May 22, 2015

Governor hoping for a budget ‘breakthrough’ soon

State Capitol

State Capitol

Iowa lawmakers got an extra early start to this Memorial Day weekend. Senators have not met to debate at all this week and most of the 100 members of the Iowa House gathered for just one day to vote on bills. However, legislative leaders have been holding countless private meetings this week with Governor Terry Branstad’s top staff, to try to draft a spending plan for state government operations.

“Hopefully there will be a breakthrough and things will come together,” Branstad told reporters during an interview at the statehouse Thursday.

Lawmakers face a looming deadline of July 1, 2015. That’s the first day of the next fiscal year and there’s no budget plan in place. The main problem is Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the House, plus the governor is a Republicans, so any spending plan must bridge partisan differences. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal said after weeks of closed-door meetings, there is an “understanding” between the two sides, but no deal.

“They’ve shown an openness to working with us,” Gronstal told reporters Thursday.

The largest stumbling block? Legislators can’t agree on how much general state aid to send to Iowa’s public schools for the academic year that begins in August. The governor is urging legislators to make that spending decision for each of the next two academic years.

“I just talked to a constituent whose daughter wants to move back from out-of-state. She’s a teacher, but she’s been told by the school systems that until this budget gets resolved, we’re not going to be able to make decisions on hiring,” Branstad said. “Well, that’s not a good situation.”

A legislative insider said “little tiny steps” are being taken to span the distance that separates Republicans and Democrats as they seek to agree on an overall spending plan for state government operations. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, said there is a “real possibility” a budget deal might be struck next week.

“I think people are working in good faith,” Paulsen told reporters Thursday. “We’ll continue to have conversations.”

House Republicans have proposed an overall spending target that is $166 million less than what Republican Governor Terry Branstad and Senate Demorats have proposed. Branstad said he will ensure the final budget plan is “workable and sustainable for the long-term” rather than some kind of a “political deal that doesn’t meet the needs to Iowans.”

“As the chief executive, ultimately, you know, the buck stops with me to be able to deliver the services,” Branstad said Thursday. “I want to be sure we can do that.”

In 2011, legislators waited ’til June 30 to get a final state budget draft done, voted upon and sent to the governor’s desk for his review.

Petitioners object to MHI closures in Clarinda, Mt Pleasant

Matt Sinovic

Matt Sinovic

Opponents of Governor Branstad’s push to close the two state-run Mental Health Institutes in southern Iowa delivered 2500 petitions signatures to the governor’s office this morning. Matt Sinovic is executive director of Progress Iowa, the group that organized the online petition drive.

“This happened over the last week or so, so it’s been a very quick turn-around for these signers and we expect more to sign,” Sinovic told reporters. “But we saw Governor Branstad was signing this proclamation today and thought this would be an appropriate time to make these voices heard.”

Branstad held a brief midday ceremony to sign a “Mental Health Month” proclamation.

“Frankly, the governor signing this proclamation is laughable,” Sinovic said. “He’s putting these policies in place that hurts Iowans and now he’s taking a curtain call, pretending to be in favor of quality mental health care. I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

Sinovic said there is currently no plan in place to care for the acutely ill Iowans who depend upon the state-run Mental Health Institutes for care they cannot get elsewhere at privately-run facilities. According to Branstad, his critics just want to “protect the status quo.”

“What we’re doing in Iowa is really long overdue,” Branstad told reporters during a statehouse interview. “Many other states have done it before.”

Branstad’s state budget plan released in January did not include any operating funds to keep the Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant open past June 30. Legislators are still wrangling over budget details, but it’s unlikely Branstad will accept any plan that keeps the two facilities open indefinitely.

On 53-43 vote, Iowa House passes bill to legalize fireworks

John Wills

John Wills

It would be legal to sell and set off fireworks in Iowa if a bill that cleared the Iowa House tonight becomes law. Representative John Wills, a Republican from Spirit Lake, was among the 53 House members who voted “yes.”

“We need to have people understand that what they do and how they do it is their responsibility,” Wills said. “This bill gives freedom back to the people and I’m in favor.” epresentative Kirsten Running-Marquardt, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, was among the 43 who voted “no.”

” This bill does not make Iowa a safer place to live,” she said. “In fact, it does the opposite.”

Critics cited concerns about fires started by the sparks of fireworks, as well as complaints that veterans with post traumatic stress disorder suffer from the sounds of fireworks. Representative David Maxwell, a Republican from Gibson, said he doesn’t have PTSD, but couldn’t watch fireworks for several years after he got out of the military.

“I still don’t enjoy them,” Gibson said. “And I’m not a kill joy, believe it or not, but I know a number of people that really do not look forward to summertime and the 4th of July because what happened to them 40 or 50 years ago or even longer. I think we’re being a little bit shortsighted for a few bucks here.”

Matt Windschitl

Matt Windschitl

That would be because the bill legalizes the sale of commercial fireworks in Iowa. Representative Matt Winschitl, a Republican from Missouri Valley, said he didn’t support the bill because of the tax revenue the state might collect from the sale of fireworks.

“It’s about letting Iowans make the choice for themselves,” Windschitl said. “You’ve got 43 other states out there that allow one degree of fireworks or another beyond what Iowa does.”

If the bill becomes law, it would be legal to set off fireworks between the hours of 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day. Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, said his dog, Molly, isn’t a fan of the fireworks that go off in his community over the 4th of July holiday.

“She gets through that, but I’ll be darned if I want to vote for a bill that makes the 4th of July year round,” Heaton said.

Representative Walt Rogers, a Republican from Cedar Falls who voted for the bill, said he has “nothing but good memories” of setting off fireworks.

“I can remember lots of 4th of July where we had a lot of fun with fireworks,” Rogers said. “And I remember doing the same thing with my own kids, in Cedar Falls.”

A few legislators like Representative Mary Gaskill of Ottumwa admitted they were conflicted on the issue.

“I have young people in my district who really want me to vote yes on this bill,” Gaskill said. “And then I listen to the veterans and the fire fighters and those people who would be directly affected with the bill and I have changed my mind and I have decided I’m a no on this.”

Representative Mike Sexton, a Republican from Rockwell City who voted for the bill, said far more Americans are injured by dog bites than by fireworks.

“Folks, whatever happened to apple pie and baseball and Chevrolet and hot dogs and fireworks?” Sexton asked. “We are not talking about blowing up the state of Iowa.”

If the bill becomes law, cities and counties would be allowed to pass local ordinances restricting fireworks, plus the bill calls for a $250 fine for improper use of fireworks. It would also be illegal to sell fireworks to a minor. A similar bill cleared a senate committee earlier this month and is eligible for senate debate.

Opponents of Bakken oil pipeline rally at statehouse

Bakken-Resistance-logoMembers of a group called the “Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition” are at the statehouse today, urging passage of a bill that would make it more difficult for the pipeline developers to seize private property.

The proposed pipeline route would cut diagonally through a 240-acre corn field on Dan Gannon’s “Century Farm” near Mingo.

“We have an issue with a for-profit corporation coming on our land to make a profit,” Gannon says. “…They, on the average, will save $5 a barrel putting it underground versus on the rail and they’re going to run 570,000+ barrels of oil through our land every day — so do the math.”

Kathy Holdefer of Mingo says the pipeline would be “several hundred yards down the hill” from her property.

“We feel that the tide has turned and…nothing like this has ever been proposed before,” Holdefer says. “I know thousands of miles of pipe are already under the soil of the state, but this is way different. This is hazardous material in a gigantic 30-inch pipe and we don’t know how that will affect us.”

Holdefer points to a recent report indicating only 20 percent of oil spills from pipelines are discovered by the pipeline operators, while the rest are discovered after the oil bubbles up to the soil surface or spills into a waterway. The American Petroleum Institute counters that pipeline spills have decreased over the past decade, to about 100 per year.

The pipeline opponents are lobbying for passage of a bill that would require developers to voluntarily acquire 75 percent of the property along the pipeline route before they could use eminent domain authority to seize the rest.

Fallon stages pipeline protest in governor’s office

Former legislator Ed Fallon being escorted from the state capitol.

Former legislator Ed Fallon being escorted from the state capitol after his arrest.

A former Democratic state legislator staged a “sit in” inside the governor’s office Monday afternoon and wound up getting arrested when the office closed to the public at 5 p.m.

Last month Ed Fallon completed a 400-mile trek along the proposed Bakken oil pipeline and he met along the way with landowners who oppose the project.

“It just really deepened my commitment to doing everything I could to help stop the pipeline,” Fallon said.

Fallon went into the governor’s statehouse office early Monday afternoon and vowed to stay until Governor Branstad met with him and agreed to support a bill pending in the legislature that would make it more difficult for the pipeline developers to seize land along the pipeline route.

“I think the eminent domain legislation, while it certainly won’t stop the pipeline, it creates a more fair playing field, giving landowners some protections, some additional reassurances that their voices are going to be heard,” Fallon told reporters shortly after issuing a news release to alert the media of his intentions.

The governor’s legal counsel met with Fallon yesterday afternoon, but Fallon said meeting with the governor himself was his goal. Fallon was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. Fallon, a Democratic governor himself in 2006, was among the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters arrested on the capitol grounds in October of 2011.

This Wednesday, a group called the “Bakken Pipeline Resistence Coalition” plans to stage another statehouse event to urge legislators to pass the bill restricting eminent domain authority for the project.

Photo courtesy of the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition. 

Governor says ‘patience & perseverance’ key to resolving statehouse squabbles

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Branstad says he’s a “realist” and it will likely be sometime in June before he and legislators resolve their differences over a state budget plan. The governor’s also hoping lawmakers pass his anti-bullying bill as well as a bill that would boost broadband access in the state.

“I would point out that oftentimes the tough decisions do get left by the legislature to the end, so I’m still hopeful,” Branstad said this morning during his weekly news conference. “…I’ve always said patience and perseverance pays off in this business, so we’ve tried to be very patient.”

May 1 was the last day members of the House and Senate from around the state got a daily state allowance to cover living expenses in Des Moines, but unlike other states there is no hard-and-fast deadline for concluding the Iowa legislature’s yearly sessions. Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, said school funding is still the “big issue” to resolve, plus she says Senate Democrats, House Republicans and Republican Governor Terry Branstad all have different overall spending targets.

“There’s a lot to do, a lot to be discussed in the next 24 hours and hopefully we will reach an agreement soon,” Jochum said this afternoon during an interview in her statehouse office.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha told reporters he’s hoping everything will get “figured out” soon.

“Still unwilling to make a prediction. We could be done in May, though,” Paulsen said this morning. “That’s what we’re shooting for.”

There were just a handful of House members present when Paulsen convened the House early this afternoon. Representative Vicki Lensing, a Democrat from Iowa City, was among them — and she agreed to give the day’s opening prayer.

“In these, what we hope are the last weeks of our legislative session, I want to share a few words by Winston Churchill to remember: ‘Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,'” Lensing said.

The state senate convened about an hour later, but no votes are scheduled this week and only a handful of senators are at the statehouse.

Law Enforcement Academy director’s appointment in jeopardy

Arlen Ciechanowski

Arlen Ciechanowski

A key senator says there are not enough votes in the senate to confirm the director of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy for another four-year term.

Arlen Ciechanowski has served as director of the agency that trains law enforcement cadets since 2011, but Senator Steve Sodders says there are significant concerns about recent allegations of sexual harassment within the agency.

“There are a lot of senators who think that was mishandled and want sort of a complete change in culture,” Sodders says.

In 2012, an agency employee who complained about the agency’s deputy director was fired, while the deputy director was reprimanded, but allowed to keep his job. Two years later the deputy director announced he was retiring, but two weeks before his exit he was fired. Senator Sodders, who is a Marshall County deputy sheriff, says it’s time for new leadership at the academy.

“We don’t need a black eye with the Law Enforcement Academy or law enforcement. I mean, we’re kind of getting beat up around the country,” Sodder says. “And so anything that we can do to make sure people know that it is a professional organization and the cadets are being trained without harassment or any of these other things, that’s what we want to make sure we’re promoting.”

Sodders is a 1988 graduate of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy and Sodders says Ciechanowski was one of his instructors.

Last month Governor Branstad said Ciechanowski would meet privately with senators to answer any concerns they may have about his leadership. Ciechanowski is the only one of dozens of Branstad’s appointments to key state government positions who has not been confirmed by the senate this year. To win confirmation, a nominee must get the support of 34 of the 50 state senators.