No casino for Cedar Rapids

The State Racing and Gaming Commission voted 4-1 this morning against allowing a new casino to be built in downtown Cedar Rapids. Last year Linn County voters approved a casino referendum by a 20-point margin. Even some opponents of the project believed its construction was inevitable, given the political connections of the group hoping to build in Cedar Rapids. However, today’s vote is in line with the precedent of approving gambling licenses only where new casinos would not “cannibalize” from existing ones in Iowa. Four years ago, the Racing and Gaming Commission rejected applications for casino projects in Fort Dodge, Ottumwa and Tama County, despite public approval of all three plans. Multiple studies indicated that the Cedar Rapids casino would draw much of its business from Iowans who now visit casinos in Riverside or Waterloo.

I will update this post as needed with political reaction to today’s vote. Although many Bleeding Heartland readers will be disappointed, I agree with economists who have argued that the “interior casinos” not near Iowa borders do not promote economic development. Meanwhile, new casinos incur significant social costs.

Already I’ve seen several Cedar Rapids residents asking whether the CEO of the Riverside casino will build the waterpark he promised last year, if Linn County voters rejected the casino project. Don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: In his report for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Rick Smith noted that Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett “served in the legislature with three of the five members of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.” Former Iowa House Republican and Iowa Senate Republican Jeff Lamberti both voted no this morning. Dolores Mertz, who used to be the most conservative Iowa House Democrat, was the only commissioner to vote yes.

SECOND UPDATE: Further thoughts and more reaction are after the jump.

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Iowa House Democrat Brian Quirk cancels ALEC membership

State Representative Brian Quirk announced today that he is no longer a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which lobbies for a wide range of conservative and corporate-friendly policies in state legislatures. Up to now, Quirk had been the only ALEC member among the 40 Democrats in the Iowa House.

Follow me after the jump for background and details on Quirk’s decision, as well as recent comments about ALEC by former Iowa House Democrat Dolores Mertz.

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Iowa Senate may reject two Branstad appointees (updated)

The Iowa Senate confirmed six of Governor Terry Branstad’s appointees to state offices and boards yesterday, but Democratic senators indicated that two of the governor’s picks may not receive the two-thirds vote needed in the upper chamber. Meanwhile, Branstad suggested at his weekly press conference that race may be a factor in opposition to Isaiah McGee as director of the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

Follow me after the jump for more on who was confirmed yesterday and the battles coming later this week.

UPDATE: On April 12 the Senate rejected McGee as well as William Gustoff, one of Branstad’s appointees to the state Judicial Nominating Commission. Senators confirmed Teresa Wahlert with two votes to spare and three members of the Environmental Protection Commission. Details on the April 12 votes are below.

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Branstad stacks environmental commission with agribusiness advocates

Governor Terry Branstad announced more than 200 appointees to various state boards and commissions yesterday. He named Dolores Mertz, Brent Rastetter, Eugene Ver Steeg, and Mary Boote to four-year terms on the Environmental Protection Commission.

Mertz retired last year after more than two decades in the Iowa House. She was the most conservative House Democrat and chaired the Agriculture Committee for four years. She was a reliable vote against any attempt to limit pollution from factory farms and regularly assigned such bills to subcommittees that would bury them. Her sons own large hog farms and have been cited for several environmental violations. She also earns income from renting farmland to those operations. On the policy side, last year Mertz fast-tracked a bill that would have undermined new rules on spreading manure over frozen and snow-covered ground. She pushed (unsuccessfully) for a bill that would have given landowners until 2020 to comply with regulations passed in 1997 to prevent water contamination from agricultural drainage wells. Mertz has spoken of her “passion” to advocate for agriculture.

Brent Rastetter gave Branstad’s gubernatorial campaign at least $30,000. He is the owner and CEO of Quality Ag Construction, a company he and his brother Bruce Rastetter created in 1992. Quality Ag Construction’s market niche has been building hog confinement facilities. UPDATE: It’s also worth noting that Bruce Rastetter built a business empire in large-scale hog production and later ethanol. Groups representing agribusiness and biofuels producers are suing the Environmental Protection Commission and the Department of Natural Resources over water quality protection rules.

Ver Steeg was first named to the Environmental Protection Commission by Governor Chet Culver in 2008 for the position on the nine-member body that must be filled by “an active grain or livestock farmer.” Ver Steeg owns a hog farm and is a past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

Boote is a “longtime Republican activist” who founded and runs an organization called Truth About Trade and Technology. The organization’s mission is to “support free trade and agricultural biotechnology.” It is primarily funded by “U.S. agribusinesses, farm organizations and individuals.” Boote has served as executive director of Truth About Trade and Technology for the past decade, so her income depends on the business organizations supporting the group.

Many in the environment-minded community criticized Culver in 2007, when he replaced four strong members of the Environmental Protection Commission with two people who had background in conservation and two who had close ties to agribusiness. Culver later named other supporters of protecting natural resources to the EPC, notably Shearon Elderkin and Carrie La Seur.

I don’t see any balance in Branstad’s appointees. That doesn’t bode well for the future work of the Environmental Protection Commission, charged with providing policy oversight over Iowa’s environmental protection efforts.

After the jump I’ve posted the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement’s statement on the new EPC appointees. Iowa CCI has sought to monitor compliance with new rules on spreading manure over farmland during the winter.  

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