May 28, 2015

‘Significant gap’ remains between Republicans, Democrats in state budget negotiations

CapitolA key legislator says all the “tweaking” that can be done has been done and state budget negotiations are nearing an impasse. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs is among the handful of legislative leaders who’ve been meeting privately for weeks, trying to bridge the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

“I would say we have significantly closed the gap,” Gronstal told reporters this morning. “We closed it a little more yesterday, but I would say there’s still a significant gap.”

Gronstal, who is the top-ranking Democrat in the legislature, said that spending gap is less than $100 million and the “biggest sticking points” remain. Democrats want to spend more on public schools than do Republicans and Democrats are pressing for more spending on government health care programs.

“To the extent we underfund, don’t provide enough resources for health care, we raise all the rest of Iowans health care plans because of uncompensated care in hospitals and doctor’s offices and other health care providers across the state,” Gronstal said.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha, the legislature’s top Republican, said negotiators have “made progress,” but it’s difficult to bridge the gap.

“Iowans picked a Democratically-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House. That’s not necessarily a recipe for a quick resolution,” Paulsen told reporters. “It doesn’t mean we’re not committed to finding it.”

Republicans are insisting on a $7.1 billion overall spending plan for the state budgeting year that begins July 1. Democrats and Republican Governor Terry Branstad favor an overall spending level that’s about $200 million higher. Paulsen said Republicans in the House have proposed a budget that fits with the amount of taxes the state is expected to collect next year.

“Let’s remember that the ongoing revenue is $180 million, roughly, more than we had last year,” Paulsen said. “I mean, only in government is $180 million of new spending a cut.”

For the past several weeks, the discussion among legislative leaders has centered on ways to use some of the state’s billion dollar surplus on some one-time projects or programs. Paulsen says Republicans are willing to do some of that, but Gronstal suggests that well has been tapped out.

“We are nearing the end of our ability to tweak things any further,” Gronstal said shortly after 9 a.m. this morning.

The next state budgeting year starts July 1st and Gronstal gave this answer when asked how this budget dilemma might get resolved: “I’m not making any predictions on that, but in a timely way. We will not engage in a game of shutdown.”

Gronstal, Paulsen and a handful of other legislators plan to meet late this morning to resume budget negotiations. There are a few policy matters involved as well. Senate Democrats, for instance, stuck anti-bullying policies for schools into a catch-all budget bill. Paulsen, who talked with reporters shortly after 10 a.m., gave this answer when asked if House Republicans might accept that approach to making those policies state law: “I didn’t show up this morning prepared to say no to a whole host of things, so we’ll just roll with it.”

It’s unlikely either the full House or Senate will meet for votes on Thursday or Friday.

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.

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.

Slain Omaha police officer was an Iowa native

Officer  Kerrie Orozco was shot to death while on duty Wednesday.

Officer Kerrie Orozco was shot to death while on duty Wednesday.

The first female police officer to die in the line of duty in Omaha history, 29-year-old Kerrie Orozco, was shot and killed Wednesday afternoon while serving an arrest warrant. Officer Orozco was a Walnut, Iowa, native and a resident of Council Bluffs.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer says Orozco was with several other officers on a fugitive task force. “The fugitive officers were attempting to locate and arrest a suspect who had a felony warrant for first-degree assault as the result of a shooting investigation,” Chief Schmaderer says. “The officers observed the suspect on foot. At this location, the suspect fired several gunshots at officers.”

Officer Orozco was very active in Omaha youth programs.

Officer Orozco was very active in Omaha youth programs.

The officers returned fire and the suspect was also killed. He’s identified as 26-year-old Marcus Wheeler, a convicted felon and a known gang member. The chief says Officer Orozco was married and had three children. “She has a step-daughter and a step-son,” Schmaderer says. “Kerrie had a newborn baby that was born February 17th.”

That newborn, Olivia, was Orozco’s first child. She was born premature and has been hospitalized since birth. The infant was due to be released from the hospital today and Orozco was to begin her maternity leave today as well.

Orozco with her newborn daughter, husband and step-children.

Orozco with her newborn daughter, husband and step-children.

Schmaderer says the entire community is mourning the loss of this fine woman who had served on the Omaha PD for more than seven years.

“She was a tremendous officer and an even better person,” the chief says. “She coached baseball since 2009 in the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club, she volunteered with the Special Olympics, she was president of the Police Officers’ Ball to benefit the Special Olympics, she took in rescue dogs, she was a Girl Scout mentor, she spoke at Girls Inc. frequently.”

Schmaderer says Officer Orozco was a treasured member of the department and her death is tragedy.

“The city of Omaha owes her a debt of gratitude, and her family, like no other,” he says. The shooting is still under investigation. Baby Olivia remains hospitalized in Omaha.

Orozco talked about her work in a video.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds released statements on Orozco’s death:

“I wish to extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Officer Kerrie Orozco,” said Branstad. “As a former military policeman, I am keenly aware of the dangers law enforcement face every single day on the job. Officer Orozco served with integrity and was a model peace officer. My thoughts and prayers are with her newborn daughter and her entire family.”

 “Officer Kerrie Orozco went to work every day to serve her community and keep her neighbors safe,” said Reynolds. “This is a devastating loss of a dedicated public servant, community member and new mother. I offer my deepest sympathy to the family of Officer Orozco.”

Photos courtesy of the Omaha Police Department.


Iowa Law Enforcement Academy director retiring June 30

Arlen Ciechanowski

Arlen Ciechanowski

The head of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy is retiring rather than face rejection from the Iowa Senate.

Arlen Ciechanowski has served as director of the agency that trains law enforcement cadets since 2011, but a key senator said last week that Ciechanowski did not have enough support in the state senate to be confirmed for another four-year term as the agency’s leader. Some senators said it was time for a “culture change” at the academy.

Concerns had been raised about the way Ciechanowski handled allegations of sexual harassment. In 2012, an agency employee who complained about the agency’s deputy director was fired, while the deputy director was reprimanded, but allowed to keep his job for another two years before he was fired.

Ciechanowski sent a letter to the governor (ILEA retirement letter 5.18.15) on Monday, saying he leaves the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy “in a better place” than when he took over.

Ciechanowski’s letter indicated he’ll retire on June 30. The governor has not announced a replacement. Branstad recently appointed retired Des Moines Police Chief Judy Bradshaw to serve as the agency’s deputy director.


Fallon stages pipeline protest in governor’s office

Former legislator Ed Fallon being escorted from the state capitol.

Former legislator Ed Fallon being escorted from the state capitol after his arrest.

A former Democratic state legislator staged a “sit in” inside the governor’s office Monday afternoon and wound up getting arrested when the office closed to the public at 5 p.m.

Last month Ed Fallon completed a 400-mile trek along the proposed Bakken oil pipeline and he met along the way with landowners who oppose the project.

“It just really deepened my commitment to doing everything I could to help stop the pipeline,” Fallon said.

Fallon went into the governor’s statehouse office early Monday afternoon and vowed to stay until Governor Branstad met with him and agreed to support a bill pending in the legislature that would make it more difficult for the pipeline developers to seize land along the pipeline route.

“I think the eminent domain legislation, while it certainly won’t stop the pipeline, it creates a more fair playing field, giving landowners some protections, some additional reassurances that their voices are going to be heard,” Fallon told reporters shortly after issuing a news release to alert the media of his intentions.

The governor’s legal counsel met with Fallon yesterday afternoon, but Fallon said meeting with the governor himself was his goal. Fallon was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. Fallon, a Democratic governor himself in 2006, was among the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters arrested on the capitol grounds in October of 2011.

This Wednesday, a group called the “Bakken Pipeline Resistence Coalition” plans to stage another statehouse event to urge legislators to pass the bill restricting eminent domain authority for the project.

Photo courtesy of the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition.