Weekend open thread: Accountability

Senator Chuck Grassley hit a new low last week in running interference for the White House on the Trump/Russia investigation. After leaders of the private research firm Fusion GPS called on Congressional Republicans “to release full transcripts of our firm’s testimony” about the so-called Steele dossier, Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham wrote to the Department of Justice and the FBI “urging an investigation into Christopher Steele.” Ranking Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein was not consulted about the referral, which she accurately characterized as “another effort to deflect attention from what should be the committee’s top priority: determining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election and whether there was subsequent obstruction of justice.”

Here in Iowa, the Department of Human Services recently acknowledged that privatizing Medicaid “will save the state 80 percent less money this fiscal year than originally predicted,” Tony Leys reported for the Des Moines Register. The Branstad/Reynolds administration has claimed since 2015 that shifting care for one-sixth of Iowans to private companies would result in big savings for the state. Officials were never able to show the math underlying those estimates. Staff for Governor Kim Reynolds and the DHS now portray the miscalculation as an honest mistake, which a more “comprehensive methodology” will correct. The governor would have been wiser to pull the plug on this disaster last year.

Forthcoming Bleeding Heartland posts will address those failures in more depth. But now it’s time to hold myself accountable for the 17 Iowa politics predictions I made at the beginning of 2017. Did I improve on my showing of seven right, two half-right, and seven wrong out of my 16 predictions for 2016?

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17 Iowa politics predictions for 2017

Two weeks late and humbled by the results from previous efforts to foretell the future, I offer seventeen Iowa politics predictions for the new year.

I struggled to compile this list, in part because it’s harder to come up with things to predict during a non-election year. I didn’t want to stack the deck with obvious statements, such as “the GOP-controlled Iowa House and Senate will shred collective bargaining rights.” The most consequential new laws coming down the pike under unified Republican control of state government are utterly predictable. I needed time to look up some cases pending before the Iowa Supreme Court. Also, I kept changing my mind about whether to go for number 17. (No guts, no glory.)

I want to mention one prediction that isn’t on this list, because I don’t expect it to happen this year or next. I am convinced that if the GOP holds the governor’s office and both chambers of the Iowa legislature in 2018, they will do away with non-partisan redistricting before the 2020 census. I don’t care what anyone says about our system being a model for the country or too well-established for politicians to discard. Everywhere Republicans have had a trifecta during the last decade, they have gerrymandered. Iowa will be no exception. So if Democrats don’t want to be stuck with permanent minority status in the state legislature, we must win the governor’s race next year. You heard it here first.

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Prairie Meadows IRS problem: Business decisions could end tax exemption

Tom Witosky retired from the Des Moines Register in 2012 after 33 years of award-winning reporting on politics, sports and business. He is the co-author of Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality published by University of Iowa Press. -promoted by desmoinesdem

If it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck — even if it looks like a horse and a slot machine.

That adage appears to be the bottom line for U.S. Internal Revenue Service officials, who, after close to 20 years of allowing Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino to operate as a non-profit under U.S. Chapter 501(c)(4), now want a share of the $2.2 billion largesse the so-called “racino” generates annually.

Here is a piece of advice about the ongoing controversy: Nothing is going to change for several years unless there is a settlement that won’t change much of anything.

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Thoughts on Terry Branstad's longevity and legacy

Terry Branstad front photo photo_front_gov_zpsobbhiahu.png

December 14 marked 7,642 days that Terry Branstad has been governor of Iowa, making him the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, according to Eric Ostermeier of the Smart Politics website. Because most states have term limits for governors, “The odds of anyone passing [Branstad] in the 21st Century are next to none,” Ostermeier told Catherine Lucey of the Associated Press.

Speaking about his legacy, Branstad has emphasized the diversification of Iowa’s economy, even though a governor has far less influence over such trends than Branstad seems to believe. Some have cited “fiscal conservatism” as a hallmark of Branstad’s leadership. I strongly disagree. The man who has been governor for nearly half of my lifetime is stingy about spending money on education and some other critical public services. He opposes bonding initiatives commonly used in other states to fund infrastructure projects (“you don’t borrow your way to prosperity”). But he is happy to provide tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations that don’t need the help, without any regard for the future impact of those tax expenditures on the state budget. Many of Iowa’s “giveaways” in the name of economic development will never pay for themselves.

Branstad’s governing style has changed Iowa in important ways. He has altered Iowans’ expectations for their governor. He has expanded executive power at the expense of both the legislative branch and local governments. And particularly during the last five years, he has given corporate interests and business leaders more control over state policy. More thoughts on those points are after the jump, along with excerpts from some of the many profiles and interviews published as today’s landmark approached.

P.S.- Speaking of Branstad doing what business elites want him to do, Iowa Public Television’s “Governor Branstad: Behind the Scenes” program, which aired on December 11, included a telling snippet that I’ve transcribed below. During a brief chat at the Iowa State Fair, Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter asked Branstad to call Bruce Harreld, at that time one of the candidates to be president of the University of Iowa. That Rastetter asked Branstad to reassure Harreld was first reported right after the Board of Regents hired the new president, but I didn’t know they had the conversation in public near a television camera.

P.P.S.-Now that Branstad has made the history books, I remain convinced that he will not serve out his sixth term. Sometime between November 2016 and July 2017, he will resign in order to allow Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to run for governor in 2018 as the incumbent. Although Branstad clearly loves his job, he is highly motivated to make Reynolds the next governor. She lacks a strong base of support in the Republican Party, because she was relatively inexperienced and largely unknown when tapped to be Branstad’s running mate in 2010. Even assuming she is the incumbent, Reynolds strikes me as more likely to lose than to win a statewide gubernatorial primary. Remaining in Branstad’s shadow would give Reynolds little chance of topping a field that will probably include Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

P.P.S.S.-I will always believe Branstad could have been beaten in 1990, if Democrats had nominated a stronger candidate than Don Avenson. Attorney General Tom Miller lost that three-way primary for one reason only: he was against abortion rights. Miller later changed that stance but never again ran for higher office.

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A smoke-free Cedar Rapids casino is not a public health initiative

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission sent a strong message last week to backers of a casino project in Cedar Rapids: don’t bother trying to get a license for at least the next three years.

Rational actors would have started working on Plan B for prime downtown real estate as soon as commissioners voted down the application for a Cedar Rapids casino in April. But Mayor Ron Corbett and some other movers and shakers are determined to chase the gambling dream, through legislative or judicial means. Instead of taking the hint from the Racing and Gaming commissioners, Corbett is ratcheting up his strategy for gaining legislative approval for a new casino. He’s smart and experienced enough to know that state lawmakers need a better excuse for acting than “we don’t like what the commission did.” So, he’s now dressing the casino project up as a public health initiative. Lawmakers shouldn’t fall for or hide behind this ruse.

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