More questions emerge about Iowa Republican couple's political donations

Kim Schmett and Connie Schmett have filed additional paperwork with the U.S. Department of Justice to report political contributions since their October 2016 registration as foreign agents for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The documents listed the three donations Bleeding Heartland discussed here as well as some previously unknown campaign contributions. While checking those out, I noticed some oddities.

No answer at the Schmetts’ home number, where voice mail is not accepting new messages. Reached on his cell phone on November 20, Kim Schmett told me, “I’m not going to talk about it right now. It speaks for itself.”

Trust me: it doesn’t.

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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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Iowa attorney general: Kim Reynolds can't appoint new lieutenant governor

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller announced today that he believes Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds will become the governor, and not merely “acting governor,” once Governor Terry Branstad resigns to become U.S. ambassador to China. However, in the same 23-page opinion (enclosed in full below), Miller determined that under Iowa’s constitution, Reynolds will not have the authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor once she is sworn in.

Reynolds has been vetting candidates to take her place for months, as staff in the governor’s office insisted she will have the right to appoint a new lieutenant governor. Miller’s office had indicated in December that the attorney general agreed with the Branstad administration’s view on the coming transfer of power, despite language in the Iowa Constitution stating that the governor’s powers “shall devolve upon the Lieutenant Governor” in the event of a vacancy, and calling for the Iowa Senate president to be next in line if the lieutenant governor proves incapable of “performing the duties pertaining to the office of governor.” At the time, Miller provided no legal analysis, but his office released a 1923 Iowa attorney general’s opinion, which you can read here.

Three months ago, independent State Senator David Johnson exercised his right to request a formal opinion from Miller on nine questions about the succession. He asked Miller to produce the opinion “on an expedited basis” and specifically asked him not to “simply rely on the precedent of a predecessor’s 1923 opinion.”

Staff in the Attorney General’s office, led by Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson, conducted “extensive legal and historical research” before reaching the conclusions Miller characterized as a “split decision” during today’s press conference.

Miller noted the precedent for using the title of “governor” when previous Iowa lieutenant governors exercised the governor’s powers following a vacancy. He also noted that when vice presidents have assumed the presidency, we have called those men “president” rather than “acting president.”

Miller said five factors pointed toward the conclusion that Reynolds does not have the authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor. An important one for him was language in Article IV, Section 19 of the Iowa Constitution, which spells out the succession of power from the governor to the lieutenant governor to the president of the Senate. (I’ve enclosed that passage below.) A state constitutional amendment in 1988, which provided for the lieutenant governor to be elected on a ticket with the governor, did not change the wording about the line of succession. Furthermore, Miller found, the historical record shows “The framers [of Iowa’s constitution] intended that those in the gubernatorial line of succession be elected.”

Miller also pointed to historical practice when the U.S. Constitution’s succession language mirrored the current wording of Iowa’s constitution (saying the president’s powers “shall devolve on the Vice President”). Before the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1967, none of the eight vice presidents who became the head of state following the death of a sitting president attempted to appoint a new vice president for the remainder of the term.

Speaking to reporters today, Miller said that as a matter of policy, he supports the idea of the new governor having the power to appoint a new lieutenant governor. But he maintained the Iowa Constitution would have to be amended to provide for that process.

Asked what would happen if the governor’s office disagrees with his legal analysis, Miller said he expects them to follow his opinion and repeatedly expressed hope that they will do so. If Reynolds proceeds with appointing a new lieutenant governor, her action “may or may not be challenged” in court. Responding to a follow-up question, Miller clarified that the Attorney General’s Office would not file that lawsuit, repeating that he hopes Reynolds will not take that course.

I am seeking feedback from attorneys on whether an ordinary Iowa voter would have standing to go to court if Reynolds disregards Miller’s conclusions about what the constitution allows. Iowa Senate President Jack Whitver would clearly have standing, since a new lieutenant governor would take his place in the line of succession. But the loyal Republican Whitver certainly would not object.

Front-runners for the lieutenant governor spot in the Reynolds administration are rumored to include State Representative Zach Nunn and State Public Defender Adam Gregg.

UPDATE: Added early reaction from the governor’s office and other political figures below. Reynolds sounds intent on ignoring Miller’s opinion.

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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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Weekend open thread: Iowa legislative news roundup

The Iowa legislature’s second “funnel” deadline passed on March 31. In theory, aside from appropriations bills, any legislation that hasn’t yet cleared one chamber and at least one committee in the other chamber is no longer eligible for consideration for this year. However, leaders can resurrect “dead” bills late in the session or include their provisions in appropriations bills. The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel reviewed important bills that did or did not make it through the funnel. James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart published a longer list in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

This paragraph caught my eye from the Register’s story.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said everything that lawmakers are doing is a reflection of learning from states where prosperity is occurring as a result of business-friendly policies. That formula includes low-cost government, innovative public services, and easing regulatory burdens on businesses to spur job creation and to allow Iowa companies to compete in a global marketplace, he added.

Not so much: Republicans following a similar playbook drove Kansas and Louisiana into the ground. Wisconsin has performed poorly in employment growth, poverty reduction, household income, and wages compared to neighboring Minnesota, where corporate interests didn’t capture state government.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome. I enclose below links and clips about bills I haven’t had time to write about yet. Two are “business-friendly” policies that will hurt Iowans suffering because of exposure to asbestos or medical malpractice. One would make local governments and first responders less accountable by excluding all “audio, video and transcripts of 911 calls involving injured victims of crimes or accidents” from Iowa’s open records law.

Quick update on House File 484, the bill to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works: once seen as almost a sure thing due to covert support from the Iowa Farm Bureau, the bill was on the House debate calendar for many days in March but never brought to the floor. Majority Leader Chris Hagenow put House File 484 on the “unfinished business” calendar on March 30, after House Republicans voted down a Democratic motion to exclude it from that list.

Opponents of the Water Works bill have become more confident lately, as several GOP representatives and senators have said privately they oppose the legislation. In addition, a Harper Polling survey commissioned by the Water Works showed that 68 percent of respondents oppose disbanding independent water works boards in Des Moines, West Des Moines, and Urbandale in order to give city councils control over the water utility. The same poll indicated that by a 55 percent to 23 percent margin, respondents said an independent board of trustees rather than the city council is “best qualified to manage your local water utility.” By an 88 percent to 5 percent margin, respondents said “people who live in the community” and not the state legislature should have “the final say” on municipal utilities. No one should be complacent, because powerful forces are behind this legislation. Republican leaders could attach Water Works language to must-pass budget bills.

P.S.- The legislature is supposed to wrap up its business this month and adjourn for the year before the end of April. I suspect that even with unified Republican control, the session will go into overtime. Lawmakers haven’t finalized budget targets for the 2018 fiscal year yet. With less money to go around following the recent downgrade in revenue forecasts, and legislators of both parties calling for a review of increasingly expensive tax credits and exemptions, I expect several more weeks of behind the scenes negotiations before the House and Senate are ready to approve appropriations bills.

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Iowa Democrats, talk less about ALEC and more about people's lives

Thousands of Iowans will suffer brutal consequences from the two major bills Republican senators approved Monday. House File 295 blocks local governments from raising the minimum wage. Once Governor Terry Branstad signs the bill, thousands of people working in Linn, Johnson, and Wapello counties will get an immediate pay cut. Some 25,000 people in Polk County will be stuck earning $7.25 an hour, instead of getting a raise to $8.75, beginning next week. House File 518 will make it harder for employees to file workers’ compensation claims and will vastly reduce benefits for those who do qualify, especially anyone with a shoulder injury.

Both bills passed on party-line 29-21 votes after Republicans had rejected every effort to mitigate the harm done to working people.

As each Democratic amendment went down during hours of debate on the Senate floor, feelings of sadness, disgust and anger came through in the speeches of some Democrats and independent State Senator David Johnson. Why are you doing this, several asked their GOP colleagues. You don’t have to follow your floor manager, some pleaded. You can reject the “shameful” attempt to target poor people or those affected by life-altering workplace accidents.

Another dismal day in the Iowa legislature provoked an outpouring on social media, where progressive activists have mobilized this year in response to the Republican agenda. A measurable wave of “greater grassroots activism on the political left” is one of the few bright spots in the national landscape. In Iowa too, ordinary people are contacting their state lawmakers in record numbers and showing up to challenge them at district forums.

Watching these discussions unfold, I’ve noticed a reflexive tendency to blame one destructive Iowa GOP bill after another on the Koch brothers or the American Legislative Exchange Council. The more Democrats make the conversation about Koch money or ALEC, the easier it is for Republicans to avoid talking about the real-world consequences of their actions.

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