Weekend open thread: Short-sighted elected officials edition

Who knew that when you tell a state agency leader to save another $1.3 million somehow, he might cut some important programs and services? Not State Representative Dave Heaton, the Republican chair of the Iowa legislature’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee.

Who knew that when you impeach a mayor using a kangaroo court proceeding, a judge might order the mayor reinstated while her appeal is pending? Not Muscatine City Council members.

Follow me after the jump for more on those stories. This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

I’m also interested to know what readers think about Iowa Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen’s request to waive certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act in order to bring Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield back to Iowa’s individual insurance market for 2018. Elements of the “stopgap” measure violate federal law; health care law expert Timothy Jost told the Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys that some parts of Ommen’s proposal are “extremely problematic” and not likely “doable.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Anna Wilde Mathews and Louise Radnofsky saw the Iowa developments as “a key test of the ability to modify the [Affordable Care Act] through executive authority.” Slate’s Jordan Weissmann agreed.


Chelsea Keenan reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on the latest disaster stemming from Republican decisions on the state budget. GOP lawmakers approved big cuts to the Department of Public Health for fiscal year 2018, which begins on July 1. While most of the cuts were attached to specific line items, the bill also contained “a general reduction of $1.3 million” to the department. These two pages from the House Democratic staff analysis of the health and human services budget lay it all out:

The general reduction of $1.3 million means telling state agency leaders to make the call on which funds to cut. Statehouse Republicans passed the buck in similar fashion earlier this year in their “deappropriations” bill, designed to plug a budget shortfall. That legislation assigned $11.5 million in unspecified “Department Operational Reductions.” Department of Management Director David Roederer wielded the ax a few weeks later.

This past week, the Department of Public Health announced its plans for implementing that $1.3 million general reduction. Keenan’s story in the Gazette provides the gory details, including $156,482 from a program that helped pay for children’s “hearing aids, accessories and audiological services,” $153,000 taken from “Phenylketonuria (PKU) Assistance through the Iowa Metabolic Formula Food Program,” $96,000 from a program that supports vision screening for children, and $384,552 cut “from the University of Iowa’s child health specialty clinics’ regional Autism Assistance program, which supports children and families dealing with autism.” In addition, the non-profit Epilepsy Foundation of Iowa will lose more than $144,000, which “amounts to 58 percent of the not-for-profit’s budget.”

Democratic State Senator Liz Mathis slammed the decision to impose huge funding cuts on health care providers and non-profits with almost no notice before the start of the next fiscal year.

[GOP State Representative Dave] Heaton, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, said it wasn’t the budget panel’s intent that funding for programs and services be cut.

“There are things I held harmless, and I had a reason to hold harmless,” he said.

“I thought I had exhausted all my options,” so Heaton left it up to department director [Gerd] Clabaugh to find about $1.2 million in savings. “I expected him to honor my appropriations, but he didn’t.”

It’s bad enough that budget the Legislature approves are subject to the governor’s line item veto authority, Heaton said, “but this is even worse.”

Heaton and his GOP colleagues should have known that spending 13 percent less on the Department of Public Health would lead to painful program cuts. If they wanted specific services “held harmless,” they shouldn’t have given the director a free hand on any portion of his budget. It’s not surprising Clabaugh passed the last $1.3 million in cuts on to health care providers or contractors.

When the Iowa Senate debated the massive health and human services budget on April 20, Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom highlighted the public health cuts as a major shortcoming. He also criticized the general reductions, noting that when Democrats controlled the upper chamber, they accounted for “every dollar.”

You can watch Bolkcom’s floor speech starting around 7:56:50 mark of this video. My partial transcript:

Well, here we are. Senator [Mark] Costello, this is–you have a tough job. This is a big budget, and this is your first year overseeing the appropriations side of it [….] But you know, there’s budget cuts, and then there’s dumb budget cuts. And unfortunately, there’s some dumb budget cuts in what’s been proposed here, especially in the area of public health. We’re going to cut the health department [by] 13 percent.

The Iowa Public Health Association has out a legislative alert that says “penny-wise, pound-foolish.” And why they say that is that the cuts to tobacco–the million-dollar cuts of our $5 million in spending, which is way below what the CDC [federal Centers for Disease Control] says we should spend–They say that 540 more Iowa kids, 540 more Iowa kids will grow up to become addicted smokers. 540 more Iowa kids.

You know, tobacco kills about 5,000 people a year in Iowa, a leading cause of death and destruction. We’ve made some progress with our tobacco programs, but we still have 20 percent of Iowans that smoke. […]

420,000 people in Iowa still smoke. […] So kind of a bad idea to cut cessation, the Quitline. Most smokers want to quit. Most smokers want to quit. […]

The other cut in here eliminates our obesity efforts, around obesity. You know, obesity’s a big issue in Iowa. 32 percent of Iowans are obese, we’re twelfth-highest in the nation, and we’re increasing, and obesity also is one of the leading causes of cancer in Iowa. And there was a report out in just the last couple of weeks, cancer rates are increasing in Iowa. So as we think about cuts–tough budget, tighten the belt–we’re tightening it in an area that’s gonna cost us dearly later, when we cut in areas that are the leading cause of health problems and disease in Iowa: tobacco and obesity. […]

And then, Senator [Nate] Boulton [who spoke immediately before Bolkcom] talked about the general reductions. I count fourteen places in this [health and human services] budget where we do general reductions. Well, what are general reductions? It’s saying to David Roederer, “Why don’t you go in and figure this out.”

Now I’ve worked on this budget with Senator [Amanda] Ragan for–I don’t know, a very long time, years, more than a decade–and we never just said, “Go figure it out.” We decided every dollar. And I counted up across a bunch of things, 9.4 million dollars, where you said, “We trust you, department head.”

Bolkcom then asked Costello to explain why “you turned over your authority and responsibility” for spending decisions to “unelected people.”

Costello responded, starting around the 8:01:20 mark: “You know, I have to feel that those people are working with it every day, and it’s part of what their responsibility is, they have a little better idea than I do, necessarily. […] I feel like they understand it. You know, they’re from my party, I probably do trust them a little bit more than you do, to be honest. And so, if they abuse it, like I said, they’ll lose that trust.”

Bolkcom replied that he never saw officials from agencies like Veterans Affairs, Public Health, the Department of Human Services, or the Department of Aging as giving lawmakers partisan advice about programs.

And I agree–we relied on them, [we] said, you know, “Here’s a choice, what do you want to do?” But they then had to explain that to us. And when they explained that to us, we learned the budget. And then we’d help make a judgment on that, based on their advice.

And you lost out by not doing that, putting in the time to do that. Because you would have learned a whole bunch about this budget and about the services and the people that need these services had you gone through that process.

So I–in general, I just think you haven’t done your work by shifting that responsibility off to unelected people. That’s why we got sent here. […]


Bleeding Heartland readers who have followed Tracy Leone’s coverage of the extraordinary power struggle in Muscatine won’t be surprised by the latest news on that story. In a meeting lasting less than three minutes, the Muscatine City Council unanimously voted to remove Mayor Diana Broderson from office in May. She filed suit, charging multiple violations of due process. My “favorite” part of the pseudo-trial was when the pseudo-prosecutor introduced testimony in a way to prevent Broderson’s attorney from cross-examining witnesses effectively.

On Friday, District Court Judge Mark Smith “ruled the order of removal of Broderson be stayed, and Broderson be reinstated as mayor pending final hearing on the matter” on July 17, Sarah Ritter reported for the Muscatine Journal. A few excerpts from her article, which is worth reading in full:

The judge said there were “inherent conflicts of interest” throughout the council’s removal of the mayor, and to ensure a fair trial, “no man is permitted to try cases where he has an interest in the outcome.” […]

At a hearing in district court Wednesday, the judge said he found 17 instances in which Broderson directly accused council members of misconduct, showing the council had personal interest in Broderson being removed.

“The city council sitting as jurists … despite their personal interests allegedly adversely affected by Mayor Broderson’s actions, would, in all probability, result in these proceedings being declared unconstitutional,” Smith wrote in Friday’s order. […]

Smith said a stay order “does not affect the merits” of the case to be heard in court next month, and is meant to “maintain the status quo” and is “intended only to delay” the council’s action.

For more background on this case, read the documents posted near the end of Tracy Leone’s post from May 12.

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  • Individual Insurance Proposal

    As one who is affected by this, I took a look at it yesterday. It looked to me like a good faith attempt to be helpful. And I say this as someone who would not vote for any Republican these days if you put a loaded gun to my head. I did look at the numbers in the tables at end of document. The premium support is definitely less generous than the ACA’s, but all in all, it STILL looks generous to me. Estimates only, for sure, but it likely gives one a reasonable ballpark idea. We find ourselves in a tough spot. Insurance with some significant premium help is a far better place to be in than with no insurance at all. This proposal is far better (both for coverage and premium support) than any broader change that might pass both house and senate in D.C. at this time. I almost feel bad for praising anything coming from a Republican direction, as their default behavior is generally so morally repugnant. But I have to call ’em the way I see ’em. On the other hand, I ain’t always right, either, so there’s that.

  • Natural resources funding

    I’m a lifelong conservationist, and unfortunately I see little good on the Iowa horizon. Of course health and human services need to and should come first when it comes to state spending, and media attention to those underfunded programs is badly needed and justified.

    However, little is being said in the media about the natural resources cuts that have also happened. I was told, though I haven’t confirmed, that the DNR hired needed temporary summer help and then had to tell those new employees that their jobs had been eliminated before they started. And there have been many other cuts, direct and indirect, as when retiring staffers are not replaced.

    I’m an Iowan for good. But if I were young and starting over, I’d probably pick Minnesota, where natural resources protection and funding are vital parts of the state culture. Up there, and in some other states, there are arguments over how natural resources funding should be spent. Here, there’s too little funding to argue over.. Last I heard, Iowa spends less on natural resources per capita than 48 other states. And our official state natural resources “fund,” which has never been funded, is a joke.

    Iowa will probably get some kind of state water quality funding next year. But if the bad proposal favored by Northey et al is passed, we will see large amounts of public money being handed to farmers with very little accountability.

    Meanwhile, Minnesota is requiring farmers to have buffer strips to protect water. It’s a very reasonable requirement that will never happen here.

    • No DNR required

      Companies like FarmLogs have satellite field imagery easily available. The biggest water quality issue is tilled fields with bad tile lines which cause overground runoff. You want to clean up waterways then shame the fields with bad tiling, promote how much farmers will save by spending the $5k to fix those flash flooding acres.

      • Nutrient Reduction Strategy

        Not quite sure how that fits with what is recommended in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy(?) Overground runoff from tilled fields is definitely a major problem. However, nitrates coming out of tile lines are also a problem.

        The single most cost-effective practice, from what I’ve read, is cover crops, which hold nitrogen in place, reduce surface runoff, and build soil. But only about 3% of Iowa’s crop fields have cover crops.

        CREP wetlands and bioreactors would help reduce the nitrates that come out of drainage tile, but thousands of new wetlands would be needed. Buffer strips help reduce the amount of surface-runoff pollution reaching waterways, but buffers are optional in Iowa.