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state government

Iowa Senate confirms all but one Branstad appointee during 2015 session

by: desmoinesdem

Fri May 22, 2015 at 08:45:58 AM CDT

The Iowa legislature's 2015 session drags on amid unresolved conflict over various budget issues, especially K-12 school funding. But one aspect of the lawmakers' work is complete for this year. The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate has confirmed all but one of Governor Terry Branstad's more than 200 nominees. The overwhelming majority of those votes were unanimous or nearly so.

In recent years, senators have voted against confirming one or two Branstad nominees. This year no nomination failed on the Iowa Senate floor, and only one department head was ever in real danger of not being confirmed to do his job: Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer.

Branstad has occasionally withdrawn nominees who didn't have support from the necessary two-thirds majority in the Iowa Senate. This year the governor didn't need to exercise that power, although he sidestepped a near-certain rejection by accepting Teresa Wahlert's resignation in January, rather than reappointing her to run Iowa Workforce Development. In addition, Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Director Arlen Ciechanowski recently announced plans to retire, tacitly acknowledging the votes weren't there to confirm him.

Follow me after the jump for background on the controversies surrounding Palmer and Ciechanowski and details on Palmer's confirmation vote--the closest call by far for any Branstad appointee this year.

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Fantastic new resource launched on Iowa Administrative Rules

by: desmoinesdem

Wed May 20, 2015 at 14:42:13 PM CDT

Iowa policy wonks have every reason to be discouraged lately about the frozen-in-place, do-little state legislative session. Looking on the bright side, a fantastic new resource on state administrative rules appeared this week.

The Office of the Chief Information Officer launched the Iowa Administrative Rules website on Monday. The site is easy to navigate. A FAQ page explains the basics about the rulemaking process and public comments. Rules currently open for comment are right there on the front page. Clicking on any specific rule brings up the full text, contact information for the relevant state agency, details on upcoming public hearings, and the closing date for comments on the proposal. This website should make it easier for politically-engaged Iowans to understand and participate in making state regulations. It's a good companion to the Iowa legislature's official website, which is user-friendly and updated frequently (though it could be more readable).

I had to laugh at a few comments in the press release announcing the new website, enclosed after the jump. Governor Terry Branstad couldn't resist taking a swipe at "burdensome rules" and "overregulation," a bugaboo for him. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds (yes, the relentless branding of Branstad-Reynolds as a single unit continues) pegged the website launch to other "transparency" measures, including visiting all 99 Iowa counties every year.

I strongly disagree with the governor's general view that business groups need more power over state regulations. The new process Branstad created has allowed a small but powerful group of business owners to torpedo a rule protecting the public interest in preserving topsoil and clean water. Branstad also intervened to undermine an electrical inspections rule designed to prevent fires in farm buildings. That said, the Iowa Administrative Rules website was a great idea, well-executed. Whoever developed the site for the Office of the Chief Information Officer deserves credit.

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Ed Fallon arrested after sit-in at governor's office over Bakken pipeline (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Mon May 18, 2015 at 22:05:43 PM CDT

Former state lawmaker Ed Fallon is in police custody tonight after he refused to leave Governor Terry Branstad's office at the close of business today. Fallon went to the governor's office this afternoon demanding a meeting to discuss "eminent domain legislation that would help landowners along the path of the Bakken Oil Pipeline." More details are in a press release I've enclosed after the jump. Branstad's legal counsel Michael Bousselot came out to talk with Fallon, who insisted on a meeting or phone conversation with the governor himself. Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register,

When the statehouse closed at 5 p.m., Iowa State Patrol troopers approached Fallon and asked if he would be willing to leave, or be arrested for criminal trespassing. Fallon declined to leave, so he was escorted out of the building and arrested outside.

A supporter posted on Facebook this evening that Fallon has a "jail support team attending to all his needs" and "will probably be released sometime tomorrow." When Fallon served in the Iowa House from 1995 through the 2006 session, land use issues were a focal point of his legislative efforts. During and since that time, Fallon has opposed various proposals to use eminent domain to seize farmland for use in for-profit ventures. Earlier this year, he walked from the southeast corner of Iowa to the northeast corner along the proposed pipeline route to raise awareness and mobilize landowners and others who oppose the project. The No Bakken website and Facebook page represent a coalition of some two dozen non-profit groups that oppose the project.

The eminent domain bill Fallon wants Branstad to support is Senate File 506 (previously Senate Study Bill 1276), which passed the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee on May 6 with support from Democratic State Senators Rob Hogg, Brian Schoenjahn, and Kevin Kinney, and Republican Jack Whitver. Branstad warned state lawmakers in January not to "get politics into this" debate over the pipeline. The governor wants to leave the decision to the Iowa Utilities Board, which is considered likely to approve the pipeline. The Sierra Club Iowa chapter plans to fight the project before every state and federal agency that would be involved.

UPDATE: Fallon was released from jail the same evening he was arrested. In a press release I've posted below, he says he's due in court on May 27 and hasn't decided "what legal route to take yet."

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More competition coming to Iowa's health insurance exchange for 2016

by: desmoinesdem

Fri May 15, 2015 at 09:50:00 AM CDT

The Iowa Insurance Division announced today that "seven companies have applied to offer Iowans health insurance through the federal health insurance marketplace" for 2016. This year, Coventry was the sole provider selling through the exchange, following the collapse of CoOportunity Health. Although Iowa's dominant insurance provider, Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield, is staying off the exchange for another year, Coventry and Minnesota-based Medica want to sell individual plans statewide, and United Healthcare wants to sell in 76 of Iowa's 99 counties. The Iowa Insurance Division's full news release is after the jump. Click here (pdf) for a list of counties where each company has applied to offer coverage through the exchange.

Increased competition will not only give roughly 45,000 Iowans more options for health insurance coverage, possibly at lower cost, but will also remove the threat that Iowans could lose access to federal subsidies for lack of a provider willing to sell through our state's partnership exchange.

Iowans could still lose access to the subsidies many need to make health insurance affordable, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the King v Burwell case. An act of Congress could easily address a ruling that invalidated subsidies for Americans who purchase insurance through the federal website, and lawmakers have floated several ideas. But key Republicans don't want to pass any "fix" to the hated 2010 health care reform law.

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Iowa DOT insists that cities shut off some of their traffic cameras

by: desmoinesdem

Wed May 13, 2015 at 22:06:33 PM CDT

The Iowa Department of Transportation is standing behind its ruling that limited the use of traffic cameras in several large Iowa cities. The DOT adopted new rules in late 2013 to limit local governments' ability to install traffic cameras on or near highways. Those rules required cities to demonstrate that cameras were needed to address "critical safety issues," which could not be resolved by other means. Studies have produced conflicting data on whether cameras reduce red light or speeding infractions or vehicle accidents.

In March of this year, DOT officials ordered officials in six cities to shut off ten out of 34 traffic cameras cities had defended on safety grounds. The city of Davenport opted to comply with the DOT ruling, but five other cities asked department officials to reconsider the decision. (Although a reversal was unlikely, exhausting administrative appeals typically precedes legal action challenging a state agency's decision.)

This week, DOT Director Paul Trombino notified city officials in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, and Muscatine that the department was rejecting their appeals, because data did not demonstrate that the disputed cameras had improved safety or reduced crashes. Click through to read copies of the letters. The fifth city to appeal, Sioux City, filed a lawsuit last year challenging the DOT rules. A Woodbury County District Court is scheduled to hear that case soon. Des Moines officials plan to challenge the DOT in court as well. Cedar Rapids officials have not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit. After the jump I've enclosed excerpts from Kathy Bolten's report for the Des Moines Register and Rick Smith's for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Local governments are generally responsible for enforcing traffic laws. I'll be interested to see whether Iowa courts back up the DOT's efforts to restrict those powers on or near major highways. According to Trombino, the Iowa Code allows the DOT to enforce limits on cameras for traffic enforcement. Whatever the courts decide, the state's multi-pronged assault on local control remains an under-reported story of Governor Terry Branstad's fifth and sixth terms.

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Branstad's plans on Medicaid, mental health facilities unpopular as well as unwise

by: desmoinesdem

Fri May 01, 2015 at 11:10:00 AM CDT

Governor Terry Branstad is forging ahead with some major policies he didn't campaign on last year, oblivious to concerns about the impact on Iowa's Medicaid recipients and people served by two mental health institutions the governor wants to close.

According to Public Policy Polling's latest Iowa survey, the governor's plans are deeply unpopular.

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Disability rights advocates sound alarm about Iowa Medicaid privatization

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Apr 23, 2015 at 09:11:14 AM CDT

Iowans who advocate for people with disabilities have deep concerns about Governor Terry Branstad's plan to privatize Medicaid, shifting most recipients into managed care. Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum, who has been caregiver to a daughter with developmental disabilities, has been warning for weeks that the reorganization of Medicaid is too hasty and needs oversight from state lawmakers. Last week she discussed potential problems in more detail, citing the Kansas experience with Medicaid privatization as a cautionary tale. After the jump I've posted the transcript from that press conference. Supporting documents are available here on how managed care has affected Kansans with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Disability Rights Iowa Executive Director Jane Hudson shared her take on the "empty promises" in Branstad's plan for Medicaid. You can read the full text of her April 20 guest column for the Des Moines Register at the newspaper's website or at Disability Rights Iowa. I've enclosed a few passages after the jump, but you should click through to read the whole piece. Nearly 20 advocacy groups for Iowans with disabilities or mental health challenges signed on to Hudson's editorial; the full list is below.

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New Iowa Workforce Development Director cleaning up Teresa Wahlert's mess

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Apr 22, 2015 at 09:58:14 AM CDT

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend is implementing key recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor to resolve concerns about the previous agency director's actions. Townsend's actions provide a refreshing contrast to Teresa Wahlert's management of Iowa Workforce Development, which sparked recurring controversy and not one, not two, but three lawsuits.
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Term limits would be terrible for the Iowa legislature

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Apr 19, 2015 at 20:19:39 PM CDT

Annals of the absurd: Iowa's longest-serving state legislator, who sought a ninth Senate term last year at the age of 80, is now beating the drum for term limits.

What a terrible idea, especially for a state whose governor already takes an expansive view of his own powers.  

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Shorter Terry Branstad: It's good to be the king

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Apr 07, 2015 at 20:26:59 PM CDT

Governor Terry Branstad made a remarkable claim at his latest press conference: because "the people of Iowa elected me to reduce the size and cost of government," he has the authority to "make tough decisions" on closing state-run mental health facilities and reorganizing Medicaid services for more than half a million Iowans.

To justify his position, Branstad channeled President Harry Truman: "The buck stops with me." But his view of governance reminds me more of Mel Brooks in the movie "History of the World, Part 1": "It's good to be the king."

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Outgoing Iowa Utilities Board member slams Branstad's attempt to "appease" major utility

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Apr 03, 2015 at 09:45:28 AM CDT

Outgoing Iowa Utilities Board member Sheila Tipton sent Governor Terry Branstad a scathing letter after not being reappointed to the three-member board last month, Ryan Foley reported yesterday for the Associated Press. Tipton defended a board decision from earlier this year, which greatly displeased MidAmerican Energy. She warned that by removing her and demoting Iowa Utilities Board Chair Libby Jacobs, Branstad was undermining state agencies' independence "in order to appease MidAmerican Energy," thereby doing "a disservice to the citizens of this State."

Tipton also characterized Branstad's recent personnel changes as  "unfair," saying she had received verbal assurances in 2013 that she would be reappointed to a full six-year term if she accepted the governor's offer to serve out Swati Dandekar's unexpired term.

I enclose the full text of Tipton's letter after the jump, along with a statement provided by the governor's office, which defends the appointment of Geri Huser and denies that Tipton was promised a full term on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Even if Branstad or his staff did promise verbally to reappoint Tipton, the governor retains the right to change his mind. However, Tipton is unquestionably correct that the latest Iowa Utilities Board changes look like "an attempt to 'bring the agency in line' and to influence its future decision-making in a way that favors the utilities."

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August 23 to be set as earliest start date for most Iowa schools

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Mar 31, 2015 at 16:16:11 PM CDT

A bill prohibiting school districts from starting the academic year before August 23 is on its way to Governor Terry Branstad, who has indicated that he can accept the compromise. UPDATE: The governor signed the bill on April 10.

The school start date issue has taken up a lot of oxygen at the statehouse this legislative session, despite a lack of evidence that the timing of the academic year affects Iowa's tourism sector in any meaningful way. Follow me after the jump for details on Senate File 227's journey through the legislature, including how Iowa House and Senate members voted on different versions of the bill.

The governor's determination to use state power to supersede decisions reached independently by more than 300 school boards and superintendents is yet another example of the Branstad administration's disregard for local control in many policy areas. For my money, that's one of the most under-reported Iowa politics stories of the last five years.

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Newest Iowa Utilities Board member may have conflict on Bakken pipeline

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 26, 2015 at 18:00:10 PM CDT

Geri Huser may need to recuse herself from the Iowa Utilities Board's upcoming decisions regarding the Bakken Pipeline proposal, according to a report by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press.
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Branstad insists he pressured Workers' Comp official because of business, not bias

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 19, 2015 at 10:17:05 AM CDT

New details have emerged about Governor Terry Branstad's testimony in the lawsuit Iowa's former Workers' Compensation Commissioner filed three years ago, charging discrimination, defamation, and other claims. Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported highlights from the transcript of Branstad's deposition last November.
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Three ways to help save an important rule for Iowa water and soil

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Mar 18, 2015 at 07:30:17 AM CDT

The next few weeks will be critically important for deciding whether Iowa keeps a statewide rule designed to preserve topsoil and reduce stormwater runoff, which carries pollution to our waterways. Bleeding Heartland discussed the 4-inch topsoil rule here and here. Todd Dorman has been on the case with several good columns for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, most recently here.

Follow me after the jump for background on the issue and details on how to weigh in. Submitting a comment takes only a few minutes, or Iowans may attend public hearings in Cedar Rapids tonight, Davenport on March 25, or Des Moines on March 27 (scroll down for times and locations).

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U.S. Department of Labor wants Branstad administration to clean up Teresa Wahlert's mess

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Mar 17, 2015 at 12:16:30 PM CDT

The U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration has given Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend a list of tasks to "strengthen Iowa's compliance with Federal law" and address various concerns about the actions of Teresa Wahlert, Townsend's predecessor.

It's another sign that while Wahlert may not be Governor Terry Branstad's worst appointee during his current administration, she's a solid contender.

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New AFSCME contract: Branstad gets his way on salaries but not on health insurance

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Mar 16, 2015 at 18:14:54 PM CDT

For the third time in a row, binding arbitration was needed to finalize a two-year contract for state workers covered by Iowa's largest labor union. For the first time in decades, workers covered by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) will pay a small amount toward their health insurance premiums, but not nearly as large a share as Governor Terry Branstad wanted them to contribute.

On the other hand, the arbitrator accepted the state's final offer on salary increases for the roughly 40,000 public employees covered by AFSCME Iowa Council 61. Details are after the jump.

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Weekend open thread: New jobs for former Iowa lawmakers edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Mar 15, 2015 at 09:56:11 AM CDT

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Looking through Governor Terry Branstad's latest set of appointments and nominations, I was again struck by how many former Iowa House and Senate members end up on state boards and commissions. I remember Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver appointing lawmakers to high-profile jobs too, but the trend seems more pronounced under the current governor. Background and details on the new appointees are after the jump.

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Branstad names Geri Huser to Iowa Utilities Board, demotes Libby Jacobs (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 12, 2015 at 15:52:26 PM CDT

I missed this story last week, but Ryan Foley didn't: Governor Terry Branstad is replacing Sheila Tipton with Geri Huser on the Iowa Utilities Board. Not only that, Branstad appointed Huser to chair that three-member board, demoting current Chair Libby Jacobs for the remainder of her term, which runs through April 2017. A recent board ruling that disappointed MidAmerican Energy, an investor-owned utility serving a large area in Iowa, precipitated the governor's decision.

Details from Foley's report are after the jump, along with background on Huser and first thoughts on her chances to be confirmed by the Iowa Senate.  

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Two ways 40,000 Iowans could lose their health insurance

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Mar 04, 2015 at 14:40:13 PM CST

At least 40,000 Iowans are in danger of losing their health insurance later this year, and not only because of the King v Burwell case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Regardless of how justices decide that case, Iowans could lose access to federal subsidies they need to buy insurance policies.

State legislators and Governor Terry Branstad could eliminate the risk by working together to establish a fully state-run health insurance exchange this year. But for reasons I can't comprehend, I see no sense of urgency to prevent a potentially devastating outcome for thousands of families.  

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