December 21, 2014

Latham sees ‘big appetite’ for ‘big deal’ in next congress

Congressman Tom Latham during his retirement speech Monday.

Congressman Tom Latham during his retirement speech. (file photo)

Retiring Congressman Tom Latham is offering this advice to those who’ll serve in the U.S. House and Senate next year: “do some big things.”

“We’ve got to address our long term debt,” Latham says. “We’ve got to look at entitlements…They’re not sustainable as they are and so I’m hopeful that there will be some serious legislation. We have a great opportunity but also great hazards, too, if in fact we’re not successful.”

House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama were rumored to be on the verge of what was called a “grand bargain” a few years ago, but the deal fell through. Latham and Boehner have become best friends during their time in congress over the last 20 years and Latham says he’s told his friend to “think big” and seize “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“The speaker very well knows that this is an opportunity in a limited time,” Latham says. “And I don’t know how long he’s going to stay there, but he knows that if history is going to treat him well and treat the congress well, then something needs to be done and something very significant.”

With the 2016 presidential campaign essentially underway today, Latham cautions that “it’s going to be difficult” to reach agreement.

“You’re going to have people on both sides of the aisle that will use it as a political weapon if, in fact, you try to have a ‘grand bargain’ — a big deal that would give us solvency in the long term and that’s the unfortunate part of it…Anything is possible,” Latham says. “…I think if the president would lead, I think it would make it very possible, but he’s always been very hestitant and the ‘grand bargain’ they almost had a few years that he walked away from, you know, we were right there and it didn’t happen.”

Republicans will hold a huge majority in the U.S. House and the GOP will take over control of the U.S. Senate in January. Latham suggests a good first step would be for the president to sit down and start negotiating with congressional leaders from both parties.

“To have anything that’s going to actually work long term, that’s not going to be used as a political club in the future, it has to be bipartisan,” Latham says, “and if the president will lead, I think that there is a huge appetite on both sides in the House and Senate to actually get that big deal done.”

Latham decided about a year ago that he would not seek reelection in 2014. Latham, who is 66, describes serving in congress as the “honor of his life.” He plans to vacation “somewhere warm” and talk with his wife about what part-time work he might choose to take in the future.

Latham discussed his career and his future plans during taping of the Iowa Public Television program, “Iowa Press,” which airs tonight at 7:30.

Governor urged to continue state grants to spruce up parks

maquoketa-cavesTwo young people from eastern Iowa traveled to Des Moines Thursday to lobby for continued state funding of regional improvement plans for state and local parks. Rachel Wentworth, a sophomore at Maquoketa High School, said parks give “town and city kids” a chance to enjoy what “country kids” like her “see every day.”

“I live on a farm that has been in the family since 1853,” she said. “My brother and my grandpa have inspired my love for nature.”

Wentworth said her generation is more into playing video games than experiencing the great outdoors, but she argued great parks could lure them away from the devices.

“For example, my cousins…(are) into playing electronics,” Wentworth said. “…They got in trouble, so they got their electronics taken away from a week. They were forced to go outside and play, but they learned to love it and explore and so now they choose to go outside and they love being out there and they want to spend the night outside all the time.”

Wentworth made her pitch for parks to Governor Branstad, the governor’s chief of staff and his budget director during a budget hearing at the statehouse late Thursday afternoon. Nicholas Hockenberry is a “young professional” from Dubuque who is working with the group that got the first state grant for park improvement projects in Jones, Jackson and Dubuque Counties and he spoke to the governor and his staff, too.

“I’m an active climber, canoer, kayaker — those kind of things,” Hockenberry said. “I’m also interested in diverse cultural events as well and our region to offer.”

The $1.9 million grant was awarded in September to the three northeast Iowa counties and some of that money will be used to build new cabins at the four state-owned parks in the region. Hockenberry is urging state policymakers to continue the state grant program this next year, so other another area of the state can get money to spruce up and expand outdoor recreation areas. Hockenberry said quality outdoor activities are important to “young professionals” like him.

Photo courtesy of the Iowa DNR.

Speakers at statehouse budget hearing call for income tax cut as well as raising money for roads

Governor Terry Branstad held an hour-long hearing Thursday evening, to give members of the public a chance to comment on state spending priorities for the coming year.

Most of the 20 people who spoke represented trade groups and associations. Sharon Presnall, a vice president of the Iowa Bankers Association, is also on the Iowa Taxpayers Association board of directors. She urged the governor to “seriously consider” cutting income taxes.

“Frankly states with the best tax climates have broad bases and low rates and this is an area that we think that Iowa can do a little bit better in,” Presnall said. “And I also think at the end of the day by doing that you actually generate more revenue.”

Justine Stevenson, director of government relations for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, urged the governor to find a way to finance repairs of “deteriorating rural roads and bridges.”

“A delay in addressing the shortfall in transportation infrastructure has increased the cost to make those necessary repairs and improvements,” Stevenson said. “Recognizing the serious condition of our roads and bridges, you are working with legislative leaders and interest groups to craft a bipartisan solution. We commend you for this effort and will work to support the responsible funding plans that may be developed.”

For the past five years legislators and the governor have talked about raising the state gas tax or finding a new way to finance road and bridge construction, but there’s been no resolution. Scott Newhard is executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the trade group for companies that build highways and bridges or supply the materials for that construction.

“Roads should be paid for by users, including out-of-state drivers on a pay-as-you-go basis and with constitutionally protected funds,” said Newhard, who was the first speaker at last night’s hearing.

State fuel taxes are placed on the Road Use Tax Fund and, according to the state constitution, money in that fund may only be used for the state’s transportation system. Newhard asked the governor to tamp down any talk of using general state tax dollars to pay for roads and bridges.

Each speaker at last night’s budget hearing was given three minutes to make their pitch and about 10 people who came to speak were unable to make it into the hearing room in the one-hour allotted for the event. The governor did hear from lobbyists for community colleges and nursing homes concerned about state support of their institutions, plus trade group representatives seeking state money for water quality initiatives. Members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement who were stuck waiting outside the hearing room said state government should focus on preventing water pollution by limiting manure and farm chemical use on cropland rather than giving farmers money to construct barriers that prevent run-off.

Report provides ‘blueprint’ for state economic development efforts

BatelleA new report concludes Iowa’s businesses overall have been “highly productive” and there’s been good job growth in the state in the past decade. However, the study warns Iowa’s low population growth and a lack of graduates with science, engineering and math degrees could dampen future economic growth.

The Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress, a state advisory board appointed by the governor, commissioned the report from the Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute. Governor Branstad was on hand for the report’s release.

“I think they did a very thorough and a very good job assessing what we have accomplished, but also the challenges ahead,” Branstad said, “and kind of helping us with a strategy to kind of grow the Iowa economy and bring more good jobs here.”

The study measured the state’s economic output and workforce and it concluded Iowa’s rebound from the 2008 recession has been higher than the national average. Iowa has outperformed the nation in the number of new jobs that require advanced skills, but the report also found that Iowa’s colleges and universities aren’t producing as many graduates with science, technology, engineering and math degrees when compared to all U.S. colleges.

“It shows that the focus on STEM makes sense. We’ve got to accelerate it and we’ve come a long way in the last couple of years,” Branstad said. “We need to continue to keep that focus. I think it is catching on and will make a difference.”

From 2009 to 2013, there was a 31 percent increase in the number of Iowa college graduates with so-called STEM degrees. However, only one out of every 10 Iowa college graduates earned a degree in a STEM-related field. The report also warns Iowa’s population growth is less than half the national average and that will limit the ability of Iowa businesses to expand and hire more workers.

Branstad notes the report also focused on the state of Iowa’s infrastructure, it’s roads, bridges and railroads as well as broadband capacity. The governor along with leaders of Iowa’s business community met Thursday afternoon to publicly discuss the report.

“This will be really a helpful blueprint for our future direction,” Branstad said.

‘Regional Academy’ for blind, deaf students proposed in Charles City

school-for-deaf-logoThe superintendent of the state-run schools for deaf and visually-impaired students is asking the governor and legislators to provide over $200,000 for a new “Regional Academy”. Steven Gettel is the superintendent for what are called the “state special schools” which are the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs and the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton.

“This is really a partnership that we’re putting together with first Charles City up in the northeast region,” Gettel says.

Students would come from districts served by two Area Education Agencies — AEA 267 which has offices in Cedar Falls, Clear Lake and Marshalltown and the Keystone AEA which has its main office in Elkader. The $232,500 Gettel’s asking for would finance 30 percent of the academy’s operations. The rest will be financed by general state financial support that will follow the students who enroll in the academy.

“It’s really about getting those kids more time and more targeted instruction from teachers that are qualified to work with the needs that they bring,” Gettel says.

Today, teachers from the two schools for deaf and blind kids travel the state and work with 562 students enrolled in public school districts all over the state. The ultimate plan is to have five regional centers established around the state and Gettel says that would give both teachers and students more classroom time.

“Really what it does is it brings the kids from a reasonable distance to the teachers,” Gettel says. “So instead of having teachers traveling around between schools, using a lot of their time for driving, the kids will come to them and then they will have the quality instruction from that highly-qualified teacher.”

In Charles City where Gettel hopes to establish the first regional academy, blind and deaf students enrolled there would be able to take classes at the community college and find part-time work.

“What we expect is that these kids will be better prepared either for post-secondary education — college — or the workplace and even kids that would have additional disabilities, with that intensive level of instruction there, they’re better prepared to work and live out in their community when they’re finished with school,” Gettel says. “…We know that appropriate education and training pays for a lifetime and that’s what we want for our students.”

Gettel made his comments during a budget hearing in Governor Branstad’s office.

ISU professor expects many Iowa businesses to welcome new Cuban policy

Steffen Schmidt

Steffen Schmidt

An Iowa State University political science professor says President Barrack Obama’s announcement that he is easing economic and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba won’t fit under the normal formula of politics. ISU professor Steffen Schmidt, says it doesn’t come as a big surprise, as people have wondered with each new president if the policy would change.

“Here you’ve got a policy that is 54 years old more or less, and isn’t working. We have not gotten Cuba to become more democratic, we haven’t gotten the Castro brothers to move the economy towards a more prosperous with the embargo and no diplomatic relations we haven’t gotten Cuba to stop meddling in Latin America.”

Schmidt says the move by Obama could actually be coming at a good time as the Republicans take over the U.S. Senate in January. “It seems kind of weird, but the new congress is going to be dominated in the Senate by the Republicans and not the Democrats. And it’s actually a better situation because the (current) chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a Cuban American who would be and is dead set opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt believes the changes will be supported by many in Iowa. “I know a lot of businesses in Iowa, agricultural businesses, exporters, companies that deal with agricultural technology for example — chemical fertilizers, machinery packing, so on. They have been anxious to do business in Cuba,” Schmidt explains. He says that’s because Cuba is so far behind modern agriculture. “When I was in Cuba on a state department trip not too long ago, we went out and looked a little bit as some of the rural areas,” Schmidt says, “and good grief, the farming is really 1950’s style and not American 1950’s, a lot of horses and oxen and donkeys, really outdated.”

He believes Republicans will get a lot of pressure from businesses who are in favor of better relations with Cuba. “Insurance and banking and others who are going to say, look we are doing business in China, we don’t like China’s communist government, it is too repressive, there’s only one political party and they have political prisoners and all the rest of the stuff that is similar to Cuba. But we are doing business with them and maybe we can influence those other things a little bit if we have a lot of Americans there, if we have a lot of American companies and businesses there,” Schmidt says.

While many of the president’s moves have been opposed along party lines, Schmidt says the split over the new policy will not necessarily be Democrat versus Republican, as there are a lot of Democrat who will oppose it. He is anxious to see how the process rolls out. “Because this thing is not going to be slam, bang overnight, it’s going to be slowly rolled out with small steps taken along the way as we try to kind of loosen up those relations. And it will be very interesting,” Schmidt says.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, released a statement today opposing the president’s move:

“This policy change is a gift for the Cuban government that has done nothing to provide basic, fundamental human rights to the Cuban people. According to our own Department of State, the authoritarian regime led by the Castros for decades ‘has severely restricted fundamental freedoms, repressed political opponents, and violated human rights.’ Today’s announcement of eased economic and diplomatic relations is not a result of democratic or economic reforms or a newfound respect for human rights or religious freedom. This decision rewards a brutal regime without any significant commitment toward change for the oppressed Cuban people.”

 

Iowa woman to be released from prison after president commutes her sentence

President Obama has commuted the prison sentence of an Iowa woman.

In 2002 Jennifer Regenos of Muscatine was sentenced to serve 20 years in a federal prison on the charge of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. In 2005, she appealed, arguing her attorney failed to tell her that by pleading guilty, her prison sentence would be longer. With Obama’s action now, her sentence will expire on April 15th of this year — eight years early.

All eight of the people who had their sentences shortened by the president were in prison on drug-related offenses. The president also pardoned a dozen people, for a variety of crimes, but none were from Iowa.