March 3, 2015

Governor discusses gas tax, cannabis oil and employee pay (audio)

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad talked about a variety of legislative issues during his weekly meeting with reporters. Branstad was asked about criticism over the process that saw the gas tax bill quickly move through both the House and Senate and onto his desk where it was signed into law.

The governor says the bill was a bipartisan compromise after years of talking about the need for more funding for road improvements. “And I do understand that there are some people not happy with it — but any major controversial issue is always going to have people who are not going to be pleased — but this is a user fee,” Branstad says. “This is a user fee. And one of the benefits of it is the people from out-of-state who use our roads, whether they are trucks or crs, they’re going to help contribute to it.”

The governor made it clear again he wants to see the final 37 miles of Highway 20 in western Iowa expanded to four lanes. “I recognize the final decision of this is made by the DOT commission, but Paul Trombino (DOT director) and I and the lieutenant governor all recognize the need for this. And I have been a consistent and strong supporter of this for years and years and years,” Branstad says.

Branstad says he did not get a chance to talk with Illinois’ governor during the recent National Governors Association meetings about the issued of medical marijuana. The governor has said it might be possible to work something out to get the cannabis oil from Illinois to help patients in Iowa.

Branstad says he’s aware an Illinois legislator says that’s not possible, but says he is willing to look into it and says federal law may be a problem. “I guess there is a an issue with regard to that as far as the federal government is concerned,” Branstad says. “Our biggest concern is we want to try to address the concerns of families that have children with epilepsy. But we also don’t want to create unforeseen circumstances that law enforcement and the medical community are concerned about.”

Parents of children with epilepsy say although it is legal to possess the cannabis oil in Iowa to treat their children, it is almost impossible to get the oil as it is not produced here. A state lawmaker says Branstad’s comments on the issue are a false hope for parents.

The governor was also asked today about pay raises for state employees, and says he doesn’t support giving additional state money for those increases. “No I don’t think there will be a salary bill. I don’t think we have the money to provide for that, so it’s going to have to come out of the agency budgets,” Branstad says. He was asked why his chief of staff has requested nine percent more funding for the administration’s staff salaries. Branstad says the administration’s budget has been the status quo for several years and he says even with an increase now, they are still below the previous administration’s budget.

“We expect our people to work hard and I think if you compare what we’ve done with other agencies, or for that matter other branches of government, the courts or the legislature, and compare where we are versus where they are and were we’ll be under this proposed budget, I think you’ll see we’ve got a very lean, conservative, prudent budget,” Branstad says. The governor’s chief of staff says the budget request would provide a “modest” raise for employees and add one employee as they currently have 22, but are authorized by the legislature to have 23.

 Audio: Branstad’s news conference. 27:00

Senator Ernst won’t vote for Attorney General nominee

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst says she will not vote to confirm President Obama’s nominee to be the nation’s next attorney general. Loretta Lynch is Obama’s pick to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder.

“I have some very serious concerns with Loretta Lynch,” Ernst says, “especially during her testimony when she had stated that she does uphold what the president has done and his decisions, especially when it comes to executive amnesty.”

Last Thursday, Iowa’s other U.S. Senator, Chuck Grassley, was among the Republicans who voted against advancing Lynch’s nomination out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Lynch got the votes of three other Republicans and her nomination is now eligible for a vote in the full Senate.

Lynch is currently serving as the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn and her office led the investigation which resulted in last week’s arrest in Brooklyn of three men who intended to go to Syria to join the Islamic State. Despite his vote against Lynch’s nomination in committee, Senator Grassley has said he expects she will be confirmed by the full senate. She would become the first African American women to serve as U.S. Attorney General.

Governor talked to federal officials about National Guard, RFS

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad talked about his trip to the National Governors Association meetings in Washington, D.C. during his weekly news conference today. Branstad says one big issue is the funding of the National Guard.

“Even though the administration is asking for a budget that would be $38 billion more than the sequestration level for the Pentagon, they still cut the National Guard and eliminate the Apache helicopters from the guard — despite the fact that last year an agreement was worked out to have a commission that would review the Army’s recommendation,” Branstad says.

He says the governors all signed on to a letter to the president that expresses their concerns about guard funding. Branstad says they were also able to talk with federal military officials in person. “And we did have a very frank discussion with the Pentagon about that issue,” according to Branstad.

Branstad was also able to talk with the head of the EPA during the conference about the impact on agriculture from the delay in setting the amount of ethanol that is required to be used in gasoline.

“We expressed concerns about the lack of action on the Renewable Fuel Standard, and now the U.S.D.A. is estimating that farm income — which was down in 2014 — will drop 33-percent in 2015,” Branstad says. “And this is something that is of grave concern to us.” Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey joined Branstad and they had a personal meeting with the EPA Secretary.

“The word is, although she did not say it directly in my meeting, that we are going to see the R-F-S rule next spring. But we’ve heard that before,” Branstad says. Branstad says the EPA secretary mostly listened and did not do a lot of talking with the governors during their meeting. Governor Branstad says he also got to visit with officials from several countries that are key trading partners during that meeting in Washington.


Farmer-legislator calls attention to livestock, crop theft

Lee Hein

Lee Hein

Getting caught stealing a horse was a serious crime in the wild west. A small group of Iowa legislators has been mulling the idea of tougher penalties for modern day cattle rustlers, pig thieves and corn snatchers.

Representative Lee Hein raises livestock and grain on a farm near Monticello and he says, unfortunately, it’s far easier to catch a car thief than to catch someone who’s stolen agricultural commodities.

“You always count everything going into the yard and then as we sell them, we count them going out,” Hein says, “And there’s been times when I’ve probably been short maybe 10-15 hogs and I wonder: ‘Did you miscount or did somebody slip in there at night and load a load up and is gone with it.”

Hein first considered establishing a minimum prison sentence for those caught stealing livestock or corn and beans, but he’s now considering other options. And He’s not sure whether the bill he’s trying to craft will survive this Friday’s deadline to pass a House committee.

“But the biggest thing I want is to let agriculture understand that this is a bigger issue than what I realized,” Hein says. “Maybe we need to start figuring up ways to put up cameras or start lockimg things up way tighter.”

2011 is the most recent year for which data is available and there were more convictions in Iowa that year for stealing livestock or grain than for car theft.

Ernst says it may take all day to resolve funding impasse

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst.

With a deadline looming, Republicans in the U.S. House are proposing a short-term spending plan that will avert the partial shut-down of the federal Homeland Security agency at midnight. If the deal passes the House, it will also have to pass the Senate and Republican Senator Joni Ernst says it may be a late night.

“We are continuing to discuss the funding issue and over the last several weeks I have voted five times to fund the Department of Homeland Security,” Ernst says. “Five times.”

Republicans in congress previously tied funding for the agency to a plan that would derail President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, but with the threat of a presidential veto, the Senate has passed a bill that makes no mention of the executive orders and would give the Homeland Security money to operate for a year. A key group of conservative Republicans in the House have balked at that idea and they’re also against the alternative House Republicans leaders have devised that would fund the agency for three more weeks. Ernst says it’s “going to take all day to find a solution” to the impasse.

“What I’ve heard from Iowans, too, is another important priority is rolling back the president’s executive amnesty,” Ernst says.

If the logjam isn’t broken, about 30,000 Homeland Security agency workers will be furloughed at midnight. Another 200,000 agency employees classified as “essential” staff will be required to work, without pay.

Suburban lawmaker questions tax break for fuel used in farm, construction equipment

Harvesting miscanthus.

The Iowa DOT estimates the state could collect about $40 million a year from farmers and construction companies if the tax exemption for so-called “red dye” fuel was lifted — and a few lawmakers are questioning why that tax advantage is being maintained.

Farmers and construction companies that primarily operate diesel-powered machinery off of the state’s roads buy fuel that has a dyed with a red tint, to signify it is not subject to the state’s fuel tax.

Representative Ralph Watts, a Republican from Adel, says the size of farming operations has grown significantly and heavy farm equipment is now being driven on more miles of road to get from field to field.

“If you live in a rural area, you meet them all the time,” Watts says. “The heavier equipment with cleated tires place more stress on the roadway than vehicles with road tires.”

That “additional stress” is taking a toll on rural roads and bridges, according to Watts.

“The need for moving manure from hog confinements has become a huge factor for rural roads where the movement of manure is done by large tank wagons pulled by farm tractors over the roads,” Watts says. “My personal experience in watching this happen showed me those movements literally pulverize the existing gravel, which requires replacement.”

Watts tried, but failed this past week to get his fellow legislators to go along with charging just a 10-cent-a-gallon state tax on red dye fuel.

“Some misguided miscreant might ask: ‘What do you have against farmers?'” Watts said during House debate of the bill that raised the state’s motor fuel tax by a dime a gallon. “I have nothing against farmers. Although I am not a farmer, I am a member of the Farm Bureau — at least I was earlier this morning.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau opposes the idea of taxing the diesel fuel that’s used in farm equipment. Only eight other members of the Iowa House joined Watts this past Tuesday to try to force a debate over his proposal, while 87 voted against Watts and his idea was permanently tabled.

Ernst awaits answers over death of vet who sought VA mental health treatment

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. (file photo)

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. (file photo)

Senator Joni Ernst has asked Veterans Affairs officials to explain how the agency handled the case of a veteran whose frozen body was found last Friday in a Des Moines park.

Forty-one-year-old Richard Miles was an Army veteran who did three tours of duty in the Middle East. His family says he suffered from post traumatic stress and had hoped to be admitted to the Central Iowa VA Hospital on February 15, but he was given a prescription and dismissed.

“While the law enforcement investigation into Richard’s death is ongoing, it’s tragic our nation lost a veteran who may not have received the mental health treatment that he deserved.”

Ernst on Monday asked for an “immediate and thorough” investigation of the man’s case and she set today as her deadline for getting a report back from the VA.

“As a member of the Senate I do have a responsibility to ensure our nation lives up the promises that our nation lives up to the promises that it has made to our veterans,” Ernst says. “And as someone who was deployed in the Iraq War, it’s one of my top priorities to ensure our veterans are receiving the care they deserve after they have selflessly sacrificed for our nation.”

Five days after Miles was dismissed from the Central Iowa VA, his body was found by a man walking a dog in Des Moines Water Works Park. Miles was not wearing a coat or shoes when his body was found.