Three reasons Geri Huser should not have picked the fight the Iowa Utilities Board just lost

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The Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) announced yesterday that it "has started the process to transfer funds earmarked for the Iowa Energy Center (IEC) at Iowa State University and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) at the University of Iowa." The retreat came less than a week after a spokesperson had insisted, "The board will disburse the funds when they are satisfied (the centers) have answered all the board’s questions."

Restoring the flow of money means the centers charged with promoting alternative energy and efficiency and "interdisciplinary research on the many aspects of global environmental change" no longer face possible staff layoffs or program cuts. But yesterday’s climb-down won’t erase the damage done by IUB Chair Geri Huser’s unwise and unprecedented decision to withhold funding, in the absence of any legal authority to do so. She miscalculated in three ways.

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Incoming Iowa House Speaker promises to fund education "early," not fund Planned Parenthood

Incoming Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer says the majority House Republican caucus will handle education spending early during the 2016 legislative session, and will likely not approve funding for Planned Parenthood clinics in Iowa. I recommend reading Erin Murphy’s whole interview with Upmeyer, which appeared in the Quad-City Times on Sunday. Follow me after the jump for more thoughts on Upmeyer’s comments and how state support for public school districts and Planned Parenthood’s family planning programs may play out next year.

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Weekend open thread: Threat assessments

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Arguments over the appropriate U.S. response to refugees from Syria were a hot topic this week in personal conversations as well as in the news media. I saw some longtime friendships strained over heated Facebook threads about the question. Governor Terry Branstad’s order "to halt any work on Syrian refugee resettlements immediately in order to ensure the security and safety of Iowans" provoked commentaries in several major newspapers and an unusually strong statement from Iowa’s four Catholic bishops.

The U.S. House vote to in effect stop the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq generated passionate comments from supporters and opponents of the measure. Dozens of Iowans expressed their disappointment on the thread under Representative Dave Loebsack’s official statement explaining his vote. In an apparent response to negative feedback from progressives, Loebsack’s Congressional campaign sent an e-mail to supporters the following day, trying to distinguish his position on refugees from the Middle East from that of many Republicans, and assuring that "we will not turn our backs on those in need." (Scroll to the end of this post to read that message.)

Calls by some politicians to admit only certifiably Christian refugees from the Middle East triggered strong emotions in many American Jews this week. I saw it on my social media feeds, where many people reminded their non-Jewish friends and acquaintances that the U.S. turned away a ship carrying hundreds of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a rare statement on a political matter (enclosed below), urging "public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees [from Syria] as a group."

I’ve seen many people object to that analogy, saying reluctance to admit Syrian refugees is grounded in legitimate fears for public safety, unlike the prejudice that influenced U.S. immigration policy during the 1930s. But as historian Peter Shulman explained in this commentary for Fortune magazine,

Opposition to Jewish refugees was not simply timeless bigotry. With today’s talk of “Judeo-Christian” values, it is easy to forget the genuine alienness and threat to national security these refugees represented. […]

Behind these [1939 poll] numbers [showing widespread hostility toward Jews] lay a toxic fear of Jewish subversion. For decades, Jews had been linked to various strains of un-American threats: socialism, communism, and anarchism, of course, but also (paradoxically) a kind of hyper-capitalism. Many believed that the real threat to the United States lay not from abroad, but within.

One author of a recent letter to the Des Moines Register called for vetting Syrian refugees at the U.S. facility for holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay: "My Irish ancestors went through a similar process at Ellis Island. The vetting procedure was very different for them. They were checked to be sure they weren’t carrying diseases into America. We need to be sure that the refugees coming into our country don’t come with a mind disease goal of killing us, instead of seeking a new life for themselves, like my Irish ancestors did." Here’s some news for letter-writer Janet Boggs: when the first large waves of Irish ancestors entered this country during the 1840s and 1850s, many native-born Americans considered them and other Catholic immigrants an existential threat to this country, not harmless migrants seeking a better life. Read up on the Know-Nothing Party.

Today’s Sunday Des Moines Register includes a letter to the editor from Republican State Representative Steve Holt, who thanked Branstad for making "the safety of Iowans" his priority. Holt warned, "If we expect Western civilization to survive, we must abandon political correctness and educate ourselves on the realities of Islam, and the instrument of its implementation, Sharia law." Holt represents half of GOP State Senator Jason Schultz’s constituents in western Iowa; Schultz has been beating the "Sharia law" drum for months while agitating against allowing any more refugees from the Middle East to settle in Iowa. UPDATE: I should have noted that today’s Register also ran a letter to the editor from Democratic State Representative Marti Anderson, who made the case for welcoming refugees. I’ve added it after the jump.

Speaking of security risks, yesterday Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press on questions surrounding the threat assessment teams many universities formed after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. I didn’t know that the University of Iowa sent "a detective with the campus threat assessment team" to a fake news conference communications Professor Kembrew McLeod organized in August to poke fun at efficiency measures outside consultants recommended for Iowa’s public universities. I had forgotten about the lawsuit stemming from false accusations that a whistleblower employee in the Iowa State College of Engineering’s marketing department might be a "potential terrorist or mass murderer." Officials spreading such rumors about the employee included the former boss whose shady conduct he had exposed. Excerpts from Foley’s article are below, but click through to read the whole piece.

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Preview of an Iowa House district 7 rematch: Tedd Gassman vs Dave Grussing

Democrat Dave Grussing announced earlier this month that he will challenge two-term Republican State Representative Tedd Gassman again in Iowa House district 7, which covers Emmet and Winnebago counties plus half of Kossuth County on Iowa’s northern border. A detailed district map is below, along with background on both candidates. Grussing’s campaign is on the web at Grussing for Iowa House and on Facebook here. His key campaign issues include job creation for rural Iowa, more funding for K-12 schools and community colleges, "encouraging veterans and military retirees to locate in Iowa," and raising the minimum wage. Grussing has also expressed concern about Governor Terry Branstad’s unilateral decision to close two in-patient mental health institutions and privatize Medicaid.

House district 7 has been one of the most competitive state legislative districts in recent election cycles. Democrat John Wittneben defeated Republican Lannie Miller in an open-seat race by just 32 votes in 2010. That campaign likely would have ended differently if Iowa Republican leaders and key GOP-leaning interest groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry had not left Miller behind. Redistricting following the 2010 census made House district less friendly territory for a Democrat, and Wittneben lost his 2012 re-election bid to Gassman by just 44 votes.

House district 7 leans Republican, with 5,269 active registered Democrats, 6,323 Republicans, and 8,307 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. Voters living in the district supported Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 51.82 percent to 46.97 percent in 2012 and favored Joni Ernst over Bruce Braley in last year’s U.S. Senate race by 55.71 percent to 38.56 percent, nearly double Ernst’s statewide margin of victory. Grussing’s challenge to Gassman was one of seven Iowa House races the progressive group Democracy for America targeted last cycle, probably because of Gassman’s narrow win in 2012. But Gassman easily won by more than 1,700 votes.

Even in a presidential election year, when more Democrats turn out to vote, Grussing will need to outperform the incumbent substantially among independents and win some crossover Republican votes. That’s not an insurmountable task for a hard-working candidate, though. Especially since Gassman promised during the 2014 campaign to "support education at all levels," saying "his first priority would be to approve a supplemental state aid bill for K-12 education." Although Gassman served as vice chair of the House Education Committee during the 2015 legislative session, to my knowledge he did not speak out for investing more in education as Republican House leaders refused for months to compromise on school funding. Nor did I hear of him criticizing Branstad’s decision to strike nearly $65 million in K-12, community college, and state university funding from the supplemental spending bill lawmakers approved. Gassman certainly didn’t try to override Branstad’s vetoes. Grussing should remind voters frequently that their elected representative stood by while the governor blew a hole in the budgets of K-12 school districts and Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg.

In addition, for lack of a more tactful way to say this, Gassman is kind of weird. He has often put himself way outside the mainstream, even in his own party. For instance, during an Iowa House subcommittee hearing to consider his 2013 bill to end no-fault divorce for couples with children under age 18, Gassman speculated that his daughter and son-in-law’s divorce put his 16-year-old granddaughter at risk of becoming "more promiscuous." Only six of his fellow Iowa House Republicans co-sponsored that no-fault divorce bill. The same year, Gassman was among just ten GOP state representatives to co-sponsor a bill that would have banned county recorders from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples "until such time as an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa defining marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman is submitted to the electorate for ratification." The bill was clearly unconstitutional and would have created a circus like what Kentucky experienced this summer, thanks to rogue county clerk Kim Davis.

Gassman’s not a strong fundraiser, although his campaign disclosure reports for 2013 and 2014 (see here, here, and here) show that he receives a fair amount of "free money" from political action committees that give the same amount to dozens of state lawmakers. During the 2014 campaign, Grussing benefited from a number of labor union PAC donations, which will likely come through again if he can demonstrate he is running an active campaign.

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Branstad joins rush to slam door on Syrian refugees

Yesterday Governor Terry Branstad joined the club of 24 governors (23 Republicans and a Democrat) who have said their states will not accept refugees from Syria. They don’t have the power to block resettlement of refugees within their state borders, any more than pandering presidential candidates would be able to adopt unconstitutional religion-based criteria for deciding which people to allow into this country.

Still, Branstad’s knee-jerk reaction to Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris is a disappointing retreat from the more reasonable stance he took earlier this fall on refugees from Syria coming to Iowa.

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Iowa Utilities Board Chair Geri Huser's disturbing power play

In an unprecedented and "perhaps illegal" step, Iowa Utilities Board Chair Geri Huser is "withholding funding from the state’s renewable energy research center until its leaders satisfy her questions about its programs and finances," Ryan Foley reported today for the Associated Press.

Huser’s overreach reflects a serious misunderstanding of her role as a member of the Iowa Energy Center’s advisory council. Her power play also raises questions about why Huser would go to such extraordinary lengths to disrupt activities at a center that has been promoting energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable technologies for nearly 25 years.

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