Mariannette Miller-Meeks refuses interview with masked reporter

U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks has been on the road and on social media encouraging Iowans to get vaccinated for COVID-19, sometimes even administering the shots herself.

In a video released on May 4, Miller-Meeks highlighted her medical background and advocated for vaccines as a way of “getting our lives back to normal,” while acknowledging that getting a shot “is your decision to make.”

She was less tolerant of personal choices when approached the next day by a journalist seeking an interview.

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Five things that are not "fairness"

Governor Kim Reynolds thrilled conservatives when she announced on Fox News last week that she wants to sign a bill banning transgender youth from competing on sports teams not matching their gender assigned at birth.

Defending the discriminatory policy during a news conference on May 5, Reynolds claimed five times that concerns about “fairness” are driving her commitment to address the issue.

This mean-spirited play to the GOP base has several dimensions. None of them are grounded in fairness.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday returns: Cutleaf toothwort

The tenth year of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflower series kicks off with a plant that’s a common sight in Iowa woodlands, especially in April. Cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), also known as toothwort, is native to every state east of the Rocky Mountains.

According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, favored habitats “include deciduous mesic woodlands, floodplain woodlands, wooded bluffs, and upland savannas. The presence of this species in a woodlands indicates that its soil has never been plowed under or subjected to heavy construction activities.”

The site says cutleaf toothwort “can survive some disturbance caused by occasional grazing and less disruptive activities of human society,” but tends to decline when the invasive garlic mustard becomes prevalent. (Now’s a good time to pull up garlic mustard, if the soil is soft and moist. It’s been so dry in central Iowa lately that I’ve found many of the roots break off.)

Most of the photos enclosed below were taken near my Windsor Heights home. Mary Riesberg also shared pictures she took in Hancock County, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Lee County.

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Rural doctor: I fear what is happening now in Iowa

Greg Cohen: We need to stop pretending the pandemic is over, because it’s not. -promoted by Laura Belin

Seven months ago, I wrote a letter to The Chariton Leader about my experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic — what was going right, what was going wrong, what frustrated me, and how America had responded. Here’s my follow up.

After more than one year, I hugged my children and grandchildren two weeks ago. I hugged my sister and brother in law last week.  Although the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, all of us have finally been vaccinated and we are now reasonably  safe to be together.  It has been the longest year of my life.

For the last year, health care workers and scientists have toiled tirelessly to protect us. Medications have greatly reduced the chances of our being hospitalized, and we have cut the death rate by 70 percent. After a terrible surge this winter, when I diagnosed two to ten people every day with COVID-related illness, I still diagnose people with COVID–19, but far fewer of them. This makes me hopeful we can end this pandemic sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, I fear what is happening now in Iowa and across America is undermining that work.

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New GOP commandment: Thou shalt have no gods before Trump

Herb Strentz: In practice, not speaking ill of any Republican means not holding one another accountable for what they advocate. -promoted by Laura Belin

The Republican Party continues its handiwork on the Ten Commandments Moses received from Jehovah some 3,500 years ago. First came the so-called eleventh commandment in 1966: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican.”

A new version of the first commandment emerged over the past five years: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Trump.”

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Iowa concealed COVID-19 testing help for well-connected firms

State officials deployed “strike teams” involving the Iowa National Guard to more businesses last year than previously acknowledged.

Records the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) released on April 26 show seventeen workplaces received COVID-19 testing assistance through a strike team. The agency had stated in January that only ten workplaces (operated by nine companies) had strike team visits. Several newly-disclosed events benefited businesses linked to Governor Kim Reynolds’ major campaign donors.

Iowa used the strike teams mostly during the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 testing supplies were scarce. However, a strike team was sent to Iowa Select Farms administrative headquarters in mid-July, more than five weeks after the state had stopped providing testing help to other business. That company’s owners are Reynolds’ largest campaign contributors.

The governor asserted at a January news conference that the state had facilitated coronavirus testing for more than 60 companies, saying no firm was denied assistance. The newly-released records show nineteen businesses received testing kits from the state, and another nineteen were directed to a nearby Test Iowa site where their employees could schedule appointments.

The public health department’s spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand has not explained why she provided incomplete information about the strike team program in January. Nor has she clarified what criteria state officials used to determine which companies received which kind of testing assistance.

The governor’s spokesperson Pat Garrett did not respond to any of Bleeding Heartland’s emails on this subject. Reynolds walked away when I tried to ask her about the strike team decisions at a media gaggle on April 28.

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Regents pick highly qualified leader for University of Iowa

Mercifully, history did not repeat itself on April 30, when the Iowa Board of Regents selected Barbara Wilson to be the next University of Iowa president. Wilson is supremely qualified for the job, having served for the last six years as the second-ranking administrator at the University of Illinois system, and in several leadership roles at the Urbana-Champaign campus. A news release enclosed in full below describes her relevant experience.

All four finalists considered this year were far more qualified than outgoing president Bruce Harreld was when the Regents picked him in 2015, following a search marred by favoritism and secret meetings that appeared to violate Iowa’s open meetings law.

Whereas the Faculty Senate voted no confidence in the Board of Regents after Harreld was hired, and the Daily Iowan newspaper ran the front-page headline “REGENTS’ DECISION CONDEMNED,” reaction to Wilson’s hiring was overwhelmingly positive from students and faculty. The Daily Iowan’s editorial board had endorsed either Wilson or Georgia State University Provost Wendy Hensel as the best choices to take the university forward.

I was pleasantly surprised the Regents tapped Wilson, even though she fired a football coach and an athletics director at Illinois over scandals including alleged mistreatment of student-athletes. During Harreld’s tenure, Iowa’s Athletics Director Gary Barta continued to receive raises and a contract extension even after costing the university millions of dollars in lawsuits over discrimination and a hostile work environment.

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University of Iowa can't keep utilities deal secrets from auditor

The University of Iowa must comply with a subpoena from State Auditor Rob Sand seeking details on a 50-year deal to lease the university’s utility system to a public-private partnership, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously determined on April 30.

The Iowa Board of Regents approved the arrangement in December 2019 and closed on the deal in March 2020. But the university withheld many details, including the identity of “Iowa-based investors” who supposedly put up about 21.5 percent of the $1.165 billion lump-sum payment to operate the system for the next five decades.

The State Auditor’s office has been trying to enforce Sand’s subpoena since January 2020. The university and Board of Regents insisted they did not have to provide “confidential” information and disputed the validity of the subpoena.

None of the Supreme Court justices found the university’s stance convincing.

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Iowa turned down $95 million to test school kids for COVID-19

Governor Kim Reynolds revealed on April 29 that she is sending back $95 million in federal funds designated for testing students for COVID-19.

During a Fox News event featuring Republican governors, Reynolds said of President Joe Biden,

I think he thinks the COVID just started. I just returned 95 million dollars because they sent an additional 95 million dollars to the state of Iowa to get our kids back in the classroom by doing surveillance testing. And I said, “We’ve been in the classroom since August. Here’s your 95 million dollars back.”

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Terrace Hill fence approved last summer; governor's role unclear

Officials in the Iowa Department of Public Safety and the governor’s office decided during the summer of 2020 to install a permanent fence around the Terrace Hill mansion in Des Moines, records obtained by Bleeding Heartland show.

The documents don’t reveal, nor did state officials clarify, whether Governor Kim Reynolds or her staff pushed for added security around the governor’s official residence. The records also don’t explain the timing of the decision to move forward with a plan that had been floated years earlier, according to the agency responsible for protecting the governor.

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ISU's Workday problems still delaying state financial report

The state of Iowa’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the 2020 fiscal year may be finalized by the end of June, six months later than the usual publication date.

Staff at the Iowa Department of Administrative Services compile the report using data provided by state government entities, and for many years have completed that work by December 31. However, Iowa State University (ISU) struggled to provide accurate, auditable data for the fiscal year that ran from July 2019 through June 2020. The reporting problems coincided with the year the university switched to the Workday computer system for accounting.

While other state government units sent their year-end financials by the usual deadline of October 1, 2020, ISU completed that process more than six months later, in early April.

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Rural broadband: A mirage

Dan Piller: Far from rescuing rural Iowa, more broadband will hasten the exodus from farms and small towns into the cities. -promoted by Laura Belin

Everybody loves the idea of spending billions of tax dollars to wire the countryside with high speed broadband that is otherwise economically unfeasible. President Donald Trump took a few minutes away from trying to overturn the election last December to reward his loyal rural supporters with $10 billion for the high-speed internet access. President Joe Biden wants to set aside billions more for rural broadband in his “infrastructure” master plan.

In Iowa, Democrats are so cowed by the popularity of rural broadband they’ve acquiesced to Governor Kim Reynolds’ idea to let rural interests help themselves to hundreds of millions of state taxpayer dollars, mostly paid by Iowa’s city dwellers who amount to two-thirds of the state’s population, for rural broadband even though rural broadband will thus join anti-abortion and unlimited gun rights as Reynolds’ calling card to her rural base for her reelection next year.

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Housing discrimination bill in limbo amid concerns over federal funding

Nearly six weeks have passed since Republican lawmakers approved a bill prohibiting local governments from banning “source of income” discrimination. Yet Senate File 252 still has not been sent to Governor Kim Reynolds, according to the legislature’s website.

While Iowa’s legislature is in session, the governor has three days to sign or veto any bill that reaches her desk, or it will become law without her signature. The governor’s staff often asks for an extra week or two to review a measure’s contents. But there is no recent precedent for the legislature to sit on a bill for this long.

The governor must eventually act on every bill the legislature passes. The unusual delay has fueled speculation that Reynolds may cast a rare veto of a bill approved by the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

Communications staff for the governor and legislative leaders did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about why Senate File 252 has been held up. But signs point to the bill jeopardizing some federal housing funds.

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Hope for new Iowa maps before September deadline?

Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency (LSA) may be able to use population data from the 2020 census as early as sometime in August, the agency’s senior legal counsel Ed Cook revealed today. The news increases the chance that a nonpartisan map could be prepared in time for state lawmakers to meet a constitutional deadline for approving new maps of legislative districts.

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All right: What's it gonna take?

Ira Lacher considers how to address COVID-19 vaccine resistance. -promoted by Laura Belin

Volunteering at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic recently, I encountered something making me start to believe that regardless of all the gloom surrounding who’s getting shots in America, we may be better off than we think.

A former colleague, one of the most egregious Trump supporters I’ve ever known, was there. For their second shot.

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Law blocking health care for trans Iowans facing new court challenge

Two years ago this week, on the day before the Iowa legislature completed its work for 2019, Republicans added two new discriminatory provisions to the state’s health and human services budget. Both code sections quickly spawned litigation. Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit against language designed to exclude the organization from sex education grants is now pending before the Iowa Supreme Court, after a District Court found the prohibition violated the state constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

A case challenging language that authorized discrimination against transgender Iowans on Medicaid never got that far. But on April 22, the ACLU of Iowa and the national ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project filed a new lawsuit in Polk County District Court.

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Policing bill would worsen Iowa's justice system disparities

Most of the new crimes and enhanced penalties that would be established under a policing bill approved by the Iowa House would have a disparate impact on Black people, according to analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Before passing Senate File 342, Iowa House members amended what had been a narrowly-focused bill on officer discipline to include several other so-called “Back the Blue” proposals: giving law enforcement more protection against lawsuits, increasing benefits for officers, and greatly increasing the criminal penalties for some protest-related actions.

For seven of the nine crimes addressed in the “Back the Blue” bill, now pending in the Iowa Senate, the LSA found the “conviction rate for African Americans exceeds the population proportion of the State, which would lead to a racial impact if trends remain constant.”

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