- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

The Des Moines Register. June 9, 2015

2015 session: A gas tax and a lot of hot air

Legislature accomplished little, and even less was done in public

It is tempting to write off the first session of the 86th Iowa General Assembly as one of the least productive legislative sessions in recent memory. Lawmakers did, however, pass a 10-cent increase in the gas tax to make this long overdue and critically needed investment in Iowa’s bridges, city streets, county roads and state highways.

Increasing the gas tax for the first time in a quarter century qualifies as an important legislative achievement given the anti-tax climate that infects politics today. But the vote was taken very early in the session, the bill was signed into law by the governor and the increased tax took effect in March. That would have been a good time to adjourn.

For the remainder of the session, the Legislature more or less shifted into neutral while leadership retreated behind closed doors to haggle over school aid. The dithering forced K-12 public schools to produce tentative budgets and issue pink slips to some teachers.

It is hard to see why it took so long to reach an agreement, given how little each side moved. Democrats ended up getting their split-the-difference compromise, thanks to an additional $55.7 million for one year. Republicans conceded to the higher amount, but they can say they agreed to take the difference from so-called onetime money while holding the line on ongoing school spending. Which means lawmakers will be faced with this same battle next session.

With leadership occupied in school-aid negotiations, rank and file senators and representatives were left to fritter away their time on nonsense bills, such as legalizing fireworks and allowing children to handle handguns. Fortunately, neither bill passed.

Several other bills did not pass, either, which is good. Among them was a bill on eminent domain that could have had serious unintended consequences for all utility projects. Another bill that died a proper death would have put information about proposed cell-tower sites off limits to the public.

One worthy piece of legislation aimed at encouraging investment in rural broadband was emptied of meaning because it created a new state grants program but without any state money.

Legislators also left undone many important things this state does need. It did not raise the state sales tax to put money into the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved. They took no action on a bill that would have regulated the use of police body cameras; they did not act to restore voting rights for ex-felons; and, they again failed to help rural communities provide emergency medical services.

Several bills that would have expanded Iowans’ access to information about state and local government were proposed by the governor and the Iowa Public Information Board. Not one was passed.

Besides the lack of meaningful achievement, this session was marked by long stretches when the chambers were idle while the real action took place in back rooms. There seemed to be a decided lack of floor debate on bills that did make it out of committee and, as usual, a grab-bag of unrelated legislation was tacked onto a last-minute spending bill.

It’s not clear whether the absence of transparency in this year’s Legislature was an exception or a new rule. Either way, it was a disappointing session.

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Iowa City Press-Citizen. June 10, 2015.

Non-academic for next UI president worth considering

What if the next University of Iowa president doesn’t have the job of provost or dean of students on his or her resume? What if he or she came to UI from a successful private-sector company?

Looking at UI through that lens certainly could set UI on a different track.

In this day and age of decreased funding, of more competition for students and of the need for developing relationships and courting donors, we think the idea has merit for UI’s future.

First and foremost, someone with a background in budgeting, finances and fundraising would appear to complement the next president’s role in leading academics, research and health care.

The official job description posted by the Iowa Board of Regents lists these qualifications and skill sets, among others:

-A commitment to the development of faculty, staff and students and a proven track record of inspiring people and organizations through principled leadership.

- Interpersonal skills to interact effectively with various constituencies of the University, alumni, Foundation, media and community at large.

- Interpersonal skills to interact effectively with elected officials, governmental bodies and the Board of Regents.

- Ability to foster an innovative environment that attracts high-quality faculty, students and staff by stimulating creativity, research, teaching and learning.

- Ability to identify opportunities and to convert challenges into innovative solutions and programs that will advance the future of the institution.

- A commitment to academic freedom, tenure and shared governance and an understanding of their importance in sustaining the quality of the University.

- A commitment to student safety and welfare and a sensitivity to issues related to campus culture.

- A commitment to and understanding of the value of a strong Division I intercollegiate athletic program.

We know the next president will face challenges in securing funding from the state, balancing that limited funding with needed growth. The next president will need to be able to communicate UI’s benefit to the rest of the state more articulately than ever before.

To boil it down, the next president will need to be very skilled at selling the university not only to prospective students, but to lawmakers and to big-dollar donors. And they’ll need the ability to do that without compromising the university’s commitment to scholarship, to providing the best education possible for all its students. Hand in hand with that mission will be hiring and retaining quality staff as the campus becomes more lean and cost-saving measures from the Transparent Inclusive Efficiency Review (TIER) are implemented.

It’s a tall set of responsibilities, and that’s exactly the reason why qualified candidates from outside as well as inside academia should be considered.

Since former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was named president of Purdue University in 2012, boards of regents and trustees, and the search firms working with them, have been giving more credence to the idea of outside executives overseeing the operations of institutions of higher learning.

“We often hear from the board members on presidential searches that they’d like to consider some non-traditional candidates,” William Funk, whose Texas-based firm assisted in the 2011 Purdue search that led to Daniels’ hiring, said recently. “But 99 percent of the time we end up with some pretty traditional finalists.”

That very well might be the case for UI. But we hope that potential candidates from the private sector won’t be afraid to throw their hat in the ring, and that the search committee will keep an open mind.

UI needs someone with the expertise and leadership to unite the interests of academics, athletics, research and health care. Who can be a diplomat and convince lawmakers that the university serves Iowa in a way that the other two state institutions do not. Who is a keen negotiator and administrator. Who brings new ideas to the table. And who can interface with the public in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the great work that takes place here.

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Quad-City Times. June 7, 2015.

Iowa lawmakers flunk education

Mediocre. Below average. Stagnant.

Pick the adjective or phrase to slap on Iowa education for another year.

Iowa’s House Republicans prevailed over Democrats and their own governor with an end-of-session agreement that can hardly be called a compromise.

State law calls for the legislature to address education funding first, in January, so hundreds of Iowa school boards can plan carefully and submit next year’s budget to the state by the end of March.

That deadline came and went while House Republicans stayed stuck on a funding plan that doesn’t even keep up with inflation.

The final deal dubbed a “compromise” allowed a 1.25 percent increase, then added $55 million in one-time money. Rising prices will gobble up all of the 1.25 percent, then some.

How will one-time funding improve education? It can’t be plugged in to any ongoing projects. It can’t initiate anything new that might last longer than a year. At this late date, it can’t even be factored in to reduce property taxes.

Pleasant Valley Superintendent Jim Spelhaug called the deal “better than nothing.” He said he’ll recommend using the one-time money for one-time bonuses for faculty.

We hear and empathize with those looking to squeeze out more efficiency from Iowa school districts and eliminate waste. Of course.

But in every other venture, below-average funding produces below-average results. Iowa legislators already have led their public schools to the middle of the nation’s pack.

At least that’s the assessment of one expert invited by Gov. Terry Branstad to his first education summit in 2011.

Here is what then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said about Iowa at that Des Moines summit: ?

- “By 2009, Iowa’s eighth-graders had gone from the top of the pack in math on NAEP to having 15 states outperform them. In fact, Iowa is the only state in the nation that hasn’t made significant progress in eighth grade math since 1992. .. ?

- According to the “Rising to Greatness” report, Iowa currently has the largest achievement gap in the nation in reading and math between students with and without disabilities. ?

-“Iowa now ranks in the bottom 10 states in the percentage of seniors who take and pass an Advanced Placement course. And the ACT scores of college bound students suggest that only three in 10 high school graduates in Iowa are ready for post-secondary course work. . ?

-“Only Mississippi, North Dakota and Louisiana have a lower percentage of eighth- graders enrolled in higher-level math. ?

-“One independent study gave Iowa’s English Language Arts standard an F and a C in math.”

He titled his speech, “Iowa’s wake-up call.”

Seems like lawmakers just keep hitting the snooze button.

Branstad’s two statewide education summits produced modest reforms, chiefly a teacher mentoring program intended to improve classroom instruction.

Since then, education has fallen into the partisan chasm. The legislature that last year could afford property tax relief for business and this year hiked gas taxes for everyone, now says it must draw the line at even average increases for Iowa schoolchildren.

The “compromise” boosted allowable growth - the top-end limit for state funding and local property taxes - to 1.25 percent. Last year’s annual Consumer Price Index showed the average costs of goods and services rose 1.6 percent. Do the math. No change.

Just before stiffing Iowa students, lawmakers learned the Iowa Department of Revenue reported 6.1 percent tax revenue growth, the second-biggest tax revenue month in state history.

“It’s a really good month. It’s a strong month. Everything that needs to be good was good,” said Iowa Legislative Services tax analyst Jeff Robinson.

State surplus accounts will soar.

Iowa schools get stuck with those same labels: mediocre, below average and stagnant, with legislative support, as Spelhaug put it, “better than nothing.”

Legislative report card

Bullying C

Gov. Branstad’s bullying bill fell short, but thank the governor for the attention to this important issue. Social media multiplies the pressure kids already face, and schools need tools to intervene. But we’re with an apparent majority of lawmakers still concerned about the bill’s limitless extension of schools’ authority and responsibility.

Gas tax D

Lawmakers anchored Iowa’s long-term road funding plan to a declining revenue base as fuel efficiencies continue to diminish gas sales. All drivers pay more at the pump. But Iowa infrastructure certainly needs the work. So do Iowa’s skilled construction workers.

Broadband B

Lawmakers granted broadband providers and cell tower builders tax credits to cover 10 percent of expansion costs, plus 10 years of property tax relief. That should spread high-speed web access to new parts of Iowa.

School start F

Lawmakers dictated no Iowa school will begin before Aug. 23. It is no business of the legislature when elected school board members in Bettendorf, Muscatine or Timbuktu Iowa decide to start public school. No evidence suggests this strong-arm tactic will help or hinder students. Worse, no evidence suggests Iowa tourism businesses will cash in.

No DNR Tax A

Iowa’s natural resources can use the help, but no way could lawmakers pile on two retail taxes in one session. Or next

Fireworks D

Iowa’s fireworks ban lives on, though few Iowans will heed it as they cross state lines to stock up. Missouri wins again.

Marijuana F

Safe, available and therapeutic cannabis oils remain off limits to sick Iowa children. Lawmakers still can’t differentiate among the plant’s intoxicating buds and its non-intoxicating extracts. That leaves these patients able to use it, but subject to prosecution if they buy, ship or carry it.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. June 13, 2015

US taxpayers deserve better than this

Seventeen billion dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to the long-term fiscal challenges facing the Social Security program. Still, it is serious money, and Congress should demand answers about how the system managed to pay it out improperly.

More to the point, lawmakers should insist on convincing answers to their questions about what Social Security officials are doing to prevent similar waste in the future.

Sadly enough, it comes as no surprise that the Social Security Administration’s inspector general found nearly $17 billion in disability benefits was paid out improperly during the past decade.

What is startling, however, is the fact that nearly half the people receiving disability benefits got at least some money for which they were not eligible.

Various reasons were cited. They included payments to dead people, those who earned too much to qualify for the program and others who received checks even after they were no longer disabled.

Social Security officials were able to recover about half the money, the inspector general noted.

Few businesses could keep their doors open if they made major errors involving half their customers. But Social Security is the government, and virtually no one is ever held accountable for mistakes there.

That must change. Better management of money is absolutely critical.


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