- Associated Press - Monday, July 17, 2017

Des Moines Register. July 11, 2017

Reynolds minimizes true cost of small government

Reynolds knows spending cuts will have an impact

Has the state of Iowa been frittering away millions of tax dollars under the leadership of Gov. Terry Branstrad and his successor, Kim Reynolds?

You might think so, judging by the way Reynolds and other state officials describe the impact of deep budget cuts as the state struggles to balance its budget for the just-completed fiscal year.

A few months ago, the Iowa Legislature approved $118 million in budget cuts, then agreed to withdraw $131 million from the state’s cash reserves to fill a budgetary hole that seemed to be constantly growing in size. But state revenues continued to fall short of expectations, and so, despite the actions already taken, the budget now appears to be $97 million in the red.

Reynolds can make up only half of that by dipping back into the state reserves. The rest of the imbalance will likely have to be wiped out through additional spending cuts.

“The bottom line is that there will be continuity of government and Iowans will experience no change,” Reynolds has said.

No change? Can the state actually cut $170 million in spending, while raiding cash reserves that have to be replenished, with Iowans experiencing no change in government service?

No, it cannot. There is not anywhere near that much fat in the state budget.

Reynolds is fully aware of this fact because the executive branch agencies under her leadership are already slashing services to Iowans due to funding reductions. Those cuts come in the wake of a long, steady erosion of state staffing and funding that is a direct result of the Branstad-Reynolds administration’s approach to governing.

For example, the Iowa Department of Public Health has seen its overall budget reduced by almost 14 percent since last year. As the Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel recently reported, the department absorbed $2 million worth of cuts in the 2016-17 budget year, and lawmakers then cut $4.4 million from the agency’s 2017-18 budget while ordering department officials to use their discretion to cut $1.3 million more.

Now the department’s hearing aid and audiological services program has been shut down due to a $156,000 cut in state funding. This program was set up to provide Iowa children with hearing aids, which can cost up to $2,500 and often aren’t covered by insurance. Last year, the program helped 133 families.

The state also zeroed out its contributions to the Iowa Regional Autism Assistance Program, which assists families in early identification of children at risk for autism and steers families to more comprehensive diagnostic services, care coordination and family-to-family support groups.

Last month, in responding to the budget cuts, University of Iowa Hospitals’ director of health policy, Jennifer Harbinson, wrote to state lawmakers and warned that “these cuts will impact Iowans with disabilities, autism, cancer and diseases.”

And yet Gov. Reynolds claims the yet to be identified spending cuts, which will come on top of those already announced, will result in no change of services for Iowans.

At the same time, spokesmen for some of the agency heads who serve at the pleasure of the governor are parroting that claim. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, for example, has imposed a $1.2 million budget cut by eliminating the position of state geologist, shuttering its Bureau of Forestry and terminating a program for parks improvement.

Officially, however, the department claims none of these cuts will affect Iowans. “There will be absolutely no impact on the services to the general public or any other agencies that they work with,” DNR spokesman Alex Murphy says. “Cities and counties and other entities will not see any impact of this.”

That claim doesn’t come close to passing the laugh test. Rather than advocate for the DNR and its mission, Murphy seems to be more interested in providing the governor with political cover.

For years, the condition of Iowa’s state parks has been spiraling downward, as campers, hikers and other visitors can readily attest. Now the DNR is eliminating its Trail Crew program, which has used two full-time DNR employees, working in conjunction with a team of federally paid AmeriCorps workers, to develop and maintain trails and other amenities in the parks. Now the Trail Crew program is toast.

To be fair, Reynolds doesn’t have much choice but to make even more cuts in spending to balance the 2016-17 budget. But her first order of business should be to acknowledge the impact of the cuts already made - not just to state lawmakers who may be called back to Des Moines for a special session, but to the people of Iowa.

The governor can’t continue to insist that million-dollar spending cuts have zero impact on state services. If she does, she’ll lose any credibility she now has with voters. Either that or the public will believe her and demand to know why the state has been spending millions on programs that have no impact on their quality of life.

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Quad City Times. July 14, 2017

Time for CON board to show up

Maybe this time, the Iowa State Health Facilities Council will actually show up.

Twice, the Tennessee-based Strategic Behavioral Health has come before the Facilities Council seeking permission to build a 72-bed mental health facility. Twice, unable to muster a full five-member complement, the Facilities Council has been deadlocked. SBH’s executives are hoping the third time’s a charm on July 20, they said.

State slogans about “business-friendly” regulation might sound good. SBH’s two-year struggle to even get an up-or-down vote makes them ring hollow.

The uncertainty caused by the Facilities Council’s ineptitude has damaged the community, its existing health care providers and a would-be private investor.

One way or another, it’s imperative that Facilities Council members actually make an appearance and end this.

The battle over SBH’s $14 million proposal has divided the Quad-Cities. Scott County and police officials support the firm’s plan, citing a county jail serving as an ad-hoc holding site for the mentally ill. The area’s two hospitals - Genesis Health System and UnityPoint Health - fervently oppose it. SBH and its for-profit model would hurt them financially, hospital officials say. Since SBH first made its pitch, both Genesis and UnityPoint have bolstered mental health treatment.

Both sides are collecting supporters and leveraging all possible political capital. Everyone involved is pouring cash into lawyers and travel. And, locally, SBH’s bid continues to unnecessarily divide the community.

It’s a protracted bit of divisiveness that should have ended more than a year ago, when SBH first appeared before the state regulatory body.

Last year, SBH officials even canceled an appearance at another Facilities Council meeting because they knew all five members wouldn’t show up. And yet, SBH is coming back. The firm must still think there’s a need for more beds in the Quad-Cities and money to be made. It’s an assertion Genesis and UnityPoint officials reject. It’s a question that should be decided by a collection of bureaucrats beholden only to a measure of clinically cold objectivity.

But, so far, the Facilities Council has proven incapable of serving its most basic function. Its five members can’t even gather within the same room, only bolstering the view that the Certificate of Need process is unnecessary and redundant.

The lack of a ruling isn’t just bad for SBH. It’s also patently unfair to the proposal’s detractors, namely Genesis and UnityPoint. Both have invested heavily in mental health of late. Both do have a financial interest in SBH’s proposal. But, like everyone else, the Facilities Council has left them in the lurch.

The Facilities Council didn’t cultivate the mental health crisis in the Quad-Cities. Its members aren’t responsible for the state’s bottom-of-the-barrel number of available beds. Lawmakers are the ones who have been unwilling to pony up the cash so local government can carry its end. Gov. Terry Branstad made the call in 2015 to shutter a pair of state-run mental health facilities. It was state officials who heaped the responsibility on Iowa’s counties but, at the same time, hamstrung any ability to pay for it.

But the statewide problem persists. Just recently, Mahaska Health Partnership hospital in Oskaloosa announced the closure of its in-patient mental health unit, reported The Des Moines Register. It’s just the latest in a string of closures straining local governments and affecting the quality of life of Iowans.

The Facilities Council didn’t create the mental health crises. Yet it has done its part to exacerbate the issue in the Quad-Cities simply by not showing up.

Once is understandable. Life happens.

Twice is symptomatic of a system either incapable or unwilling to serve its function.

Three times would be evidence that, by its very existence, Iowa State Health Facilities Council does more harm than good.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. July 14, 2017

Leaders play vital role in agriculture

Their vision and energy help keep a vital industry thriving

From the earliest days, the emergence of successful farms and related industries in the American Midwest depended on the hard work and vision of people who played leadership roles in these vital enterprises. That was true when pioneers first cultivated the vast prairies, and it is increasingly true in the much-changed agricultural world of the 21st century.

The agricultural workplace encompasses a wide assortment of occupations. In present-day America, farms are part of the story, but so too are a wide array of other businesses that are part of the rural economy. Even the farms themselves have become much larger and more multifaceted entities than was the case decades ago. Throughout the contemporary agricultural world, there are talented leaders who have the organizational skills necessary to make this important sector of our economy thrive.

American agriculture without skilled leaders would be unthinkable. They play critical roles that are vital if this sector of the Hawkeye State’s economy is to remain the pacesetter for the planet.

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Dubuque Telegraph Herald. July 14, 2017

Public records laws again show their value

There’s a saying that people who enjoying eating sausage should never see it being made.

That admonition comes to mind after this month’s dispatch by Ryan J. Foley, an Iowa-based reporter for The Associated Press. Foley has reported the “sausage-making” behind the action of state lawmakers to remove the Iowa Energy Center from Iowa State University control to that of the state executive branch - specifically the Economic Development Authority, considered to be more utility-friendly - and to cancel its funding in 2022.

Not that they wanted the public to know it, but the meat grinder was being cranked by energy utilities, which have criticized the renewable energy research center, with the cooperation of ISU officials.

Lobbyists for MidAmerican Energy and rural electric cooperatives worked with a university lobbyist and officials on a plan to draft legislation, get it through the Legislature and to keep their stories straight. One goal was to conceal the utilities’ fingerprints on the process, and ISU agreed to provide “cover” for them.

This is not just speculation or conjecture. It’s all found in emails involving state employees. The university released the emails to comply - reluctantly, we’re sure - with a public-documents request from Abby Finkenauer, state representative from Dubuque and a Democratic candidate for U.S. House in 2018. Foley started asking questions about the issue in early March.

If not for Iowa’s open-records laws, citizens, especially supporters and staff of the energy center, would have been left to wonder about what precipitated the curious series of events.

Even before a bill to transfer the center was introduced in the Legislature, ISU announced it supported the move. Center officials were directed to cancel their search for a new director, which was well underway, and to pull back several loans.

Utility lobbyists secretly helped write the legislation, which, Foley noted “was a victory for Iowa’s gas and electric utilities, which fund the center through an assessment on their revenues and have questioned some of the center’s research on solar energy.”

This wasn’t the first time lobbyists for various industries and interests helped craft legislation, and it surely won’t be the last. There can be benefits to having people knowledgeable in a particular field - hopefully on all sides - be part of the process.

However, the episode does speak to the importance of government transparency - not hollow claims of transparency in the face of contrary evidence, but actual transparency. Exceptions and loopholes to open-meetings and open-records laws are a regular staple of every legislative session, with government agencies and special interests trying to chip away at public disclosures. Rarely, if ever, are these exceptions in the public’s interest.

Iowans should keep tabs on energy programs and policy as the Iowa Energy Center is transplanted and its major funding is scheduled to wither away in 2022. We might not like seeing sausage being made, but we also might not like its taste coming from a different kitchen.

The next time some agency or special interest wants to keep more of its dealings secret, recall that, if not for open-records laws, Iowans would not have known how utility lobbyists helped engineer the transfer and funding cut of the Iowa Energy Center.

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