Only four senators voted to hold Geri Huser accountable

Disappointing but not surprising: the Iowa Senate on April 10 confirmed Geri Huser as chair of the Iowa Utilities Board by 44 votes to four. Senators delayed consideration of Huser’s nomination in late March, after Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that she “has maintained a busy and profitable private legal practice” during her first two years as board chair.

Iowa Code 474.8 stipulates that each utilities board member “shall devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office.” For decades, every other attorney appointed to that board halted his or her legal practice during the term of service. For some reason, Huser decided those standards need not apply to her. She has also given out conflicting information about her work for the Skinner Law Office. Although she has claimed not to receive any income from that firm, she appears to work out of their office, as Bleeding Heartland discussed near the end of this post.

Only four senators–Democrats Tony Bisignano, Kevin Kinney, Bob Dvorsky, and Herman Quirmbach–found Huser’s outside legal work concerning enough to oppose giving her two more years of greater administrative responsibility and higher pay as the board chair. Most Iowa Senate confirmations are unanimous, so four votes against Huser indicates unusually strong discomfort with her conduct.

On the other hand, the 44 senators who supported Huser on Monday sent a clear message to Iowans. If state law on devoting one’s “full time” to public service gets in the way of a earning a side income, sometimes during regular business hours, powerful and well-connected officials don’t need to follow that rule.

Huser’s ongoing legal practice isn’t her only unprecedented behavior as Iowa Utilities Board chair. Less than six months into her term, she withheld funding for energy centers affiliated with state universities. That inappropriate exercise of her authority was disruptive to the centers and possibly illegal. At the time, a former lawmaker who helped create the energy centers described Huser’s interference as “way out of line.”

Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom works at the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, which got caught up in Huser’s power play, even though the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University was her primary target. I am seeking comment from Bolkcom on his vote to confirm Huser and will update this post as needed.

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Branstad/Reynolds claims on Medicaid "not matching reality"

Real-world data don’t match figures Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds released yesterday in order to demonstrated the alleged “continued success of modernizing our state’s Medicaid program.”

April 1 marked a year since Iowa allowed three private insurance companies to manage care for more than half a million Medicaid recipients. The shift was disruptive for thousands of Iowans as well as for caseworkers and service providers, some of which went out of business. Reimbursement problems and cutbacks to care are still affecting many people, Chelsea Keenan reported in this retrospective on the first year of the policy.

Although privatization was supposedly designed to save money and bring predictability to the state budget, the Branstad administration agreed last fall and again in February to hand over millions more state dollars to the managed-care organizations (MCOs), unlocking some $225 million in extra federal funding for the corporations, which have much higher administrative costs than Iowa’s state-run Medicaid program did.

I enclose below the latest deceptive official statements about the “modernization,” along with a demolition fact-checking job by Democratic State Senator Liz Mathis. I’ve also included independent State Senator David Johnson’s reaction to what he called a “lousy, lousy” press release. While still a member of the Republican caucus during the 2016 legislative session, Johnson worked with Democrats trying to halt Medicaid privatization or at least provide stronger legislative oversight of the program.

The Iowa Hospital Association can’t substantiate the Branstad/Reynolds claims on hospitalization rates, Tony Leys reported yesterday for the Des Moines Register. Excerpts from that story are at the end of this post.

On a related note: thousands of Iowans who follow this issue closely are mourning Rhonda Shouse, who died unexpectedly in late March. I never met Rhonda in person, but we communicated through social media, and I admired her relentless advocacy on behalf of those adversely affected by Medicaid privatization. Keenan marked her passing in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and Leys did so in the Des Moines Register. May her memory always be for a blessing.

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Branstad's office withholds invitation list for collective bargaining bill signing

Governor Terry Branstad’s staff have rebuffed repeated efforts to obtain a list of those invited to watch the governor sign sweeping changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining law last month.

Going against longtime standard practice for high-profile legislation, Branstad excluded reporters from attending what staff called a “private” event. Drew Klein, state director for Americans for Prosperity, later posted a picture of himself shaking the governor’s hand at the bill signing. The large number of pens on the governor’s desk suggest that many others celebrated the historic move to take rights away from an estimated 180,000 public workers.

Jodie Butler was determined to find out who else was in that room.

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Three questions about how Iowa got into this budget mess

Iowa’s Revenue Estimating Conference delivered bad news yesterday. Revenues are lagging so far behind projections that even after enacting huge spending cuts in February, the state is on track to have a shortfall of $131 million at the end of the current fiscal year. Next year’s revenues are being revised downward by $191 million as well.

Governor Terry Branstad, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, and House Speaker Linda Upmeyer quickly announced plans to use the state’s cash reserves to cover the gap. Dix’s written statement explained, “We must not cripple our schools, public safety and many other essential services with further cuts this year. Our savings account exists for moments such as this.”

Two months ago, many Democratic lawmakers advocated dipping into “rainy day” funds as an alternative to the last round of painful reductions to higher education, human services, and public safety. At that time, Republican leaders portrayed such calls as irresponsible. A spokesperson said Branstad “doesn’t believe in using the one-time money for ongoing expenses.” Now, the governor assures the public, “Iowa is prepared,” thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in the state’s cash reserves, and Dix boasts about the supposedly strong GOP leadership that filled those reserve funds.

Republican hypocrisy on state budget practices is irritating and all too predictable. But that’s not my focus today.

While transferring funds from cash reserves will solve the immediate problem, it won’t answer some important questions about how we got into this mess.

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