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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Lawsuit over Iowa Senate Republican harassment will be settled

Attorneys for the state and a former Iowa Senate Republican staffer have agreed to settle a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit, William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register today. In July, a Polk County jury awarded Kirsten Anderson $1.4 million for past emotional distress and $795,000 for future emotional distress, after hearing testimony about a hostile workplace environment and alleged discrimination and retaliation within the Senate GOP caucus.

Under the settlement, Anderson will receive $1.045 million, and the state will pay an additional $705,000 for her attorneys’ fees.

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Baby steps: Iowa Senate GOP responds to sexual harassment verdict

Nearly two months after a jury awarded former Iowa Senate Republican communications director Kirsten Anderson $2.2 million in a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit, the Senate GOP caucus has finally parted ways with the man who most egregiously contributed to a hostile work environment for women.

However, senators who have claimed Anderson lost her job because of substandard writing still aren’t demanding high-caliber work from current communications staff.

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Special election coming in Iowa Senate district 3

Bill Anderson will soon resign from the Iowa Senate and from U.S. Representative Steve King’s district office to become executive director of the Cherokee Area Economic Development Corporation, he told the Sioux City Journal‘s Bret Hayworth today. “I want to do something else and broaden my horizons,” he explained. He will officially step down in time for Governor Kim Reynolds to set a special election before the legislature reconvenes in January.

Ordinarily, a young lawmaker wouldn’t resign in the middle of his second term, soon after his party gained majority status. But Anderson didn’t seem like the happiest camper at the statehouse. For reasons that remain unclear, he supported an amendment opposed by leadership, which would have made the workers’ compensation bill Anderson had introduced slightly less bad for people suffering shoulder injuries.

He also missed quite a few votes during this year’s legislative session. Those factors may have prompted Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix to remove Anderson as Commerce Committee chair in May. (Neither Anderson nor Senate leaders ever responded to my requests for comment.)

Iowa Senate district 3 covers most of Plymouth County and a large area of Woodbury County, including neighborhoods on the south side of Sioux City. I enclose a detailed map below. Though anything can happen in a low-turnout special election, the GOP will be heavily favored to hold this seat, where voters favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 68.12 percent to 27.32 percent last November. According to the latest figures from the Secretary of State’s office, Senate district 3 contains just 8,741 active registered Democrats, 17,635 Republicans, and 13,035 no-party voters.

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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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