February 1, 2015

Legislators question plan to close MHIs in Clarinda, Mount Pleasant

Rich Shults

Rich Shults

A panel of legislators grilled the state official who was dispatched to defend Governor Branstad’s proposal to close the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant.

Rick Shults, the director of mental health and disability services for the Iowa Department of Human Services, testified before a budget subcommittee on Thursday.

“We clearly are having difficulty in recruiting staff,” Shults said. “…The wards are outdated and they’re poorly configured. When I go to those facilities it causes me concern. There are nooks and crannies and they’re not as expansive and there are just some challenges there and there are high costs associated with these facilities.”

Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, countered the costs for caring for patients with acute mental illness are higher at the Cherokee and Independence Mental Health Institutes which will remain open.

“I mean, it’s flying in the face of a lot of things here, Rick…you know?” Heaton said during the 90-minute question-and-answer session with Shults. “I just can’t quite understand,”

Heaton said there aren’t enough “psych beds” in private facilities in southern Iowa and closing the two state-run facilities makes things worse.

“Iowa is ranked fourth-worst in the country as far as our mental health services are concerned. We’re at the bottom,” Heaton said, pounding his fist on the table. “…It’s a mess.”

Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, said he doubted the agency’s claim that many patients who’re now being served in the state’s Mental Health Institutes can easily find care from private providers.

“You’re painting this rosy picture about how we’re going to have all these crisis services at the same time we’re ripping money out of the system,” Bolkcom said. “It’s to meet the bean counters’ numbers in the basement, the Department of Management. They’ve got to cut money out of this budget to pay for this historic property tax cut.”

Other legislators said they’re fielding complaints from county sheriffs who are often responsible for transporting patients to the Mental Health Institutes. Representative John Forbes, a Democrat from Urbandale, said it will be a 500-mile round trip for some departments.

“What’s the human cost to the families of these patients who are now going to be instead of 20-30 miles away, 250 miles away?” Forbes asked. “These patients need their families close by to help them get through these very difficult times in their lives.”

Shults, the DHS administrator, countered that many hospitals around the state provide in-patient treatment for severe mental illness, plus he said the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and Broadlawns Hospital in Des Moines will be able to take some patients who would have been sent to the state-run facilities. The DHS expects to shift the elderly sex offenders who’re in 24-hour nursing care in Clarinda to private nursing homes.

A court ruling is expected in late February on whether Governor Branstad had the authority to close the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo last year. If that ruling goes against Branstad, legislators say that will dramatically alter the discussion about closing the Mental Health Institutes.

Group warns tax hikers will face ‘angry’ voters in 2016

Rob Solt

Rob Solt

The leader of a group created nearly four decades ago to lobby for a smaller state government and reduced taxes say Iowa legislators will pay a price in 2016 if they support a gas tax increase in 2015.

Rob Solt is president of Iowans for Tax Relief, a group urging lawmakers to vote against any bill that would raise the state gas tax.

“Legislators are sent up here to make tough decisions and the toughest decision they’re probably going to have to make this year is to pass a gas tax increase, which our polls show Iowans don’t want, or to take a look at are the resources there and can they just reallocate them,” Solt says. “And unfortunately at this point no one is willing to take a look at the formula.”

Here’s how the formula works: nearly half of the money raised by those taxes is kept by the state, with 20 percent going to cities and the rest going to counties. Solt suggests the state should keep less and share more with local governments.

“If we get a gas tax increase passed and the money goes through the formula and people expected to get their local road or bridge fixed and it absolutely won’t get done, I mean it will be such a miniscule amount that will get done at the local level, they’re going to be really frustrated,” Solt says. “And they’re going to get to the 2016 elections and say: What did I get for paying this additional amount? And I think it’s going to make people angry.”

It appears momentum is building at the statehouse for a gas tax increase, however. Key legislators yesterday said a vote on a 10-cent hike in the per gallon gas tax could come in February and the higher tax rate might take effect as soon as March. The Iowans for Tax Relief president questions the way the State of Iowa is spending its current portion of gas tax proceeds.

“If you drive through Iowa City, there’s 10 miles of colored, stamped concrete there,” Solt says. “…How can we not have enough resources when we can do colored, stamped concrete as a median divider, but we can’t do a project in Davis County?”

The state taxes every gallon of regular gas at 21 cents. Ethanol-blended gasoline is taxed at 19 cents per gallon. The state tax on diesel is 22.5 cents per gallon. Those tax rates were set in 1989. Gas tax revenue is declining because vehicles are more fuel-efficient and supporters of a gas tax increase say the state is at least $215 million short each year of what’s needed to fix up and expand Iowa’s transportation system.

‘Overall consensus’ toward 10-cent hike in state gas tax (AUDIO)

Brynes-and-Bowman

Representative Josh Byrnes and Senator Tod Bowman.

Key legislators say a 10-cent increase in the state gas tax has a good chance of passing the legislature in February and going into effect as early as March.

“I think the overall consensus is to go 10 cents now…We’re so far behind that we need to implement it right away,” Senator Tod Bowman, a Democrat from Maquoketa who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said this morning.

Representative Josh Byrnes, a Republican from Osage who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has been in the same private negotiating sessions with Bowman, Governor Branstad and legislative leaders.

“We’re trying to keep things as simple as possible,” Byrnes said. “The less complexity on this, the better.”

According to Byrnes, that’s why negotiators at this point are favoring an increase in the already-existing per-gallon tax rather than trying to pass some new way to finance road and bridge projects in Iowa. Senator Bowman said the need is great — an estimated $215 million yearly shortfall to address critical needs in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“I’ve never felt more optimistic about moving forward with the gas tax,” Bowman said.

The two committee leaders met early this morning with a large group of city and county officials as well as road builders who are in Des Moines to lobby legislators to boost the amount of money available to expand and maintain the state’s transportation network.

AUDIO of committee chairmen speaking at “Transportation Day” 2015

Byrnes cautioned against over-confidence.

“It’s moving forward and looking good and looking promising. That doesn’t mean that we rest, though,” Byrnes said. “I would tell you guys that since you’re down here today, make sure that you’re pulling out your representatives, your senators. I mean, you still have to apply the pressure, O.K.? This bill has not moved forward. It hasn’t been signed yet. Things can fall apart very quickly down here.”

Iowa Department of Transportation director Paul Trombino also spoke this morning at the “Transportation Day” event. He offered a point-by-point response to critics of a gas tax hike. Trombino said the state can’t cut in other places or shift things around to find enough money to meet the “critical needs” of Iowa’s transportation network, plus Trombino warned Iowa’s manufacturers will become less competitive if the system isn’t updated to reduce congestion in key areas.

AUDIO of Trombino’s speech

“If we choose to allow the system to continue to deteriorate, it will impede business and it will detract from quality of life,” Trombino said, “and ultimately it does not attract and maintain the workforce that we need for today and tomorrow.”

David Rose

David Rose

And David Rose of Clinton, the chairman of the Iowa Transportation Commission, dismissed the idea of closing some of the state’s little-used roads and bridges.

“We can’t do that because we are a unique state,” Rose said during his remarks at the “Transportation Day” event. “Every county in this state produces something that the world wants. (It’s) called food.”

The state’s per-gallon tax on motor fuel is deposited in the “Road Use Tax Fund” and, according to the state’s constitution, that money must be spent on the state’s road system. Key legislators say that’s one reason raising the gas tax is emerging as a favored option, since other means of raising money are not constitutionally protected and, in the future, might be diverted to other uses.

Branstad has the flu; all public events for rest of week cancelled

Governor Branstad was released from the hospital this morning after treatment for the flu.

Branstad’s staff now confirms the governor has the flu. The governor fell ill during a speech on Monday morning and was taken by ambulance to a Des Moines hospital. He was released from the hospital at nine o’clock this morning.  Jimmy Centers, the governor’s communications director, says Branstad is “resting comfortably” at Terrace Hill.

The governor’s personal physician issued a written statement, classifying Branstad in “good condition.” Dr. Kevin Cunningham says he’s ruled out a heart attack or stroke and has concluded the “incident was caused by a mild flu and dehydration.”

Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds has been sick, too, and both Branstad and Reynolds have cancelled all their public events for the remainder of the week. That will give them “ample time to rest and recuperate” according to Centers. Reynolds saw her doctor this morning and a test came back negative for the flu, but she has been ordered to rest so she can recover from “a seasonal illness.”

The governor’s oldest son, Eric Branstad, tweeted a message to his father: “He had better listen to mom!”  The governor admitted yesterday that his wife wanted him to stay home from work Monday, but he didn’t heed her advice.

Centers says Branstad was alert and conscious and his official duties were not handed over to anyone. Branstad and Reynolds keep an “ambitious schedule” and, according to Centers, they have attended other 2500 public events since they took office in 2011.

“So it’s certainly unusual for the governor not to be out on the road visiting with Iowans for the next couple of days, but rest assured he’ll be back out on the road in the very near future,” Centers says.

(This story was updated at 11:53 a.m. with additional information)

Senator cites governor’s ‘little episode’, asks colleagues to pray for Branstad

Ken Rozenboom

Ken Rozenboom

No word — yet — on when Governor Terry Branstad might be released from the Des Moines hospital where he’s being treated for “flu-like symptoms.” Branstad fell ill yesterday, during a speech at Du Pont Pioneer in Johnston, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was admitted “out of an abundance of caution” according to his staff.

Senator Ken Rozenboom, a Republican from Oskaloosa, brought up the subject during a speech in the senate this morning.

“I simply want to remind the body here of our governor’s little episode yesterday and encourage you and ask you to keep him and his family in your prayers and also Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds who’s apparently been afflicted with something similar,” Rozenboom said.

Reynolds was coughing and sniffling yesterday, too, and was scheduled to see her doctor this morning. Both Reynolds and Branstad have cancelled all their public appearances today.

“Please keep them in your prayers as the day goes forward, so they can return to their work,” Rozenboom said.

Another state official — Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart — has cancelled his scheduled appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee today because he’s ill.

Education funding debate begins in Iowa House

state-capitolThe Republican-led Iowa House has begun debating a bill that would forward nearly $48 million more dollars in general state aid to Iowa’s public school districts for the next academic year.

School advocates say the increase isn’t enough and won’t even cover negotiated salary hikes for teachers. Others complain Republican legislators are making property tax relief a higher priority than kids. Representative Ron Jorgensen, a Republican from Sioux City, said this morning that K-12 public schools would be getting “about half” of the additional state tax revenue that’s available in the coming this year under the GOP’s proposal.

“We are not the federal government. We must live within our means,” Jorgensen said. “We must do the math. If the money is not there, you can’t spend it unless you are willing to cut in other areas in order to pay for it.”

Critics say Iowa’s per pupil spending level ranks 37th among the states. Jorgensen said another study that factored in each state’s cost of living and ranked Iowa 25th.

“I believe in education you could find a study that would pretty well prove whatever point you wanted to make,” Jorgensen said.

And Jorgensen said per pupil spending “does not always equate to higher performance.” Educators warn class sizes will increase and teachers will be laid off because the one-and-three-quarter percent increase in state aid that the GOP proposes won’t be enough to meet school district obligations. During last night’s two-hour-long public hearing, just two people spoke in favor of the GOP proposal and one of the two is an aide to Republican Governor Terry Branstad.

‘Out of an abundance of caution’ Branstad to stay overnight in hospital

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad during his meeting with the media this morning prior to the event where he became ill.

Governor Terry Branstad will stay overnight in a Des Moines hospital where he’s being treated for “flu-like symptoms.”

Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for the governor issued a statement late this afternoon, saying Branstad is “currently alert and resting comfortably.” Centers said Branstad is “being observed and hydrated” and will be kept overnight “out of an abundance of caution.”

Branstad fell ill as he was delivering a speech during a ceremony at Du Pont Pioneer in Johnston this morning. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds was noticeably ill earlier this morning as Branstad and Reynolds held their weekly news conference. Both Branstad and Reynolds were coughing.

“She will see her doctor tomorrow morning, again out of an abundacne of caution,” Centers told Radio Iowa. “She has also cancelled all of her public events for Tuesday the 27th to get well.”

Both Branstad and Reynolds have cancelled all their public events for Tuesday.

“We’ll make a decision going forward regarding the remainder of (Branstad’s) public schedule for the week in the near future,” Centers said.

The governor had a flu shot this fall, according to Centers. Experts say this year’s flu shot does not cover a strain of the flu which is prevalent this season.  Doctors haven’t yet confirmed that Branstad is suffering from a particular strain of the flu either.

“These are flu-like symptoms,” Centers told Radio Iowa. “There isn’t a diagnosis.”

Experts say this is the worst flu “season” in nearly a decade.

(This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. with additional information.)