January 26, 2015

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.

Key lawmaker ‘disturbed’ by Branstad’s call to close Mental Health Institutes in southern Iowa

Dave Heaton

Dave Heaton

Governor Branstad is proposing that the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant be closed this summer. The budget Governor Branstad delivered to legislators this week does not include any money to keep the institutions open past June 30. Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, says there will be push back from the two communities as well as legislators.

“It’s like a lot of things today,” Heaton says. “It seems like administrations whether it’s in Des Moines or Washington, D.C. are going around the legislative bodies and moving forward their own agendas and I am disturbed about that.”

Heaton suggests Branstad was likely emboldened to make this move after legislators failed to block the governor’s abrupt closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home a year ago.

“I think the governor is violating the budgetary process,” Heaton says. “He’s making a unilateral decision without input from the legislature…He’s saying: ‘I just want to close ‘em.’ And that’s not right.”

Heaton is chairman of the subcommittee that writes the budget for the Iowa Department of Human Services, the agency in charge of the Mental Health Institutes, and he’s arranged for the agency’s director to go to Mount Pleasant on the morning of Saturday, January 24 to explain the proposed closure to the community. Five years ago a consulting firm hired by then-Governor Chet Culver recommended that the Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant close, but Heaton and others worked to keep the institutions open.

“It was a long process in which the communities had an opportunity to get involved in the decision-making,” Heaton says. “This time it was done in the night and the governor just said: ‘We’re closing.'”

The state has four Mental Health Institutes. The Clarinda facility has 24 patients and there are 47 patients in Mount Pleasant. Amy McCoy, the spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, says it’s likely those patients would be transferred to the other state-run facilities in Cherokee and Independence.

“Number one, we’ll be focusing on patient safety and quality as we make any transitions,” McCoy says. “The mental health delivery is changing and has been changing for a number of years and we must keep up with these best practices, but we value our staff very much and the service they’ve provided at these facilities has benefitted many, many Iowans over the years.”

About 80 people currently work at each of the facilities targeted for closure. McCoy says it’s unclear how many might be offered jobs in Independence or Cherokee.

“This is an extremely difficult situation for our staff and we want to be able to offer them as many details as possible,” McCoy says. “We’re going to work very, very quickly so they have the information they need to make their personal plans.”

The president of the union the represents many of those workers says Branstad’s “secretive decision” took “almost everyone by surprise,” even legislators. AFSCME Council 61 president Danny Homan says the governor’s “drastic recommendation” will impact “some of the most vulnerable Iowans.”

The Mental Health Institutes are routinely the treatment option of last resort for acute care of mentally ill patients. The governor’s budget indicates the state will save $15.5 million by closing the two facilities. The MHI at Clarinda opened in 1888 while the Mount Pleasant facility opened the year the Civil War broke out, in 1861.

(Reporting by Theresa Rose, KILJ, Mt Pleasant; additional reporting by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson)

Embattled Iowa Workforce Development director abruptly retires

Teresa Wahlert (file photo)

Teresa Wahlert (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad says he had hoped Iowa Workforce Development director would remain in the job, but Teresa Wahlert abruptly resigned this weekend.

“Actually Teresa contacted my chief of staff Matt Hinch on Friday and indicated that she wanted to retire on Sunday,” Branstad told reporters this morning during his weekly news conference. “…We would have preferred that she’d have stayed on, but we accepted the fact that she wanted to do that.”

Wahlert drew fire for closing over four dozen Workforce Development offices around the state where unemployed Iowans went to apply for benefits and conduct a job search, plus Democrats in the state senate suggested Wahlert bullied employees in the agency. This summer, Wahlert told a senate committee she has a “direct” management style.

“I know that some personalities adapt to change easier and more readily than others,” Wahlert said.

Wahlert was confirmed by the state senate for a four-year term as director of Iowa Workforce Development in 2011, but key senators had warned she would not get confirmed again in 2015. The governor acknowledged Wahlert likely wouldn’t have been able to remain in the post, but Branstad defends the way she managed the agency.

“We know that she was under attack from Senate Democrats,” Branstad said today. “We didn’t feel the accusations were fair and that she’d done a good job.”

AUDIO of governor’s weekly news conference, where he discussed Wahlert’s retirement, 30:00

Branstad, however, did not indicate he planned to nominate Wahlert for another term, just that he hoped she would have “stayed on.” On Sunday, Branstad appointed Beth Townsend, the head of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, to be acting director of Iowa Workforce Development. Branstad will consider Townsend for the post on a permanent basis, after a face-to-face interview.

Branstad also faces two other key management openings in his administration. The director of the Iowa Department of Corrections is retiring and last week the commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety retired.

Construction industry targeted for federal apprenticeship money

Workforce-DevIowa Workforce Development has begun handing out some six million dollars from a federal grant to get more people into the apprentice programs in the construction industry.

IWD spokesperson, Kerry Koonce, says they hope to address a skills gap in what employers are looking for and the skills potential workers possess. “The construction industry has an exceptional need right now for some of the millions of dollars of projects that are going on right now across the state,” Koonce says.

She says it can be tough for businesses to take on employees for the positions. “Registered apprenticeship training is of course one that is usually paid for by the employer. It’s a great benefit for the individual, they get their training and they earn while they learn, but it’s a cost that the employers bare,” Koonce explains. “This will help expand those training programs, allow more individuals to be trained, and the training costs will be paid for by the grant.”

Koonce says it varies by program, but it usually costs $3,000 to $4,000 for each worker. The are preparing to send out funds to groups which met the application guidelines.

“We saw proposals come in that were funded from the Associated Builders and Contractors of Iowa — which the represent small construction businesses across the state — Southeastern Community College Center for Business and the Southeast Iowa Electrical Apprenticeship, and also the Iowa Energy Construction Trades, which is 19 affiliate members of the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council. So, those are the ones that received the funding,” Koonce says.

Koonce says it shouldn’t take long to get the new participants in the program. “Most of them are ready to go, a lot of them will be beginning here just in February and then throughout the next few months,” Koonce says. ” The grant is dedicated to training 1,500 new individuals — so these are individuals who are not currently in any apprenticeship program — into a variety of different construction-based careers.”

Koonce says they are working on additional components of the grant program that IWD will announce in the coming weeks.


All of Iowa’s congressmen vote for Keystone XL pipeline bill (video)

Congressman Dave Loebsack being sworn in by House Speaker John Boehner as his wife Cindy holds the Bible.

Congressman Dave Loebsack being sworn in by House Speaker John Boehner as his wife Cindy holds the Bible.

All four of Iowa’s Congressmen voted for a bill today to move ahead with construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline that would bring oil to the U.S. from Canada.

Congressman Steve King, a Republican from Kyron, issued a video message after the vote, acknowledging the president has threatened to veto the bill.

“If it gets to the president’s desk and he vetoes the bill, he’s vetoing 40,000 jobs, he’s vetoing 830,000 barrels of oil a day coming into the United States. Canada is our best trading partner, that oil is going somewhere,” King says. He says if the oil doesn’t come to the U.S. for refinement, it will go to China.

The bill passed the U.S. House with 238 Republican votes and 28 from Democrats. “We’ll send this bill over to the Senate, I’m confident the Senate takes it up,” King says. “We needed to pass this legislation early, it’s jobs, it’s economic growth. It helps make us energy independent in the North American continent. It’s good for our trading relations with our great friends and trading partners and neighbors to the north, Canada,” King says.

Freshmen Republican Congressmen David Young and Rod Blum also voted for the bill. Iowa Congressman Dave Loebsack was one of the 28 Democrats to vote for the bill.

Loebsack released a statement following his vote:

“I have long subscribed to the belief that the best course of action regarding energy policy is to move from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy as quickly and as feasibly as possible. I understand the concerns about the potential impact of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. At the same time, any decision such as the one regarding Keystone is hardly a simple or easy one to make. Environmental concerns are important, but so are other factors.

“In my mind, one of the most important reasons is the infrastructure jobs that will be created due to the construction of the pipeline. I am fully aware of the short-term nature of the 40,000 plus jobs that will be created by this project. But I cast my vote today in favor of creating these jobs that can’t be shipped overseas and for the countless hardworking men and women who put their hard hats on every morning so that they can put food on the table and help their children pay for college. We have seen Wall Street recover, yet working folks across Iowa and America continue to wait their turn. Our focus must continue to be on improving the economy, getting Americans back to work, and moving our country forward. It is unfortunate that Republicans have refused to move any comprehensive jobs legislation to keep jobs from going overseas. A good first start would be an immediate consideration of a long-term transportation bill so American workers can get back to work and the U.S. economic recovery can be further enhanced.

“Additionally, today’s vote marks only the beginning of the work Congress must do on energy policy during the next session and in the years beyond. First, we must do all we can to reduce carbon at its sources and ensure that polluters bear the costs of their action. This can be done by imposing a carbon fee on the pollution emitted by the use of fossil fuels, with the revenue generated returned to households. We also must extend the Production Tax Credit to continue to spur the generation of wind power, extend the Investment Tax Credit to incentivize the development of solar power, and continue other policies to enable the increased use of other renewable forms of energy. These policies will both protect our environment and create hundreds of thousands of jobs across America. These efforts will continue to move our nation on a path that practically and affordably moves us farther from reliance on fossil fuels and towards significantly more use of renewables.”

Iowa Supreme Court rules on use of prisoner pay for restitution

Iowa Supreme Court building.

Iowa Supreme Court building.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled today in a case involving the payment of restitution by prison inmates. Beau Morris was convicted of first-degree robbery and second-degree sexual assault in 2004 and ordered to pay restitution of more than $16,000 along with two consecutive 25-year prison terms.

Morris began working for a private business in 2011 under a work agreement with the Iowa Prison Industries program and was paid more than $10 an hour. He agreed that 15-percent of his wages would be used for restitution, but in 2012 he asked the district court and received a modification so 50-percent could go to restitution.

The Department of Corrections resisted the change, saying it would impact the amount of money taken for supervision costs of the employment program and the costs of keeping Morris in prison.

A second Polk County District Court judge sided with the corrections department and returned the restitution amount to 15-percent. The Iowa Supreme Court says the law clearly indicates the court’s order on restitution takes priority as the legislature decided to compensate victims of crimes and other recipients of restitution before permitting the state to be reimbursed for its costs. The Supreme Court says the district court abused its discretion in overturning the original order to increase the amount deducted from Morris’ check for restitution.

The Supreme Court though did leave open the possibility that the Department of Corrections can appeal on the grounds the increased money paid for restitution violates the work agreement Morris signed to get his Prison Industries job.

See the full ruling here: Morris restitution ruling PDF


ISU only university in country to cut admin costs & hire more faculty

Iowa State University’s president says enrollment at the Ames school has been growing at a “record pace” and that’s why he’s on a hiring spree. Last year, ISU president Steven Leath approved hiring 105 new faculty members.

“We’re going to do 130 this year,” Leath says. “I think we’re the only university in the country that’s hiring that many faculty in the two-year period.”

According to the American Institutes for Research. Iowa State is the only university in the country to have reduced administrative costs while increasing the number of faculty hired over the past eight years. That trend started with former ISU president Gregory Geoffrey and continued with Leath when he took over as ISU’s president nearly three years ago.

“This is really about making sure we can teach the students,” Leath says. “And it’s also about doing research in some critical areas and so these are very targeted recruitments.”

Nearly 70 percent of all ISU classes have fewer than 20 students and to accommodate both record enrollment and more faculty, Leath ordered some administrative offices that had been on the central campus to move off campus. The move freed up 100,000 square foot of space.