Keep up with threats to Iowa's public pension funds

Republican lawmakers are considering big changes to the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS). The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded through the Koch brothers network, has been studying the matter at the invitation of GOP State Senator Charles Schneider. That group recommends converting IPERS from a defined-benefit plan (with guaranteed payments for public employees) to a defined-contribution plan like a 401(k). Under that scenario, some 350,000 IPERS members would have to pay investment fees and could receive lower returns when they retire.

Similar changes could affect Iowans who pay into the Municipal Fire & Police Retirement System, Peace Officers’ Retirement System, or Judicial Retirement System.

Democratic lawmakers and staff have created a new e-mail list for Iowans wanting to stay informed about threats to public pension funds. This list will function much like the Iowa Statehouse Progressive Network, created at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, but with updates and action alerts related to state retirement issues.

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Louisa Dykstra for Des Moines School Board

Republican policies on education funding and working conditions for teachers have inspired many newly-engaged Iowa activists to run in tomorrow’s school board elections.

School board members don’t control the budget, but they decide what programs to cut or spare when resources are scarce. They influence contract negotiations, so can mitigate the harm Iowa’s new collective bargaining law will do to educators. Winning non-partisan, local races can also help build the Democratic bench, as many successful candidates for the Iowa House and Senate previously served on a school board.

Turnout for school board elections is typically low in the absence of some hot-button local issue, like this year’s Iowa City school bond proposal. A handful of voters may determine the outcome. Rob Barron won his at-large seat on the Des Moines School Board by just 28 votes in 2013.

Three progressives are seeking the two at-large seats on the Des Moines board this year: the incumbent Barron and first-time candidates Louisa Dykstra and Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley.

I’m encouraging my friends in the Des Moines district to cast one of their votes for Dykstra.

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Former Iowa prison nurse files landmark transgender rights lawsuit

A former prison nurse has filed Iowa’s first transgender rights case since state lawmakers and the governor added gender identity protections to the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa announced today.

Jesse Vroegh is suing the Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, the insurance company Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Iowa, and State Penitentiary Warden Patti Wachtendorf on four counts of discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex. The plaintiff charges that while employed at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, he “was continuously denied the use of restrooms and locker rooms consistent with his gender identity, because he is transgender.”

In addition, the Department of Corrections “denied transgender employees the same level of health care benefit coverage that it provided to non-transgender employees,” while the Department of Administrative Services “was involved in the decision to select and offer to employees of the Iowa Department of Corrections only employer-sponsored health care plans which discriminated against transgender employees.”

Vroegh claims the state’s actions violated the Civil Rights Act and provisions in the Iowa Constitution that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and require equal protection for historically disfavored groups. I enclose below the plaintiff’s initial court filing and a press release providing more background on the case.

Although he no longer works for the Department of Corrections, Vroegh said in a statement he is proceeding with the lawsuit “because I feel I need to fight for the rights not only of transgender people who work for the state but for other Iowa workers as well. I’m not asking for any special treatment of myself or any other transgender person. All I’m asking for is that transgender people be treated the same way as people who are not transgender.”

The ACLU of Iowa noted, “The first transgender employment discrimination case, Sommers v. Iowa Civil Rights Commission, was decided in 1983. But today’s action is the first case we’re aware of to be filed in Iowa District Court that asserts gender identity discrimination in employment since the Iowa Civil Rights Act was amended in 2007 to include gender identity and sexual orientation.” A few state House and Senate Republicans joined almost all of the Democratic lawmakers to approve the new civil rights language during the first year Democrats had controlled both chambers of the legislature in more than a decade. Governor Chet Culver signed the bill into law.

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Why did Branstad and Reynolds request transition funds they didn't need?

Some surprising news arrived in the mail recently. In response to one of my records requests, Governor Kim Reynolds’ legal counsel Colin Smith informed me that “zero dollars” of a $150,000 appropriation for gubernatorial transition expenses “have been spent and there are no plans to spend any of that appropriated money.” I soon learned that the Department of Management had ordered a transfer of up to $40,000 in unspent Department of Revenue funds from the last fiscal year “to the Governor’s/Lt. Governor’s General Office to cover additional expenses associated with the gubernatorial transition.”

A Des Moines Register headline put a favorable spin on the story: “Reynolds pares back spending on office transition from lieutenant governor.” However, neither the governor’s office nor Republican lawmakers ever released documents showing how costs associated with the step up for Reynolds could have reached $150,000.

Currently available information raises questions about whether Branstad/Reynolds officials ever expected to spend that money, or whether they belatedly requested the fiscal year 2018 appropriation with a different political purpose in mind.

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Republican budget cuts reduce oversight of Iowa nursing homes

Iowa’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman has “eliminated virtually all staff visits” to our state’s 850 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, Clark Kauffman reported for the Des Moines Register on August 23. A large reduction in state funding led to the policy change, announced last month. Republican legislators passed the health and human services budget on party-line Iowa House and Senate votes. Governor Terry Branstad approved the cuts in his final batch of bill signings.

Reducing oversight of nursing homes has long been a goal for Branstad, whose Department of Inspections and Appeals didn’t even fill all the nursing home inspector positions funded by state lawmakers. Iowa already ranked last among the 50 states in terms of ombudsman visits to nursing homes at least once per quarter, according to 2015 statistics cited by Kauffman.

Ending on-site visits by ombudsmen will put approximately 53,000 Iowans at greater risk of receiving substandard care.

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