May 27, 2015

Senator Grassley says Trans-Pacific Partnership important to Iowa

Senator Chuck Grassley

Senator Chuck Grassley

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says Iowans who farm and those who produce a host of other products that could have a global marketplace should pay close attention to the pending agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Grassley, a Republican, says the treaty between the U.S. and 11 other nations is very important to a long list of industries, topped by agriculture.

“The agreement would ease tariffs among the partners,” Grassley says. “It’s important for many farms and businesses in Iowa that export their products around the world. The agreement is close to completion but it needs the process of Trade Promotion Authority to be concluded.”

Just before the Memorial Day break, the U.S. Senate passed Trade Promotion Authority, which enables President Obama to proceed with trade negotiations. The measure has yet to win approval in the House though Grassley is optimistic of swift passage when the recess is over. “Trade supports good-paying jobs,” Grassley says. “Iowans work hard and use their brains to create. They deserve new opportunities that come from expanded trade.”

Congress doesn’t have the ability to negotiate deals with other nations, so a number of times since World War Two, Congress has passed Trade Promotion Authority which gives the president the power to broker key trade deals.

“The president is given authority to negotiate,” Grassley says. “Those guidelines are very strict and he just can’t negotiate anything he wants. When it’s all said and done, anything the president signs can’t go into effect until it’s passed by both the House and Senate.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is between the U.S. and the following 11 nations: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Ernst traveling to Vietnam & Singapore this week

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst is traveling to Vietnam with a U.S. delegation led by Arizona Senator John McCain, a former Prisoner of War in Vietnam.

The trip is timed to mark the 20th anniversary of normalized relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. Ernst and the rest of the group will visit with top government and civic leaders in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

Later this week Ernst, McCain and four other U.S. senators will visit Singapore for the annual meeting of defense ministers and policy makers from the Asia-Pacific.

Governor signs distance education bill

Governor Terry Branstad and officials from the state colleges and univerisities.

Governor Terry Branstad and officials from the state colleges and univerisities.

Representatives of higher education in Iowa gathered in Governor Terry Branstad’s office today as he signed a bill that sets national standards for courses offered on-line by schools.

“It’s a great example of bipartisan cooperation and the involvement of all sectors of higher education, the public universities, the private colleges and universities and community colleges,” Branstad says.

The bill lets Iowa apply to join 23 other states in what’s called the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement or SARA. “Belonging to SARA means that a state’s public and private higher education institutions pay a fee to SARA, which automatically registers their distance education courses and programs in other member states, instead of having to register and pay a fee in each of the 50 states,” Branstad explains.

The bill signing.

The bill signing.

The governor says paying one fee will cut the costs each school has to pay, which should cut the costs students pay to attend the institutions. “Participating in SARA also gives Iowa colleges and universities an important competitive edge in the fast-growing world of distance education,” Branstad says.

Getting the bill completed required finding a way to reimburse students when there are differences in tuition. The governor suggested creating a fund that could do that, which led to some levity between Branstad and Attorney General Tom Miller at the bill signing. “We came up with I think a novel idea,” Branstad started to say and Miller cut in and said, “It was your idea, it was a brilliant idea,” which led to laughter from the group. “Well, I want to be humble about it,” Branstad replied to more laughter.

Attorney General Miller found the money for the fund and the bill went on to pass the Iowa House and Senate unanimously. Branstad said he expects the plan to become even more important as the use of distance education increases.


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.

Senator Ernst favors effort to cut the benefits of former presidents

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst.

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst is touting legislation to reform the system for providing former presidents with certain perks and benefits. “Taxpayers should not be on the hook for subsidizing former presidents’ lives to the tune of millions of dollars,” Ernst said in a conference call with Iowa reporters today.

The perks for former presidents include office space, staff, and travel expenses. Ernst noted in fiscal year 2015, former U.S. presidents cost taxpayers more than $2.4 million in travel, office space, communications, personnel, and other expenses.

The Presidential Allowance Modernization Act would reduce those benefits. “The bill sets former presidents’ monetary allowance and pension at $200,000 each per year,” Ernst said. “It also places reductions on perks if the former president earns more than $400,000 per year in income.”

A similar measure was approved by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. “At a time when we are more than $18 trillion in debt, it is critical that we stop talking and start cutting wasteful spending,” Ernst said.

Congress approved benefits for former presidents in 1958. Ernst said there’s nothing in the proposed legislation that would cut the funding of the security or protection of a former president. According to a Congressional Research Service report last year, taxpayers spent over $420,000 on a more than 8,200-square-foot office in Dallas for George W. Bush. Former President Bill Clinton’s office in New York cost taxpayers $415,000.


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.

Huckabee a no-go to 2015 Iowa Straw Poll

Mike Huckabee campaigning in Iowa Tuesday.

Mike Huckabee campaigning in Iowa Tuesday.

Mike Huckabee has become the second prominent presidential candidate to announce he will not participate in the Iowa GOP’s Straw Poll in August, but Governor Terry Branstad discounts the idea the event may not happen.

“I expect there will a lot cadidates that will participate in that as there have been in a lot of the other events,” Branstad told reporters late this morning.

Huckabee called the Straw Poll a “non-binding and expensive” event that “will only wound and weaken the conservative candidates” who’d be forced to spend their limited campaign cash to battle it out.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced last week he will not attend the Straw Poll. Bush’s brother won the 1999 Straw Poll and his father won the first one in 1999. Huckabee finished second in the Iowa Straw Poll in 2007 and then won the Iowa Caucuses eight months later. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has also said he’ll spend his resouces elsewhere and skip the Iowa Straw Poll.

Branstad, a Republican, said it’s too early to say the Straw Poll is sinking.

“There’s a lot of candidates and each candidate will make their own decision as to what they will participate in,” Branstad told reporters.

A year and a half ago Branstad said the Straw Poll should not happen, but in January the Iowa GOP’s governing board voted unanimously to have it. Last week the party announced it would pick up the cost of party tents for each candidate that plays in the Straw Poll, but most candidates are still weighing the expense of purchasing the $30 tickets for supporters to ensure they’ll do well in the Straw Poll vote.