The 19 Bleeding Heartland posts I worked hardest on in 2019

Five years ago, I started taking stock of my most labor-intensive posts near the end of each year. Not all of these are my favorite projects, though invariably, some of my favorites end up on these compilations.

Before getting to the countdown for 2019, I want to give another shout out to guest authors who poured an extraordinary amount of work into two posts Bleeding Heartland published last year.

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County treasurers' debacle is teachable moment for Iowa officials, attorneys

Top officials in the Iowa State County Treasurers Association voted on March 27 to discontinue a controversial scholarship program, Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press.

Earlier this month, all 99 county treasurers received the latest call for scholarship applications. Since then, longstanding doubts about the program’s legality reached a wider audience after Foley revealed that two county treasurers had vacationed last fall with the owner of a company doing business with their offices.

The bad publicity could have been avoided if treasurers and those advising them had been committed to complying with Iowa’s gift law, even when no one was looking.

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Some county treasurers have flouted Iowa gift law for years

Enforcement of Iowa ethics law is a joke.

Dubuque County Treasurer Eric Stierman and Winneshiek County Treasurer Wayne Walter stayed for free in a vendor’s Florida condo a few months ago, Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press on March 13. The condo’s owner is Marc Carr, whose company GovTech Services collects local taxes for most of the state’s counties. The officials “denied any wrongdoing, describing Carr as a friend with whom they had previously vacationed in Florida.”

Iowa gift law does not exempt friends or vacations. While Stierman and Walter committed a particularly outrageous violation, their disregard for the code is hardly surprising.

For years, the Iowa State County Treasurer’s Association and the Iowa State Association of Counties have enabled and encouraged gifts to county treasurers from GovTech and SRI Incorporated, which handles online tax auctions. Since 2014, the two companies have paid for scholarships available only to children and grandchildren of county treasurers or their employees.

The mission of the association of counties is “to promote effective and responsible county government.” Yet the group’s top attorney Kristi Harshbarger helped devise a scheme to offer the scholarships despite the apparent gift law problem. Later, Harshbarger pushed back hard against an ethics board opinion that the program did not comply with the statute.

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Would Fong ban cities and counties from lobbying?

Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Todd Dorman published his take on the first statewide radio ad from Republican Christian Fong. Dorman’s not buying into Fong’s promise to “end the use of taxpayer money to fund lobbyists.” He makes some excellent points:

For starters, I don’t think leaving the lobbying playing field to non-government interests only is smart. I’m not sure how the public interest is advanced by allowing, for example, a corporation to lobby for loosened pollution rules while barring state regulators from pushing the other way.

Second, lawmakers would lose a pretty important resource. I can’t tell you how many times I saw members of a legislative committee get stuck in the complex details of a piece of legislation before turning to the audience and finding a department lobbyist who swiftly cleared up the confusion. Walling off one branch of government from another is going to slow down a process that’s already painfully slow.

Third, it really doesn’t bother me that state departments pursue legislative agendas. It’s not OK for the attorney general to lobby for tougher criminal penalties? The Department of Public Health should be barred from advocating for pandemic preparedness funding?

I agree totally, and Fong should be prepared to refute Dorman’s points if he is a serious thinker about policy, as opposed to a candidate taking cheap shots.

My only problem with Dorman’s column is that he cites this Des Moines Register report as saying that “state departments spent $1.8 million on lobbying state lawmakers” during the past year. In fact, the Register arrived at that figure by including lobbying expenses of “state agencies, municipalities, county agencies and associations where member dues are paid by taxpayers, such as the Iowa League of Cities.”

Ask anyone who has spent time at the statehouse; the League of Cities and State Association of Counties are forces to be reckoned with. It’s not hard to see why, since a lot of bills considered by the legislature affect city and county governments. I wonder whether Fong really thinks the governor should ban cities and counties from making their voices heard with state legislators.

In related news, Fong still hasn’t corrected his ad’s demonstrably false statement about the I-JOBS bonding initiative. He knows how financial markets work, and it doesn’t reflect well on him that he would mislead voters by claiming the state of Iowa is borrowing money to pay our bills.

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