July 30, 2014

Iowa GOP says Democratic candidate’s idea could endanger first-in-nation Iowa Caucuses

Republican-logoRepublicans are attacking the Democratic candidate who’s running to be Iowa’s top election official, saying Brad Anderson is endangering Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Caucuses by suggesting technology in the secretary of state’s office could be used for the Iowa Caucuses.

Jeff Patch, the communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, says candidates for secretary of state shouldn’t be muddling in the Iowa Caucus process.

“The parties themselves are perfectly capable of handling the Caucus procedures, Patch says. “…We don’t think that the secretary of state should have any sort of role in managing or providing logistical support for the Caucuses because that would require state employees and state resources.”

Patch says using the voter registration data maintained by the secretary of state’s office would make the Iowa Caucuses the functional equivalent of a primary.

“Mr. Anderson’s plan to use the secretary of state’s office to inject state government into partisan politics will create a problem with other states who are looking to challenge Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status,” Patch says.

Anderson says the integrity of Iowa’s Caucuses should be the goal of all Iowans, regardless of their party affiliation.

“Over the years Iowa taxpayers have invested a lot of time and resources into award-winning poll book technology that could really help check Iowans into the Caucuses and ensure that only eligible Iowans are participating,” Anderson says.

Anderson says his idea would “strengthen the Caucuses.”

“I’m confident that once the elections are over and cooler heads prevail we can find a way that the state can partner with the two parties in a way that is both appropriate and fiscally prudent,” Anderson says.

For more than four decades, Iowa’s Caucuses have been the kick-off event in presidential campaign years. Past winners like Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 leveraged their opening round victories in the Iowa Caucuses to secure their parties’ presidential nominations.

Jeff Kaufmann, the new chairman of the Iowa GOP, said in a written statement that he’ll meet with “reasonable Democrats” in the future to discuss ways to “protect” the first-in-the-nation status of Iowa’s Caucuses. Kaufmann, who called Anderson’s idea “ill-advised, was elected Iowa GOP chairman on June 28. Kaufmann plans to meet with Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan soon “to transparently discuss ways for both parties to cooperate to ensure that Iowa’s precinct caucuses retain their historic status as the first test of presidential candidates.”

Finance company agrees to settlement involving members of the military

Staff Sergeant James Wilson (podium) with Attorney General Tom Miller.

Staff Sergeant James Wilson (podium) with Attorney General Tom Miller.

Thousands of military service members, including nearly 100 Iowans, will be receiving millions of dollars in debt relief after becoming victims of a predatory lender.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says an agreement has been reached with Rome Finance Company. “It will provide 92 million dollars in relief for over 17,000 service members around the country, in regard to some outrageous price gouging and interest rates that have been charged to service members over the last few years,” Miller said at a news conference this morning at his office.

The agreement, which involves 12 other states, also requires Rome Finance to forgive debts and repair the victims’ damaged credit scores.

Iowa Air National Guard Staff Sergeant James Wilson, who grew up in Winterset, said he bought a computer that ended up costing $5,000 because of deceptively high interest rates. “I’m mostly angry and slightly embarrassed with myself,” Wilson said. The agreement forces Rome Finance to forgive his outstanding balance of $2,500.

Wilson said he signed up to purchase the laptop in 2010 and felt the online company appeared trustworthy. A statement on the website claimed the company was “military friendly.” The purchasing deal allowed the company to take a monthly payment directly from Wilson’s military pay. “The gentleman I spoke with on the phone and through instant messaging, as he helped set up my allotment…he was very friendly, thanking me for my service the whole time. He just walked me through it and made it really easy,” Wilson said. “From my perspective, it was just a simple way to get a laptop.”

Active duty military members are an easy target for predatory lenders, according to Wilson, since many enlist right out of high school. “I joined the military when I was 17 and I didn’t even have a checkbook at the time,” Wilson said. “I feel better knowing that this company isn’t able to do this to service members in the future.”

The agreement requires Rome Finance to liquidate. Miller said Rome Finance, which is based in California and Georgia, charged interest rates of up to 200 percent.

Paulsen places second in ‘Night of Destruction’ race (video)

Staff with the Republican Party of Iowa have uploaded a video to youtube showing the top Republican in the Iowa legislature racing at the Jackson County Fair on Sunday night.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha raced a yellow school bus in what was billed as the “Night Destruction” bus race. One of the required elements in the 10-lap race was driving the bus over a huge bump and the video shows Paulsen’s bus teetering on two wheels once it came back to earth, but Paulsen was quickly able to get the bus back on all fours and he wound up finishing in second place.

Earlier this year Paulsen told reporters he is a NASCAR fan and his favorite driver is Mark Martin. Paulsen’s comments in mid-February came as legislators were drafting bills that granted state tax breaks to the race tracks in Newton and Knoxville.

Dave Schrader, a Democrat from Monroe who is a former House leader, used to race stock cars and Schrader often said the experience drove home a lesson that translated well to politics: always stay focused on the task at hand.

Report finds success in first 3 years of STEM initiative

Boone Science teacher Shelly Vanyo talks about STEM with Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds.

Boone Science teacher Shelly Vanyo talks about STEM with Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds say a review of the STEM initiative shows the program has been successful in its first three years.

Reynolds is the co-chair for the STEM advisory council, which is working with groups across the state to increase interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

She says the review found several positive results. “For example,students who participated in the first year of the STEM scale-up programs reported more interest in STEM topics as well as STEM careers,” Reynolds says. “A small gender gap between male and female participation in scale-up has been narrowed from year one to year two, and that’s meeting one of our main objectives.

Reynolds says there are other indicators of success is that participation among minority students matches their share of Iowa’s school-aged population. “Awareness of the acronym STEM among adults has increased by 58 percent from 2012 to 2013,” according to Reynolds. “And in case we were not sure if any of this mattered to the average Iowan, I am proud to report that 98 percent of those adults surveyed agreed that advances in STEM will provide more opportunities to adults in the next generation.”

Shelly Vanyo

Shelly Vanyo

Boone High School science teacher Shelly Vanyo joined the governor and lieutenant governor to talk about her work with STEM. Vanyo says one of the first things she focused on was renewable energy. “It’s often viewed by students when I surveyed them as ‘oh my gosh it’s just something else that I have to memorize that doesn’t make sense to me.’ Because of that, one of the first scale-ups that I selected to participate in was Kid Wind. Because wind energy is prominent in Iowa, but I found even living in an area where we have wind turbines surrounding us, my students knew nothing about it,” Vanyo says.

She says the students took quickly to the program. “My classroom flourished and became a busy, problem-solving collaborative environment, where many ideas were explored at one time,” Sanyo says. “There was not one right answer that was brought to the forefront. Every student offered their own idea and their own ways to solve the problems that we face as global citizens.”

Vanyo says the process was contagious. “Learning was truly student led. I found that I had students who were not even a part of my class who would walk by and give their time during a study hall or lunch period to join the learning that was going on in my classroom,” Vanyo says. The report found over 3,000 classrooms and clubs involving more than 100,000 students were involved in STEM from 2013 to 2014.

Governor Branstad says it is a program that everyone has recognized is important, including legislators. “This is an issue that’s gotten broad-based bipartisan support every session and we’ve gotten the funding we’ve requested. And we’ve also gotten match. We’ve gotten great private sector match (of funding) as well,” Branstad says.

You can read the full report on the program at the STEM Advisory Council website at: www.iowastem.gov.

the area to see if they have a missing persons report that might match the victim.

Ernst says it’s up to Braley “to refute” attack on his VA hearing attendance (AUDIO)

Joni Ernst

Joni Ernst

Joni Ernst, the Iowa Republican Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate, says it’s up to Bruce Braley, her Democratic opponent, to explain why he missed 78 percent of the hearings held by the House Veterans Affairs Committee when he served on the panel.

“I think he should have been attending those hearings, obviously,” Ernst told reporters this morning. “I heard in one account he had said that he had to skip a meeting to go to another meeting and he didn’t actually go to that other meeting…but that’s up for him. He has to justify why he wasn’t there at a time when he was failing our veterans.”

Ernst, a unit commander in the Iowa National Guard, returned to the campaign trail this morning after two weeks of active duty. She spoke briefly at an early morning rally with about 150 veterans and National Guard soldiers and did not mention Braley by name or his attendance at VA hearings. The subject is now being pressed by a $2.4 million ad campaign against Braley. During a news conference, Ernst was asked if it was appropriate for the ad to accuse Braley of being AWOL — absent without leave — on veterans issues.

“That’s up to him to refute, but I think those are important issues and we need to focus on those,” Ernst said. “We’ve made a lot of promises to our veterans and we need to make sure that we are taking care of our veterans.”

“Joni Ernst can choose to ignore Bruce’s long record of achieving results for Iowa’s veterans, such as securing overdue combat pay for 800 Iowa National Guard troops, working across the aisle to support disabled veterans, and helping thousands of veterans re-enter the workforce by providing businesses with tax breaks to hire veterans returning from duty,” Sam Lau, a spokesman for Braley’s campaign, said in a written statement. “But she can’t hide her extreme views…that put her out-of-step with Iowa’s middle class families.”

Ernst told reporters VA Hospitals should remain open, but she would support giving veterans vouchers or cards that they could use to obtain care at a local hospital or clinic, rather than forcing veterans to drive to a Veterans Affairs facility for care. According to Ernst, the problems with long wait times and substandard care have not cropped up at Iowa’s VA facilities.

“I wish I could say that in every state out there, but unfortunately we have had many, many issues and we need elected officials that are willing to take on these problems head-on — not ignore them, not bury their heads in the sand,” Ernst said during her speech at the rally. “We need to address these issues head-on and find solutions.”

Ernst also said she opposes reducing the size of the U.S. active duty military force to pre-World War II levels.

AUDIO of Ernst’s morning rally, 17:33

AUDIO of Ernst’s news conference, 7:00

(This post was updated at 11:22 a.m. with additional information.)

Braley criticized for missing House VA Committee hearings

Republicans have been criticizing Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley for missing most of the hearings the Veterans Affairs Committee held when Braley was on the panel. Now, a national group is spending $2.4 million to air that complaint in ads on Iowa TV stations.

Congressman Braley, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate this year, attended five of the 19 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearings held during the two years Braley was on the committee. The ad from “Concerned Veterans for America” says Braley “skipped an astonishing” number of hearings. Dan Caldwell, a former Marine who is the group’s legislative campaign manager, says Braley was absent or “AWOL” in 2011 and 2012 when veterans needed him most.

“He neglected his responsibilities as a member of the VA Committee and it was quite (clear) these responsibilities were a low priority to him,” Caldwell says.

The ad mentions one particular hearing Braley did not attend which focused on the long-wait times for veterans seeking care in the VA system as well as bonuses being paid to some executives in the Veterans Administration.

“The VA Committee…has been very proactive in flushing out a lot of these problems with the VA and Congressman Braley obviously neglected his duties as a member of the full committee and that, in our mind, is unacceptable,” Caldwell says.

The Concerned Veterans for America ad asserts Braley was too busy attending three different fundraisers on September 20, 2012, to go to that particular VA Committee hearing. Braley’s staff says Braley was not at a fundraiser during the time of the VA Committee hearing, but attended a House Oversight Committee hearing instead, an assertion Caldwell disputes.

“In that (Oversight) hearing he offered no testimony, there are no recorded remarks,” Caldwell says. “…What it looks like he did was show up briefly, got recorded attending and then left.”

Democrats charge “Concerned Veterans for America” is mainly financed by the Koch brothers, businessmen who have donated millions of dollars to conservative candidates and causes.

State Representative Todd Prichard, a Democrat from Charles City who is a major in the Iowa National Guard, defends Braley.

“It’s about getting results for the people you represent and it’s about taking care of those people back home and that’s what Bruce did,” Prichard says. “That’s what he did for the people I served with.”

Prichard’s guard unit served 17 straight months in Iraq, but when the soldiers returned in 2007 they were declared ineligible for military education benefits. They were also denied combat pay.

“Things that were promised to us that weren’t really delivered,” Prichard says. “But Bruce was able to work to get us kind of what we had coming for the service.”

Prichard also cites Braley’s work to extend another federal law that offers grants to returning soldiers with disabilities, so they can retrofit their homes.

“That’s how I know Bruce, as a champion and somebody who’s going to go to bat for veterans ’cause that’s what he’s done for me and the people I served with,” Prichard says.

As for the attendance issue in D.C., Braley’s staff says the congressman attended 15 of the 17 hearings held by the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee he was assigned to, so Braley’s overall attendance record for committee and subcommittee hearings was above 50 percent.

Attendance records were an issue in the U.S. Senate race earlier this year. Joni Ernst, who won the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination in June, was criticized by one of her Republican opponents for missing about 40 percent of the votes taken in the Iowa Senate in the 2014 legislative session. Ernst is a state senator and an Iowa National Guard unit commander. A Cedar Rapids Gazette analysis concluded about 10 percent of the state senate votes she missed where taken while she was on active duty. The other 90 percent were missed because Ernst was out campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

Eastern Iowa looks to be testing ground for driverless cars

Johnson County in eastern Iowa is trying to pull out into the fast lane and get ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to being the home for developing driverless cars. The Johnson County Supervisors unanimously passed a proclamation Thursday encouraging the testing of the vehicles — the first county in the nation to do so.

Iowa City Area Development (ICAD) Group president Mark Nolte, says the proclamation comes on the heels of a visit by a delegation to the “Automated Vehicle Symposium” in San Francisco last week. “We had some great discussions with some the companies that are looking to implement this technology, and so this proclamation and the ones that will follow from the city of Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty, help really show that we are serious about wanting to encourage them to come and use our roadways to get the mileage necessary for the public to adopt this new technology,” Nolte says.

It seems like something from a Jetsons’ cartoon, but Nolte says driverless cars are no longer that futuristic. “Driverless vehicles will be the next big technology that profoundly affects all of our lives — kind of like the smart phones have over the last few years,” Nolte says. “And so we’re trying to position Iowa to be the leader in this emerging technology.”

Nolte says there are sveveral selling points Iowa can offer to automakers. “We’ve got a lot of engineering research at the University of Iowa and Iowa State. The University of Iowa is home to the National Advanced Driving Simulator which is very critical as an asset for our state as we look to encourage these companies,” Nolte explains. “If you look at what’s been done in the automotive sector, what’s coming for the trucking sector. We just see that there’s as a natural fit for Iowa in this coming industry.”

He says companies like GM, Mercedes, Volvo and Google were all at the event in San Francisco, and he says they aren’t the only ones looking at the technology. “Every automaker is looking at these systems right now. I think the question is: Who is going to be first to market? And is the public ready for it? And the only way to find that out is to put these on the road and let people experience them,” Nolte says.

Nolte says getting the public used to the idea of the driverless car is a big issue. But he says there are already some systems being used and the studies have shown they increase the safety of vehicles. “We as humans overestimate our competency for safety behind the wheel,” according to Nolte. “When you compare us to these systems — we are going to have 360 degree vision, they’ll never get tired, they’ll never get distracted, they’ll be able to communicate with other vehicles with the infrastructure — they are vastly superior from a safety standpoint than humans ever will be.”

Ann Arbor, Michigan has a system for driverless cars that’s in a simulated environment that Nolte says is not as favorable to the automakers as having the vehicles run on regular roads. He says the Johnson County group might work with them on the research. Nolte says there are a few other competitors out there. “So far, three states have limited testing laws, Nevada, Michigan, California. California is having some issues rolling out the rules around this,” Nolte says. “So the feedback we’ve gotten from some of the legislative and public policy folks for the auto industry is, the first state that lets us come in and truly just adopts us and lets us log mileage on the roads will be the state we move to first.”

He says Iowa is ready to make that happen. “Current state law does not have any restrictions against this. And so, we’ve had some great conversations with the Iowa Department of Transportation and the State Patrol and the safety folks and the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the governor’s office. There’s nothing legislatively that we need to change to allow this to happen right now,” Nolte says.

He says the I-CAD Group will continue to set meetings with companies and organizations from the Automated Vehicle Symposium and they are working on establishing dates with local city councils for future proclamations to welcome driverless vehicles.