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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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Bakken pipeline links and discussion thread

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Mar 02, 2015 at 09:51:19 AM CST

The proposed Bakken pipeline is one of the most urgent issues facing Iowa's environmental community. The Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners wants to build the pipeline to transport crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, crossing eighteen Iowa counties in the process. Governor Terry Branstad has made clear he won't support any legislative action to stop the pipeline. That will leave the initial decision up to the Iowa Utilities Board, though approval by other state and federal agencies would be needed later; more details on that are below.

Two dozen non-profit groups have formed a coalition to fight the pipeline. You can keep up with their work on Facebook or at the No Bakken website. I'm active with several of the coalition members and enclosed the full list after the jump. The Sierra Club's Iowa chapter outlined some of the key concerns concisely and explained how members of the public can submit comments.

Former state legislator Ed Fallon, who ran for governor in 2006 and for Congress in 2008, is kicking off a 400-mile walk along the proposed pipeline route today, starting from southeast Iowa and heading northwest over the next several weeks. I've enclosed below an excerpt from his first e-mail update about the walk, in which Fallon recounts a conversation with Lee County farmers whose land lies along the proposed pipeline route. Click here to view upcoming events, including a public meetings for residents of Lee County this evening, for Van Buren County residents in Birmingham on March 5, and for Jefferson County residents in Fairfield on March 6.

The latest Iowa poll conducted by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics found that a majority of Iowans support the Bakken pipeline, but a larger majority oppose using eminent domain to seize land for the pipeline. Excerpts from the Iowa poll findings are at the end of this post.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. - The company that wants to build the pipeline has claimed "the project would have an Iowa economic impact of $1.1 billion during two years of construction, creating enough work to keep 7,600 workers employed for a year." Economist Dave Swenson explained here why such estimates are misleading.

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Weekend open thread: Love and marriage equality edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Feb 15, 2015 at 15:21:03 PM CST

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? I'm not big on "Hallmark holidays," but if Valentine's Day (or "co-opting Valentine's Day") is your thing, I hope you enjoyed February 14. This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

I wanted to catch up on news from a couple of weeks ago, which may continue to reverberate during the Republican Iowa caucus campaign. The owners of Görtz Haus agreed to settle with a gay couple who had wanted to get married at their venue in Grimes. Betty and Richard Odgaard are Mennonites who don't believe in same-sex marriage. Since the law doesn't allow them to discriminate against LGBT couples, they have decided not to hold any weddings at their place of business. They also dropped their own doomed-to-fail lawsuit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Clips with background on the episode and reaction to its resolution are after the jump.

Social conservatives are outraged over what they see as an assault on religious freedom. Both talk radio host Steve Deace and Bob Vander Plaats' organization The FAMiLY Leader have indicated that the Görtz Haus controversy will be a salient issue in the coming presidential campaign.

What these folks can't acknowledge is that no one is forcing the Odgaards or anyone else to approve of or "celebrate" gay weddings. Many of us have ethical or religious objections to some marriages; for instance, if the couple began dating while married to other people, or if one person appears to be marrying solely for money, or if there is a large age gap between the spouses. Plenty of Jews and Christians would disapprove of my own interfaith marriage. No one is demanding that the whole world applaud every marriage, only that the religious beliefs of some don't interfere with the civil rights of others.

Additionally, it's important to note that no house of worship in Iowa has ever been forced to hold same-sex weddings. If the Odgaards ran a church, they would be fully within their rights to refuse to serve LGBT couples. Görtz Haus is a for-profit business, subject to the same civil rights statutes as other public venues.  

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The Iowa Board of Medicine's grotesque double-standard on protecting women

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Feb 14, 2015 at 15:00:00 PM CST

The Iowa Board of Medicine released a remarkable file on Thursday detailing its settlement agreement with Dr. Fredric Sager, an obstetrician/gynecologist based in Clive. You can read the full document here (pdf). After the jump I've enclosed the first five pages, which cover the charges of "unethical or unprofessional conduct" and "disruptive behavior," as well as the main terms of the settlement. Reading what Sager did with some of his patients, including staying with them at his vacation home in Florida, it's mind-boggling that his license to practice medicine was not revoked or at least suspended. Instead, he will pay a fine of $7,500 (a token amount for a well-compensated doctor in Iowa), undergo some counseling on "professional boundaries," transfer certain patients out of his care, and be forced to have a "female healthcare professional chaperone" present when treating female patients in the future.

Multiple acquaintances who work with vulnerable populations in Polk County have told me that Sager treated many patients without a strong support system, such as pregnant teens, homeless youth, and young single women. In fact, one person had heard a teen in Sager's care talk about possibly going to Florida with him, but brushed it off as delusional thinking. It makes me sick that the Iowa Board of Medicine is allowing him to continue to practice medicine as an OB/GYN--even with a chaperone--after establishing his pattern of predatory and inappropriate behavior with patients.  

In contrast, the state Board of Medicine rushed through without adequate public input a rule banning the use of "telemedicine" for medical abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics around Iowa. Board members moved to ban that procedure despite studies demonstrating the safety of telemedicine abortions. Advocates were not able to cite any evidence of adverse outcomes among more than 5,000 Iowa women who had used the teleconferencing system to receive abortifacients. Planned Parenthood's lawsuit challenging the state rule is pending before the Iowa Supreme Court.

Governor Terry Branstad appointed all ten current members of the Iowa Board of Medicine. Six are physicians, and four are members of the public.  

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Iowa legislature sends first tax bill to Branstad's desk

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Feb 10, 2015 at 17:18:12 PM CST

Lawmakers from the two parties remain far from consensus on high-profile tax and budget questions, but the Iowa legislature has unanimously approved its first tax bill of the 2015 session. Senate File 126 (full text here) passed the Iowa Senate by 49 votes to 0 on February 4 and passed the Iowa House by 95 votes to 0 today. It "conforms Iowa's revenue laws to incorporate federal changes" made during 2014. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

The bill would extend a tax break to Iowa business owners, allowing them to claim the first half a million dollars worth of new equipment purchases as a tax deduction for the business. It also allows Iowa teachers to claim a tax credit for up to $250 for the supplies, equipment and materials used in their classroom.

Unlike most bills, which take effect on July 1 (at the start of the next fiscal year), SF 126 "takes effect upon enactment" and "applies retroactively to January 1, 2014, for tax years beginning on or after that date." The fiscal note indicates that this bill will reduce state tax revenue by $98.98 million in the current fiscal year. About $83.5 million of that comes from one part of the bill:

Of the extended provisions, the most significant from a fiscal impact perspective is the extension of favorable depreciation expensing known as "Section 179 expensing." This provision allows business taxpayers (including corporate taxpayers and business entities taxed through the individual income tax) to write off additional depreciation in the year a qualified depreciable asset is placed in service. Since the provision accelerates the claiming of depreciation, the provision reduces taxes owed in the first year, but increases taxes owed in later years.

Looking through the lobbyist declarations, I didn't see any lobbyists registered against this bill. The Iowa Society of Public Accountants, Deere & Company, Iowa Community Foundations, and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation all registered in favor. Speaking to Radio Iowa, Republican State Representative Chris Hagenow said certified public accountants and tax preparers had told lawmakers "this is a priority for them" to provide "certainty" going into tax season.  

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Iowans haven't heard the last from Brenna (Findley) Bird

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Feb 07, 2015 at 16:18:43 PM CST

Governor Terry Branstad's office announced on Thursday that Brenna Bird (whose maiden name was Findley) is stepping down as the governor's legal counsel "to pursue opportunities in the private sector." Her LinkedIn profile hasn't been updated yet, so it's not clear whether Bird is returning to the Des Moines-based Whitaker Hagenow law firm. She joined that firm in 2010 after leaving Representative Steve King's staff, but did not practice much law, since she was running for Iowa attorney general full-time.

Branstad named Bird as his legal counsel shortly after the 2010 election. She appears to have influenced several of the governor's policy choices. At one time, Branstad had supported a mandate to purchase health insurance, but soon after being inaugurated in 2011, he joined a lawsuit to overturn the federal health care reform law (a key issue in Bird's unsuccessful attorney general campaign). Branstad's legal counsel also appears to have helped convince Branstad to change his position on banning lead shot for hunting mourning doves in Iowa. When the state legislature refused to overturn a rule mandating non-toxic ammunition, Bird worked several angles to overturn a rule adopted by the state Natural Resource Commission.

Bird's work as legal counsel has also gotten the Branstad administration involved in some major litigation. In 2011, she participated in efforts to pressure Iowa's Workers Compensation Commissioner to resign before the end of his fixed term. As a result, she and the governor, along with other former staffers, are co-defendants in a lawsuit filed by the former workers' compensation commissioner.

In 2013, Bird was a key contact for Iowans seeking to ban the use of telemedicine for providing medical abortions in Planned Parenthood clinics. As the Iowa Board of Medicine considered a new rule containing verbatim wording from anti-abortion activists, the state Attorney General's Office "cautioned the board against moving so quickly." But as the governor's counsel, Bird encouraged board members to adopt the telemedicine abortion ban immediately. Planned Parenthood's lawsuit challenging that rule is pending with the Iowa Supreme Court.

Bird may be leaving the public sector for now, but I suspect Iowans will see her name on a ballot before too long. She reportedly considered running for Congress last year in Iowa's third district and has served on the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee since last June. I could easily see Bird running for a Republican-leaning Iowa House or Senate seat if one were to open up in central Iowa. Alternatively, she and 2014 attorney general nominee Adam Gregg (now Iowa's state public defender) are likely GOP candidates for attorney general in 2018.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. After the jump I've enclosed a press release on Bird's departure from the governor's staff, with background on Michael Bousselot, her successor as legal counsel.  

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Someone should investigate state's role in Iowa's health insurance coop failure

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jan 26, 2015 at 09:59:10 AM CST

What has seemed likely since Christmas Eve was confirmed on Friday: Iowa's non-profit health insurance coop is liquidating. At the end of this post, I've enclosed the e-mail CoOportunity Health members received on January 23. Members are strongly encouraged to enroll in other health insurance before February 15, the end of 2015 Open Enrollment under the federal health care reform law. In Iowa, only Coventry now sells policies through the exchange, allowing eligible people to receive federal tax subsidies to help cover the cost of insurance.

CoOportunity Health was created to sell individual, family, and small-business health insurance policies in Iowa and Nebraska. Its membership greatly exceeded projections, but so did the costs of insuring a population that had largely been uninsured before the 2010 Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014.

Some politicians, like Senator Joni Ernst, have nothing to say about CoOportunity's collapse beyond empty talking points about Obamacare. Others, like Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02), are digging for answers on why federal officials didn't do more to help the health insurance coop survive. Those are important questions.

As far as I can tell, no one in a position of power is examining how decisions by Iowa officials stacked the deck against CoOportunity ever becoming solvent. Did Iowa's insurance commissioner Nick Gerhart seal the coop's fate by bending over backwards to suit the 800-pound gorilla in Iowa's health insurance market (Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield)? Now that CoOportunity's failure leaves only one company selling policies on Iowa's health insurance exchange, what is Gerhart's "plan B" if Coventry decides later this year against continuing to participate on the exchange for 2016?

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Branstad wants private firms to manage more Medicaid care

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jan 23, 2015 at 09:52:16 AM CST

Governor Terry Branstad will expand the number of Medicaid recipients who are covered under private managed-care companies, Tony Leys reported for the January 21 Des Moines Register.

Details are scarce on how the plan would work, but Branstad projects it would save $51.3 million from January through June 2016, its first six months. [...]

"Through better coordinated care in Medicaid, focused on improving outcomes, Iowa can better serve Medicaid patients and provide more predictability for Iowa taxpayers," [Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers] wrote in an email to the Register. "The growth of Medicaid spending in Iowa is unsustainable over the long-term and it limits Iowa's ability to provide high-quality and stable health services to our most vulnerable residents as well as our ability to invest state taxpayer dollars in other key programs aimed at growing our state." [...]

Rep. Linda Miller, a Bettendorf Republican who serves on the [Human Resources] committee, said most of the savings would come from improved care, so Medicaid members wouldn't need hospitalization or other expensive services as often. She said legislators want to make sure the shift won't lead to cuts in services or in payment rates to medical providers.

Amy McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, said the state and federal governments spend about $4.2 billion annually - including $1.5 billion of state money - on Iowa's Medicaid program. That's up 73 percent since 2003, she said.

If Branstad's plan really would save $51.3 million each year (I am skeptical), that figure represents a little more than 1 percent of Medicaid's total annual costs in Iowa, or about 3.4 percent of the state's share of Medicaid costs.

Approximately 564,000 Iowans are now covered under the Medicaid program. It's not clear how many of them would be shifted to private companies; the Department of Human Services is expected to release a plan in March. Magellan of Iowa has offered "a broad range of mental health and substance abuse services" to most Iowans on Medicaid since 1995. Meridian Health Plan has been providing coverage to some Medicaid recipients since 2012 "through a contract with the Iowa Department of Human Services." Currently about 17,000 beneficiaries are covered through Meridian.

Leys quoted Iowa House Republican Dave Heaton as saying the governor can implement this change without legislative approval.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. - Who is old enough to remember when Republicans demonized the idea of "managed care" as evil interference between doctors and their patients?

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Iowa to introduce online voter registration in 2016

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Jan 20, 2015 at 17:56:23 PM CST

Starting next year, Iowans who have a driver's license or other state-issued identification will be able to register to vote online. From a press release the Iowa Secretary of State's Office sent out this afternoon:

(DES MOINES)  Today, the Iowa Voter Registration Commission adopted a rule that will allow eligible voters who possess a valid driver's license or state ID to apply for their voter registration on-line.  This system is scheduled to be in place by early 2016. [...]

On-line voter registration will be available to eligible voters with a valid Iowa driver's license or a state issued ID.  This represents 93% of the state's eligible voters.  The goal is to continue to work on ways to expand this opportunity in the future so that on-line registration will eventually be available to all eligible voters, including those without driver's licenses.

Secretary Pate said, "This is a significant step.  We had a productive meeting with the DOT and are confident we can be up and going before the 2016 election.  We'll continue to work further on the issue to expand voter registration to other groups for on-line access."

The voter registration application will be hosted on both the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Iowa Secretary of State website.

Jason Noble reported for the Des Moines Register,

Because the system will rely on electronic signatures on file with the DOT [Department of Transportation], online registration will be available only to Iowans with a driver license or non-operator ID. [...]

The potential lack of access has raised concerns among some voting-rights advocates and appeared to trouble Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Troy Price, a member of the commission.

"Are there ways that we'll be able to capture those folks who currently don't have a driver's license?" Price wondered aloud during the meeting.

A growing number of young people are in no hurry to obtain drivers licenses for various reasons. In addition, Iowa's aging population includes more and more people who can't or don't drive anymore. I'm glad Pate is promising that his office will keep working to reach Iowans without a driver's license, but Democrats should not take their eye off this ball.

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A dubious distinction for Teresa Wahlert

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Jan 14, 2015 at 20:09:26 PM CST

Even after retiring as Iowa Workforce Development director (effective this past Sunday), Teresa Wahlert continues to leave her mark on state government. Yesterday Administrative Law Judge Susan Ackerman filed a lawsuit against the State of Iowa, Wahlert, and two judges Wahlert promoted. After the jump I've enclosed excerpts from David Pitt's report for the Associated Press. Ackerman claims

That makes not one, not two, but three pending lawsuits against the State of Iowa in which Wahlert is a central figure. Former Workers Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey named Wahlert as a co-defendant in his 2012 lawsuit against the state, alleging (among other things) that she "ostracized" him after he resisted pressure to resign before the end of his fixed term. Last year Joseph Walsh, the former Chief Administrative Law Judge for Iowa Workforce Development, sued the state and Wahlert, claiming that she had "interfere[d] with the administrative judicial process in order to favor employers," attempted "to illegally strip [Walsh] of his merit protection," and eventually retaliated by removing him in "a political reorganization disguised as a budget layoff."

In addition, Wahlert was on the wrong end of a November 2014 ruling by an arbitrator, who determined that the Iowa Workforce Development director had "overstepped her bounds when she promoted a judge who had been demoted after complaints that she created a hostile work environment."

Just last week, unemployment appeals Judge Marlon Mormann announced his early retirement, telling the Associated Press that he was "ready to be done with it" after his worst year in a 24-year career in state government. Judge Mormann and Judge Ackerman were both witnesses at Iowa Senate Oversight Committee hearings last August on Branstad administrative officials (led by Wahlert) "pressuring judges to rule against unemployed Iowans."

Let's not forget that Wahlert presided over the governor's policy to close Iowa Workforce Development field offices in dozens of communities, which became an issue in a lawsuit that went all the way up to the Iowa Supreme Court.

I would guess that Wahlert's tenure has set some kind of record for legal entanglements involving an agency director for the State of Iowa. Yet every step of the way, including the day his office announced Wahlert's resignation, Branstad has heaped praise on her work. I'm convinced that the only reason she retired was everyone knew she'd never be confirmed to run Iowa Workforce Development again. Thank heaven for checks and balances.

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Branstad replacing Teresa Wahlert as Iowa Workforce Development director

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Jan 11, 2015 at 19:15:36 PM CST

Sidestepping what looked like an unwinnable battle with Iowa Senate Democrats, Governor Terry Branstad announced in a press release today that Teresa Wahlert will retire as head of Iowa Workforce Development. Apparently Wahlert informed Branstad on January 9 that she would step down, effective today. Iowa Civil Rights Commission Executive Director Beth Townsend will take over as acting director of Iowa Workforce Development. After the jump I've posted background on Townsend as well as today's press release about Wahlert's retirement.

Wahlert's tenure was rocky from the start, as she only barely was confirmed to lead the agency in 2011. Iowa Senate Democrats objected to the planned closure of staffed Iowa Workforce Development offices all over the state, a policy that Wahlert later carried out despite lawmakers' efforts to keep the offices open. (The Iowa Supreme Court eventually ruled unanimously that Branstad acted improperly when he struck language about the field offices without vetoing the money allocated to fund them, but the offices were never reopened.)

Wahlert's conduct is also mixed up in two lawsuits filed by former senior state employees. As if that weren't enough, an arbitrator ruled in November that Wahlert "overstepped her bounds when she promoted a judge who had been demoted after complaints that she created a hostile work environment." For those reasons, she certainly would not have received the 34 yes votes she needed in the Iowa Senate, had Branstad re-appointed her to her current job. Today's official press release does not acknowledge any of the controversies surrounding Wahlert's work. Instead, the governor and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds praised her leadership on worker training and job creation.

Final note: words attributed to Reynolds today greatly exaggerate the number of jobs created during Wahlert's years in state government. No matter how many times real economists dismantle this zombie lie, the Branstad administration is hell-bent on counting only gross jobs created (a "fake" number), not net jobs created (which accounts for job losses as well). Townsend could do all Iowans a service by getting her new subordinates out of the fuzzy math business. As Mike Owen of the Iowa Policy Project argued here, the "political tainting" of Iowa Workforce Development is unacceptable: "IWD should be trying to determine and illustrate the actual job picture facing our state, so policy makers can make decisions in that light."  

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Why did Debi Durham sack one of Iowa's leading clean energy experts? (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jan 05, 2015 at 22:59:22 PM CST

Iowa is already one of the top states for wind power and could become one of the country's solar power leaders as well. Unfortunately, Governor Terry Branstad has a mixed record on promoting alternative energy. On the plus side, Branstad has praised "tremendous potential for growth in solar energy." He has signed bipartisan legislation to provide state income tax credits for renewable energy, including a bill last spring that tripled the annual amount of solar tax credits in Iowa.

On the other hand, last year the Branstad administration "surrendered a $1 million grant designed to make Iowa a nationwide leader in solar energy after electric utilities lobbied for major changes," Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press. You can view what that grant might have accomplished here. After the jump I've enclosed excerpts from Foley's report on the e-mail correspondence.

Now we find out that last month the Iowa Economic Development Authority quietly sacked Paritosh Kasotia as leader of the state energy office. The Associated Press reported that Kasotia was "informed of her ouster Dec. 8 and stopped working the same day."

Colleagues said Kasotia was not given an explanation for the termination, which came days after she returned from a national conference. An expert on alternative energy and energy efficiency, Kasotia oversaw tens of millions of dollars in funding for state and federal programs during her five-year state tenure. [...]

Kasotia, 32, also became active in the National Association of State Energy Officials and served on the advisory council of the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University.

Gary Steinke, who served with Kasotia on the advisory council, called her a "national leader in alternative energy."

"My reaction is that I'm shocked and disappointed," said Steinke, president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "She brought a wealth of knowledge and information to the advisory council and she will be sorely missed."

Last year, Kasotia helped land a competitive $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to make Iowa a leader in solar energy. Environmentalists said the grant would cut costs and regulations to speed solar adoption. Branstad had written a letter in support. But state officials ended up giving up the grant after utility lobbyists complained they had not been consulted and objected to the grant's scope.

The move was seen as an embarrassment to the energy office, which started meeting routinely with representatives from utilities such as Alliant Energy and MidAmerican to get input on grant applications.

I sought comment from the governor's office on why Kasotia was fired. Governor Branstad's spokesman Jimmy Centers responded, "Iowa law prevents our office from commenting on personnel matters. It's important to note that state agencies, not the governor's office, handle personnel matters within their departments."

Raise your hand if you think Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham would fire a senior official in her department without running it by the governor's office.

Incidentally, Kasotia was a merit employee in the Office of Energy Independence under Governor Chet Culver. But when the Branstad administration restructured the office and assigned it to Durham's agency, Kasotia's job as team leader became an "at will" position. Democrats have criticized the governor's policy of making some 350 state employees at will, because those people can be fired for any reason or no reason. In addition, at will employees may be replaced without advertising the job. Senior officials in the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals have challenged their change in job status, and the U.S. Department of Labor had to intervene to block the Iowa Workforce Development director's attempt to make that agency's chief administrative law judge an at will employee.

Someone with as much knowledge and expertise as Kasotia should not be shown the door without a valid reason. Branstad may be be a huge cheerleader for Durham, but when Iowa state senators consider whether to confirm her for another term as Iowa's top economic development official, they should question her about Kasotia's firing.

P.S.- Durham's confirmation hearing could be one of the most contentious during the upcoming legislative session. Democratic lawmakers will also challenge Durham on why she committed Iowa to more than $100 million in unnecessary state tax incentives for one foreign-owned corporation. They may also ask why she has taken several annual bonuses to put her total compensation well above the salary cap defined by state law.

P.P.S.- Kasotia's ouster makes me more concerned that the Iowa Utilities Board (now run entirely by Branstad appointees) will take administrative steps to overturn a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling, which went against utility companies' interests.

UPDATE: Added portions of the Des Moines Register's January 6 editorial after the jump.

SECOND UPDATE: Des Moines Cityview's Civic Skinny column discussed the firing as well. Scroll down for excerpts.

THIRD UPDATE: Added Governor Branstad's latest comments below.

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Iowa's health insurance co-op failing

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Dec 25, 2014 at 21:15:00 PM CST

Tony Leys didn't bring glad tidings today to the 120,000 members of CoOportunity Health in Iowa and Nebraska. In a front-page story for the Des Moines Register, Leys reported that state regulators have taken over the non-profit health insurance co-op, one of only two companies selling policies on Iowa's exchange. It sounds like the co-op will be liquidated in the coming months.  
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New school calendar policy is Branstad's latest assault on local control

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Dec 15, 2014 at 09:39:37 AM CST

Governor Terry Branstad has repeatedly used his power to supersede local government decision-making, from 1990s policies to block counties from restricting large hog confinements to an executive order banning project labor agreements the very first day he was back in office in January 2011.

On Friday Iowans saw the latest example of Branstad's disregard for local officials' ability to decide what's best.

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Chutzpah alert: Branstad as defender of the separation of powers

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Dec 03, 2014 at 19:58:40 PM CST

In the busy days before Thanksgiving, I missed this unintentional comedy from Governor Terry Branstad's weekly press conference (hat tip to Todd Dorman):

"There's also a constitutional question about whether the president of the United States has the authority to act unilaterally on issues like this [immigration policy]," Branstad said. "So I expect there's going to be a lot of unanswered questions that I need to get information about and what the impact would have on our state."

Asked if he would take executive action on state immigration policy, Branstad responded, "We don't operate that way in Iowa."

"That's the difference between Washington, D.C., and Iowa," Branstad said. "In Iowa, I'm very careful to recognize the separation of powers and to work with the Legislature."

Where to begin?

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New Big 10 Rivalry? Iowa can compete with Maryland on clean water

by: openureyes

Mon Nov 24, 2014 at 22:09:02 PM CST

(Thanks to State Representative Chuck Isenhart for the guest commentary. He is ranking member on the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee and liaison to the state Watershed Planning Advisory Council. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Iowans want clean water, but that has not motivated Iowa policymakers to tackle water pollution.

Rather, the driving fear is stronger regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of the "dead zone." That 5,000-square-mile area in the Gulf of Mexico has become toxic to life because of nitrogen and phosphorus, mostly from farm runoff. Iowa and Illinois are the top culprits.

The state's "nutrient reduction strategy" is a narrow approach designed not to clean up Iowa's water in our lifetimes, but to forestall specific federal limits on polluted water. The plan is focused on how to manage fertilizer. That piece is good as far as it goes, but does not go far enough. Iowa needs a broader strategy.

The Gulf of Mexico is not the only water body with a "dead zone." For example, Maryland depends on  the Chesapeake Bay as a $1 trillion economic driver, including tourism, recreation, seafood and other industries. Maryland has been fouling its own nest for decades.

Imagine the Gulf of Mexico in Iowa. No doubt dealing with our 489 impaired lakes and streams suffering death by a thousand drips would become more urgent, undeserving of the 80 percent budget cut inflicted by Governor Branstad this year.

As both perpetrators and victims, Maryland citizens made clean water a top public priority. In leaner economic times, a 2012 poll showed that 91 percent of Maryland residents said cleaner water was important and nearly two-thirds supported increasing a statewide household tax to do it. Eighty percent wanted the state to be active in managing growth.

I spent a day on a recent trip to Maryland learning about the Chesapeake Bay. Governor Martin O'Malley put his staff at my disposal after I met him on his summer visit to Iowa. What lessons can be learned from the Chesapeake initiative that might be helpful to us?

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Three reasons Jon Neiderbach would be a better state auditor than Mary Mosiman

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Oct 27, 2014 at 09:35:00 AM CDT

Iowa's state auditor is a low-profile position and a difficult office to campaign for, even without a marquee U.S. Senate race sucking up all the oxygen. But there are huge contrasts between Republican incumbent Mary Mosiman, appointed to the office last year, and her Democratic challenger Jonathan Neiderbach.

Last week, Robert Rees hosted a mini-debate of the state auditor candidates during his "Morning Drive" program on the Des Moines-based talk radio station 98.3 The Torch. You can listen to the 15-minute exchange here or look it up on the list of Morning Drive podcasts for October 21. The big takeaway is that Mosiman wants to maintain the status quo in State Auditor's office operations, despite mismanagement including secret payouts to state employees, which several years of audits failed to uncover. Neiderbach wants to improve the audits so that they are meeting the tasks set out in Iowa Code.

Follow me after the jump for highlights from last week's debate and two more reasons to support Neiderbach for state auditor.

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IA-03: Second Appel/Young debate liveblog and discussion thread

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Oct 06, 2014 at 20:24:38 PM CDT

Former State Senator Staci Appel and David Young are holding their second debate, hosted by KCCI-TV and the Des Moines Register at Simpson College in Indianola. I'm live-blogging after the jump. KCCI will have the video up later on their website.
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Iowa Senate Democrats roll out state government reforms

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Oct 01, 2014 at 15:00:00 PM CDT

The Iowa Senate Oversight Committee met yesterday to approve a wide range of recommendations on state government management, contracting, and labor practices. O. Kay Henderson posted audio from the committee meeting at Radio Iowa. On a 3-2 party-line vote, Democrats on the committee approved recommendations in the following nine areas:

• A ban on secret settlements and hush money
• Expanded whistleblower protections
• Anti-cronyism measures
• Reform of the state's "do-not-hire" database
• A ban on no-bid contracts for state projects
• Increase accountability in state infrastructure projects
• Protect Iowans right to fair hearings by preventing political appointees and at-will employees from supervising or evaluating judges
• Restore integrity to Iowa's unemployment trust fund by appointing trusted and transparent leadership
• Require that the Legislature be notified when the Governor receives reports of founded workplace violence in state agencies.

One of the Republicans who voted against the recommendations, State Senator Julian Garrett, characterized the Democratic proposals as "political theater" not "borne out by the facts."

"No laws were broken. No codes of ethics were violated," Garrett said. "Instead, we have discovered that there is a difference of opinion in management philosophies...and we have learned that sometimes front-line workers don't care for or particularly agree with their bosses."

In Garrett's view, Governor Terry Branstad is running the state "exceptionally well" and should get more credit for ending secret settlements through an executive order. However, witnesses appearing before the Iowa Senate Oversight Committee in recent months testified to many problems in state government beyond settlements that included confidentiality clauses (which were the first scandals to get widespread attention). Committee Chair Janet Petersen mentioned several of them in her opening remarks for yesterday's meeting. After the jump I've posted a more detailed list of recommendations, along with findings that prompted them. Whether these proposals go anywhere during the 2015 legislative session will depend on party control of the Iowa House and Senate after the November election.

Rod Boshart paraphrased Petersen as predicting that if Branstad is re-elected, several of his appointees who were involved in these scandals may have trouble being confirmed by the Iowa Senate, "notably Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert."

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Auditor details mismanagement by Matt Schultz and Mary Mosiman

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Sep 26, 2014 at 07:39:48 AM CDT

If you thought nothing could surprise you anymore about Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, I recommend reading the report Chief Deputy State Auditor Warren Jenkins released yesterday. Jenkins reviewed payments to Schultz's former chief deputy Jim Gibbons after Gibbons stopped coming to work. You can download a pdf of the audit here. I've posted the full text after the jump.

Key points: Schultz told Gibbons in May 2012 that his position would be eliminated at the end of the calendar year. Gibbons stopped coming in to work regularly the following month. Normal procedure calls for at-will state employees to be paid "until the end of the pay period, up to a maximum of 2 weeks after being notified their position is to be eliminated." After learning that state agencies are not allowed to make severance payments to at-will employees, Schultz decided to keep Gibbons on the payroll through December 2012. There are no timesheets or records of how often Gibbons came to work between June and December of that year. Former colleagues could not provide Jenkins with much information about anything Gibbons did for the Secretary of State's Office. Gibbons reported directly to Schultz.

The audit concluded, "Based on the lack of documentation supporting work performed by Mr. Gibbons, we cannot determine the public benefit of the Secretary of State's Office paying Mr. Gibbons $90,738.67 in salary, vacation, and benefits for the period June 8, 2012 through December 31, 2012." Jenkins also questioned the public benefit of paying more than $21,000 to two other at-will employees whose positions were eliminated.

Schultz is now running for Madison County attorney. That election will be a good test of whether Madison County Republicans care more about partisan allegiance or basic competence. A statement from Schultz tried to pass off Gibbons' work arrangement as something advised by the Department of Administrative Services. That spin is misleading, for reasons I explain after the jump.

Current State Auditor Mary Mosiman was one of Schultz's deputies during the period examined, and to put it mildly, this report casts an unflattering light on her. She has claimed that she warned Schultz that keeping Gibbons on the payroll was damaging to morale in the agency. But the bottom line is, she never blew the whistle on a colleague getting tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for doing no work.

In addition, Jenkins found that neither Mosiman nor Gibbons submitted timesheets or "leave slips" documenting approval of planned time off. As a result, Mosiman "was paid for one week of accumulated vacation she should not have received" when she left the Secretary of State's Office for her current job. She has reportedly already returned to the state her excess payment of $2,500. No one knows whether that's the full extent of overpayments to Schultz's subordinates. Jenkins' report states, "Because timesheets and leave slips were not required to be completed and were not submitted by the Deputies, we are unable to identify any additional vacation hours used but not properly recorded for the Deputies."

The state auditor is supposed to make sure the public's money is well spent. How can someone do that job without understanding the need to record essential information such as time spent working and time spent on vacation? Even if Mosiman was not aware that she received too much vacation pay, she should have recognized and taken steps to correct the lack of record-keeping at the Secretary of State's Office. She should not have stood by and let Gibbons collect month after month of salary and benefits, long after he stopped coming to work.

After the jump I've posted comments from Schultz, Democratic State Senator Liz Mathis (who requested the audit), Democratic candidate for secretary of state Brad Anderson, and Democratic candidate for state auditor Jon Neiderbach.

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