April 20, 2014

Unemployment rate inches up to 4.4% in March

The state unemployment rate moved up again in March. “We had just a tenth of a percent increase in our unemployment rate, and that’s really primarily due to an increase in the state’s labor force,” Iowa Workforce Development spokesperson Kerry Koonce says. The 4.4-percent unemployment rate in March is still below the 4.8-percent rate for March of last year.

Koonce says the workforce has been growing “excessively” over the last couple of months. “Individuals who maybe stopped looking for work, because they didn’t think it was available, have started again,” Koonce says. The total number of Iowans working is now 1,615,200. “That’s reached a record number — which is very good– that really shows the economy is growing,” Koonce says. “That’s 27,000 higher than it was this time last year.”

Koonce says there were some job losses. She says the most loses were in manufacturing, but she says the forecasts show that durable goods manufacturing jobs should pick up in the coming weeks and level out the loses. The professional goods and services area also lost jobs, which Koonce says is an area that tends to go up and down.

Overall manufacturing jobs are up 800 compared to last year. Koonce says construction employment should be picking up soon as the weather improves.

Senator airs concerns about what he calls “spying” on unemployed Iowans

A state senator says he is “deeply troubled” by a state agency’s decision to hire a Google subsidiary to “spy” on Iowans who are getting unemployment benefits. Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, says the agency is using a half a million dollar federal grant to pay for the company’s services.

“Iowa Workforce Development, instead of hiring individuals to go after $15 million worth of fraudulent payments, has contracted with a Google subsidiary — it’s called Pondera Technology Platforms — to spy on unemployed workers who are receiving unemployment benefits,” Dotzler says.

The agency says the company will sort through data to see if someone receiving jobless benefits has committed identity theft by, for example, using someone else’s Social Security number. Dotzler argues the on-line tracking may go too far and legislators should have been involved in making this kind of a decision.

“Should state government move down that path?” Dotzler asks. “Is that the kind of government that we are heading towards, where we are spying on the citizens of our country to find out about their personal lives and what they’re doing, all under the guise of trying to keep somebody from committing fraud?”

The director of the Iowa Workforce Development agency is quoted in a Pondera news release, saying Pondera provides her agency with a new “tool set to detect and prevent fraud.” She said there’s been a “lack of investment” in the agency’s “technical capabilities” over the past decade and Pondera can help prevent errors and save taxpayer dollars.

Board chair felt “gun to my head” to hire Branstad pick; governor denies the charge

The chairman of a state board that decides disputes between government employees and their managers says Governor Terry Branstad’s chief of staff forced the board to hire a judge who had been hand-picked by Branstad’s staff, a charge Branstad denies. Public Employment Relations Board chairman James Riordan has been on the board for the past 14 years, serving under Governors Tom Vilsack, Chet Culver and now Terry Branstad.

“Jeff Boeyink, his chief of staff…he was the message carrier, basically,” Riordan said today. “…He made it clear to us that if we weren’t willing to go along with this idea there were going to be serious consequences related to the budget.”

Riordan, a Democrat who is a former state senator, testified before the Senate Government Oversight Committee today, saying he felt his agency’s budget and his own $96,000 a year salary were in jeopardy if Branstad’s pick wasn’t hired as an administrative law judge.

“I felt that there was a gun to my head, you know: ‘Do this or you’re going to have big consequences,’” Riordan told legislators.

Governor Branstad flatly denies Riordan’s allegations.

“I think it’s very disappointing that somebody who didn’t get reappointed to the (Public Employment Relations Board) would make these kind of false accusations,” Branstad told reporters this afternoon.

Branstad said Robert Wilson is “extremely qualified” for the job of administrative law judge.

“I heard after the fact that he was appointed,” Branstad told reporters. “I had appointed him a number of years ago as a district court judge and then he had resigned from that position and gone to work for a doctor over in Iowa City.”

The Senate Government Oversight Committee also heard testimony today from the top human resources manager in state government. She explained how former state employees who have discovered they’re on a “do not rehire” list can appeal to get their names removed. She also said about two percent of the workers in the executive branch of state government who had been classified as “merit employees” have been reclassified as “at will” employees, meaning they can be fired at any time.

Lawmakers want to know more about black-listed ex-state workers

A key House Republican is asking the governor for more information about confidential settlements and why nearly a thousand former state workers are on a “do not hire” list. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, plan to hold a hearing today to ask the human resources manager for a state agency those same questions.

Republicans have been arguing there is no “blacklist” of state workers who should not be rehired, merely a “code” on their personnel file that “excludes” them from future state work. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, scoffs at that.

“A database is a list — is a list, is a list, is a list,” McCoy told reporters Wednesday.

Republicans like Senator Sandy Greiner of Washington, Iowa, want to know why those employees were fired and she’s asked for a summary.

“With no names attached to it, no addresses attached, no Social Security numbers attached, but a summary of the list of reasons that people were coded to no longer be hired by the state,” Greiner said during Wednesday’s House-Senate Oversight Committee meeting.

Republicans are pushing for legislation that would make the reasons behind state employee dismissals a public record and a bill to do that passed the Republican-led House.  Democrats in the Senate say they’re drafting a bill that addresses a variety of issues that have been raised about state hiring and firing practices. Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines, said it will include protections for whistleblowers, too.

“We are planning to take action,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting.

The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee has delivered a list of 16 questions he wants answered about the confidential settlements with at least two dozen laid off state workers as well as the reasons why “each” of the 975 former state employees declared “ineligible for rehire” was given that status.

State may have to repay feds for co-mingled cash in confidential settlements

Legislative Oversight Comm 4-16-14An official from the state agency under fire for confidential settlements that included “hush money” for laid off workers says the agency’s new system for managing state government construction projects has saved nearly 10-million dollars over the past 32 months.

Lon Anderson, the chief deputy director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, makes that calculation, in part, by estimating 15 percent savings in construction because general contractors are no longer allowed to manage state government projects. Construction is monitored by three state employees and six different private companies instead.

“This reorg was really about…effective construction management and savings for the taxpayers,” Anderson said during testimony today before the Legislature’s Oversight Committee.

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, sees flaws in the overall savings estimate.

“The numbers that we were going through today were all numbers that had no sense of context,” McCoy told reporters.

Another agency manager also confirmed some of the settlement money paid to the laid-off workers may have come from the federal government. Doug Woodley said that’s because other state agencies, which operate with both state and federal funds, are required to pay an annual management fee to the Department of Administrative Services and the agency doesn’t track the source of those payments. Democrats say that’s a problem and the state could be forced to repay any federal funds that might have been used.





Senate confirms ex-GOP lawmaker as state utility regulator

The Iowa Senate has narrowly confirmed Governor Branstad’s nominee for an opening on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Former State Representative Nick Wagner of Marion needed 34 votes to win confirmation to the post. He got 35.  Fifteen Democratic senators voted against Wagner who had been a point-man for House Republicans on budget matters until he lost his bid for reelection in 2012. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, said it was difficult to work with Wagner.

“I found Nick was a person that was not wililng to listen,” McCoy said. “He took very difficult and very hard-line positions.”

Senator Dan Zumbach, a Republican from Ryan, suggested those traits as positives, not negatives.

“In any of these appointed positions we want people that think clearly and see things clearly and make clear decisions and so for some of the very reasons you may have some level of frustration with Nick Wagner, I see as qualities,” Zumbach said.

Branstad wanted to appoint Wagner to the board last year, but Democrats in the senate balked, so Branstad withdrew Wagner’s nomination, then used his authority as governor a few weeks later to put Wagner on the board as an interim appointment while legislators weren’t in session. Wagner is an electrical engineer by training.  As one of three full-time state utility regulators, he could earn an annual salary of between $84,000 and $128,000.

In other decisions today, the senate confirmed another state legislator to a job on the Public Employment Relations Board.  Michael Cormack, a Republican who used to live in Fort Dodge, had been working for the Branstad Administration, in the Iowa Department of Education.  He has been confirmed by the senate to be the chairman Public Employment Relations Board.


50 minutes worth of political point-making in the Iowa Senate

Republicans in the Iowa Senate are pushing Senate Democrats to take up a bill that would make state personnel records open to the public, while Democrats say they’re focused on uncovering cronyism and questionable spending in Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s administration. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said the Republican-led House passed a bill nine days ago that would let Iowans find out why nearly a thousand fired state employees have been blacklisted.

“So far and again today all we hear is talk, talk, talk. Iowans know talk is cheap and it is actions that resolve problems,” Dix said during a 50-minute period this morning when half a dozen different senators used their ability to make “points of personal privilege” speeches.

Democrats like Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids countered that legislators “have a duty” to determine if Branstad’s agencies are saving any money by changing hiring practices in state government and paying more private contractors to do work that used to be done by state employees.

“Governor Branstad – dodge. Oh, deflect,” Hogg said. “Even yesterday (Branstad said): oh, really, shouldn’t the legislature be doing something else? What’s he afraid of us seeing? That the new sheriff has no clothes.”

During budget battles with legislators in the spring of 2011, Branstad called himself the “new sheriff in town.”

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, suggested Republicans are trying to “sweep” the controversy “under the rug” to protect their Republican governor.

“If the tables were turned and this was a Democratic administration and these positions were being filled by political cronies…I can’t help but believe that people wouldn’t be squealing like castrated pigs,” McCoy said.

Republicans in the House have passed a bill that would put Governor Branstad’s executive order barring confidential settlements in state law, plus the bill would make documents related to state employee firings public records. Senator Sandy Greiner, a Republican from Washington, Iowa, said she’s “getting the feeling” Democrats don’t intend to pass any legislation to deal with those issues.

“I think we’d be making an incredibly serious mistake to not do anything,” Greiner said. “Something is always better than nothing.”

A meeting of the Legislature’s Oversight Committee to gather more testimony from two top Department of Administrative Services managers was cancelled this morning and it’s unclear when the panel may meet again to try to determine where the agency found the money to pay tens of thousands of dollars in exit settlements to laid off workers.