January 26, 2015

Corrections chief says new state prison to open sometime this summer

Iowa’s top prison official was in the hot seat at the statehouse Thursday, answering questions about the long-delayed opening of the new state prison in Fort Madison. Iowa Department of Corrections director John Baldwin said he’s “embarrassed” by the situation.

“This project is at least a year behind schedule,” Baldwin said.

Prisoners were to be transferred out of the 176-year-old maximum security facility in Fort Madison and into the new prison nearby last March, but it won’t be ’til sometime this summer, now, before prisoners move in. Prison guards and others who had been trained last year to work in the new, high-tech facility will be retrained.

“We cannot expect staff to go in there 15, 16, 18 months after we trained them,” Baldwin said.

Paying for the retraining and the cost of correcting problems with the new prison’s heating and ventilation systems has sidetracked Baldwin’s previous plan to boost staffing levels at the new prison. Problems persist with the new prison’s exhaust system and Baldwin couldn’t tell legislators whether the architects or contractors are to blame. Members of a budget committee quizzed Baldwin for more than an hour. The House Oversight Committee has launched an investigation of its own and several members of that panel will tour the prison next Friday.

Leaders see chance to ‘resolve’ school start date debate

Mike Gronstal

Mike Gronstal

Legislative leaders say they hope there’s a way to compromise with Governor Terry Branstad over the school start date issue.

State law stipulates that schools are to start the academic year during the week in which September 1 falls and officials in Branstad’s Department of Education has told Iowa school administrators they will no longer automatically grant waivers so schools may start earlier in August. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs is urging school districts and the state’s tourism industry to find a compromise.

“The vast majority of school districts oppose the legislature or the governor intervening in their local decisions about when school starts,” Gronstal says.

Governor Branstad says starting school early in August hurts the state’s tourism industry and denies youngsters the chance to participate in Iowa State Fair activities. The Department of Education is telling school administrators they won’t be able to argue classes should start earlier in August in order to have the first semester conclude before the end of the year. Gronstal suggests the two sides are talking past one another.

“People get blinders on and they only see the world from their own view,” Grosntal says. “…I think there are people in the education community that don’t see the concerns of the tourism industry or the State Fair and I think there are people in the tourism industry that don’t understand the challenges of school districts and when semesters end and how to make sure those things mesh.”

Kraig Paulsen

Kraig Paulsen

A bill that’s been introduced in the Iowa House is designed to get the state out of having any role in determining when schools may start fall classes. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, says the reality is unless there’s a “resolution” with the governor, Branstad will veto that bill.

“My hope is that the interested parties in that will get around the table and find a resolution that works for everybody,” Paulsen says.

The current state law regarding school starting date is “outdated” according to Paulsen and he says the legislature should pass some kind of bill to “clarify” the law.

“I don’t know what it looks like yet,” Paulsen says. “But, yes, I do believe there’s something that can be resolved there.”

Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, says the debate over when school should start in the fall will “fade away” as schools move to a year round calendar.

“In Dubuque at least I know our school board is right now trying to work on that year round calendar, trying to make sure that the school buildings have air conditioning so that they can have school during parts of the summer if that’s what’s necessary,” Jochum says.

A subcommittee in the legislature and the Iowa Board of Education both were debating the school start issue this afternoon.

New group forms to pressure presidential candidates to back ethanol production mandate (AUDIO)

renewable-futureA newly-formed coalition plans a “multi-million dollar campaign” to try to get the presidential candidates who’ll be coming through Iowa to back the Renewable Fuels Standard.

The so-called RFS was established a decade ago, to set a yearly amount of corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel that is to be produced in the United States. Bill Couser raises cattle near Nevada, Iowa, and he said the coalition which he now co-chairs has a singular goal.

“Under no circumstances can any candidate in either party afford to ignore the benefits of the RFS for Iowa,” Couser said today during a statehouse news conference.

Governor Terry Branstad also spoke at the statehouse event that served as the roll-out for the new “America’s Renewable Future” coalition.

“We’re not going to prejudge any of the candidates of either party. We want to educate them. We want to inform them and we want them to support this because it’s important for Iowa. It’s important for America,” Branstad said. “It’s important for jobs.”

According to Branstad, 73,000 Iowans work in the renewable fuels industry, with an annual payroll of $5 billion. Texas Governor Rick Perry, one of the prospective GOP presidential candidates, has called for ending the Renewable Fuels Standard, arguing it had inflated the price of corn which farmers in his state feed to their livestock. Branstad said he’s convinced Perry’s stand could be reversed after Perry is “educated” on the issue. Annette Sweeney, the other co-chair of the “America’s Renewable Future” coalition, suggested rank-and-file Iowans who know little about the ethanol industry are also a target.

“We’re going to reach out to every corner of the state of Iowa,” Sweeney said. “We’re going to reach out to all 99 counties to educate.”

AUDIO of today’s news conference

The group already has raised $2 million for the campaign and organizers expect to raise more for the effort..

“Here we are first in the nation with the presidential visits and it’s an opportunity to educate those individuals that are running for office around the RFS and the importance of it,” Kelly Hansen, general manager of the POET plant in Hanlontown which produces 56 million gallons of ethanol annually, said after the news conference. “It’s vitally important to our economy and to jobs, to really our ag future.”

Bruce Rastetter, a multi-millionaire who made his fortune in the hog and ethanol industries, is part of the “America’s Renewable Future” coalition. Rastetter, who is a mega donor to Republican candidates and causes, has invited presidential candidates to participate in a forum in early March that will be focused exclusively on ag-related issues like this one.

(A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Brasntad as a co-chair of the new coalition. He is an investor in the ethanol plant in Nevada, but not a co-chair of the coalition.)

School funding fight underway at statehouse

Republicans and school groups are staking out widely different positions over how much state aid should be forwarded to Iowa’s public school districts.

Governor Terry Branstad and many of his fellow Republicans favor a one-and-a-quarter percent increase for the next academic year, while all the state’s major school groups are seeking a six percent hike. Representative Cecil Dolecheck, a Republican from Mount Ayr, scoffs at that.

“You’re asking for six percent and let’s be realistic,” Dolecheck says. “You don’t expect that.”

A bill that would provide the 1.25 percent increase in general state aid to schools cleared the House Education Committee with just the votes of Republicans. Dolecheck says that level of spending is more than what many House Republicans really wanted. Margaret Buckton lobbies for the Urban Education Network as well as the Rural School Association of Iowa. She says state funding for schools has lagged behind actual costs for several years.

“There was a study put out by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last May that said between Fiscal 2008 and Fiscal 2014, Iowa has lost $641 per student in our capacity to spend,” Buckton says.

Brad Hudson of the Iowa State Education Association says the 1.25 percent hike that Republicans propose won’t even cover teacher salaries, which are expected to go up an average of three percent.

“I’ve never seen this coming out of a period of recession, where we are underfunding our schools like we are now,” Hudson says.

But Republicans like Representative Ron Jorgenson of Sioux City say the increase in general state aid to schools that Republicans propose is in line with state budget reality.

“We’re not cutting education,” Jorgenson says, ” and I understand the need.”

Jorgensen, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, is a former school board member. Senate Democrats have been critical of the level of state aid for schools Republicans propose, but they have yet to offer their own target level for school spending.

Young, King offer sharp criticism of Obama’s ‘State of the Union’

David Young  (file photo)

David Young (file photo)

Two of Iowa’s four congressmen say there are things President Obama discussed during last night’s “State of the Union” address that could win bipartisan support, but the other two Iowa congressmen are harshly critical of Obama’s speech. Republican Congressman David Young of Van Meter says Obama seems “intent on playing politics in his final two years in office rather than working with congress to find solutions.”

“It seemed like within just the first couple of minutes he said the word, ‘Veto,’ and nothing has even gotten to his desk yet,” Young says. “And we’ve been passing some good, bipartisan legislation here so far in congress.”

Republican Congressman Rod Blum of Dubuque says he, too, is concerned by Obama’s veto threats, but Blum says he “definitely could get behind” major tax reform, and that includes Obama’s call to close loopholes that let major corporations significantly reduce their tax bills.

“It’s one of the things I campaigned on. We need to reform the tax code. I’d like to see us lower taxes overall for companies, because they’re highest in the world — lower taxes for everyone,” but let’s get rid of all the loopholes and the crony capitalism,” Blum says.

Congressman Dave Loebsack of Iowa City is the only Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation. He says there are “opportunities” for bipartisanship and he sees both parties moving to increase federal support of job training programs.

“I think we have a chance at that, but I think the president also took the high road, if you will, and appealed to our better angels,” Loebsack says. “And that’s what people tell me — they want us to work together for them.”

Congresman Steve King.

Congresman Steve King.

Republican Congressman Steve King of Kiron took to Twitter before the president’s speech to blast Obama for having a “deportable” as a guest last night. A so-called “Dreamer” who was illegally brought into the U.S. by her parents when she was a child sat in the House balcony with First Lady Michelle Obama. King said on Twitter that the president “perverts prosecutorial discretion” by bringing the Texas college student into the prime time spotlight.

King told reporters in Washington that the president should “take heat” for his action to shield the young woman and others from deportation.

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst delivered the Republican response to President’ Obama’s speech (find more about that here).  Iowa’s other United States Senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, issued the following written statement after the speech:

“The President and I have major philosophical differences.  Tonight’s speech made clear where and how we differ. 
“What I hear from Iowa is that people want Washington to simplify the tax code, not make it more complicated.  Taxpayers expect tax fairness, not tax increases that punish success and discourage innovation.  Farmers are now scrambling to figure out how the President’s proposals would affect the transfer of the family farm from one generation to the next.  Parents who budget carefully to save money for their children’s education are seeing the President’s attempt to scale back the tax benefits that encourage the savings.   A speech that picks so many winners and losers leaves people wondering where they fall in the plan.  It’s a demoralizing approach.
“Instead of tax increases and new federal education entitlements that might be redundant, Washington needs to look for ways to restore the promise of prosperity.  Let’s foster opportunities that help all Americans get ahead.   This means reducing tax rates, looking for ways to make U.S. businesses more competitive worldwide, expanding export opportunities for U.S. farmers and manufacturers, and avoiding new regulations and mandates that hurt job creation.  It means worrying about an $18 trillion debt that future generations will inherit.  It means focusing on the core functions of the federal government, like national security, instead of finding alternate ways to spend money.  In the new Congress, I’ll continue working for fiscal discipline and holding government accountable.  Americans want more good government and a whole lot less Big Government.  They want the most bang for the buck.  Washington should deliver on that. 
“Iowans expect their elected representatives to look for areas for bipartisan agreement.  Wherever I can, I want to continue to honor their expectation.  Cyber security was a big part of the President’s speech, and I see that as an example of an area for potential strong bipartisanship.  A previous proposal that I put together with several colleagues included information sharing, enhanced criminal laws, and research.  As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m already working on legislation to create a fair national data breach notification standard.  The cost to consumers, businesses and national security is too much for us to ignore. 
“In closing, Senator Ernst is an ideal person to deliver the Republican response to the President’s speech.  She brings a new perspective that’s welcome in Washington.  I look forward to her leadership on military matters, farm policy, cutting wasteful spending, and everything else that’s shaped by her background and fresh approach.” 


Ernst says with ‘cooperation’ from Obama, GOP can pass ‘serious job-creating ideas’

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst.

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst gives the Republican response to the State of the Union address.

Iowa’s Joni Ernst, the first female combat veteran in the United States Senate, delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s “State of the Union” address this evening and began by using the moment to speak directly to voters.

“I’d like to talk about your priorities,” Ernst said. “…We heard the message you sent in November – loud and clear — and now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.”

Ernst suggested the past six years — the six years Barack Obama has been president — have been laden with difficulties.

“For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about. We felt them every day,” she said. “We felt them in Red Oak – the little town in southwestern Iowa where I grew up, and am still proud to call home today.”

Ernst said many American families feel as if they’re working harder and harder, with less and less to show for it, and she suggested with a “little cooperation” from the president, Republicans could pass solutions through congress.

“Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like ObamaCare. It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions,” Ernst said. “That’s why the new Republican majority you elected started by reforming Congress to make it function again. And now, we’re working hard to pass the kind of serious job-creation ideas you deserve.”

Ernst listed ideas like approving the Keystone pipeline, cutting tax rates and eliminating trade barriers in Europe and the Pacific. She also mentioned her service in the Iowa National Guard and referenced the “serious work” ahead in congress to “debate strategies to confront terrorism.”

“The forces of violence and oppression don’t care about the innocent,” Ernst said. “We need a comprehensive plan to defeat them.”

Ernst closed by signaling that Republicans intend to “repeal and replace ObamaCare” and she said the Republican-led congress would “correct” the executive orders President Obama has issued.

Ernst drew attention from some quarters for the shoes she wore tonight — a pair of camouflage pumps, meant to draw attention to her status as a soldier as well as a senator. Ernst also shared a bit of her personal story during tonight’s nationally televised speech. She talked about her farm background, working the biscuit line at Hardees and wearing bread bags as a child over her “one good pair of shoes” to keep the mud off — stories she told during the 2014 campaign here in Iowa.

Iowa moving to expand online voter registration

Iowa Democrat Party executive director Troy Price and deputy secretary of state Carol Olson.

Iowa Democrat Party executive director Troy Price and deputy secretary of state Carol Olson.

The Iowa Voter Registration Commission is moving ahead with plans to let all eligible Iowa voters with a state-issued photo I.D. register to vote online, but it will be up to the Iowa Department of Transportation to determine just when it can start.

Carol Olson, the Deputy Secretary of State in charge of elections, says DOT officials expect a new on-line voter registration system to be ready in the first quarter of 2016 — which means it may not be up in time for the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.

“That’s a possibility. We’re going to try to drive it faster than that,” Olson says. “We’re not completely in the driver’s seat on that, but we certainly aspire that it will be in place before that.”

Most Iowans are able to go online to renew their driver’s license and they can register to vote during that process, but the DOT is developing a separate system that would allow someone who either has a valid Iowa driver’s license or an I.D. card issued by the DOT to go online, enter their identification number and register to vote at any time, not just when they’re renewing their license.

The majority of states that have online voter registration go through the state motor vehicle department and Olson says it makes sense for Iowa to do the same rather than have the Iowa secretary of state’s office create a whole new online voter registration system.

“We don’t have the technological capacity. And why build a system twice?” Olson asks. “As stewards of the tax dollars, if we can build a system once and have the systems in the state departments talk to each other, that’s a much preferable way.”

The websites for the Iowa secretary of state’s office and for Iowa’s 99 county auditors will link to the DOT’s online voter registration system, once it’s up and running. Cerro Gordo County Auditor Kevin Kline says county auditors are already getting digital records from the DOT each day from Iowans who’ve registered to vote when they renewed their drivers license, “which is much faster than processing the same number of registrations on paper, so it’s secure. It’s been in place a long time. From the county auditors’ perspective, it’s a great process to to build on.”

The executive directors of the Iowa Republican and Democratic Parties are members of the Iowa Voter Registration Commission and this afternoon during the commission’s meeting both voted in favor of expanding online voter registration in 2016. Iowa Democratic Party executive director Troy Price is urging state officials to find other ways to offer online voter registration to the seven percent of eligible Iowa voters who do not have a drivers license.