Republicans deliver worst month ever to Iowa students and educators

For all their talk about helping Iowa provide a “world class” and “globally competitive” education, Iowa Republicans are unwilling to provide the resources public schools need to keep up with rising costs.

And for all their talk about getting “better teachers in the classroom” and giving “hardworking teachers … all the tools necessary to succeed,” Iowa Republicans seem determined to discourage people from pursuing a teaching career in this state.

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Higher education would take a huge hit in Branstad's budget

While delivering his final condition of the state address to Iowa lawmakers on Tuesday, Governor Terry Branstad warned that he was offering “difficult” recommendations to cover a shortfall of more than $100 million in the current-year budget. His speech played up the good news: “My proposal does not include across-the-board cuts, does not reduce funding for K through 12 education, does not reduce property tax credits and does not include furloughs for state employees.”

The bad news was buried deep in a 196-page two-year budget blueprint. Nearly a third of the governor’s proposed spending cuts this year would fall on Iowa’s public universities and community colleges. The underfunding doesn’t stop there.

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2017

The Iowa legislature’s 2017 session begins today with minor adjustments to business in the state House but massive changes in the Senate. After ten years of Democratic control, the last six with a one-seat majority, the upper chamber now contains 29 Republicans, 20 Democrats, and one independent (former Republican David Johnson).

I enclose below details on the Iowa Senate majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Senate committees. Click here to find the same information from the 2016 legislative session.

Just six senators are women (five Democrats and a Republican), down from ten women serving in the chamber in 2013 and 2014 and seven during the past two years. All current senators are white. To my knowledge, the only African-American ever to serve in the Iowa Senate was Tom Mann, elected to two terms during the 1980s. No Latino has ever served in the Iowa legislature; in 2014, Nathan Blake fell 18 votes short of becoming the first to join the Senate. No Asian-American has served in the state Senate since Swati Dandekar resigned in 2011.

As a group, the members of the new majority caucus have much less legislative experience than do their Democratic counterparts. As detailed below, only three of the 29 Senate Republicans have served ten or more years in the Iowa legislature, compared to thirteen of the 20 Democrats.

Some non-political trivia: the 50 Iowa senators include two with the surname Johnson, four Marks, three Bills, and two men each named Richard (Rich and Rick), Robert (a Rob and a Bob), Dan, Tim, Tom, Jeff, and Charles (one goes by Chaz).

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Rob Hogg, Amanda Ragan to lead Iowa Senate Democrats

Iowa Senate Democrats unanimously chose Rob Hogg today to serve as Senate minority leader during the upcoming legislative session. Amanda Ragan will be the new minority whip, and the incoming assistant leaders will be Bill Dotzler, Liz Mathis, Rita Hart, Joe Bolkcom, Matt McCoy, and Herman Quirmbach.

Six Democratic senators lost their re-election bids this month, including Mike Gronstal, who had served as either minority or majority leader of the caucus since 1997. Pam Jochum, who was Senate president for the past four years, will not be on the new leadership team. Ragan, Dotzler, and McCoy were among last year’s assistant majority leaders, while Bolkcom served as majority whip.

Erin Murphy reported for the Quad-City Times,

Hogg said Senate Democrats will speak on behalf of Iowans “who need state government to work” and attempt to prevent Republicans from implementing policies that could damage the state’s economy or adversely affect its residents.

“I’m hopeful we can stop Republicans from going down a knee-jerk, partisan pathway,” Hogg said.

I see no realistic chance to stop Republicans from using their large majorities in both chambers to head down that partisan pathway. Among their likely top priorities: cutting taxes so that most of the benefits go to corporations and higher-income individuals, gutting Iowa’s 42-year-old collective bargaining law, restricting abortion rights, ending state funds for Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services, adopting the gun lobby’s wish list (“stand your ground,” “constitutional carry,” and/or open carry), and making it harder for Iowans to vote. Republicans will almost certainly need to reduce funding for education and a variety of social net programs, such as Medicaid and child care assistance, to pay for those tax cuts.

All Democrats can accomplish these next two years is to warn ahead of time how such policies will hurt the majority of Iowans, and to “document the atrocities” after Governor Terry Branstad signs the various harmful bills into law.

I enclose below a news release with more comments from Hogg. O.Kay Henderson’s profile of Gronstal for Radio Iowa is worth reading.

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Branstad will transfer more money to for-profit Medicaid managed care providers

During his long tenure, Governor Terry Branstad has typically been attentive to the concerns of for-profit corporations. So when the insurance companies picked to manage Medicaid for more than half a million Iowans reported in August that they were losing money on the deal, they got a favorable hearing.

A senior analyst from Iowa’s non-partisan Legislative Services Agency confirmed on Friday that the Branstad administration has agreed to pay an extra $33.2 million to the three Medicaid managed care providers for the contract period beginning on April 1 and continuing through June 2017. I enclose that e-mail below, along with reaction from several Democratic state senators.

Hardly a week goes by without my hearing yet another story about an Iowan hurt by Medicaid privatization. Thousands of people have been forced to change doctors or have lost access to therapy for loved ones. This summer, a survey of care providers for Iowans on Medicaid found that:

90% say their administrative costs have increased;
80% say more health care claims are being denied;
79% of providers say they are not getting paid on time;
66% say they are being reimbursed at rates lower than their contracted rates;
61% say the quality of services they can provide has been reduced;
46% have or plan to cut their services; and
28% have taken out loans while waiting to be paid.

Branstad refuses to adjust his Medicaid policy to help patients who are suffering or care providers struggling to keep the doors open. On the contrary, he keeps spinning tales (backed up by no evidence) about “protecting the interests of the taxpayers” and “stopping significant fraud and abuse.” His administration hasn’t followed up on supposed new benefits for patients and puts out impossible-to-verify accounts of “success stories.”

Critics warned that any money saved by privatizing Medicaid would come at the expense of health care for vulnerable patients. They warned that those apparent savings would evaporate once for-profit insurers demanded more money from the state, as had happened in Florida following that state’s rapid privatization of Medicaid.

Iowa enjoyed low administrative costs under the old Medicaid system. Thanks to our governor and his Republican enablers in the state legislature, taxpayers will now experience the “nightmare” scenario that has already unfolded for Medicaid patients and care providers. Connecticut saved money by moving away from managed care, back to the state-run, fee-for-service model.

Don’t expect anything that sensible from Branstad, who happily spends other people’s money when corporations come calling.

UPDATE: Branstad claimed at an October 31 press conference that the state budget will still save money thanks to efficiencies in the new Medicaid system. If those savings materialize (they didn’t in Connecticut), it will happen through companies denying health care services to Iowans.

SECOND UPDATE: Added below excerpts from an excellent post by Iowa Policy Project Executive Director Mike Owen.

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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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