April 24, 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

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.

High Court hears arguments over suit accusing governor of discriminating against gay official (AUDIO)

The Iowa Supreme Court held a rare evening session tonight to hear arguments from two lawyers about the dispute over Governor Branstad’s attempt to oust the state workers compensation commissioner.  Chris Godfrey has sued, charging Branstad targeted him for removal from his job because he’s gay.

“Mr. Godfrey’s cause of action accrued on the day that Terry Branstad told the state of Iowa that he was an incompetant fool,” Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, told the justices. “I think that is not true. That was defamation.”

George LaMarca is Branstad’s attorney.

“In this case it’s clear, even though they don’t like what the governor did, that he was fulfilling his duty to assess the performance of the commissioner and to set his salary,” LaMarca said.

Godfrey has been the state’s workers compensation commissioner since 2006, first appointed to the job by Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack, then reappointed by Governor Chet Culver, also a Democrat. The Iowa Senate confirmed Godfrey for a six-year term in the post that runs through April 30, 2015. When Republican Terry Branstad took over as the state’s chief executive in 2011, he asked Godfrey to resign and, when Godfrey refused, Branstad cut his salary by a third. Conlin told the court Godfrey is the “only openly gay official” in the executive branch.

“Prior to Terry Branstad’s election, he had been paid for several years at the top of the state’s pay scale,” Conlin said tonight. “…By all objective measures he has been and continues to be one of the best workers compensation commissioners that the state of Iowa has ever had.”

LaMarca, who previously has said Branstad did not know Godfrey was gay, argued Branstad has legal immunity for the actions he took.

“They want this court to rewrite a fundamental piece of public policy,” LaMarca said. “The district court refused to do that and I believe for good and sound public policy and statutory interpretation…this court should affirm the district court.”

The justices on the state’s supreme court peppered both lawyers with questions during tonight’s 45 minute session. One of the justices called it a “thin line case” about the scope of employment.

Godfrey, as the state’s workers compensation commissioner, oversees disputes between injured workers and their employers.

AUDIO of hearing, 45:00

Branstad snaps back at Holder over felon voting rights

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad is shooting back at the U.S. Attorney General who has criticized Branstad for the way he’s handling felon voting rights.

“I’m disappointed that the attorney general of the United States who also was involved in that ‘Fast and Furious’ project to give guns to drug smugglers in Mexico would criticize Iowa without even knowing the Iowa Constitution,” Branstad said today at his weekly news conference. “I think the Iowa Constitution makes it very clear if you commit an ‘infamous crime’ which is considered a felony you lose your rights. That includes your right to vote.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week called on 11 states — including Iowa — to allow felons to vote after they’ve done their prison time, arguing a disproportionate number of minorities are prevented from voting.  Former Iowa Governors Vilsack and Culver had executive orders in place that automatically restored a felon’s voting rights after they had completed their sentence, but Branstad requires each felon to submit an application to him and prove they’re current in paying any court fees or fines as well as current in paying restitution to victims before he’ll restore their voting rights.  Since 2011, Branstad has restored voting rights to 41 felons.

“I think that’s a very fair and balanced way,” Branstad told reporters this morning. “At least somebody that commits an infamous crime such as a felony ought to pay the court costs and the fine associated with that crime before they expect to get their rights restored.”

Holder cited Iowa during a speech at a  criminal justice symposium last week, arguing 8,000 people in Iowa had completed their prison sentences during Branstad’s tenure and the majority are “permanently disenfranchised” even though they are no longer under state supervision. A bill pending in an Iowa Senate committee would automatically restore voting rights to felons once they’ve served their sentences. Branstad says the bill is unconstitutional, as that is a decision reserved for the governor, not legislators.

Audio of the governor’s weekly news conference can be found here.

Bill to automatically restore felon voting rights approved by senate panel

Democrats on a state senate committee have voted to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences and any parole or probation. Senator Dick Dearden, a Democrat from Des Moines, said that was the policy under Governors Vilsack and Culver.

“We have to start respecting these folks when they have done everything that they’re supposed to do. They’ve spent their time in probation or parole. They went through the prison system, ” Dearden said. “They did what they were supposed to do.”

When Terry Branstad returned to the governor’s office in 2011, he reinstated a system that requires felons to submit a detailed application asking the governor to restore their voting rights and Branstad has granted 41 of those requests. Iowa is one of just four states that have such a system in place and a spokesman for the governor says Branstad has no plans to change it.

Senator Charles Schneider, a Republican from West Des Moines, agrees with Branstad’s insistence that felons pay their court fees and restitution before they are allowed to vote.

“Especially when we’re talking about felonies that relate to financial crimes,” Schneider said. “I just don’t think someone like a Bernie Madoff or a Russ Wassendorf should be able to vote before they’ve restituted any victims that they’ve defrauded.”

Senator Dearden suggested if that’s the standard, businessman Donald Trump should be barred from voting.

“You know he couldn’t even make money running a casino and he filed bankruptcy,” Dearden said, “and he still thinks he could be president.”

Trump has filed for corporate bankruptcy four times and Trump argues it’s a legal tool for cutting debt by restructuring his companies.

Dearden said it’s not easy for the common felon to pay restitution once they’ve been released from prison because they’re usually stuck in a minimum wage job. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this week blasted policies which make it difficult for felons to vote, saying they disproportionately bar minorities from voting.

The fate of the effort to automatically restore Iowa felons’ voting rights is uncertain according to a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. Governor Branstad, a Republican, is adamantly opposed to it and would likely veto the proposal if it reached his desk.

Democrats say Iowa below national average on school spending

Democrats in the Iowa Senate next week will start drafting legislation that would forward more state tax dollars to public schools for the 2015/2016 school year. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal says the State of Iowa is about $1500 behind the national average in per pupil spending.

“We’re well below the midpoint in terms of the support we provide for students in this state and we’ve been slipping,” Gronstal says.

House Speaker Leader Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha — the top Republican in the legislature — says Republicans won’t take up the Democrats’ school spending proposal.

“Here’s the deal: we’re not going back to the days where Governor Culver was making all kinds of promises and then turning around doing across-the-board cuts,” Paulsen says. “That 10 percent across-the-board cut that he did was one of the most devastating things that happened to schools.”

In the fall of 2009 as state tax revenue started to fall because of the recession, Governor Culver imposed a 10 percent across-the-board cut in the entire state budget, including state aid to schools.

AFSCME endorses Tyler Olson in Democratic Primary for governor

One of the state’s largest and most active unions has endorsed Democrat Tyler Olson’s bid for governor.

“Today is a very important day in the race for governor,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, which represents over 40,000 government workers in Iowa. “…Our organization has had a long history of grassroots political activism and I expect nothing different during this campaign.”

AFSCME’s endorsement of a little known state senator from southeast Iowa helped propel Tom Vilsack to victory over Mark McCormick, a well-known ex-judge, in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

“He was definitely the dark horse,” Homan said today of Vilsack, “and I’m not that saying Tyler is the dark horse, but Tom Vilsack went against ‘The Establishment’s’ pick…and because of our folks’ activism Tom Vilsack won the Primary, ultimately was elected governor and the rest is history.”

The union’s backing of Olson, a state representative from Cedar Rapids, means AFSCME members will work the phones, knock on doors and the union’s political action committee will make a donation to Olson’s campaign.

“What this means, hopefully, is that our members will get out and work their tails off to help this guy win the primary and then, ultimately, to defeat a governor that wants to wipe them out,” Homan said.

Republican Governor Terry Branstad and AFSCME have had a series of disputes over wages, benefits and other workplace issues during Branstad’s nearly 19 years as the state’s chief executive.

“Our members feel strongly that it is time from a change,” Homan said.

According to Homan, AFSCME chose Olson partly because of his record in the legislature.

“We were also impressed by the strong campaign organization that his campaign is building,” Homan said. “We know that Tyler Olson is a candidate that will end the divisive politics of Terry Branstad by winning on Election Day.”

Homan said it was a “hard decision” to back Olson over State Senator Jack Hatch, the other Democratic candidate for governor. Olson and Hatch met privately with a committee of AFSCME members from around the state who were assembled to make the endorsement decision.

“They just liked Tyler’s message better than they liked the message that Senator Hatch delivered,” Homan said. “This is not saying the Senator Hatch is not a good candidate. We’re going to have a difficult primary. We’re going to have to work our tails off to win this primary. We believe Tyler Olson is the guy that has the best chance to beat Terry Branstad and that’s why we made the endorsement.”

Olson said AFSCME’s support “will go a long ways” to helping him reach the governor’s office.

“People are ready for a fresh perspective in Terrace Hill and I’ve laid out my vision for what that looks like and I’m proud to have the members of AFSCME’s endorsement,” Olson said today.

Olson and Homan made the endorsement public at 4:30 this afternoon.

“With Tyler Olson sitting in the governor’s chair, this union will have the opportunity to work with the governor and the legislature to make Iowa better,” Homan said.

In the past 28 years, AFSCME has endorsed all but one of the winners in competitive Democratic Primaries for governor. The union endorsed victors Lowell Junkins in 1986, Don Avenson in 1990, Bonnie Campbell in 1994 and Tom Vilsack in 1998. In 2010, AFSCME backed Michael Blouin who lost to Chet Culver in that year’s Democratic primary.