April 21, 2014

Microsoft to build second data center in West Des Moines

Microsoft has been identified as the company behind another big economic development project in West Des Moines. The company will build a $1.1 billion data center on a 154 acre site in Polk County.

Governor Terry Branstad was in West Des Moines for the announcement, made shortly after the Iowa Economic Development Authority approved just over $20 million dollars in sales tax rebates for the project. “Iowa has been very fortunate in the last few years to have numerous economic development projects worth over one billion dollars; Facebook, MidAmerican Energy’s Wind Farm, CF Industries, and Iowa Fertilizer,” Branstad said.

Microsoft already has a data center in West Des Moines, so the company’s total investment in the area will now reach nearly $2 billion. “That is an all-time record (for the state),” Branstad noted.

The City of West Des Moines has promised $53 million in infrastructure improvements to accommodate the site. Mayor Steve Gaer  said it’s well worth the investment. “The economic impact of this project alone, when it’s fully developed, will be over 8 million dollars a year in property taxes to the city, county and school district,” Gaer said.

Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly said the data center will be huge, covering a space comparable to roughly 20 football fields. “The project will firmly establish central Iowa as one of the country’s leading technology environments and with the addition of over 80 jobs, will certainly bring new talent to our community,” Connolly said. Microsoft officials have pledged the project will eventually create 84 jobs, most of which will pay a wage of at least $24.32 an hour.

Construction on the project is expected to start this spring.

Lawmaker objects to use of eminent domain for high-voltage transmission line project

A retired utility engineer who is a member of the Iowa House of Representatives is raising concerns about a proposed high-voltage transmission line that is to be constructed across Iowa. Representative Ralph Watts, a Republican from Adel, objects to the use of the government’s “eminent domain” authority to seize property along the 500-mile route for the Rock Island Clean Line project.

“Rock Island Clean Lines is a non-utility, private enterprise embarking on a private project for private gain,” Watts said this week during a speech on the House Floor.”…Therefore, it would not serve a public purpose which is required as a justification for use of eminent domain.”

Developers of wind farms are not allowed to use eminent domain authority to seize ground for wind turbines, but state law does allow eminent domain authority to be used for power lines. A bill stalled in the House this year that would have set up a new appeal process for Iowa landowners affected by power line projects that stretch 200 or more miles.

The transmission lines for the Rock Island Clean Line project would be used to export energy from wind turbines in northwest Iowa to Chicago and other electricity customers to the east. Representative Watts said it would be “shamefully negligent” for the Iowa utility board to allow the firm to use eminent domain authority to seize some of the Iowa farm ground needed for its project.

“After all is said and done, if Rock Island Clean Lines is allowed the use of eminent domain for their project, it could likely result in the largest unjustified taking of private property in the history of the state of Iowa,” Watts said.

Governor Terry Branstad’s economic development director has called the transmission line “an important infrastructure project that needs to occur” because wind energy has the potential to be a growing Iowa export. Developers of the 500-mile Rock Island Clean Line project have charted a preferred route that would start in northwest Iowa’s O’Brien County and would exits on the east side of the state in Scott County, just north of the Quad Cities.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Branstad releases his 2013 income tax returns, plus a letter from his doctor

Branstad tax returnsRepublican Governor Terry Branstad has released the state and federal tax returns he and his wife have filed, revealing the couple reported taxable income of almost $235,000.

Branstad’s salary as governor is just over $127,000 and he got about $55,000 from his state pension for his 30 years of service as a state legislator, as lieutenant governor and for his first four terms as governor. Branstad and his wife, Chris, own 13 rural post office buildings and collected $64,000 in rent last year, plus the Branstads reported income from investments and from an IRA willed to Branstad by an uncle who died recently.

The couple donated just over $40,000 to charity in 2013. That’s 17.2 percent of their total income. Reporters were allowed to read through Branstad’s tax returns this morning, as well as  read a short letter Branstad’s doctor wrote after the governor’s last physical in late February. The doctor said he found the 67-year-old Branstad “to be in good health” and the doctor said he had “no concerns” regarding Branstad’s “health and capacity to work.”

Jack Hatch, the only Democrat running for governor, released his 2013 tax returns as well as a letter from his doctor yesterday. Hatch reported he and his wife — who are property developers — had about $469,000 in income last year. Jack and Sonja Hatch paid over $88,000 in federal income taxes and almost $29,000 in state income taxes.  Terry and Chris Branstad paid $28,000 in federal taxes and $6200 in state taxes.