July 28, 2014

Report counters Branstad claim of reduced state workforce (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Republican Governor Terry Branstad is dismissing a Legislative Services Agency report which concludes an embattled state agency isn’t saving money after outsourcing jobs — and the state workforce is growing rather than shrinking.

“If you analyze in depth this report on the Department of Administrative Services you’ll find some of it has to do with the motor pool and some other issues,” Branstad says, “but I also would say I have great confidence in the new director of that department.”

The new director started this spring after Branstad fired the previous director who had maintained no extra money had been offered to terminated state employees who promised to keep their exit packages secret.

The Legislative Services Agency’s analysis of five years of data shows the Iowa Department of Administrative Services budget “increased rather than decreased.” The budget for the agency drawn up in the final year of Democrat Chet Culver’s administration was $97.4 million. The agency’s budget in the second year of Governor Branstad’s administration was 17 percent higher and agency officials say it’s because computer and vehicle purchases are included. Branstad also counters that he has reduced the overall size of state government operations since he took office in 2011.

“We have reduced the number of state employees by over a thousand in the three and a half years that the lieutenant governor and I have been in office and there’s been considerable savings because of that,” Branstad says.

However, the Legislative Services Agency report found that while the number of state employees had decreased during Chet Culver’s final two years in office, it had “rebounded” once Branstad returned to office. The report found the number of state employees grew by three percent during the first budgeting year Branstad oversaw and by another three-point-four percent during the second year.

AUDIO of Branstad’s weekly news conference

Second try at creating separate state agency to deal with IT issues

The “help desk” for employees in the executive branch of state government who have computer issues is getting a new name.

“There’s not going to be any additional staff added on as a part of this,” says Caleb Hunter, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Administrative Services. “The staff that was currently a part of the Information Technology Enterprise is just moving over to the Office of the Chief Information Officer.”

In 2010 legislators and former Governor Chet Culver voted to hire a “chief information officer” for state government. In 2013 current Governor Terry Branstad and legislators agreed to put that person in charge of all the I-T staff in the executive branch and create the new department.

“There are some new initiatives around email, cloud-based email systems, and some other areas that IT is focused on to try to improve the efficiency and leverage new technologies in order to reduce the cost and improve the service,” Hunter says.

The Office of the Chief Information Officer will be in charge of all state government websites.

This is a second go-round for a state agency solely dedicated to “information technology” issues. Former Governor Tom Vilsack hired a “chief information officer” in 1999 to oversee a new state Information Technology department, but four years later during an effort to reduce the number of state agencies that department was tossed into what is now called the Department of Administrative Services. It’s the agency responsible for state personnel issues, for purchasing goods and services for state government and for the upkeep of state-owned buildings.

Hatch casting ‘big, big…net’ in search for running mate

Jack Hatch (file photo)

Jack Hatch (file photo)

Jack Hatch, the only Democrat running for governor, has started interviewing candidates to decide who he’ll choose as a running mate.

“(The) ideal candidate is a person who has experience in the private sector, who has experience in the public sector, who understands and has a strong understanding of constituent needs,” Hatch told reporters this morning. ” We want to make sure the people of this state see me as the CEO of a company that would bring those values in here.”

Hatch, a long-time legislator, is a real estate developer. Iowa’s constitution was changed more than two decades ago, so candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run together as a team, just like the president and vice president.

“Fortunately for Democrats, there are half a dozen people that I would be very happy with,” Hatch said. “Any one of them would be very good for me and for the party and for the state, so we have a big, big kind of net to cast and we’re going to be cautious about doing it.”

Iowa has had a female lieutenant governor since January of 1987. Hatch said while he is “embarrassed” Iowa has not elected a woman as a governor, a U.S. Senator or to congress, he doesn’t feel pressure to choose a woman as a running mate.

“I would hate to think that I would choose that just as a default position,” Hatch said. “I believe that women should and need to ascend to the highest position and I’ve always been committed to that and I continue to be committed to making sure that especially younger women, younger professional woman feel and know that the public sector is a place for them to demonstrate their skills and become a strong candidate for governor or a congressional candidate before the end of my term in office.”

Hatch does say he needs to look outside of his home territory in Des Moines for a running mate.

“I want to choose a running mate that can become governor on day one, at any time,” Hatch said, “and, number two, really supplements and adds to my experience as an elected official and also as a business person.”

Hatch has sought the advice of the past two Democratic governors as well as previous Democratic nominees who went through this process of choosing a running mate.

“The universal response is: ‘This has to be your decision. Don’t make a decision based on the politics of your staff or your supporters or your biggest contributor….You’re lieutenant governor is part of your team. He or she is not in your shadow. They have to have a real role to play,’” Hatch said. “And I’ll be talking about that when we do announce the person.”

Delegates at the Iowa Democratic Party’s convention on June 21 will be asked to ratify Hatch’s decision.

“And we hope to announce, to give the delegates a chance to assess my choice for lieutenant governor,” Hatch said.

The last independently-elected lieutenant governor in Iowa was Jo Ann Zimmerman, who won in 1986 for a job that used to include serving as president of the state senate. The next lieutenant governor was Joy Corning, elected as Terry Branstad’s running mate in 1990 and 1994. Sally Pederson was Tom Vilsack’s lieutenant governor running mate in 1998 and 2002. In 2006, Patty Judge ended her own campaign to be governor and agreed to be Chet Culver’s lieutenant governor.  In 2010, Terry Branstad chose Kim Reynolds as his running mate.

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.