April 16, 2014

Branstad asks new DAS chief to calculate actual savings in state construction contracts

Governor Terry Branstad says his new Department of Administrative Services director should review state construction projects completed in the past two years, to determine if changes implemented by the previous director actually yielded savings for taxpayers.

“I think I’d be very interested in having Janet Phipps, the new director, do a review and give us an update as to how much savings this has been for the taxpayers,” Branstad says.

The previous director, fired by Branstad last week after the department’s confidential “hush money” settlements came to light, got rid of the team that oversaw state construction projects and hired six private companies to oversee those projects.  The agency reported the changes brought savings, but the savings were estimated on a formula rather than going through contracts to decide if there were actual savings.

“I think the more information we can get, I think the more we’ll see the benefit of making these changes,” Branstad says. “I’m very interested in getting all the information that we can and I’m very proud of the fact that we made changes to do things differently and do them more efficiently and not just see that the contracts went to these big union companies in Illinois.”

Iowa contractors complained in the fall of 2010 when a Chicago-based company that had submitted the lowest bid was awarded the contract to build the new state prison in Fort Madison.  Branstad made it a campaign issue in his 2010 race against Governor Chet Culver.

AUDIO of Branstad’s weekly news conference, 27:00

Iowa Supreme Court: coaches without teaching licenses not subject to sexual exploitation law

The Iowa Supreme Court has thrown out the conviction of a former Davis County Community School District coach who had sex with a student because he was not a license teacher.

Patrick Nicoletto was an assistant girls’ basketball coach from 2007 to 2009. He had a sexual relationship with a member of the Davis County varsity team that started when she was 16. A jury convicted him of sexual exploitation by a school employee and he was given a five-year prison sentence. Nicoletto had a coaching authorization, but worked nights at a local manufacturing company and was not a licensed teacher.

Nicolletto appealed his conviction, saying he was required to complete certain courses to obtain the coaching authorization, but argued the fact that the courses can be completed in as little as two weekends undermines any suggestion that a coach holding only a coaching authorization is a licensed professional.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in his favor, saying a coach who holds a teaching or other professional license is clearly subject to the sexual exploitation law — but someone holding only a coaching authorization without a professional license is not. They reversed Nicoletto’s conviction.

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote a dissent to the ruling, saying the  “hypertechnical interpretation” opens a gaping loophole in the law that was enacted to protect students from sexual exploitation by adults at their school.  Justice Edward Mansfield also signed on to Waterman’s dissent.

See the full ruling here: Nicoletto ruling PDF

Group targets ‘Evangelical and faithful Catholic’ voters in November (AUDIO)

Ralph Reed

Ralph Reed

A co-founder of the Christian Coalition says he hopes to recruit hundreds of opinion leaders in Iowa neighborhoods and churches to encourage Christian conservatives in Iowa to vote this November.

Ralph Reed leads the national Faith and Freedom Coalition and he spoke this week at an Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition event in Waukee. “Our job is to be faithful, it’s to be workers,” Reed told the crowd gathered at the Point of Grace church. “It’s to go into the harvest.”

Reed is targeting states with competitive races for U.S. Senate seats and that includes Iowa.

“What we have to do is we have to find every single person who believes in Biblical principles and values and we need to make sure they’re registered to vote and they’re educated on where the candidates stand,” Reed said. “We don’t necessarily need to tell them how to vote. We just need to educate them on where the candidates stand and they will know how to vote.”

Reed pegged the cost of his organization’s Iowa effort at half a million dollars.

“We are going to have a church coordinator in every key Evangelical church in this state and we’re going to have a precinct captain in every key precinct in this state and every one of those precinct captains and church coordinators is going to be making sure that they’re talking to the voters, the members of their church and the voters in their neighborhood, because that’s all a precinct is, and make sure they get voter guides and information,” Reed said.

But the effort will include a sophisticated on-line effort as well. Reed cited a recent  special election for a congressional seat in Florida as proof this kind of targeting works.

“We have built a national database at Faith & Freedom of 22.3 million  Evangelical and faithful Catholic voters and in Florida 13 where they had this special election the other day we identified 81,000 voters and we pushed out videos or voter guides on their Facebook page or on any website they visited,” Reed said.

The Republican candidate in that congressional race in the Tampa area narrowly won, by just 3400 votes out of the 183,000 that were cast.

AUDIO of Reed’s remarks, 16:30

Chronic Wasting Disease found in a deer in Allamakee County

Chronic Wasting Disease has been detected for the first time in a wild deer in Iowa. The animal which tested positive was shot by a hunter in northeast Iowa’s Allamakee County back in early December.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins says his agency just recently learned the deer tested positive for CWD. Baskins says obtaining the results took a long time as labs that do the testing are processing samples from across the country.

CWD is a neurological disease affecting primarily deer and elk. It’s fatal for the animals, but there is currently no evidence that humans can contract CWD by eating venison.

Baskins notes they’ve only found one deer with the disease and it was shot along the Mississippi River. Across the river, in Wisconsin, is an area where CWD has been common. “So, it really wasn’t that far away from us to begin with,” Baskins says. “I guess if we were going to find it in Iowa, that would be a location that we would not be as surprised about because of the proximity in Wisconsin to CWD.”

The disease is caused by an abnormal protein, called a prion that attacks the brains of infected animals. Baskins says the challenge in controlling the spread of CWD surrounds the fact that prions can get in the soil and remain there for a long time. “So, obviously, the more understanding we have as to what area may have infected deer allows us to decide what is going to be the best course of action down the road for hopefully containing it and limiting the exposure as much as possible in that white-tailed deer population,” Baskins says.

The DNR has been testing for CWD in Iowa’s deer herd for more than a decade. This is the first positive CWD detection in a wild deer in Iowa. It’s previously been detected in every state bordering Iowa.



Veishea canceled after latest violence (audio)

ISU President, Steven Leath.

ISU President, Steven Leath.

This year’s Veishea celebration at Iowa State University has been cut short following overnight violence in Ames. That’s the decision from Iowa State University President Steven Leath after students and others flipped over cars and threw rocks and beer cans at police in Campustown.

One student was badly injured when a light pole was knocked over on top of him. “It’s with mixed feelings and a heavy heart that I’ve decided to suspend the remainder of this Veishea starting at 5 o’clock tonight,” Leath said at a news conference. “So, it’s done.”

In past years, violence during Veishea was blamed on non-students. But, Leath said it appears ISU students were primarily at fault. Leath said he’ll appoint a task force this week to help determine if Veishea will carry on in future years. “The task force has to consider not only the university’s cherished 92-year tradition, but also the very real black eye that results from a history of ugly incidents surrounding the otherwise wonderful event,” Leath said.

ISU President Steven Leath announces the decision on Veshea's fate.

ISU president Steven Leath announces the decision on Veshea’s fate.

Veishea has been marred by violence and riots many times. In 1997, a young man was stabbed to death in a fight outside a fraternity house. Riots in 2004 led then-ISU President Greg Geoffroy to suspend Veishea in 2005. Leath says all the efforts to change and fix Veishea have led right back to the same result once again.

A decision on whether or not Veishea will be held in future years will come within a couple months. “We’re going to work quickly on this,” Leath said. “I anticipate receiving a task force recommendation and making a decision by the end of the academic year.” The name of the student who was injured in the rioting early this morning is not being released, but Leath said the male student is conscious, still in intensive care, but  in stable condition at a Des Moines hospital.

Audio: Veishea news conference. 27:00

Governor asks legislators for more money for Iowa Reading Research Center

Michelle Hosp with Governor Branstad.

Michelle Hosp with Governor Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad is calling on legislators to boost state spending for the Iowa Reading Research Center.  A budget plan that’s ready for debate in the Iowa Senate would give the center $2 million in state taxpayer support for the next year, but Branstad wants almost double that much.

“That will cover the cost of providing Iowa’s ‘Early Warning System’ and giving Iowa’s children the help they deserve in other ways,” Branstad says.

That “Early Warning System” — developed by the Iowa Reading Research Center — comes in the form of twice yearly tests that show if children are reading well enough.  The center is to set up intensive summer literacy programs for students who aren’t reading at grade level. Iowa Reading Research Center director Michelle Hosp says recent tests indicate 25 percent of third graders aren’t reading at a third grade level.

“Every child in the state of Iowa deserves those opportunities that come with being proficient in reading,” Hosp says. “We know that if you are not proficient in reading, you will not have a good opportunity to be successful in school. You will not have opportunities in life to go on and further your career and, ultimately, other people will end up making decisions on your behalf because you will not be equipped with those essential skills in order to be able to make those decisions for yourself.”

Jason Ellingson is the superintendent of the Collins-Maxwell School District, one of the first districts in the state to start using the “early warning system” tests to judge reading proficiency in the early grades.

“The Iowa Reading Research Center is a great hub of information for educators, parents and other organizations to support literacy across the state,” Ellingson says.

Starting in 2017, third graders in Iowa will not be able to advance to fourth grade if they are not reading at a third grade level. That most recent tests found more than 8000 Iowa third graders were not reading at the third grade level.

Vilsack unaware of any confidential settlements during his 8 years as governor

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack says he was not aware of any confidential settlements involving state employees during his two terms as Iowa’s chief executive.  Officials from the Iowa Department of Administrative Services say they searched through 45 boxes of settlements during Vilsack’s tenure and found five.

“I’m not sure that they actually occurred during my administration,” Vilsack said this morning during taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program. “The folks who I trust to know about this have indicated they were unaware of any such settlements. It may very well be that there were, but I’m not convinced that there are.”

The issue of confidential settlements with state workers in Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s administration has been hotly debated at the statehouse, as three recently laid off state workers testified this week they were offered extra money in their settlement packages if they agreed to keep the terms of the deals secret. The agency’s director on Thursday denied there was any “hush money” and Vilsack, a Democrat who served as governor from January of 1999 to January of 2006, said there was none offered during his time in office either.

“I think the focus needs to be on the future and I think Governor Branstad made the right call in basically saying: ‘No more of this,’” Vilsack said.

The term “state employee” is broad, according to Vilsack, because it also includes people who work at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Vilsack said in some instances patients or doctors ask for settlements to be kept confidential.

“I don’t know if that’s involved in this or not,” Vilsack said. “I just don’t know, but I do know this: I’m very confident that we weren’t paying people to remain silent about their concerns about state government and their treatment in state government.”

Vilsack told reporters he’s willing to review the five settlements to determine the reasons for the confidentiality clauses.

“My view is you want to look forward, you don’t want to look back,” Vilsack said. “If you’re looking back because you want to even the score, then that’s politics and I don’t think that that’s a particularly helpful exercise. If you’re looking back because you want to determine under what circumstances things like this could occur so that you can be wary of them, there may be a legitimate reason for doing that, but I don’t think it’s about saying, ‘Well, we did an X number and somebody else did Y number, then it’s not a problem.’”

Branstad’s top staffers found 24 cases in which former state workers were paid confidential settlements over the past three years. The Department of Administrative Services reports eight were executed during former Governor Chet Culver’s four-year administration. Senate Republicans this week pressed to review records dating back to January, 1999 — the month Vilsack took office.  House Republicans have proposed going back to 2004, which would cover the final two years of Vilsack’s tenure.