John Norris: Why he may run for governor and what he would bring to the table

With the exhausting battles of the 2017 legislative session behind us, Iowa Democrats can turn their attention to the most pressing task ahead. Next year’s gubernatorial election will likely determine whether Republicans retain unchecked power to impose their will on Iowans, or whether some balance returns to the statehouse.

A record number of Democrats may run for governor in 2018. Today Bleeding Heartland begins a series of in-depth looks at the possible contenders.

John Norris moved back to Iowa with his wife Jackie Norris and their three sons last year, after nearly six years in Washington and two in Rome, Italy. He has been touching base with potential supporters for several weeks and expects to decide sometime in May whether to become a candidate for governor. His “concern about the direction the state’s going” is not in question. Rather, Norris is gauging the response he gets from activists and community leaders he has known for many years, and whether he can raise the resources “to make this a go.”

In a lengthy interview earlier this month, Norris discussed the changes he sees in Iowa, the issues he’s most passionate about, and why he has “something significantly different to offer” from others in the field, who largely agree on public policy. The native of Red Oak in Montgomery County (which happens to be Senator Joni Ernst’s home town too) also shared his perspective on why Democrats have lost ground among Iowa’s rural and small-town voters, and what they can do to reverse that trend.

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A shameful end to the most destructive Iowa legislative session of my lifetime

The Iowa House and Senate adjourned for the year around 7:15 am on Saturday, after staying up all night while Republican leaders tried to hammer out last-minute deals on medical cannabis and water quality funding.

The medical cannabis compromise passed with bipartisan majorities in both chambers, but I’m not convinced the revised House File 524 will be an improvement on letting the current extremely limited law expire on July 1. The bill senators approved last Monday by 45 votes to five would have provided some relief to thousands of Iowans suffering from nearly 20 medical conditions. House Republican leaders refused to take it up for reasons Speaker Linda Upmeyer and House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow never articulated.

The new bill thrown together during the all-nighter theoretically covers nine conditions, but as Senator Joe Bolkcom explained in a video I’ve enclosed below, the only form of cannabis allowed (cannabidiol) will not be effective to treat eight of those. Although few if any Iowans will be helped, Republicans can now claim to have done something on the issue and will consequently face less pressure to pass a meaningful medical cannabis bill during the 2018 legislative session.

Republicans shut down the 30-year-old Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which supported research on farming practices that could preserve our soil and water resources. But on Friday night, they gave up on doing anything serious to clean up our waterways, 750 of which are impaired, according to the latest data released by the Department of Natural Resources. CORRECTION: More recent DNR data indicate Iowa “contains 608 waterbodies with a total of 818 impairments.” (Some waterways have more than one impaired segment.) On the opening day of this year’s session, Hagenow promised “significant new resources to water quality efforts.” Why not come back next week and keep working until they find some way forward?

I’ll tell you why: lawmakers’ per diems ran out on April 18. Heaven forbid Republicans should work a few more days with no pay to address our state’s most serious pollution problem. Incidentally, this crowd just passed an education budget that will force thousands of students to go deeper in debt. They voted earlier this year to cut wages for tens of thousands of Iowans living paycheck to paycheck in counties that had raised the minimum wage. These “public servants” also handed more than 150,000 public workers an effective pay cut by taking away their ability to collectively bargain over benefits packages. As if that weren’t enough, they made sure many Iowans who get hurt on the job will be denied access to the workers’ compensation system or will get a small fraction of the benefits they would previously have received for debilitating shoulder injuries.

Lives will be ruined by some of the laws Republicans are touting as historic accomplishments.

Even worse, lives will likely end prematurely because of cuts in the health and human services budget to a wide range of programs, from elder abuse to chronic conditions to smoking cessation to Department of Human Services field operations. I enclose below a Democratic staff analysis of its provisions. During House and Senate floor debates, Republican floor managers offered lame excuses about the tight budget, which doesn’t allow us to allocate as much money as we’d like to this or that line item. Naturally, they found an extra $3 million for a new family planning program that will exclude Planned Parenthood as a provider.

Different Republican lawmakers used the same excuses to justify big cuts to victims assistance grants in the justice systems budget. That choice will leave thousands of Iowans–mostly women–without support next year after going through horrific assaults or ongoing abuse.

Despite some big talk from House Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Grassley, Republicans didn’t even try to rein in business tax credits, which have been the state’s fastest-growing expenses in recent years. The budget crunch is real and may get worse. But no one forced Republicans to inflict 100 percent of the belt-tightening on those who rely on public services.

More analysis of the 2017 legislative session is coming to Bleeding Heartland in the near future. All posts about this year’s work in the Iowa House and Senate are archived here. The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel summarized some of the important bills that passed this year.

After the jump you’ll find Bolkcom’s commentary on the medical cannabis bill that offers “false hope” to Iowans “who have begged us to help,” along with closing remarks on the session from House Minority Leader Mark Smith and Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg.

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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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Republicans seeking to eliminate Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Republican lawmakers are seeking to eliminate the two main sources of funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The Iowa legislature created the center 30 years ago as part of the Groundwater Protection Act, one of the landmark environmental laws in this state’s history. Its threefold mission:

(1) identify the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of existing agricultural practices, (2) research and assist the development of alternative, more sustainable agricultural practices, and (3) inform the agricultural community and general public of the Center’s findings.

The center’s director, Dr. Mark Rasmussen, told Bleeding Heartland today that roughly $1.5 million of the Leopold Center’s approximately $2 million annual budget comes from receiving 35 percent of revenues from a fee on nitrogen fertilizer sales and pesticide registrations. The modest fee of 75 cents per ton of anhydrous ammonia (now selling for approximately $550 per ton) hasn’t changed since the Groundwater Protection Act set up this funding stream in 1987. Citing legislative sources, Rasmussen said Republicans are apparently planning to redirect nitrogen tax revenues. To my knowledge, no bill spelling out the new recipients has been published yet. UPDATE: I have seen the draft appropriations bill for agriculture and natural resources and can confirm it redirects these revenues to a new “Iowa Nutrient Research Fund.” (The Leopold Center’s research addresses a broader range of farming practices.) That appropriations bill calls for the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to take over any incomplete work by the Leopold Center after July 1, 2017.

The second-largest source of funding for the center is a line item in the Iowa Board of Regents budget, which used to be about $425,000 per year. Actual state funding during the current fiscal year totaled $397,417, and Governor Terry Branstad proposed keeping the center’s funding at that level for fiscal year 2018. But the Republican plan negotiated behind closed doors and revealed this afternoon at an Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing zeroes out the Leopold Center line item.

The center also receives a “small amount of foundation earnings” from donations to an endowment managed by the ISU Foundation, Rasmussen said, but those funds are “wholly inadequate to keep the center functioning at any level of reasonableness.”

I enclose below an e-mail Rasmussen sent to Leopold Center Advisory Board members today. He noted that the center has been involved with than 600 projects “on topics spanning water quality, manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development in Iowa.” The center’s grants have facilitated “thriving local foods networks,” and research supported by the center informed practices that are now part of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy for addressing the state’s major water pollution problems.

It’s not hard to guess why statehouse Republicans want to ax one of the country’s leading institutions in the sustainable agriculture field. Corporate interests associated with conventional farming practices have long been hostile to research supported by the center, such as efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that causes the Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone.” Pressure from Big Ag was believed to have influenced Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean of the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, when she chose not to offer the job of Leopold Center director to the search committee’s top choice in 2009. (Rasmussen was hired in 2012.)

The GOP education budget would also eliminate state funding for the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa. Advocates for solid research on sustainable agriculture and flood patterns need to contact Republican members of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee: State Senators Tim Kraayenbrink (chair), Craig Johnson (vice chair), and Jason Schultz, and State Representatives Cecil Dolecheck (chair), Tom Moore (vice chair), Dean Fisher, Gary Mohr, and Walt Rogers.

UPDATE: Dolecheck told reporters on April 11 that there was no need for further work by the Leopold Center: ““Most people would tell you that farmers have been educated to that point, the research has been put in place whether it’s cover crops, waterways, those type of things.”

I’ve added below two messages ISU sent to supporters on April 12, seeking to generate constituent contacts to state lawmakers. At Iowa Informer, Gavin Aronsen posted a “set of talking points prepared yesterday for President Steven Leath’s office,” which covers similar ground.

SECOND UPDATE: Democrats requested a public hearing on the state budget, which will take place Monday, April 17, from 10 am to noon. Iowans can sign up here to speak or leave a comment. Although time constraints won’t allow everyone to speak, it’s worth making your voice heard. In addition to eliminating the Leopold Center’s main funding sources, the Republican education and natural resources budgets repeal language establishing the center from the Iowa Code.

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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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