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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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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Republican budget would eliminate Iowa Flood Center

UPDATE: The House Appropriations Committee restored about $1.2 million of this funding on April 12. Added more details below.

The Republican education budget proposal would eliminate $1.5 million in state funding for the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa. According to an e-mail from Professors Witold Krajewski and Larry J. Weber, enclosed in full below, the cut “will have a devastating impact on the Flood Center’s ability to continue to provide flood prevention and real-time flood support to communities, businesses, emergency managers, public works professionals and citizens.”

In addition to ending the Iowa Flood Information System, zeroing out the flood center’s budget would “jeopardize Iowa’s $96 million dollar federal Iowa Watershed Approach HUD [Housing and Urban Development] grant and the Center’s ability to continue to implement projects in nine Iowa watersheds.”

Republican lawmakers have been negotiating behind closed doors on appropriations bills that will likely be approved in quick succession during the next two weeks.

Although the education appropriations bill has not been published, to my knowledge, the Education Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to meet today at 2:00 pm to discuss (and probably approve) the GOP-agreed budget numbers. Iowans should urgently contact Republicans who serve on that 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: Barbara Rodriguez of the Associated Press published photos of the proposed education budget: page 1, page 2, and page 3.

Iowa lawmakers created the country’s “first academic center devoted to the study of floods” in 2009, following the previous year’s devastating natural disaster.

The IFC is now actively engaged in flood projects in several Iowa communities and employs several graduate and undergraduate students participating in flood-related research. IFC researchers have designed a cost-efficient sensor network to better monitor stream flow in the state; have developed a library of flood-inundation maps for several Iowa communities; and are working on a large project to develop new floodplain map for 85 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

UPDATE: A number of readers have speculated that Republicans may want to shut down the flood center to disrupt a major watersheds project, which might influence public discourse on land-use policies or climate-change impacts in Iowa.

Also, I learned this morning that Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom is the outreach and community education director for the flood center, as well as doing the same work for the University of Iowa’s Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research. Bolkcom is the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has been a relentless critic of GOP budget policies this year.

SECOND UPDATE: GOP State Representative David Maxwell copied me on his e-mail to Professor Larry Weber, saying, “Not all of us are in favor of defunding the Iowa Flood Center. I will not have the final say, but I will make my thoughts known to someone who will have an effect on the bill.” Keep contacting House and Senate Republicans. A reader told me that bringing up the threat to Iowa’s $96 million dollar federal HUD grant may be a particularly effective talking point.

THIRD UPDATE: O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

During an interview with reporters on Tuesday, Dolecheck said if the University of Iowa wants to keep the Iowa Flood Center open, administrators can shift funds from elsewhere in the university’s operating budget.

Larry Weber of the Iowa Flood Center said the center provided invaluable projections for Iowans who were bracing for flooding last year. “We shut down a Google Map server because the traffic to the Iowa Flood Center was so intense during the run-up of the crest of the flood coming to Cedar Rapids,” he said, “so many people using that data wanting to see what the extent of the inundated would be, what the water depth on their property would be.”

FOURTH UPDATE: Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register, “The House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment Wednesday that would restore $1.2 million for the program by transferring $250,000 away from a National Guard educational assistance program and transferring another $950,000 out of general aid to the University of Iowa. […] Dolecheck, who is co-chair of the subcommittee that oversees the education budget proposal, said the Senate already is on board with the amendment and plans to adopt it.”

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Iowa water quality and confirmation bias

Thanks to Democratic activist Paul Deaton, “a low wage worker, husband, father and gardener trying to sustain a life in a turbulent world,” for cross-posting these ideas from his blog. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Progressives, farmers and environmentalists heard there is movement in the Iowa legislature to fund water quality and ears perked up — a natural impulse to interpret new events as supporting something we already believe or are working on, also known as confirmation bias.

56 percent of Iowans support increasing the state sales tax three-eighths of a cent to pay for water quality projects and outdoor recreation, according to a Selzer and Company poll reported by the Des Moines Register on Feb 12.

On March 14, State Representative Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton) introduced such a bill: the WISE (Water, Infrastructure and Soil for our Economy) bill, House File 597.

After a three year implementation the tax would generate $180 million to fund Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which was created by a 2010 amendment to Iowa’s constitution. It sounds pretty good. However, we shouldn’t let our confirmation bias help Republican efforts to tax the poor, cut the general fund, and support the failed Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Representative Chip Baltimore (R-Boone) and House Agriculture Committee Chair Lee Hein (R-Monticello) had previously introduced a water quality bill (House Study bill 135) addressing structural issues related to the use of water quality funds. Baltimore favored spending funds on watershed programs such as the governor’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Kaufmann’s bill mandates 60 percent of funding be directed to “a research-based water quality initiative (that) includes but not limited to a practice described in the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy.”

When Governor Terry Branstad created the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, in response to a federal requirement to address water quality, it was the least he could do. It was a way of tinkering around the edges of a water quality program, leveraging wide-spread concern about the need to act without changing the underlying structure of the system that creates excessive nitrate and phosphate loads in our water.

Branstad’s approach sucked up media attention and political will while doing little to address the root cause of the water quality problem.

“I welcome any legislative effort regardless of party that looks to protect the environment,” a progressive voter posted on Facebook. “While I agree that it is not fair that we have to take on the burden of trying to clean up after the farmers, I also know that they are a stubborn lot that hold great political power in Iowa. Therefore we need to be pragmatic and take whatever we can get while the Republicans are in charge.”

A lot of people would agree with this sentiment.

It’s clear solutions proposed in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy could work. They won’t work until either the strategy is compulsory, or there is funding to support broad participation.

“Republicans sometimes get accused of not being pro-environment, of not being pro-water quality,” Kaufmann said. “Well, this is our way of taking that bull by the horns and putting forth a good, tax-neutral water quality bill that puts guarantees in it that we can make sure dollars go to water quality.”

Despite Kaufmann’s work on the bill there are issues with the WISE approach to water quality.

Sales tax is regressive, which means it would be applied uniformly to all situations, regardless of the payer. Some might argue that everyone uses water so why shouldn’t everyone pay through sales tax? It is a straw man argument. A sales tax takes a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from people causing this problem.

What’s worse than the regressive nature of sales tax is the Republican position any new tax must be revenue neutral. That means cutting the state budget. Where will the legislature find an additional $180 million in budget cuts after a year with three successive revenue shortfalls?

“Kaufmann admits there (are) still some questions about how the bill would affect other state programs,” Rob Swoboda reported in Wallaces Farmer. “But, he says, the only way the Republican-led legislature will pass a water-quality funding plan would be if the plan is revenue-neutral.”

Proposed budget cuts should be defined before advocating for the WISE bill.

There is no need to hold the agricultural community harmless in the pursuit of clean water. In 2013, when developing the Iowa Fertilizer Plant (a.k.a. Orascom) in Wever, Governor Branstad said, “the plant would create 2,500 temporary construction jobs and 165 permanent jobs and save farmers $740 million annually by cutting the price of fertilizer.” Whether or not there was a windfall in fertilizer savings farmers can afford to put skin in the water quality game.

“Where public money is needed (to fund water quality initiatives), consider an obvious source: the sale of farm fertilizer,” former state senator David Osterberg wrote in a May 25, 2016 column in the Des Moines Register. “If an urban person buys fertilizer for the lawn, there is a sales tax on the purchase. Farmers are exempt from the normal sales tax on fertilizer and a lot of other things. There is no reason for this exemption. Put the sales tax on fertilizer, earmark it to water-quality strategies and you have, conservatively, about $130 million a year to work with.”

While a majority of voters agree something must be done to improve water quality, political capital shouldn’t be diverted to supporting failed Republican policies just because they sound good or appear to support what we all believe.

Top image: Century farm in Johnson County. Photo by Paul Deaton.

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Why Mike Carberry may run for Iowa governor

Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry has confirmed rumors that he is thinking about running for governor in 2018. A longtime environmental activist and current member of the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee, Carberry was the most prominent elected official in our state to endorse Bernie Sanders for president. He spoke to Bleeding Heartland this week about why he is considering a bid for higher office, even though running for governor was never part of his life plan.

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