Branstad disregarded 99.8 percent of public comments on Leopold Center

In one of his final bill signings, former Governor Terry Branstad disregarded almost all the public input his office received regarding the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Last month, Republican state lawmakers voted to redirect revenues from a fertilizer fee that had provided the bulk of the center’s funding for 30 years. They zeroed out a separate line item which had covered most of the center’s other operating costs.

After GOP legislators ignored feedback from hundreds of Iowans who came to the Capitol or submitted written comments in support of the Leopold Center, attention turned to Branstad, since the governor has the power to veto line items from budget bills. Legal counsel Colin Smith informed me today that Branstad’s office “received approximately 907 emails” on this subject, of which only two favored eliminating the Leopold Center. More than 900 e-mails and “all but a handful” of more than 500 phone calls on this issue supported maintaining the center.

In other words, at least 99.8 percent of more than 1,400 constituent contacts urged Branstad to allow the Leopold Center to continue its work.

However, Branstad vetoed only two line items, which would have removed language about the Leopold Center from Iowa Code. He left in place provisions that redirected most of the center’s funding. Some income from the ISU Foundation remains, but that is insufficient to fund new research on topics such as water quality, conservation practices, soil erosion, and local food systems.

The ambush on the Leopold Center was a favor to corporate agricultural interests, which sought to divert fertilizer tax revenue to ISU’s narrowly-focused Nutrient Research Center, where agribusiness will likely have more control over the agenda. No one even pretended to make a substantive case for defunding the Leopold Center. Yet Branstad reduced a respected institution to a shell, ignoring almost every Iowan who appealed to him.

Before being sworn in as governor yesterday, Kim Reynolds told Barbara Rodriguez of the Associated Press, “I’m going to travel the state and I’m going to go into communities and I’m going to talk to Iowans and I’m going to listen. […] What are we missing? What are we doing right?”

A key test for Reynolds: will she–unlike her mentor–be willing to change course when Iowans overwhelmingly oppose her administration’s policy? Or will she “listen” politely, then have staff follow up with a form letter after she does whatever Republican ideologues or business lobby groups ask of her?

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Branstad "saved" ISU's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in name only

Governor Terry Branstad used his item veto power today to “preserve the existence” of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, but he allowed provisions redirecting almost all of its funding to take effect. In his veto message on Senate File 510, the agriculture and natural resources budget, Branstad wrote,

I am unable to approve the items designated as Section 34, and Subsection 2 of Section 35, in their entirety. The veto of these particularly specified items will preserve the existence of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture while also maintaining the sections transferring funding to Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to continue valuable research into environmental and water quality issues.

Those sections of the bill repeal language establishing the Leopold Center from Iowa Code.

Under Section 30, which Branstad didn’t veto, the center will lose almost its entire operating budget, since revenue from a fertilizer tax (about $1.5 million annually) will be redirected to ISU’s Nutrient Research Center. The Leopold Center’s work was more broadly focused than that of the Nutrient Research Center, and less influenced by agribusiness groups. The separate Republican education budget zeroed out what had been a $400,000 appropriation to the Leopold Center from the Board of Regents.

Although the Leopold Center receives some income from an endowment managed by the ISU Foundation, Director Mark Rasmussen has said those funds are “wholly inadequate to keep the center functioning at any level of reasonableness.” Branstad told reporters last week he was concerned bequests to the Leopold Center “could be put in jeopardy if it were eliminated.”

The donors Branstad had in mind might as well revise their wills now. There’s no point leaving money to an entity that will be unable to support sustainable agricultural research in the future.

It’s a disappointing choice by the man who helped create the Leopold Center when he signed the landmark Groundwater Protection Act in 1986. Just as Republican lawmakers ignored the many Iowans who attested to the value of the center’s work at a public hearing or through written comments, Branstad was unmoved by the many calls and messages his office received in support of keeping the center running.

I am seeking comment from the governor and will update this post as needed.

UPDATE: Added below absurd spin from ISU.

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One last chance to save the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate approved the death warrant for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University only a week after news of the planned ambush became public. Three weeks later, Governor Terry Branstad still has not signed the agriculture budget bill, which eliminates both major funding sources for the world-renowned center.

Under Iowa law, the governor can item-veto provisions in appropriations bills. Branstad told reporters on May 5, “We have heard from a lot of people that are concerned about the Leopold Center […] And that is one of the items that we’ll be giving close scrutiny to.”

Those who want to save the center can send a message through the governor’s website or call Branstad’s office at (515) 281-5211–the sooner the better. After the jump I’ve posted a few talking points that may be helpful.

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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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ISU president seeking greener runways

Iowa State University President Steven Leath resigned today, effective later this spring, in order to lead Auburn University. Impressed by Leath’s land-grant university experience, Auburn’s trustees hired him following a controversial closed search. In a message to ISU supporters, Leath said he and his wife had “expected to retire here.”

However, we now realize our destiny is in Alabama and leading one of the nation’s great Land-grant universities to even greater prominence.

I leave with a promise fulfilled, and that was to leave the university better than I inherited it. I leave with Iowa State achieving record enrollment, retention rates, graduation rates, job placement rates as well as records in fundraising and research funding, and numerous other metrics. I am proud of the many accomplishments that we achieved in economic development and community engagement.

A brief statement from Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter thanked Leath for his service and noted, “ISU has made great strides during his tenure, including achieving record enrollment.”

The terms of Leath’s contract at Auburn have not been finalized, but it’s a safe bet he will be paid substantially more than the $525,000 base salary he has received since the summer of 2015. The previous Auburn president earned $2.5 million a year, mostly in deferred compensation. Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that Leath “will be forfeiting deferred compensation of $625,000 that would have accrued had he remained [ISU] president in June 2020.”

Leath had several good reasons to jump ship.

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Weekend open thread: A new job for Steven Leath?

Some non-legislative news caught my eye this weekend: Iowa State University President Steven Leath may be leaving Ames soon. Cynthia Williford reported for the Opelika-Auburn News on March 18 that “multiple sources” say Leath is on the short list for Auburn University president. His “experience in agriculture and leadership at a land-grant university could make him an attractive pick,” she noted.

Leath “declined comment then hung up” on Gavin Aronsen of the Iowa Informer. I had a hunch he might look for a job in the South with Bruce Rastetter’s tenure on the Iowa Board of Regents ending soon.

Alluding to the “planegate” scandal, the Des Moines Register and Iowa State Daily stories on the Auburn rumor included the following two sentences: “Leath used the plane for medical appointments in Minnesota, personal flight lessons and trips to his North Carolina home. He’s reimbursed the university for those flights.” I still maintain that Leath did not fully reimburse ISU’s foundation for all of his medical travel.

Iowa State finally gave the Des Moines Register’s Jason Clayworth records including names of passengers who flew with Leath on the university’s King Air. But this story by Erin Jordan for the Cedar Rapids Gazette hints that the university was trying to avoid having the Iowa Public Information Board assess the Register’s complaint.

However, because Clayworth already had many of the unredacted records, ISU eventually decided to give him the full set, [ISU general counsel Michael] Norton said. Because of the resolution, the board did not have to rule on whether the records about potential donors were public information.

“It’s a gray area,” Norton said.

Norton has not responded to my follow-up questions, such as: Will ISU release King Air passenger names to others who request them? Will the university give Clayworth or anyone else names of passengers on future trips, for which the Des Moines Register doesn’t already have unreacted records?

This is an open thread: all topics welcome. Another story that may interest Iowa politics watchers: two months after being sentenced, former State Senator Kent Sorenson began serving his 15-month federal prison sentence this week, Grant Rodgers reported on March 15. Prosecutors had asked for probation, given Sorenson’s cooperation with the investigation into former Ron Paul presidential campaign aides. Rodgers linked to a blog post in which Sorenson wrote, “I have been very open about the mistakes I have made. I truly believe the sentence I received was unjust. The judge was politically motivated, his wife is an activist for the liberal movement and donated to my opponent.” Sorenson’s family are asking for donations to help support his wife and kids.

UPDATE: Clayworth’s report on passengers who flew on ISU’s King Air went online the evening of March 19. I enclose some excerpts below.

Clayworth clarified that the Register “had less than 80 of the 600+ pages [of King Air records]. ISU was told multiple times that we did NOT have all the records.”

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