Republican hypocrisy watch: Pawlenty and Culver edition (updated)

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty toured eastern Iowa over the weekend to raise money for several Iowa House Republican leaders and state Senate candidate Bill Dix. It was his fourth Iowa trip during the past year. Since Pawlenty is laying the groundwork for a future presidential bid, journalists covering his latest visit focused on what he is doing for Iowa Republicans, as well as his views on foreign policy, government spending and the economy.

I’m more interested in the way Iowa Republicans embraced Pawlenty. Naturally, they liked his message about retaking the state legislature, and GOP House leaders can really use the campaign cash. But it’s surreal to watch Republicans promise their serious consideration for Pawlenty as a presidential candidate when you compare his record with the case conservatives make against Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

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Exploring Paul McKinley's fantasy world

If Iowa Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley believes the spin he serves up to journalists and the Republican Party faithful, he must have an active imagination.

I don’t know which is most detached from reality: McKinley’s take on Iowa’s finances, his views on “state sovereignty” or his election predictions.

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Don't believe everything Republicans tell you about I-JOBS

Iowa Republicans have been throwing around misleading talking points about the I-JOBS program since the Iowa legislature approved the infrastructure bonding initiative last spring. I’m still waiting for Republicans to address some basic questions, like where would they have found $45 million for flood recovery efforts in Linn County without I-JOBS? What was their plan for repairing ten flood-damaged structures at the University of Iowa, if they didn’t want to issue $100 million in state bonds to leverage $500 million in federal funds to rebuild the campus?

Some Republicans have called for delaying infrastructure projects until we have enough cash to pay for them up front, but Iowa’s worst-ever flooding hit the state during the most severe national recession since World War II. There was no realistic way to pay for flood recovery efforts without state borrowing. Even David Yepsen, a notorious skeptic about state spending, could see that. During the summer of 2008, Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson pointed out, “When you borrow money, that allows you to fix things as quickly as possible,” he said. “You can’t move as quickly on a ‘pay-as-you go’ basis.” Yet every Republican in the legislature voted against borrowing money to repair the damage from the devastating 2008 floods.

In addition to the flood recovery funds allocated to Linn County and the University of Iowa, the I-JOBS program included $118.5 million for “reconstruction of local public buildings and flood control prevention,” to be awarded by competitive grants. It wasn’t enough to fully meet local infrastructure needs across the state; requests for that portion of the I-JOBS money totaled $333.6 million. But it was a good start.

Republicans recently seized on a new talking point: some I-JOBS money is supposedly being spent on projects unrelated to disaster recovery. By way of example, State Representative Pat Grassley mentioned the community center in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights. I contacted Windsor Heights City Manager Marketa George Oliver about this allegation, and she forwarded a copy of a letter from Mayor Jerry Sullivan to Grassley. You can view the whole letter here, but the small print is hard to read, so here’s the relevant excerpt (emphasis in original):

The City is currently constructing a new Community Center. The structure that used to be in [Colby Park] at this location was originally built in a flood plain and was repeatedly flooded. It sustained flood damage year after year and flood after flood. The new structure is being built out of the flood plain and protected from any future flooding, mitigating the effects of a natural disaster. The Center, once finished, will be a heating/cooling facility in the event of prolonged power outages, which is much-needed in our region. In the event of natural disasters, it will also be available as temporary housing. […]

The I-Jobs program gave us the ability to make a substantial investment in mitigating and responding to natural disasters. The program was also able to support our efforts in a timely manner, unlike many other grants programs.

Oliver explained to me that a heating/cooling center is a place residents without power can go during a cold spell or dangerous heat wave.

Republicans will continue to attack the I-JOBS program during this year’s campaigns for governor and state legislature. Democrats need to be ready to defend these infrastructure investments, because journalists will sometimes pass along ill-informed claims like Grassley’s without providing context or an opposing view. In addition, some Republican candidates may falsely suggest that I-JOBS pays for ongoing spending programs instead of capital projects, like bridge and sewer repairs. Maybe they are thinking of Republican Terry Branstad, who borrowed money to solve the state’s cash flow problems in 1992.

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Iowa Senate approves government reorganization bill

Last night the Iowa Senate passed Senate File 2088, which would reorganize state government, after four hours of debate. All 32 Democrats in the chamber voted for the bill, along with three Republicans: Shawn Hamerlinck, Larry Noble and Pat Ward.

Click here for the full text of the bill. According to analysis by the Legislative Services Agency, Senate File 2088 would reduce state spending from the general fund by $74 million in fiscal year 2011 and $36 million the following year (here’s the link to the fiscal note on the bill). In addition, “Other funds, including local government pots of money, would save $44 million next budget year and just under $14 million the following year.” Jennifer Jacobs posted some of the key provisions and amendments at the Des Moines Register’s blog.

Unlike the 1985 state government reorganization, the current bill does not merge any state agencies. It doesn’t close any of Iowa’s four mental health institutes, but downsizes the one at Clarinda. That switch outraged legislators from southwest Iowa, because the Iowa Department of Human Services had recommended closing the Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institute in southeast Iowa instead.

Senate File 2088 requires bulk purchasing and centralized payroll and technology systems for most state agencies but exempts the three state universities from those provisions.

Rod Boshart recapped one of the more contentious episodes during last night’s debate:

The debate stalled when 11 majority Democrats joined the 18-member GOP minority in supporting an amendment to block a proposal to move the community empowerment program for early childhood education from the neutral state Department of Management to the Department of Education.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, switched his vote to be on the prevailing side then called a closed-door caucus after which senators voted 31-19 to reconsider the issue and approve the move of empowerment to the education agency by a 27-23 margin.

I wasn’t familiar with the Iowa Community Empowerment program, which is geared toward families with children under age six. Since early education programs are part of the Iowa Empowerment Board’s mission, it seems logical to bring the program to the Department of Education.

The original bill had eliminated the Property Assessment Appeal Board, but an amendment to keep that body intact passed by 46 to 4. Politically, that was a smart vote for the senators. Many Iowans are likely to see property tax increases this year, so it’s not a good time to make it more difficult for citizens to challenge their assessments.

Several Republicans have expressed doubt that the bill would guarantee the promised savings. Democrats rejected a number of Republican amendments, including one that would have increased health insurance costs for state employees and one that would have required a two-thirds vote in the legislature to approve any state bonding. (Such a threshold would have prevented last year’s passage of the I-JOBS infrastructure bonding initiative.) A complete bill history, including all amendments considered, is here.

Earlier in this session, the Iowa Senate approved Senate File 2062, a separate bill on early retirement incentives. That measure is expected to save about $57.4 million in fiscal year 2011, “including a $26.4 million savings to the state’s general fund.” That bill passed on a bipartisan 41-7 vote. The full text is here, and the bill history is here.

UPDATE: Over at Iowa Independent, Lynda Waddington reports,

Mental health advocates haven’t gotten everything they wanted in relation to new state policies governing psychiatric medications for individuals receiving state assistance. But they scored a big win Monday night when the Iowa Senate approved new language that ensures existing patients’ medications won’t be automatically switched in order to save the state money.

Read her whole story for more details and background.

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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 1)

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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We have a candidate in House district 37

2008 was a good election for Iowa Democrats, but we still lost several very close statehouse races. In House district 37 (map here), Republican Renee Schulte defeated first-term incumbent Art Staed by 13 votes (0.07 percent).

This week Cedar Rapids attorney Mark Seidl announced his plans to run in this district and laid out his priorities:

“Although no one would have wished for any of them, the natural, fiscal, and economic disasters that have struck us in recent years present unique opportunities for rethinking each level of our government,” Seidl said.  “In going forward, we must concentrate on reconstituting and enhancing our advantages-recreating two cities which are an essential part of Iowa’s character, conserving our tremendous natural resources in agriculture and renewable energy production, and preparing the next generation of Iowans to be leaders and innovators in the future.”

This district is winnable in light of Schulte’s tiny margin of victory and a slight Democratic voter registration advantage. Nevertheless, Seidl will need to pound the pavement to win back this seat. Schulte is a hard worker who was out door-knocking last Friday, 11 months before the election when the temperature was in the 20s. Also, Schulte may benefit from an “enthusiasm gap” if Democratic voters are demoralized and Republicans energized next November.

Schulte bucked the majority of her party by voting for a bill that allowed authorities to impose a local option sales tax in disaster areas. Linn County voters approved the 1-cent tax in March, and the proposal received a majority of votes in Cedar Rapids as a whole. I don’t know whether it carried the Cedar Rapids precincts that are in House district 37.

Like other House Republicans, Schulte voted against the I-JOBS state bonding initiative, which allocated $45 million to Linn County for disaster relief (here is how that money was allocated).

I suspect that in this district, much will depend on how voters perceive the effectiveness of the state’s response to the 2008 floods.

UPDATE: Schulte is already organizing volunteers to help with voter contacts. We will need all hands on deck in this district.

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