appeal last month’s federal court ruling dismissing their lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties. The Iowa Farm Bureau’s wrath over that case inspired a bill that would transfer authority over the Des Moines Water Works to three area city councils.

Agriculture committees in the Iowa House and Senate advanced versions of the Water Works bill, but neither chamber voted on the measure before a “funnel” deadline in late March. Several House and Senate Republicans representing districts with independently-managed water utilities spoke privately about opposing the bill.

Among Iowans who have been fighting this legislative overreach, one big fear has been that powerful Republicans would slip Water Works language into an appropriations bill during the final days of the session. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Charles Schneider has pledged not to do so, but his House counterpart Pat Grassley has made no such promise. The deadline for appealing the federal court ruling was coming up on April 17, and some Water Works supporters worried that pursuing the case might strengthen the Farm Bureau’s allies at the Capitol, who are still trying to get this language to Governor Terry Branstad.

Instead, the Water Works will waive its right to appeal in exchange for the defendants agreeing not to pursue legal fees. According to Laura Sarcone, communications specialist for the water utility, the next step will be defense counsel getting the boards of supervisors of Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties to sign off on the agreement. The U.S. Department of Justice would also have to approve the resolution.

I would guess that the county supervisors will happily agree not to pursue legal fees in exchange for finalizing an end to the lawsuit. After all, the cost of defending the case didn’t come out of their budgets. As Art Cullen discussed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of editorials for the Storm Lake Times, secret donors, supposedly unknown even to the county supervisors themselves, paid for the first $1 million or so of the defendants’ legal expenses. The Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers Association stepped in to cover the rest.

I enclose below a Water Works news release and the ruling from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Leonard Strand. In dismissing the case, he found that the Water Works “may well have suffered an injury” from pollutants entering waterways in the named counties, but the northwest Iowa drainage districts “lack the ability to redress that injury.” Almost certainly, the Water Works would not have prevailed on appeal to the Eighth Circuit. The lawsuit accomplished only one thing: making Iowa’s dirty water a more salient political issue. Even so, bills that would address the major source of the problem–agricultural runoff–have no more traction now than they ever did.

APRIL 19 UPDATE: No Water Works provisions are in the standings bill Schneider introduced this week.

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Top Iowa Senate appropriator: No Water Works language in my spending bills

Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Charles Schneider has pledged not to include language dismantling the Des Moines Water Works in any spending bill this year.

Legislative action to transfer authority over the Des Moines Water Works from an independent board of trustees to area city councils was once seen as nearly a sure thing, thanks to strong support from the Iowa Farm Bureau. But Republican leaders never brought House File 484 up for debate before a legislative deadline in late March. The bill now sits on the “unfinished business” calendar, fueling speculation that it may rise from near-death before lawmakers adjourn for the year.

Governor Terry Branstad has been an outspoken critic of Des Moines Water Works leaders since the utility sued three northwest Iowa counties in 2015, demanding better enforcement of the Clean Water Act to reduce agricultural runoff. At the Waukee legislative forum on April 8, I asked Schneider about a rumor that Branstad has told House and Senate leaders to get the Water Works bill on his desk, and that such language may be attached to the “standings” bill in order to accomplish that end. The standings bill is typically among the last pieces of legislation considered each year and can become a grab bag of provisions power-brokers demand. Would Schneider commit not to add Water Works language to the standings bill or any other appropriations bill coming out of his committee?

Schneider: That’s the first I’ve heard of the standings rumor. It’s not going to go in my standings bill, and I’m not going to support a Water Works bill unless the Des Moines Water Works, West Des Moines Water Works, and Urbandale Water Works themselves–the utilities, not the cities, the utilities–tell me they would like to see some language in there to give them the ability to regionalize on their own.

Bleeding Heartland: So, you won’t put that in any appropriations bill.

Schneider: I’m not putting it in my standings bill.

Republican State Representative Rob Taylor responded to my question as well:

And I also sit on Appropriations on the House side now. I’m not the chair, but I wouldn’t support putting it in that standings bill either. I think that a bill with that kind of substance–although I will say, that the original bill, and the House version with the amendments from Representative [Jarad] Klein have changed substantially from the original bill–I think that’s a, that’s a critical enough bill for or against that it needs to stand on its own. And putting it on an appropriation is not appropriate, and I would fight tooth and nail to prevent it.

I enclose below the official video from yesterday’s Waukee forum. The relevant response from Schneider begins at 1:20:00.

Here’s hoping Schneider has the clout to keep Water Works language out of any final spending bills. He also serves as majority whip, the third-ranking Senate GOP leadership position. The three independent utilities Schneider mentioned oppose the Water Works bill. The city of Des Moines is still registered in favor of House File 484, but the city of West Des Moines changed its stance last month from “for” to “undecided.”

To my knowledge, most of the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have taken no public position on this legislation. I’m wary because Appropriations Chair Pat Grassley formerly chaired the Agriculture Committee, where the Water Works bill originated. Assisting the Farm Bureau’s revenge mission could bring political benefits to Grassley, who is widely expected to run for Iowa secretary of agriculture if Bill Northey does not seek re-election in 2018. A front group for the Farm Bureau called the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water ran radio ads supporting the Water Works legislation.

UPDATE: On Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program this weekend, O.Kay Henderson asked Senate President Jack Whitver, “Will the Iowa legislature dismantle the Des Moines Water Works?” After hesitating for a moment, Whitver answered simply, “No.”

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Weekend open thread: Iowa legislative news roundup

The Iowa legislature’s second “funnel” deadline passed on March 31. In theory, aside from appropriations bills, any legislation that hasn’t yet cleared one chamber and at least one committee in the other chamber is no longer eligible for consideration for this year. However, leaders can resurrect “dead” bills late in the session or include their provisions in appropriations bills. The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel reviewed important bills that did or did not make it through the funnel. James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart published a longer list in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

This paragraph caught my eye from the Register’s story.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said everything that lawmakers are doing is a reflection of learning from states where prosperity is occurring as a result of business-friendly policies. That formula includes low-cost government, innovative public services, and easing regulatory burdens on businesses to spur job creation and to allow Iowa companies to compete in a global marketplace, he added.

Not so much: Republicans following a similar playbook drove Kansas and Louisiana into the ground. Wisconsin has performed poorly in employment growth, poverty reduction, household income, and wages compared to neighboring Minnesota, where corporate interests didn’t capture state government.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome. I enclose below links and clips about bills I haven’t had time to write about yet. Two are “business-friendly” policies that will hurt Iowans suffering because of exposure to asbestos or medical malpractice. One would make local governments and first responders less accountable by excluding all “audio, video and transcripts of 911 calls involving injured victims of crimes or accidents” from Iowa’s open records law.

Quick update on House File 484, the bill to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works: once seen as almost a sure thing due to covert support from the Iowa Farm Bureau, the bill was on the House debate calendar for many days in March but never brought to the floor. Majority Leader Chris Hagenow put House File 484 on the “unfinished business” calendar on March 30, after House Republicans voted down a Democratic motion to exclude it from that list.

Opponents of the Water Works bill have become more confident lately, as several GOP representatives and senators have said privately they oppose the legislation. In addition, a Harper Polling survey commissioned by the Water Works showed that 68 percent of respondents oppose disbanding independent water works boards in Des Moines, West Des Moines, and Urbandale in order to give city councils control over the water utility. The same poll indicated that by a 55 percent to 23 percent margin, respondents said an independent board of trustees rather than the city council is “best qualified to manage your local water utility.” By an 88 percent to 5 percent margin, respondents said “people who live in the community” and not the state legislature should have “the final say” on municipal utilities. No one should be complacent, because powerful forces are behind this legislation. Republican leaders could attach Water Works language to must-pass budget bills.

P.S.- The legislature is supposed to wrap up its business this month and adjourn for the year before the end of April. I suspect that even with unified Republican control, the session will go into overtime. Lawmakers haven’t finalized budget targets for the 2018 fiscal year yet. With less money to go around following the recent downgrade in revenue forecasts, and legislators of both parties calling for a review of increasingly expensive tax credits and exemptions, I expect several more weeks of behind the scenes negotiations before the House and Senate are ready to approve appropriations bills.

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Josh Mandelbaum taking on Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley

Promising to be a “voice for strong neighborhoods and strong schools,” defending local interests and fighting harmful state policies, Josh Mandelbaum confirmed Thursday night that he will run for Des Moines City Council against 24-year incumbent Christine Hensley. I enclose below the audio and full transcript of Mandelbaum’s first campaign speech, along with background on the candidate and a map of Ward 3, which covers west-side neighborhoods south of University Avenue and much of the south side.

I’ve been acquainted with Mandelbaum since before he was a policy advisor for Governor Tom Vilsack and Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson. More recently, I’ve closely observed his work on renewable energy and clean water issues through our mutual involvement in Iowa environmental circles. I’m an active supporter of the non-profit Environmental Law & Policy Center, where Mandelbaum is a staff attorney. Last year Midwest Energy News named Mandelbaum to its “40 Under 40” list of list of “emerging leaders” working on “America’s transition to a clean energy economy.” He was one of only two Iowans to receive that recognition.

Even if I couldn’t personally vouch for Mandelbaum’s talent and work ethic, I would be excited to see a progressive willing to take on this incumbent. Hensley’s 2015 vote to extend a tax abatement program was indirectly a vote to benefit her employer. Timothy Meinch reported for the Des Moines Register at the time that the city attorney “warned of an ‘appearance of impropriety’ and ‘potential of a conflict of interest’” before Hensley “cast a pivotal vote in favor of developers.” Des Moines Cityview’s Civic Skinny column explained here how Hensley’s deciding vote benefited Midwest Housing Equity Group, “an Omaha-based firm that syndicates and sells tax credits from developers” where she “is a director and paid consultant.”

Hensley has given Des Moines residents plenty of other reasons to look for new representation. Mandelbaum covered several of them in the remarks I transcribed below. Her most egregious act was joining the small board of directors of the Orwellian-named Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. This advocacy organization grew out of the Iowa Farm Bureau’s desire to discredit the Des Moines Water Works, which delivers drinking water to half a million central Iowans, including all of Hensley’s constituents. My theory is that Hensley hitched her wagon to this cause in the hope of becoming Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett’s running mate in the 2018 race for governor. Whatever her motives, she chose to stand with Big Ag against her own city’s utility, despite evidence connecting farm runoff with high nitrate levels and toxic algae blooms that threaten the local water supply.

This year Hensley urged the city council to support legislation that would disband the Des Moines Water Works. The bill is widely understood to be retribution for the Water Works lawsuit against drainage districts in northwest Iowa (see the first part of this post). Mandelbaum spoke against House File 484 at a public hearing earlier this month; scroll down to view the video.

Taking on an entrenched incumbent is always an uphill battle, especially for a first-time candidate. Hensley will raise a ton of money. Even so, this race is winnable for Mandelbaum. City council elections are low-turnout affairs. Hensley didn’t have a challenger in 2005 or in 2009 and defeated Cal Woods by 3,536 votes to 2,248 four years ago.

Ward 3 “has an overwhelming Democratic registration advantage and has a D+20 performance index,” Pat Rynard noted last month. The Water Works issue alone is highly salient for Des Moines residents. A large number of teachers and public workers live on the west and south sides of Des Moines, as do many progressives interested in economic and social justice. If Mandelbaum can tap into outrage over statehouse Republicans destroying collective bargaining rights and lowering the minimum wage in Polk County, don’t bet against him turning out a few thousand Democrats who have never voted in a local election before. He won’t be able to match Hensley’s fundraising, but with Pederson and former Attorney General Bonnie Campbell co-chairing his campaign, he should raise enough money to get his message out to Ward 3 residents.

This race will be one of the most important local elections in central Iowa this November. Please spread the word.

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