April 18, 2014

Senator airs concerns about what he calls “spying” on unemployed Iowans

A state senator says he is “deeply troubled” by a state agency’s decision to hire a Google subsidiary to “spy” on Iowans who are getting unemployment benefits. Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, says the agency is using a half a million dollar federal grant to pay for the company’s services.

“Iowa Workforce Development, instead of hiring individuals to go after $15 million worth of fraudulent payments, has contracted with a Google subsidiary — it’s called Pondera Technology Platforms — to spy on unemployed workers who are receiving unemployment benefits,” Dotzler says.

The agency says the company will sort through data to see if someone receiving jobless benefits has committed identity theft by, for example, using someone else’s Social Security number. Dotzler argues the on-line tracking may go too far and legislators should have been involved in making this kind of a decision.

“Should state government move down that path?” Dotzler asks. “Is that the kind of government that we are heading towards, where we are spying on the citizens of our country to find out about their personal lives and what they’re doing, all under the guise of trying to keep somebody from committing fraud?”

The director of the Iowa Workforce Development agency is quoted in a Pondera news release, saying Pondera provides her agency with a new “tool set to detect and prevent fraud.” She said there’s been a “lack of investment” in the agency’s “technical capabilities” over the past decade and Pondera can help prevent errors and save taxpayer dollars.

Board chair felt “gun to my head” to hire Branstad pick; governor denies the charge

The chairman of a state board that decides disputes between government employees and their managers says Governor Terry Branstad’s chief of staff forced the board to hire a judge who had been hand-picked by Branstad’s staff, a charge Branstad denies. Public Employment Relations Board chairman James Riordan has been on the board for the past 14 years, serving under Governors Tom Vilsack, Chet Culver and now Terry Branstad.

“Jeff Boeyink, his chief of staff…he was the message carrier, basically,” Riordan said today. “…He made it clear to us that if we weren’t willing to go along with this idea there were going to be serious consequences related to the budget.”

Riordan, a Democrat who is a former state senator, testified before the Senate Government Oversight Committee today, saying he felt his agency’s budget and his own $96,000 a year salary were in jeopardy if Branstad’s pick wasn’t hired as an administrative law judge.

“I felt that there was a gun to my head, you know: ‘Do this or you’re going to have big consequences,’” Riordan told legislators.

Governor Branstad flatly denies Riordan’s allegations.

“I think it’s very disappointing that somebody who didn’t get reappointed to the (Public Employment Relations Board) would make these kind of false accusations,” Branstad told reporters this afternoon.

Branstad said Robert Wilson is “extremely qualified” for the job of administrative law judge.

“I heard after the fact that he was appointed,” Branstad told reporters. “I had appointed him a number of years ago as a district court judge and then he had resigned from that position and gone to work for a doctor over in Iowa City.”

The Senate Government Oversight Committee also heard testimony today from the top human resources manager in state government. She explained how former state employees who have discovered they’re on a “do not rehire” list can appeal to get their names removed. She also said about two percent of the workers in the executive branch of state government who had been classified as “merit employees” have been reclassified as “at will” employees, meaning they can be fired at any time.

Iowa House approves tax break for Knoxville Raceway

Rep. Ourth

Rep. Ourth

The Iowa House has passed a bill that would grant a tax rebate of up to two-million dollars to the Knoxville Raceway.  Representative Scott Ourth, a Democrat from Ackworth, lives 25 miles west of the dirt track.

“Not only is the sprint car track and the Knoxville Raceway a huge economic development boon to Marion County and the Knoxville area, but it also fills up the hotels in Lucas County, Appanoose County, Warren County and many of the other south central Iowa counties when the races come to town,” Ourth said.

The Knoxville Raceway’s owners would get the same type of tax break that’s been extended to the Iowa Speedway in Newton.  The five percent state sales tax that’s charged on goods and services sold at the Knoxville track would revert back to the track’s owners who plan to upgrade the track facilities on the Marion County Fairgrounds. Ourth was the only member of the House to speak about the track when the bill came up for a vote.

“It’s a huge economic development boon for an otherwise somewhat depressed economy in southern Iowa,” Ourth said. “I’m very excited about this whole thing and they are doing great things to help grow southern Iowa and bring business into that neck of the woods.”

The bill passed the House on a 78-15 vote. It now must pass the Senate before it can go to the governor for his review.  Governor Branstad went to Newton earlier this month to sign the bill that provided a similar tax break to the Iowa Speedway.

Lawmakers want to know more about black-listed ex-state workers

A key House Republican is asking the governor for more information about confidential settlements and why nearly a thousand former state workers are on a “do not hire” list. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, plan to hold a hearing today to ask the human resources manager for a state agency those same questions.

Republicans have been arguing there is no “blacklist” of state workers who should not be rehired, merely a “code” on their personnel file that “excludes” them from future state work. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, scoffs at that.

“A database is a list — is a list, is a list, is a list,” McCoy told reporters Wednesday.

Republicans like Senator Sandy Greiner of Washington, Iowa, want to know why those employees were fired and she’s asked for a summary.

“With no names attached to it, no addresses attached, no Social Security numbers attached, but a summary of the list of reasons that people were coded to no longer be hired by the state,” Greiner said during Wednesday’s House-Senate Oversight Committee meeting.

Republicans are pushing for legislation that would make the reasons behind state employee dismissals a public record and a bill to do that passed the Republican-led House.  Democrats in the Senate say they’re drafting a bill that addresses a variety of issues that have been raised about state hiring and firing practices. Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines, said it will include protections for whistleblowers, too.

“We are planning to take action,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting.

The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee has delivered a list of 16 questions he wants answered about the confidential settlements with at least two dozen laid off state workers as well as the reasons why “each” of the 975 former state employees declared “ineligible for rehire” was given that status.

Iowa lawmaker cites land dispute between U.S. gov’t & Nevada rancher (AUDIO)

A state legislator from southern Iowa took to the floor of the Iowa House to praise “courageous cowboys” in the state of Nevada who armed themselves to protest a government action against a local rancher.  State Representative Larry Sheets, a Republican from Moulton, spoke for nearly six minutes Wednesday afternoon.

“The government must be careful not to appear to be out of control and must follow the law or there will be violence like in the case of the Oklahoma City horror,” Sheets said.

A 21-year-long dispute between the federal Bureau of Land Management and a rancher escalated earlier this month, with federal agents rounding up nearly 400 head of cattle officials said were illegally grazing in the Nevada desert.  The cattle were abruptly released Saturday after protesters, some on horseback and some with guns, lined up along the Nevada-Arizona border to back the rancher.

“This represents a huge victory in the fight against unbridled government,” Sheet said. “American cowboys drew their line in the sand…In the battle of cowboys and bureaucrats, the cowboys won.”

AUDIO of Sheets’ speech, 5:51

Federal officials say rancher Cliven Bundy has failed to pay more than one-million dollars in fees for letting his cattle graze on public land since 1993. Bundy counters that he owes only 300-thousand dollars and he wants to pay it to his county or state rather than the federal government, plus Bundy argues his ancestors began running livestock on that land in the 1880s, before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was formed, so the agency shouldn’t have jurisdiction in the area.




State may have to repay feds for co-mingled cash in confidential settlements

Legislative Oversight Comm 4-16-14An official from the state agency under fire for confidential settlements that included “hush money” for laid off workers says the agency’s new system for managing state government construction projects has saved nearly 10-million dollars over the past 32 months.

Lon Anderson, the chief deputy director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, makes that calculation, in part, by estimating 15 percent savings in construction because general contractors are no longer allowed to manage state government projects. Construction is monitored by three state employees and six different private companies instead.

“This reorg was really about…effective construction management and savings for the taxpayers,” Anderson said during testimony today before the Legislature’s Oversight Committee.

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, sees flaws in the overall savings estimate.

“The numbers that we were going through today were all numbers that had no sense of context,” McCoy told reporters.

Another agency manager also confirmed some of the settlement money paid to the laid-off workers may have come from the federal government. Doug Woodley said that’s because other state agencies, which operate with both state and federal funds, are required to pay an annual management fee to the Department of Administrative Services and the agency doesn’t track the source of those payments. Democrats say that’s a problem and the state could be forced to repay any federal funds that might have been used.





Legislators, governor fight over budget for University of Iowa

Republicans in the Iowa House have voted to try to change the terms of a deal that would freeze in-state tuition for students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa this fall. Senator Brian Schoenjahn, a Democrat from Arlington, is asking Republican Governor Terry Branstad to intervene.

“The House Republican vote is an attempt to pit our universities against each other and pit Iowans against each other,” Schoenjahn said this morning. “Governor Branstad, a tuition freeze is one of your top legislative priorities and it’s in serious trouble.”

The board that governs the three state universities has offered to freeze tuition for the second year in a row if legislators provide a four percent budget boost for each of the schools, as well as an additional$4.4 million for the University of Northern Iowa. Governor Terry Branstad has signed onto that deal and Senate Democrats have as well, but House Republicans late last night voted to scoop into the University of Iowa’s allotment to provide the extra money to UNI, putting Iowa’s budget boost at two percent rather than the four percent going to the other two institutions.

Representative Cecil Dolecheck, a Republican from Mount Ayr, said the U-of-I is sitting on a “tremendous” cash reserve.

“Ready cash that they can use as compared to the other two institutions,” Dolecheck said.

Representative Chip Baltimore, a Republican from Boone, scoffed at the idea the University of Iowa would be damaged with the House GOP’s plan.

“Their entire budget for the fiscal year is $3.1 billion and we’re trimming ($4.4 million) from the increase they say is necessary to freeze tuition in this state — 0.15 percent,” Baltimore said.

House Republicans also rejected an attempt to include an anti-bullying proposal in the budget bill that passed the House Tuesday night at about 10:15 p.m. on a party-line vote. Governor Branstad, for the second year in a row, has asked legislators to pass anti-bullying legislation, but House Republicans have yet to bring a bill up for a vote in the full House.