November 26, 2014

Branstad: no ‘big changes’ in his staff in 2015

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Don’t expect the top brass in the Branstad Administration to look all that different in 2015. Republican Terry Branstad does not plan to use the start of a new term to make wholesale changes in top administrative positions in state government, but a “few” people will exit and be replaced.

“We’ll be making a few staff changes in the governor’s office,” Branstad said this week. “We may have some changes in terms of department heads.”

Some key state senators have said a few of Branstad’s agency chiefs might not win confirmation from two-thirds of the senate to serve another four years. Iowa Workforce Development director Teresa Wahlert has been heavily criticized by Senate Democrats for her management style and the changes she’s made in the agency. Branstad won’t be asking for any resignations, but he hinted some top state agency managers may “retire” rather than stay on for his sixth term.

“We’re not ready to make any announcements at this time, but I don’t expect there’ll be big changes, but I expect there will be a few,” Branstad told Radio Iowa during a Wednesday afternoon interview shortly before his departure to the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida.

Branstad served 16 years as governor, from January of 1983 to January of 1999. After 12 years out of office, Branstad was reelected as Iowa’s governor in 2010. His victory in 2014 sets the stage for Branstad to claim the record as the nation’s longest-serving governor. He’ll cross that mark midway through his sixth term.

Congressman King suggests ‘censure’ for Obama over immigration order

Representative Steve King.

Representative Steve King.

The reaction from Iowa’s congressional delegation to Predident Obama’s immigration order includes one suggestion that congress vote to publicly and formally reprimand Obama for his actions.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin says Obama has taken “common sense steps” and “is doing the right thing.” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley says Obama has taken “the wrong way forward” and is “poisoning the well for future action” om immigration reform. Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack of Iowa City says he has “concerns about the president acting without congressional approval,” but Loebsack says he hopes the president’s executive order now spurs House Republicans to vote on an immigration reform bill.

Republican Congressman Steve King of Kiron is a leading critic of “amnesty” for any illegal immigrant. King says no one in congress wants to throw the country in turmoil and impeach the president, but King suggested during an appearance last night on CNN that congress might vote to censure Obama instead.

Congressman-elect Blum listed in bankruptcy filing, loaned hockey star’s family $2 million

A Dubuque businessman who just won a seat in congress earlier this month is listed in a professional hockey player’s bankruptcy filing.

The Columbus Dispatch reports hockey star Jack Johnson, who plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets, has filed for bankruptcy after his parents — who managed his finances — apparently ran up huge debts in his name. The bankruptcy filing documents mention a $2 million loan that Rodney L. Blum made the family in March of 2011. Blum, who won Iowa’s first district congressional race this month, is a successful software developer.

The newspaper reports Blum’s office “did not respond to interview requests” and “it’s unclear” how Johnson’s family knew Blum or why Blum made a personal loan to the family, at a 12 percent interest rate. The newspaper reports that about a month after extending the loan, Blum sued. About $42,000 from the hockey star’s salary was garnished every two weeks during most of the past two seasons to repay the debt to Blum.

Blum’s spokesman, Keegan Conway, issued a written statement to Radio Iowa.

“Obviously this is a difficult time for the Johnson family,” Conway said, “and out of respect for their privacy Mr. Blum will not be discussing their private financial situation as the legal process takes its course.”

Hockey star Jack Johnson is 27 years old. The Columbus Dispatch reports his mother took out at least $15 million worth of high-interest loans in his name, using her son’s future earnings as collateral. The newspaper reports by this spring, the professional hockey player had little, if any, of his paycheck left after debt payments were made. He lists assets of just $50,000 and debts of at least $10 million in his bankruptcy filing.

(This story was updated at 11:57 a.m. with additional information.)

Branstad says it’s time to consider ‘options & ideas’ for new road revenue

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad says he’s open to considering all options that might boost the amount of money available to fix Iowa’s roads and bridges.

“I’m interested in coming up with additional funding for the Road Use Tax Fund,” Branstad told Radio Iowa Wednesday afternoon, “and I want to look at a whole series of options and ideas.”

The state gas taxes paid when motorists fill up at Iowa pumps are deposited in the state’s Road Use Tax Fund, but transportation officials have said for the past several years there’s not enough money being generated from the gas tax to finance needed road and bridge repairs and new construction. It’s partly because modern vehicles get far better gas mileage — so fewer gallons of fuel are purchased — and partly because the state gas tax of 22 cents per gallon hasn’t been raised since 1989. Branstad said he isn’t calling on legislators to pass an increase in the state gas tax. Branstad suggested a wide-ranging combination of actions should be considered.

“I want to look at fees for heavier loads being transported across the state,” Branstad said. “I want to look at different options for diesel than gas and maybe different mechanisms in terms of the way it’s done.”

One idea floated last year would be to charge the state sales tax on fuel purchases. One of the complications lawmakers are considering is that drivers of new hybrid vehicles which primarily run on electricity pay little, if anything, for using the roads compared to those who pay the gas tax when they fill up.

“I really believe that we need a more modern and efficient system,” Branstad said, “and I also want to do something that will maybe give some option opportunities to local governments as well.”

Branstad wants to explore giving cities and counties that receive a combination of state and federal dollars to finance road projects a way to opt out of Davis-Bacon restrictions. Those federal rules require federally financed projects to pay construction workers the prevailing wage in the county. Republicans say that unnecessarily inflates the cost of projects and benefits construction firms that employ union labor, while Democrats have traditionally opposed efforts to do away with prevailing wage rules.

Iowa cities and counties already get a share of state gas tax revenue, but local officials have complained it’s not a large enough share based on the number of miles of city streets and county roads when compared to the number of miles of state-maintained highways. Some areas of the state with pressing needs have resorted to asking voters to raise their property taxes to finance local road and bridge projects. Branstad said he’s talked with leaders from both parties to see if there’s some way to come up with a “bipartisan consensus” among legislators this year, compared to previous years when no agreement emerged.

The 2015 Iowa Legislature convenes Monday, January, 12th.


Iowa businessman urges GOP to ‘fix’ immigration system

Jon Troen

Jon Troen

A Republican businessman from Iowa is joining today’s nationwide push to encourage Republicans to pass some sort of immigration reform.

“Republicans now have the opportunity to lead and to solve this problem,” says Jon Troen, president of Mittera Group, which includes companies like Rock Communications that publishes newspaper inserts and catchfire media which develops websites and mobile apps as well as the Colorfx printing plants.

He says that’s because Republicans not only will control the U.S. House in 2015, but Republicans will have a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate and will be able to control the debate agenda there.

“One of the things that’s been frustrating is for a long time Republicans have let Democrats define this issue,” Troen says. “Now that we’re running both houses on congress we can actually solve this problem and improve America’s economy, improve border security and do it in a way that’s compassionate and is consistent with conservative beliefs.”

In the fall of 2013, Troen flew to Washington, D.C. to join a U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbying effort to encourage the Republican-led House to pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill that had cleared the Democratically-controlled Senate. This year, Republicans like Congressman Steve King say Republicans won victories in the 2014 election because Americans do not want amnesty for illegal immigrants. Troen says “no one” is supporting amnesty.

“I don’t think anybody believes there should be a blanket provision that just says, ‘Hey, never mind. Everybody’s fine,’ but what we did elect leaders of congress to do is to lead and to govern and to solve these problems,” Troen says. “And I don’t think anybody including Representative King or anybody on either side of this issue would look at our immigration system and say, ‘Hey, that’s a system that really works.'”

Troen says his company is like many others — it needs highly-skilled foreign workers and that’s one reason reform of the immigration system is necessary. Troen has helped one employee with a visa navigate what Troen calls the “non-sensical” immigration system.

“The system is completely outdated,” Troen says. “It’s completely broken and, frankly, it’s easy to complain about problems. It’s hard to fix them and it is time for both sides of the aisle and our leaders in both houses of congress to fix this problem.”

Troen argues the U.S. economy would have recovered more quickly had congress addressed immigration reform sooner. Troen appeared today at the state capitol, at a news conference organized by business groups pushing for immigration reform. Over 100 top GOP donors today co-signed an ad published in the Washington Times that calls on Republican congressional leaders to act on immigration reform in 2015.

ISU experts to ‘shore up gaps’ in website with resources for dementia patients

LifelongExperts on aging at Iowa State University are partnering with state officials and the Iowa Alzheimer’s Association to enhance an online guide that lists the resources available for patients with dementia.

“I think it’s been difficult, especially in rural areas, to understand what sort of access people have to long-term supports and services,” says Jennifer Margrett, director of the gerontology program at Iowa State University.

The website is a “resource center” created by the Iowa Department of Aging and the Iowa State University research team will help evaluate and “shore up gaps” in the services available to dementia patients. is a website that’s intended to be a one-stop-shop so people who are facing age-related issues or challenges related to a disability can log on and find access to services in their area,” Margrett says.

According to Margrett, many home and community-based dementia services are underutilized because Iowans don’t know the programs exist or how to access them. Margrett says there are “care deserts” in Iowa, however, as sparsely populated rural areas lack some of these services and, as a result, persons with dementia are often placed in long-term care facilities rather than receiving the care they need at home.

Margrett and her team are working to develop “tools” for family discussions about long-term care plans.

“So hopefully we can start having more conversations ahead of time and get individuals and spouses and families talking about this before there’s a need or when there’s some early needs, so we can start planning so someone doesn’t get to that point where they feel like they don’t have any options,” Margrett says.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that by 2025, Iowa will see an 18 percent increase in the number of older adults with Alzheimer’s disease. If you don’t have access to the internet, there’s also a phone number to call to get the same information available on That number is 866-468-7887.

ISU economist predicts ‘minor gains’ in Iowa retail sales during holiday season

Dave Swenson

Dave Swenson

The National Retail Federation is predicting holiday sales will increase four percent this season, but Iowa State University economist David Swenson says he has “mixed views” about whether Iowa retailers will see that much of a gain.

“First of all, we have overall about four percent year-over-year growth in wages and salaries. That’s good news. More people are making more money and that does mean that we have an ability to spend more of that money, especially for holiday sales,” Swenson says. “On the other hand, we have a pretty sharp decrease in ag and ag-related incomes in the state of Iowa.”

Significant gains in the ag sector bolstered Iowa’s economy for the past few years, but Swenson says the decline in commodity prices will prompt Iowans who are dependent on farm income to “be more circumspect” about their holiday spending their year. Swenson also points to the two percent increase in the payroll tax as another damper on the potential increase in retail sales, since congress did not extend the tax break first enacted in 2010.

“So if I look at all of the evidence out there, it tells me that Iowa should expect minor gains in retail sales activity, but nothing like the Retail Federation is projecting,” Swenson says.

The Retail Federation cited the “moderate pace of growth” in the nation’s economy when releasing its prediction of a four percent increase in retail sales during November and December. The group pointed to economic indicators showing employment, income and consumer confidence are all improving. Public opinion polls taken in Iowa during the election season indicated a majority of Iowans believe Iowa’s economy is headed in the right direction. However, exit polls found 79 percent of the Iowans who voted in this year’s election are worried there may be a recession ahead in 2015.