July 7, 2015

Legislative leaders react to governor’s explanation of school funding veto

Kraig Paulsen (file photo)

Kraig Paulsen (file photo)

The top-ranking Republican in the legislature disputes Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s assertion that lawmakers “absolutely” knew he was likely to veto nearly 56 million dollars in spending for Iowa’s K-12 public schools.

“The governor or the governor’s office had not indicated a veto threat or that they would sign it to me or, to the best of my knowledge, to any House Republican,” says House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha.

Branstad has said he rejected the spending proposal because he is philosophically opposed to using bonus payments or “one-time money” for on-going expenses. Paulsen says he and other Republicans share the same philosophy — and that’s why the 55-point-seven million dollars in additional money for schools was to be used for one-time expenses, like new textbooks and school buses.

“Obviously I supported it and I voted for it,” Paulsen says.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal — the top-ranking Democrat in the legislature says the governor’s “surprising” action is “especially egregious in light of the fact that the legislature worked in a bipartisan fashion to not use one-time money to fund ongoing needs.” Gronstal and Paulsen both noted the legislature’s overall spending level was actually less than what Branstad himself had proposed in January.

Branstad says it was ‘abundantly clear’ he’d reject $55.7 million in school funding (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad today said legislators knew he would likely veto the nearly $56 million they set aside for Iowa’s K-12 public schools.

“My staff made it clear that was my position…it was made abundantly clear to them,” Branstad told reporters this morning during his weekly news conference.

Branstad did approve a 1.25 percent increase in per pupil spending, but he rejected the additional money legislators voted to provide for the current school year.

“I always reserve judgment on legislation ’til I see it in its final form, but I also try to be as clear as I can be as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t,” Branstad said. “Using one-time money for on-going is something I have consistently said it a bad budgeting practice.”

Branstad took action late Thursday on 14 bills that legislators passed, bills that outline a state spending plan for the next 12 months. School administrators say without that extra $55.7 million boost, many districts will have to make cuts, expand class sizes and either lay off staff or delay hiring. Some rural districts see the move as a back-door way to force cash-strapped districts to consolidate. Branstad said that’s “absolutely” not his intention.

“But the only way that we’re going to be able to keep our smaller school districts vital and successful is if we’re able to attract young families that have children,” Branstad said.

And the governor told reporters that’s one reason why he’s pushing to boost the Renewable Fuels Standard, since the ethanol industry is a boost to rural Iowa.

On Friday, Branstad’s staff released a statement emphasizing the governor had approved $3 billion in spending on K-12 public schools. Today, Branstad emphasized he had approved additional money for the state’s relatively new teacher leadership and mentoring program and two-thirds of school districts will be splitting that new money.

“That’s $100 million of additional money on top of the money they’re getting for the supplemental state aid,” Branstad said. “Plus we are focusing on early reading in the pre-K through third grade and providing through Reading Resource Center assistance there.”

According to Branstad, the “turmoil” in Iowa’s public schools is primarily caused by the legislature’s failure to follow the law and approve the level of general state aid for schools by the legal deadline — which was February of last year.

AUDIO of Branstad’s news conference, 27:00

Branstad says prison officials evaluating Sunday’s ‘ingenious’ escape

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad. (file photo)

Governor Terry Branstad today said state prison officials are conducting a “total review” of security at the medical unit on the Iowa State Penitentiary grounds where Sunday’s prison break happened.

“I think it was pretty ingenious in what he came up with,” Branstad said. “I guess most prison escapes are, but it’s stupid, absolutely stupid when you’re on a 10 year sentence to escape prison. You like end up either being dead or serving a lot longer period of time, so prison escapes are not smart things to do.”

Twenty-five-year-old Justin Kestner escaped sometime between 1:30 and 4:30 a.m. on Sunday.

“He had like 67 feet of bedsheets that he used as kind of a rope, which is an unbelievable amount and then he also crawled through a very narrow area that is supposed to be too small for a person to crawl through,” Branstad said. “So all of these things are going to be reviewed and determine how this happened and certainly we want to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.”

The inmate stole a car in nearby Wever and made it about 100 miles before his capture mid-morning Sunday just south of Geneseo, Illinois.

“We were very fortunate to be able to capture the individual that escaped within less than half a day,” Branstad said. “And I want to thank the law enforcement people in both Iowa and Illinois that played a key role in that.”

Branstad told reporters this morning at his weekly news conference that there’s no need to increase the number of prison guards in reaction to this incident.

“There’s plenty of staff and the staff did, in fact, view this unit, I think, several times during the night,” Branstad said. “But this individual was in the John Bennett unit which is actually designed as a medical unit. It’s not part of the old prison. It’s an addition that was built about 10 years ago, I think.”

A new maximum security prison near the old “Fort” has been built, but design flaws have plagued the project and delayed the new prison’s opening by more than a year. The governor expects inmates to be moved into the new prison sometime later this summer or early this fall.

Branstad axes extra money for K-12 public schools, three state universities

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad has been hinting for weeks that he was unhappy with the legislature’s bipartisan compromise on education funding — and late this afternoon the governor used his item veto authority to reject nearly $56 million in proposed funding for K-12 public schools.

Branstad points to $3 billion in state aide that he did approve for public school districts, but the governor says he cannot approve a one-time allotment of $56 million more. This past Monday Branstad told reporters that kind of one-time spending could “set the state up” for an across-the-board budget cut if state tax revenues fall.

“I want to maintain stability and predictability,” Branstad said. “And I want to make sure that we have a sustainable budget for the long term.”

The president of the state teachers union says the extra money would have been “a small degree of relief” for some school districts and Branstad’s decision to cut that money out of the legislature’s budget plan shows “his lack of commitment to public education.” A top Democrat in the Iowa Senate says the governor’s move not only “undermines” the bipartisan deal legislators struck, it jeopardizes a proposed tuition freeze at the three state universities. Branstad rejected one-time spending increases for the University of Iowa, Iowa State Universty and the University of Northern Iowa.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee says there’s “no reason” for the governor to cut so deeply since there’s been strong growth in state tax revenue. The state collected more than $8 billion in taxes in the last 12 months.

In other official action Thursday, Branstad followed through and formally rejected the bipartisan proposal that called for keeping the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant open. The two facilities actually were closed for good earlier this week.

In addition to approving 14 budget bills that outline state spending plans for the next 12 months, there were a host of policy items stuck in the bills Branstad took action on today. For instance, non-public schools in Iowa are now required by state law to abide by the same school start date approved for public schools. The school start date debate raged until earlier this spring when legislators and the governor agreed that August 23 is the earliest day school may start in the fall.

Due to another policy item stuck in a budget bill, developers of a new reservoir near Osceola will have to prove they’ve exhausted all other options before they may seize property through eminent domain for the project. Backers of the project say they first started talking about Osceola’s limited water supply in 1992 and the area can’t grow economically without more water. Legislators who pushed for the new hurdles for  the project say they doubt developers’ claims that a current lake in Osceola couldn’t be expanded instead.

State tax receipts for 2015 fiscal year are just over $8 billion

One Hundred US Dollar Notes, close upFor the first time in state history, overall state tax collections for a fiscal year have topped $8 billion.

State officials have to subtract tax refunds and local option sales tax payments to schools from that $8 billion figure. It represents gross state tax receipts. That means net state tax collections were over $6.6 billion for the state fiscal year that ended Tuesday.

A report from the Legislative Services Agency indicates state tax collections grew by six percent over the 12 month period. That growth rate beat the official expectation of 5.5 percent growth in state tax revenue during the fiscal year.

The six percent increase amounts to nearly $377 million in additional tax payments to the state this fiscal year compared to the last one. The increase was spurred by a nearly six percent increase in personal income tax payments to the state, plus corporate income tax payment to the state were up by about five percent. Sales and use tax payments to the state were up by more than four percent. That’s just under the prediction from a three-member panel that sets an official estimate of state tax collections. Lawmakers use that prediction as the basis for their state budget plan.

New director takes over at Iowa Department of Education

Ryan Wise

Ryan Wise

The deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education began the day by taking the deputy label off his name tag. Governor Terry Branstad appointed Ryan Wise as the new leader of the department beginning today.

“I sought out the position of director because I thought it was an opportunity to continue my work here at the department that I started three years ago when I came to Iowa to help build the teacher leadership and compensation system. And to continue to grow and help serve the schools and students of Iowa,” Wise says.

Wise is replacing Brad Buck, who is leaving to become the superintendent of the Cedar Rapids school district. The position has been in the spotlight the last several years with a variety of issues, including education reform. Wise says the attention didn’t deter him from seeking the job. “No, I think I enjoy this opportunity to be one of many leaders in Iowa working toward a brighter future for all of our students,” Wise says. “While this job certainly does draw attention — I think it is a statewide team collaborative effort.”

Wise says the Department of Education gets good support from the administration. “The governor and lieutenant governor have provided tremendous leadership here. And that is also one of the reasons that I am excited about this work. Because I think they’ve laid out a vision and path for excellent schools for all of Iowa,” Wise says.

He says completing the implementation of the teacher leadership program is one of the top tasks ahead. “This coming year we’ll have 76 new school districts joining the existing 39. Those districts serve over two-thirds of the students in Iowa,” Wise says. “Implementation during the first year went incredibly well and we are looking forward to this second group of districts coming in, and then all districts in Iowa coming in in year three.”

He says there are also other parts of education reform to work on. “Our early literacy initiative is going full-steam ahead — working on ensuring that all students are proficient readers by the end of third grade. We’ve developed a statewide early warning system to ensure that we’re helping districts spot reading challenges before they really become a problem,” according to Wise.

Wise is 39-years-old and a native of South Dakota. His appointment must be approved by the Iowa Senate in the next legislative session.

Clarinda and Mount Pleasant MHI’s now closed

Former employees at Mount Pleasant released luminaries after the facility closed.

Former employees at Mount Pleasant MHI released luminaries after the facility closed.

The state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant were officially shut down last night as the fiscal year came to an end.

Governor Terry Branstad has led the charge to close the facilities and shift to community-based mental health services.

Former employees at the Mount Pleasant MHI released floating luminaries as the final employee clocked out just before midnight. Anna Short, a former drug abuse counselor at the facility, told KCRG-TV the event made the closing “real” both for her and her former co-workers.

“It’s done and it’s sad,” Short said. “It’s not just co-workers, it’s your family.” Workers moved the final patients out of the Mount Pleasant MHI late last week. All of the workers, in both Mount Pleasant and Clarinda, have been laid off. The state legislature approved a budget that would keep the MHIs open for up to another year, but the governor is expected to veto that part of the budget.

Monday is the final day for the governor to make decisions about funding bills legislators sent to his desk. Danny Homan, the head of the union that represents the largest share of state employees, has said he believes Governor Branstad’s actions are in violation of state law and the collective bargaining agreement. It’s anticipated that AFSCME Iowa Council 61 will be part of a lawsuit challenging the governor’s call to shutdown the two MHIs.

AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan issued the following statement about the shutdown of Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes:

“Last night, at midnight, the Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes closed their doors and the entire staff was laid off. This is a sad moment for the people of Iowa, especially those patients and families that need the services provided by these two facilities. The real losers here are the patients and the citizens of the state of Iowa. Residents of southern Iowa no longer have these two excellent facilities as an option for the care of their loved ones facing mental health challenges. Iowa’s mental health safety net has been made weaker by the choices the governor has made. To the employees of these facilities, who have provided excellent treatment to patients for many years, I’m very sorry the governor has decided to take this action. I believe not only has he violated the collective bargaining agreement by his actions of laying everyone off effective at the end of June, but I also believe he is in violation of a state law and we will take the appropriate action and attempt to fix this situation. The governor has chosen to ignore the advice of patients, their families, mental health professionals, legislators, employees, and community leaders. He should be ashamed of the decision he made to shut down these facilities.