December 20, 2014

Governor urged to continue state grants to spruce up parks

maquoketa-cavesTwo young people from eastern Iowa traveled to Des Moines Thursday to lobby for continued state funding of regional improvement plans for state and local parks. Rachel Wentworth, a sophomore at Maquoketa High School, said parks give “town and city kids” a chance to enjoy what “country kids” like her “see every day.”

“I live on a farm that has been in the family since 1853,” she said. “My brother and my grandpa have inspired my love for nature.”

Wentworth said her generation is more into playing video games than experiencing the great outdoors, but she argued great parks could lure them away from the devices.

“For example, my cousins…(are) into playing electronics,” Wentworth said. “…They got in trouble, so they got their electronics taken away from a week. They were forced to go outside and play, but they learned to love it and explore and so now they choose to go outside and they love being out there and they want to spend the night outside all the time.”

Wentworth made her pitch for parks to Governor Branstad, the governor’s chief of staff and his budget director during a budget hearing at the statehouse late Thursday afternoon. Nicholas Hockenberry is a “young professional” from Dubuque who is working with the group that got the first state grant for park improvement projects in Jones, Jackson and Dubuque Counties and he spoke to the governor and his staff, too.

“I’m an active climber, canoer, kayaker — those kind of things,” Hockenberry said. “I’m also interested in diverse cultural events as well and our region to offer.”

The $1.9 million grant was awarded in September to the three northeast Iowa counties and some of that money will be used to build new cabins at the four state-owned parks in the region. Hockenberry is urging state policymakers to continue the state grant program this next year, so other another area of the state can get money to spruce up and expand outdoor recreation areas. Hockenberry said quality outdoor activities are important to “young professionals” like him.

Photo courtesy of the Iowa DNR.

Speakers at statehouse budget hearing call for income tax cut as well as raising money for roads

Governor Terry Branstad held an hour-long hearing Thursday evening, to give members of the public a chance to comment on state spending priorities for the coming year.

Most of the 20 people who spoke represented trade groups and associations. Sharon Presnall, a vice president of the Iowa Bankers Association, is also on the Iowa Taxpayers Association board of directors. She urged the governor to “seriously consider” cutting income taxes.

“Frankly states with the best tax climates have broad bases and low rates and this is an area that we think that Iowa can do a little bit better in,” Presnall said. “And I also think at the end of the day by doing that you actually generate more revenue.”

Justine Stevenson, director of government relations for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, urged the governor to find a way to finance repairs of “deteriorating rural roads and bridges.”

“A delay in addressing the shortfall in transportation infrastructure has increased the cost to make those necessary repairs and improvements,” Stevenson said. “Recognizing the serious condition of our roads and bridges, you are working with legislative leaders and interest groups to craft a bipartisan solution. We commend you for this effort and will work to support the responsible funding plans that may be developed.”

For the past five years legislators and the governor have talked about raising the state gas tax or finding a new way to finance road and bridge construction, but there’s been no resolution. Scott Newhard is executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the trade group for companies that build highways and bridges or supply the materials for that construction.

“Roads should be paid for by users, including out-of-state drivers on a pay-as-you-go basis and with constitutionally protected funds,” said Newhard, who was the first speaker at last night’s hearing.

State fuel taxes are placed on the Road Use Tax Fund and, according to the state constitution, money in that fund may only be used for the state’s transportation system. Newhard asked the governor to tamp down any talk of using general state tax dollars to pay for roads and bridges.

Each speaker at last night’s budget hearing was given three minutes to make their pitch and about 10 people who came to speak were unable to make it into the hearing room in the one-hour allotted for the event. The governor did hear from lobbyists for community colleges and nursing homes concerned about state support of their institutions, plus trade group representatives seeking state money for water quality initiatives. Members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement who were stuck waiting outside the hearing room said state government should focus on preventing water pollution by limiting manure and farm chemical use on cropland rather than giving farmers money to construct barriers that prevent run-off.

Report provides ‘blueprint’ for state economic development efforts

BatelleA new report concludes Iowa’s businesses overall have been “highly productive” and there’s been good job growth in the state in the past decade. However, the study warns Iowa’s low population growth and a lack of graduates with science, engineering and math degrees could dampen future economic growth.

The Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress, a state advisory board appointed by the governor, commissioned the report from the Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute. Governor Branstad was on hand for the report’s release.

“I think they did a very thorough and a very good job assessing what we have accomplished, but also the challenges ahead,” Branstad said, “and kind of helping us with a strategy to kind of grow the Iowa economy and bring more good jobs here.”

The study measured the state’s economic output and workforce and it concluded Iowa’s rebound from the 2008 recession has been higher than the national average. Iowa has outperformed the nation in the number of new jobs that require advanced skills, but the report also found that Iowa’s colleges and universities aren’t producing as many graduates with science, technology, engineering and math degrees when compared to all U.S. colleges.

“It shows that the focus on STEM makes sense. We’ve got to accelerate it and we’ve come a long way in the last couple of years,” Branstad said. “We need to continue to keep that focus. I think it is catching on and will make a difference.”

From 2009 to 2013, there was a 31 percent increase in the number of Iowa college graduates with so-called STEM degrees. However, only one out of every 10 Iowa college graduates earned a degree in a STEM-related field. The report also warns Iowa’s population growth is less than half the national average and that will limit the ability of Iowa businesses to expand and hire more workers.

Branstad notes the report also focused on the state of Iowa’s infrastructure, it’s roads, bridges and railroads as well as broadband capacity. The governor along with leaders of Iowa’s business community met Thursday afternoon to publicly discuss the report.

“This will be really a helpful blueprint for our future direction,” Branstad said.

‘Regional Academy’ for blind, deaf students proposed in Charles City

school-for-deaf-logoThe superintendent of the state-run schools for deaf and visually-impaired students is asking the governor and legislators to provide over $200,000 for a new “Regional Academy”. Steven Gettel is the superintendent for what are called the “state special schools” which are the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs and the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton.

“This is really a partnership that we’re putting together with first Charles City up in the northeast region,” Gettel says.

Students would come from districts served by two Area Education Agencies — AEA 267 which has offices in Cedar Falls, Clear Lake and Marshalltown and the Keystone AEA which has its main office in Elkader. The $232,500 Gettel’s asking for would finance 30 percent of the academy’s operations. The rest will be financed by general state financial support that will follow the students who enroll in the academy.

“It’s really about getting those kids more time and more targeted instruction from teachers that are qualified to work with the needs that they bring,” Gettel says.

Today, teachers from the two schools for deaf and blind kids travel the state and work with 562 students enrolled in public school districts all over the state. The ultimate plan is to have five regional centers established around the state and Gettel says that would give both teachers and students more classroom time.

“Really what it does is it brings the kids from a reasonable distance to the teachers,” Gettel says. “So instead of having teachers traveling around between schools, using a lot of their time for driving, the kids will come to them and then they will have the quality instruction from that highly-qualified teacher.”

In Charles City where Gettel hopes to establish the first regional academy, blind and deaf students enrolled there would be able to take classes at the community college and find part-time work.

“What we expect is that these kids will be better prepared either for post-secondary education — college — or the workplace and even kids that would have additional disabilities, with that intensive level of instruction there, they’re better prepared to work and live out in their community when they’re finished with school,” Gettel says. “…We know that appropriate education and training pays for a lifetime and that’s what we want for our students.”

Gettel made his comments during a budget hearing in Governor Branstad’s office.

Group will push legislature for medical marijuana law

Sally Gaer (file photo)

Sally Gaer (file photo)

A group of Iowans announced a campaign Tuesday at the state capitol dedicated to promoting regulated access to medical marijuana for patients suffering from a variety of medical conditions. Lawmakers passed, and the governor signed a very limited bill into law that allows the use of cannabis oil for patients with chronic epilepsy.

Sally Gaer is the mother of a child with the form of epilepsy and now is a member of the group Iowans 4 Medical Cannabis. “We have more folks who would like access to cannabis as medicine to use for their medical conditions…they’ve been in contact with us and so we decided to form this group, and it encompasses more than intractable epilepsy,” Gaer explains.

Founding members of the group include Easter Seals of Iowa, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Iowa Chapter; Epilepsy Foundation of North Central Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska; Epilepsy Families for Medical Cannabis.

Gaer says one of their objectives is to change the classification of marijuana from a schedule 1 designation. “Schedule 1 says that marijuana has no medicinal value, which is quite untrue and inaccurate,” Gaer says. The also want to create a Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee within the Department of Public Health. “That are physicians and pharmacists and scientists and law enforcement and drug enforcement, so everybody is on the same page,” Gaer explains. “And they would make the decisions as far as processing, growing and dispensing the cannabis medicine in the state so that the legislature is not making every little minuscule decision.”

One of the arguments against approving medical marijuana is that critics say that will then lead to approving recreational use of the drug. “None of us are really for recreational marijuana in any way, shape or form,” Gaer says. “My story has been all along, they already get it. They can walk outside and in five minutes get their hands on illegal recreational marijuana, to their detriment. I still don’t have access to medicine for my daughter.”

Gaer says even with the law allowing Iowans with intractable epilepsy to treat their conditions legally with medical cannabis oil, Iowans still cannot safely, affordably, and legally get medical cannabis in other states. She says part of the problem is that the state-issued medical cannabis “cards” needed are still not available. And although 23 states have legalized the sale of medicinal cannabis, it’s sold almost exclusively to in-state residents. “Drug abusers still get it, and the people that need it still can’t,” she says.

Gaer says the extra support could help get something more done in the upcoming legislative session, and that’s why they are making their support know now. “I think there are some legislators working and figuring out what this should look like, and if we can get a bill introduce right away this session and get work going on it, so we are further ahead than we were last year,” Gaer says.

Last year’s legislature was working with the knowledge that many members would be on the ballot in the fall, and she hopes with the election over, there’s more chance of getting the issue moving. “You know, that was what we heard from the get go last year, well this is an election year, this probably won’t happen. And our thought was exactly it’s an election year this should happen,” Gaer says. “So, hopefully we won’t have that oh my gosh what will this do to the election in the fall if I do anything about this, hopefully it will more about helping people.”

Gaer says medicinal marijuana is widely supported by most Iowans, as a 2014 Des Moines Register poll found that 59 percent of Iowans support its use. A follow-up poll by Quinnipiac found that 81 percent of Iowa voters support legal access to medical cannabis under a doctor’s treatment plan.


Iowa State University seeks millions for new ‘Student Innovation Center’

Proposed ISU Student Innovation Center.

Proposed ISU Student Innovation Center.

Iowa State University’s president is asking the governor and legislators for $40 million in state tax dollars to construct a new building on campus. Steven Leath made his request for construction of a “Student Innovation Center” directly to Governor Branstad Monday afternoon.

“We have really antiquated facilities in the middle of our Armory. Many of the colleges can’t fit students in and they’re really not safe or capable for some of the new projects so we’d like to build a Student Innovation Center,” Leath said. “This building is 100 percent for students. This isn’t a faculty building or anything else. This is a student building.”

The project’s total cost would be $80 million and Leath is promising that ISU will raise half that — if state policymakers put up the rest.

“We do have a donor who’s pledged $20 million for this facility. It’s the largest gift…we have received to date for an academic building. It’s pending, you know, that the building gets funded (by the state), but the money is real. They’ve already signed all the pledge forms,” Leath said. “…We’re really, really excited about doing this project.”

Iowa State University’s enrollment has grown by 6000 students in the past three years and Leath said the majority of those are students in the colleges of engineering and agriculture.

“One of the reasons I think we get 95 percent job placement is we hear constantly from employers that out students have a lot of hands-on skills,” Leath said. “Most of them come out (of ISU) and they’ve done projects, capstone projects, and they’ve learned with their hands.”

Leath warns the “antiquated” facilities on the Ames campus, however, will hold future students back and that’s why the new building is on his wish list.

“There’s probably not been more excitement about a project at Iowa State than this one, ever,” Leath told Branstad and the governor’s top staff. “And with the student numbers and the crampness on campus with all the numbers, the students really want to see this.”

Leath made his request during an-hour-and-15-minute-long budget presentation from all three state universities. Neither the University of Iowa nor the University of Northern Iowa are asking lawmakers to provide more money this year for construction of new buildings on the campuses in Iowa City and Cedar Falls.

Committee calls on legislature to help schools with transportation costs

A legislative committee is recommending that the 2015 Iowa legislature consider changes that would help schools deal with transportation costs, a particular problem in rural Iowa where many districts have long bus routes for students. A group of legislators met for four hours on Monday to discuss the details of how state aid to public schools is distributed and agreed lawmakers should find some way to address the budget difficulties in property-poor school districts, although the group did not make a specific recommendation.

Representative Ron Jorgensen, a Republican from Sioux City, is chairman of the House Education Committee.

“We all know the importance education plays in providing individuals and society with a higher standard of living,” Jorgenson says. “Having an education population will help increase wages and spur economic development.”

Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, is chairman of the Education Committee in the Iowa Senate.

“If our students in Iowa don’t get education that makes them competitive economically and in other ways with students raised in other states, then we are not being equitable to our own students,” Quirmbach says.

Quirmbach and Joregensen served on the legislative panel that met Monday to discuss preschool-through-12th grade education funding issues.