November 23, 2014

Branstad: no ‘big changes’ in his staff in 2015

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Don’t expect the top brass in the Branstad Administration to look all that different in 2015. Republican Terry Branstad does not plan to use the start of a new term to make wholesale changes in top administrative positions in state government, but a “few” people will exit and be replaced.

“We’ll be making a few staff changes in the governor’s office,” Branstad said this week. “We may have some changes in terms of department heads.”

Some key state senators have said a few of Branstad’s agency chiefs might not win confirmation from two-thirds of the senate to serve another four years. Iowa Workforce Development director Teresa Wahlert has been heavily criticized by Senate Democrats for her management style and the changes she’s made in the agency. Branstad won’t be asking for any resignations, but he hinted some top state agency managers may “retire” rather than stay on for his sixth term.

“We’re not ready to make any announcements at this time, but I don’t expect there’ll be big changes, but I expect there will be a few,” Branstad told Radio Iowa during a Wednesday afternoon interview shortly before his departure to the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida.

Branstad served 16 years as governor, from January of 1983 to January of 1999. After 12 years out of office, Branstad was reelected as Iowa’s governor in 2010. His victory in 2014 sets the stage for Branstad to claim the record as the nation’s longest-serving governor. He’ll cross that mark midway through his sixth term.

Iowa Public Information Board has new executive director

Charlie Smithson

Charlie Smithson

A lawyer who has worked in key state government roles has been named executive director of the Iowa Public Information Board.

Members of the Iowa Public Information Board have chosen Charlie Smithson as the board’s new executive director. The Public Information Board was created two years ago to field citizen complaints about lack of access to public records and violations of the state’s open meetings law.

Keith Luchtel, a lawyer who is a retired lobbyist, has been executive director of the Public Information Board since it started operations in 2013.  Charlie Smithson — the new executive director — served almost a decade as executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board before Republicans hired him to be chief clerk of the House in 2010. In 2012, he began legal counsel and legislative liaison for Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz.

House Democrats keep Smith as leader; all statehouse leaders remain for 2015

Mark Smith

Mark Smith

The final group of state legislators has met and the statehouse leadership roster is now complete. When the 2015 Iowa legislative session starts in January, the leaders in the Iowa House and Senate will be the same ones who held those jobs in 2014.

Democrats in the Senate met shortly after the election and voted to keep Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs as Senate Majority Leader and Pam Jochum of Dubuque as president of the Senate. Republicans in the House and the Senate met a couple of days later and kept their leaders in place. Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha will continue as House Speaker and Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake will continue as House Majority Leader. Senate Republicans — despite the disappointment of failing to capture a majority of seats in the senate — kept Bill Dix of Shell Rock as Senate Minority Leader.

The fourth group of legislators — House Democrats — met this past weekend. Despite falling further behind Republicans in the House, Representative Mark Smith of Marshalltown will remain as House Minority Leader.

Gronstal is the longest-serving leader among the bunch. He has the top leader of Senate Democrats since 1996.

(This post was updated at 1:30 p.m.)

Democrats and Republicans keep main leaders for 2015 legislative session

The Iowa Capitol building reflection in the windows of the Wallace Building.

The Iowa Capitol building reflection in the windows of the Wallace Building.

The party leaders who control the Iowa House and Senate will remain the same in the new session in January. Republicans control the Iowa House and have voted to keep Representative Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha in the role of the Speaker of the House.

Paulsen will be serving his seventh term. He is an attorney for a Cedar Rapids trucking company. Representative Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake was reelected as the Republican House Majority Leader. She is a nurse who will also will be serving her seventh term.

Democrats held onto their slim 26-24 margin in last week’s election to maintain control of the Iowa Senate. Senator Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs will continue as majority leader and Pam Jochum of Dubuque was reelected Senate President. Gronstal has been the Senate minority or majority leader since 2001, while Jochum will be in her second term as Senate president.

The 2015 Legislature will convene in Des Moines on January 12th.


Lieutenant Governor says election results may help with road funding solution (Audio)

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds met with the media alone today with the governor out of the country for a post-election vacation. Reynolds and the governor won re-election last week and saw a Republican surge in almost every area but the state Senate where the Democrats held onto a slim majority.

Reynolds says the path to gaining Republican control of the Senate was too narrow. “I think we probably needed to have more seats in play, but we’ll continue to do what we did over the last four years, and that’s work with both a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate,” Reynolds says. “We’re going to put Iowans first and Iowa first. We are going to look for legislation where we will continue to build consensus.”

Reynolds was asked if raising the gas tax to help fund road repairs will be one of the issues they push. She says Governor Branstad has been pretty clear that the gas tax isn’t the only solution. “We know that it’s extremely important for Iowa’s economy that we have the money to sustain Iowa’s roads and bridges. It can’t just be just raising the gas tax, I don’t think that’s a sustainable measure, we know that that’s a declining revenue source,” according to Reynolds.

Reynolds says they need to look at several options and combine them in a bipartisan package that will increase revenue for road repairs in the long term. Reynolds says with the election of Join Ernst to the U.S. Senate and the body now in Republican control, there could be some federal options on road funding that also help the state. “Congress passed several measures for long-term road funding at the federal level that didn’t even get debated in the Senate. So, hopefully they can look at a long-term solution at the federal level, we can work with both parties at the state level, and look for a hybrid — several options that we can put together that do what we need it to do, that is improve the infrastructure in the state of Iowa.”

The governor will be on vacation through November 18th.

Audio: Kim Reynolds news conference 9:00



State task force recommends new assessment for schools

A state task force assigned to review the assessments used to schools is recommending that the state adopt what are called the “Smarter Balanced” assessments. Iowa Department of Education spokesperson, Staci Hupp Ballard, says the assessments are used for public and accredited non-public schools, and the Smarter Balanced assessment was developed by a group of states.

She says those states, “Have the goal to ensure that all students — regardless of their background– leave high school prepared for success in college or career training. And the consortium belief is that a high-quality assessment system can raise student achievement largely by providing teachers and schools the information and tools that they need to improve teaching and learning.”

Ballard says the task force had several reasons for recommending the Smarter Balanced assessment. She says it is often referred to as “much more than a test,” and is considered more like a system, because it includes an annual test along with an optional classroom level tests that teachers can give to gauge student progress through the year. Ballard says administrators, teachers and other gave their input to the task force.

“When teachers talk about the advantages of Smarter Balance, it seems it’s much more than a test to them. It seems like it provides them helpful information to try to really pinpoint where a student is versus where a student is expected to be at a particular grade level,” Ballard says.

The next step will be in the hands of lawmakers. “From now through January, the task force will work on a final report to the legislature. There’s a meeting scheduled for December 10th, and ultimately lawmakers will be charged with deciding whether or not to go with this recommendation,” Ballard says. Iowa students currently take the Iowa Assessments in grades 3-8 and 11 in math and reading to meet state and federal accountability laws. The Iowa Assessments are developed and administered by Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa.

The Legislature opened the door for a new assessment process in 2013 by creating the Assessment Task Force.


Utility regulators asked to approve route for high-voltage transmission line

Another step forward from the company that has proposed construction of a new transmission line through Iowa to export electricity generated by Iowa wind turbines to Chicago and points east of there.

The Rock Island Clean Line has filed paperwork with the Iowa Utilities Board, asking for a transmission franchise in Iowa. The company’s transmission line would stretch through 16 counties in Iowa. State utility regulators are being asked to approve the company’s proposed route.

Governor Branstad’s economic development director has hailed the project, saying it shows how wind energy can be a valuable Iowa export. Rock Island Clean Line officials previously announced Sabre Industries in Sioux City will make the support structures for the transmission line.

Some landowners along the route through Iowa have raised concerns about the project. The company will be allowed to use eminent domain to seize property if negotiations with property owners for easement rights fail. A bill that would have set up a new appeal process for those landowners stalled in the Iowa House this past year.

The preferred route for the 500-mile-long transmission line would start in northwest Iowa’s O’Brien County and would exit on the east side of the state in Scott County, just north of the Quad Cities. The entire project’s cost is estimated to be $2 billion.