More lawsuits challenge eminent domain for Bakken pipeline

Owners of two farms in Cherokee County filed lawsuits on May 20 seeking to block the Texas-based oil company Energy Transfer Partners from seizing their land for the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline, William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register. I enclose excerpts from his story below.

Like a separate lawsuit filed in Polk County last month, these legal claims are based on a 2006 Iowa law, which was designed to protect farmland from being condemned for private development. The plaintiffs argue the Iowa Utilities Board erred when it authorized a private company that is not a utility to use eminent domain.

Regardless of how district courts decide these claims, the Iowa Supreme Court will likely be the final voice on whether state law allows the use of eminent domain for this project.

Dakota Access started Bakken pipeline construction in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Illinois this week, but the Iowa Utilities Board denied the company’s request to start building here. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa that the board’s legal counsel noted the oil company "has not filed all the necessary permits and associated verifications to begin construction." Although the board approved the permit to build the Bakken pipeline in March, as did the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers has not yet approved permits for portions of the pipeline that would cross federal land.

Brian Morelli and Rod Boshart reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on the Private Property Rights Coalition’s work to educate landowners along the pipeline route about the eminent domain process and "legal options if they refuse to voluntarily sign easement agreements with the oil company." One of that group’s leaders is Keith Puntenney, who has not signed an easement for his farmland in Boone and Webster counties. Puntenney is also the Democratic challenger to State Senator Jerry Behn in Iowa Senate district 24.

More resources for landowners and citizens who oppose the pipeline project are available on the website of the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition, uniting more than two dozen Iowa non-profit organizations. I expect Bakken opponents to make their presence known when U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota comes to Des Moines as the featured guest for the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame event next month.

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Hold on to your hats: Search for new president coming to UNI

I have a bad feeling about this: after three years as University of Northern Iowa president, Dr. William Ruud is leaving Cedar Falls to lead Marietta College in Ohio. That college and the Iowa Board of Regents confirmed Ruud’s plans shortly after Jeff Charis-Carlson broke the news yesterday.

Moving from the top job at a well-regarded state university to a private college one-tenth the size isn’t a typical path for academic leaders. So, did Ruud jump or was he pushed?

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Want to help under-funded schools? Invest in your downtown

"Footprint" of Jordan Creek Town Center development in West Des Moines, overlaid on the "East Village" neighborhood of downtown Des Moines, courtesy of Jim Thompson

Four of the oldest buildings in downtown Waterloo "have been renovated with their historic features revived," John Molseed reported for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier on May 13. A block that had been vacant since 2007 will now hold "four commercial spaces and six loft-style apartments." The city of Waterloo and the state historic tax credit program helped secure private investment for the project.

Renovating older buildings is much better for the environment than razing them. The economic benefits of historic preservation are not always easy to measure, but converting vacant buildings to commercial or residential use generates revenue.

Downtown property is the most valuable per acre, according to data compiled by Jim Thompson, a business specialist for the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Main Street Program. For that reason, Thompson advises anyone who will listen, "If you want to help your school districts, invest in your downtown buildings."

His message should resonate with local officials after yet another state legislative session produced a disappointing budget for K-12 schools. With Thompson’s permission, I enclose below some materials he has created to show the impact of repurposing downtown buildings.

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New details on Wellmark's plans to sell policies through Iowa's public exchange

The 800-pound gorilla of Iowa’s health insurance market, Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield, released new details today about its plans to sell policies for 2017 on the health insurance exchange created as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. More than half of Iowans are insured by Wellmark, mostly through employer-provided policies. The company controls about three-quarters of the state’s market for individual health insurance, but up to now, those policy-holders have not been eligible for federal subsidies. Wellmark announced last October that it would participate in Iowa’s exchange for 2017 and confirmed those plans last month, when UnitedHealthcare disclosed that it would exit "Obamacare marketplaces" across the country, including Iowa’s.

Wellmark’s Chairman and CEO John Forsyth said last year that the company decided to join the public exchange so members "can access subsidies that are critical to help reduce the cost of health insurance premiums for themselves and their families." Many thousands of people will need those subsidies, because today Wellmark revealed that roughly 30,000 Iowans who hold individual policies compliant with the Affordable Care Act will likely see massive premiums increases of 38 to 43 percent next year.

Unfortunately, as Tony Leys reported for the Des Moines Register, Wellmark policies will be available on the public exchange only for residents of 47 Iowa counties—not statewide.

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Iowa Medicaid Transition Not Smooth

Rhonda Shouse, a Medicaid recipient and member of Iowa’s Mental Health Planning and Advisory Council, is a leading advocate for Iowans affected by Medicaid privatization. She is an admin for the MCO Watchdog Facebook group and has previously shared resources to help people report problems with managed-care providers. The Cedar Rapids Gazette published a shorter version of this commentary last week. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Iowa Medicaid Enterprises (IME) Director Mikki Stier wrote a guest column on Iowa’s Medicaid Modernization which appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Fort Dodge Messenger, and Sioux City Journal in April. I am writing in response to Ms. Stier’s column.

If IME considers making it more difficult for Medicaid beneficiaries to get much needed items such as catheters, diapers, medication, transportation to medical appointments, and permission for guardians to represent their wards, then Iowa’s Medicaid Modernization is a huge success. These were not obstacles under the old Medicaid system.

In IA Health Link’s first month, the bulk of the problems point directly to the Department of Human Resources and IME to adequately provide the MCOs with accurate information. It is likely due to the unrealistic time frame established by Governor Terry Branstad, or DHS, depending on who tells the story of who came up with the idea for Iowa’s Medicaid Managed Care program. Most states that have moved to a managed care approach have moved only portions of their beneficiaries at a time and done so over a two to five year period.

It is very unfortunate that Governor Branstad, DHS, and IME have been perpetrating a public relations campaign for more than a year now to misinform Iowans on how their tax dollars will be spent, who Medicaid beneficiaries are, and how services will be delivered to approximately half a million Iowa residents. Healthcare should not be a partisan political issue.

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Branstad names Bruce Rastetter ally Michael Richards to Board of Regents

Governor Terry Branstad appointed Michael Richards to the Iowa Board of Regents last Friday. Subject to confirmation by the Iowa Senate, Richards will serve the last five years of Mary Andringa’s term on the nine-member board, which oversees Iowa’s state universities. Andringa announced her resignation in late April, saying she had "underestimated the time required to fully serve in this role." (It soon emerged that she is a paid director for the Herman Miller furniture company, which received a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract from the University of Iowa last year.)

An alumnus of the University of Iowa undergraduate college and medical school, Richards has held management positions in various corporations, inside and outside the health care field. The official announcement of his appointment mentions several of those jobs as well as Richards’ philanthropy.

Richards continues a long tradition of major political donors securing spots on the prestigious Board of Regents. He made contributions totaling more than $40,000 to Branstad’s 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns. (Details on that giving are after the jump, along with the May 6 press release.) Last year, Richards gave $10,000 to Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, who is almost certain to run for governor in 2018, as well as $2,500 to Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer. He has given nearly $100,000 to other Republican candidates around the country.

Richards has been a close political ally of Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter. In 2011, he joined a small group of business Republicans led by Rastetter, who encouraged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to run for president. Last year, he joined Rastetter and most of that group to endorse Christie’s presidential campaign.

The Iowa Senate has confirmed hundreds of Branstad’s nominees unanimously or nearly so. During the legislature’s 2017 session, I don’t expect Richards to have any trouble winning confirmation to serve out Andringa’s term on the Board of Regents. The two appointees to that board whom senators rejected in 2013 had political baggage that Richards lacks.

UPDATE: Added below excerpts from Vanessa Miller’s latest report for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Democratic lawmakers see the Senate confirming Richards next year.

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