July 26, 2014

Iowa senator who battled Oprah Winfrey in 1996 has died

Berl Priebe

Berl Priebe

A former state legislator who once got in a national spat with Oprah Winfrey has died.

Berl Priebe of Algona served in the Iowa House for four years and in the Iowa Senate for 24 years. Priebe, who raised Angus cattle, took offense to a 1996 Oprah Winfrey show about Mad Cow Disease. Priebe blamed Winfrey for the dramatic drop in U.S. cattle prices. He demanded that Winfrey tell her viewers Mad Cow Disease had not been found in the United States. Winfrey responded, saying she had asked questions the American public deserved to have answered given the Mad Cow outbreak in Great Britain.

In 1988, Priebe brought an Iowa State University nutritionist before his Senate Ag Committee to complain about her warning that there might be a link between grilled red meat and cancer. Priebe quipped that the researcher “got a taste of what it was like to be on the griddle for a while.”

Priebe was one of four senators — two Democrats and two Republican — who were known as the “Montana Mafia.” The senators were known for gathering at Montana’s — a bar near the statehouse — to plot strategy for killing bills they opposed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Former Senator Jack Rife, a farmer from Moscow, Iowa, who later became the state Senate’s Republican Leader, was a member of the Montana Mafia.

“He was a colorful character,” Rife said this morning from his eastern Iowa farm, where he is cutting hay. “I enjoyed him very much.”

Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, the current Democratic leader in the state senate, said Priebe had the unique ability to bring the senate to a stand-still.

“He was always quite adept and quite talented at figuring out the kind of amendment to offer that would put the place in a really uncomfortable position,” Gronstal said this morning.

Priebe, who owned race horses, then would often engage in what Priebe called “horse trading” to get something he wanted, in exchange for removing the roadblock he’d designed for another bill.

“It was great when he was on your side and it was maddening when he wasn’t because he could tie the place up pretty well,” Gronstal said.

This example from Gronstal illustrates Priebe’s ability to maneuver the levers of the legislature: “Berl Priebe always passed the first bill of the session, some bill out of ag committee…every single year. Even if somebody else was ahead of him, he figured out some way to make sure that his bill was the first bill to pass in the legislature.”

Priebe was also the long-time chairman of a powerful legislative committee that has the power to reject the rules and regulations state bureaucrats propose.

Priebe died Sunday at the age of 96. A memorial service for Priebe will be held Friday afternoon in Algona.

Job fair in Davenport Thursday for retiring soldiers

Home-baseOver three dozen companies plan to participate in an event in Davenport this Thursday aimed at connecting veterans with job openings in Iowa. It’s part of the state’s “Home Base Iowa” initiative and Governor Terry Branstad plans to be there for the job fair.

“Last November I announced the new program, including an incentive package for veterans, that would help recruit veterans to work in Iowa after they complete their military service,” Branstad says.

So far 86 veterans have contacted the State of Iowa through the Home Base Iowa website and officials say 23 veterans have gotten jobs through the program. Branstad signed legislation on Memorial Day that erases state income taxes on military pensions and allows veterans and their families to pay in-state tuition if they go to an Iowa college or university. Howard County and Greene County have offered additional local incentives for veterans and have been declared “Home Base Iowa” communities. To earn the designation, an area must get at least 10 percent of the area’s businesses to agree to hire veterans.

“Scranton Manufacturing is located in Greene County,” Branstad says. “They have already hired a veteran throught the Home Base Iowa program and they have interviewed several additional veterans.”

Twenty-nine other cities and counties are completing the paperwork in hopes of being declared “Home Base Iowa” communities as well. Branstad says national publications for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have listed the new benefits available in Iowa for soldiers who are leaving the military.

Branstad concerned about Iowa Supreme Court ruling on juvenile sentencing

Governor Terry Branstad

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad is raising concerns about an Iowa Supreme Court ruling which declared all mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

“It would be my hope that we could review the court decision and work with legislators with the intention of doing something in this next session to address this issue,” Branstad says, “and make sure the safety of the citizens of Iowa is protected.”

The court ruled mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles do not distinguish between the diminished capacity of a young person and the cold and calculated conduct of an adult. Branstad says public safety should be “paramount.”

“When we have a juvenile that commits a murder of a violent, dangerous crime, if they’re treated as a juvenile when they turn 18 they can be released and we don’t dangerous, violent people being prematurely released and endangering our citizens,” Branstad says. “We don’t want to become Chicago.”

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison for crimes other than murder and Iowa legislators deadlocked on how to respond, so the governor issued an executive order commuting all those life sentences to 60 years. Last week’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling directed state officials to resentence about 100 juveniles who were tried before 2013 and received mandatory minimum sentences.

“As I understand, this was a 4-3 decision and it went beyond what other states have done and so I think we’re going to work with the legislature and review and look at what is the appropriate response to make sure the public in Iowa is protected,” Branstad says.

Two of the justices on the Iowa Supreme Court wrote dissenting opinions, arguing the court’s majority had gone too far in interpreting recent U.S. Supreme Court guidance that juveniles should not be treated differently than adults in criminal sentencing.

Branstad made his remarks at the end of his weekly news conference.

AUDIO of governor’s news conference, 25:00

Iowa DOT will dispense cards for those cleared to use cannabis oil for epilepsy treatment

Iowans with an Iowa neurologist’s clearance to take cannabis oil to treat chronic epilepsy will go to the Iowa DOT to get a card which will shield them from drug possession charges in Iowa.

The Iowa Department of Public Health has unveiled its proposed rules for implementing the new state law passed by legislators and the governor this spring. Deborah Thompson, the legislative liason for the department, says while her agency will process the paperwork and determine who is eligible, the DOT will hand out the cards because there’s a DOT licensing outlet in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

“To bring people that have this debilitating disease to Des Moines may cause more headaches than it’s worth,” Thompson says. “They have a system also that enables them to connect with law enforcement and the law enforcement folks can, the way they would with any of our IDs, drivers licenses, they have a connection to the DOT’s system that allows them to see more details than a card provides for.”

The cards can be issued to adults who have an Iowa neurologist’s recommendation to use cannabis oil to treat their “intractable” epilepsy. The parents or guardians of children with the condition can also apply for the card. Thompson says the new law was fairly specific about what hoops were required to qualify for the cards and her agency’s proposed rules follow those guidelines, including a requirement that other treatment options have been tried first before opting for cannabis oil.

“The neurologist will then send the completed application, including the written recommendation, directly to the Department of Public,” Thompson says. “We thought this would marginalize the opportunity for fraudulent behaviors if we got it directly from the neurologist’s office.”

Staff in the Iowa Department of Public Health will review the applicant, then notify the DOT if it has been approved and a card may be issued. There is no Iowa site that dispenses the cannabis oil, so caregivers will have to go out of state to get the product.

The rules were discussed during Wednesday’s Iowa Board of Health meeting in Iowa City. The board will vote on the rules at its September meeting. A legislative committee will also have a chance to review the rules before they take effect.

Branstad says 2010 promise was to cut size of gov’t, not size of budget

Governor Branstad says he’s keeping his 2010 campaign promise to shrink the size of state government and reduce the number of state employees, but a new report shows there’s been an increase in the number of full-time workers on the state payroll during Branstad’s current term as governor.

“Governor Branstad has a problem in trying to reconcile all of the promises he’s made to what’s real,” says Jack Hatch, the Democrat who is running against Branstad.

A document from the Legislative Services Agency shows the number of state employees grew by 3500 during the first two years of Branstad’s current term. Branstad says he’s cut the workforce in the executive branch by over a thousand during the past three years, but Branstad says he cannot control hiring decisions in the other branches of state government OR at the three state universities. Almost 3900 new employees were hired at Iowa, Iowa State and U-N-I during the first two years of Branstad’s current term, but Hatch says those hires were Branstad’s to oversee.

“It’s an inadequate response when the governor of this state, the CEO of our state government, blames other people for his inability to manage the state,” Hatch says. “He appoints the Regents. He has significiant influence over the growth of this state budget.”

The size of the state budget has grown by half a billion dollars over the past two years, but Branstad says he never promised to cut overall state spending by 15 percent.

“What we’ve done, and I want to point this out. we’ve reduced the size and cost of state government and redirected more of the money to education and to property tax relief,” Branstad says.

Branstad says he believes that’s the expectation voters had back in 2010 when he was reelected to a fifth term.

“I think they wanted us to reduce the size and cost of state government, not cut education and not raise taxes,” Branstad says, “and we did exactly what we promised to the voters.”

As for the other two branches of state government, the number of employees in the legislative branch has declined by six percent over the past five years. The state’s court system saw a 17 percent reduction in staff over a 10 year period, but during the first two years of Branstad’s current term 23 more employees were hired in the judicial branch of state government.

Report counters Branstad claim of reduced state workforce (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Republican Governor Terry Branstad is dismissing a Legislative Services Agency report which concludes an embattled state agency isn’t saving money after outsourcing jobs — and the state workforce is growing rather than shrinking.

“If you analyze in depth this report on the Department of Administrative Services you’ll find some of it has to do with the motor pool and some other issues,” Branstad says, “but I also would say I have great confidence in the new director of that department.”

The new director started this spring after Branstad fired the previous director who had maintained no extra money had been offered to terminated state employees who promised to keep their exit packages secret.

The Legislative Services Agency’s analysis of five years of data shows the Iowa Department of Administrative Services budget “increased rather than decreased.” The budget for the agency drawn up in the final year of Democrat Chet Culver’s administration was $97.4 million. The agency’s budget in the second year of Governor Branstad’s administration was 17 percent higher and agency officials say it’s because computer and vehicle purchases are included. Branstad also counters that he has reduced the overall size of state government operations since he took office in 2011.

“We have reduced the number of state employees by over a thousand in the three and a half years that the lieutenant governor and I have been in office and there’s been considerable savings because of that,” Branstad says.

However, the Legislative Services Agency report found that while the number of state employees had decreased during Chet Culver’s final two years in office, it had “rebounded” once Branstad returned to office. The report found the number of state employees grew by three percent during the first budgeting year Branstad oversaw and by another three-point-four percent during the second year.

AUDIO of Branstad’s weekly news conference

State fiscal year concludes with tax receipts $185 million below expectations

State tax receipts in June were “flat” according to the latest information from the Legislative Services Agency. June was the final month of the state fiscal year and Jeff Robinson, a tax analyst for the Legislative Service Agency, says state tax collections for the past 12 months were $185 million below the official estimate.

“We have had plenty of time to plan for it and we had excess revenue above expenditures for this particular fiscal year,” Robinson says, “so while not a good thing, it’s not as it might be in a different fiscal year.”

Robinson says it’s too early to calculate how much money was left unspent in the state’s 12-month-long budgeting year. The accounts won’t officially be closed until September.

Personal income tax payments to the state were down 2.7 percent over the past 12 months. Robinson says that’s mainly because of federal tax law changes.

“It’s not a great year for personal income, but it’s not a bad year, once you adjust for that,” Robinson says.

Farm income is down this year compared to last as well.

“And you can see that when farm tax returns were filed, this was not as good a year,” Robinson says.

Sales and use tax payments to the State of Iowa were up $97 million for the fiscal year. State receipts surpassed $6.6 billion for the past 12 months.