Des Moines Register. September 6, 2017
On state worker overtime, Gov. Reynolds is out of line
Iowa has cut nearly 11 percent of the state’s executive branch workforce since Gov. Terry Branstad was reelected in 2011. This has meant the loss of about 1,000 human services workers, the closings of two state institutions for people with mental illness, injured prison guards, the shuttering of dozens of unemployment offices, and as few as five state troopers on duty overnight to patrol the entire state.
But in the apparent quest for even smaller government, Gov. Kim Reynolds wants to make it harder for the state to attract and retain the employees who provide services to Iowans.
How else does one explain recent moves that include increases to health insurance premiums and a policy change that could force state employees to work more than 40 hours per week with no additional compensation?
A Des Moines Sunday Register investigation by Jason Clayworth found Iowa has revoked overtime eligibility for about 2,800 state workers in 167 job classifications. These include nurses, public defenders and social workers, who can now be required to work unlimited additional hours.
For the 12,800 state workers who remain eligible for overtime, the state has altered how the extra hours are calculated to facilitate reducing their pay.
The move is projected to save the state about $5 million. That is a negligible sum in a budget of more than $7 billion. It is particularly hard to stomach following the recent agreement to give Apple the equivalent of more than 40 times that amount of money in state and local tax breaks to locate a data farm here.
The change does, however, send the message this administration does not value public workers - whose duties include nursing home oversight, investigating child abuse, responding to emergencies and clearing snow from highways.
With thousands fewer state employees already, the remaining ones may be doing the jobs of two or three workers. They are also busy trying to implement the many changes required by elected officials, from creating a new family planning program to seeking a federal waiver to strip Medicaid beneficiaries of health services.
Workers get burned out and quit and the state may not replace them, which exacerbates difficulties in providing basic government services.
“We see people leaving or quitting, which causes more workload and overtime for us,” said Courtney Supino, a registered nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, who sometimes works 50 to 64 hours per week.
Five of the 15 registered nurse positions at her facility are unfilled. The Iowa Department of Corrections is struggling to retain nurses lured by hospitals or other private-sector employers with higher pay, sign-on bonuses and more appealing schedules.
While state agencies try to keep workers, the Reynolds administration couldn’t move fast enough to make a state job even less attractive. Amid the many changes made to Iowa’s collective bargaining law last legislative session was one allowing the state to roll back overtime eligibility. Overtime had historically been granted to thousands of union employees under the Federal Labor Standards Act, or FLSA.
Of course, the union-busting law was not a mandate to local governments and school districts to shortchange their workers. Many opposed the collective bargaining changes. The Polk County Board of Supervisors responded by passing a resolution recognizing “workers are entitled to basic protection including the right to organize and bargain collectively and be paid a living wage.”
But the Reynolds administration has a different perspective. The current governor seems to want even fewer state workers to serve the people of Iowa. And she may very well succeed in further eroding staff numbers.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. September 8, 2017
The lobbyist factor in Iowa politics
American government courses spend a lot of time on the checks and balances regarding the three branches of government - executive, legislative and judicial - but not much on the influential “fourth branch” - lobbyists.
Iowa’s much beloved/detested new commercial-grade pyrotechnics law (also known as fireworks) didn’t suddenly happen because legislators found the common good lacked celebratory explosives.
It just so happens fireworks companies significantly increased their lobbying efforts, doling $133,000 in 2017 - up from $83,000 in 2016 - to successfully press the issue.
A Des Moines Register analysis of lobbying in Iowa found 943 groups paid lobbyists $20.4 million during the legislative year that ended June 30 - about $1.5 million more than in fiscal year 2016.
They had increased incentive to “lobby up” with Republicans controlling both the executive and legislative branches, adding the Senate during the 2016 elections. In fact, 123 more organizations entered the fray for FY2017, spending $1.1 million.
The average expense for a lobbyist was $21,645. They also spent $325,976 on events for legislators.
Pro-business lobbyists worked their magic as Republican legislators eviscerated home rule for cities and counties by eliminating minimum wage increases passed in Polk, Johnson, Linn, Wapello and Lee counties. In addition, collective bargaining rights for government employees (aside from public safety) were eviscerated and workmen’s compensation benefits reined in.
They also got a lot of bags for their bucks.
The counterintuitive-named American Progressive Bag Alliance spent $25,000 on lobbyists to stop cities and counties from implementing a ban on plastic bags, which was considered for environmental reasons in Iowa City, Dubuque and Marshall County. The bags are banned in 132 U.S. cities, California and Hawaii, and numerous countries, including China.
While insurance companies want people to use the lowest-cost drugs possible until proven ineffective - known as “fail-first” - pharmaceutical companies outbid them to limit that practice. Merck and Pfizer spent a combined $545,000. Wellmark (Blue Cross Blue Shield) spent $191,972.
And you wonder why drugs aren’t competitively priced?
While President Trump and Republicans tout deregulation, the truth is many regulations exist to protect companies from competition. Take Altria (Philip Morris and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco and more), which spent $172,701 on lobbyists who won a regulation regarding the sale of e-cigarettes and “alternative nicotine products.”
Templeton Rye Spirits can now pour samples for customers at its expanded facility in Templeton, which includes a museum, after investing $108,014 in lobbyists for the first time. Previously, breweries could offer samples, but distilleries couldn’t. Go figure.
“You can’t imagine having someone come up and doing a tour of a ($26 million) facility and then not being able to do a tasting,” Jane Knutson, Templeton’s chief financial officer, told the Register. “So we were very proactive in trying to get the law changed.”
All told, the alcohol industry spent $231,000 on lobbyists.
The Iowa Hospital Association paid 10 lobbyists $265,800, while the Iowa Medical Association paid $204,759, spurred by Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. They ranked second and third among individual lobbyists.
The hospital group, in particular, has issues with former Gov. Terry Branstad’s privatization of Medicaid, which caused payments to providers to be delayed and, in many cases, decreased. The Mercy Health Network was engaged in a dispute with Ameri-Health Caritas that threatened payments before being resolved in June. Mercy, which includes Wheaton Franciscan medical facilities in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, spent $156,000 on lobbyists.
Taxpayers footed the bill for some expensive lobbying efforts with government agencies fearful of losing their footing or intent on making inroads. Included in the top 10 individual rankings were:
No. 1 - Iowa Association of Community Colleges, $289,598.
No. 5 - Iowa League of Cities, $181,543.
No. 6 - Iowa Board of Regents, $176,214.
No. 9 - Iowa Economic Development Authority, $171,000.
The community colleges, according to MJ Dolan, the association’s execution director, get the least amount of funding per pupil of all the public schools while focusing on workforce development issues.
The League of Cities was a loser on home rule, but that’s a nationwide trend. Rural-dominated Republican statehouses - reversing their traditional position on the sanctity of local control - have been thwarting actions by progressive cities.
The economic development agency has lobbied legislators to provide more incentives to lure prospective businesses.
While 10 states ban using state funds for lobbying, the Register reported 49 Iowa offices and organizations spend an average of $29,654 on such efforts.
The process puts the lie to the Schoolhouse Rock video, “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” with the song “I’m Just a Bill,” about laws being initiated by constituents presenting ideas to their representatives. The absence of lobbyists - who drive the legislative agenda - makes it more fairy tale than fact.
Follow the money instead.
Fort Dodge Messenger. September 8, 2017
Bill Northey heads to Washington
The White House has announced that President Donald Trump is nominating Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey to be US undersecretary of agriculture for farm production and conservation. This is a new post created in May as part of a reorganization of the U.S Department of Agriculture. Northey brings to this important national role outstanding credentials.
Northey has a vast knowledge of the agricultural world in Iowa and across the nation. He also has learned firsthand from journeys abroad about the agricultural realities in other lands. He knows well that exports are important to the rural economy here in Iowa and has worked hard both to sell Iowa products and learn how the state can best compete in a rapidly changing world economy.
Northey is just about as steeped in farm life as would be humanly possible.
Much of his adult life has been spent as a corn and soybean farmer. As a fourth-generation Iowa farmer, Northey has the kind of appreciation of farm values that one only learns by living and loving the farm life.
Today it is commonplace to champion ethanol and other biofuels. Northey, however, was one of those early visionaries who saw the potential long before it was fashionable to back this cause. He’s was a strong advocate of ethanol during his leadership roles in the National Corn Growers Association and other advocacy groups. Impressively, before becoming secretary of agriculture, Northey served as president of both the NCGA and its Iowa affiliate.
Iowa’s secretary of agriculture plays an important role in helping Iowans evolve an agricultural strategy that can keep the Hawkeye state’s rural economy the envy of the world. That experience will serve him well as he undertakes a broader national role.
The Messenger strongly supports Northey’s nomination for this important leadership role at the USDA. It would be hard to imagine anyone better qualified to help the Trump administration develop agricultural policies that will serve the nation well.
Sioux City Journal. September 8, 2017
Crackdown on texting while driving begins
A new Iowa law regarding texting while driving is producing positive results in terms of enforcement.
According to an Associated Press story in the Sept. 2 Journal, the Iowa State Patrol issued 230 tickets for texting while driving in the first two months of the new law, far more than ISP issued for all of the previous year. (Texting while driving at high speeds on state and interstate highways takes this practice to another level of dangerous.)
The law made texting while driving a primary offense, rather than a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement officers can issue a ticket for texting while driving without another traffic violation taking place.
We supported the change as a means by which to make our state’s roads safer in the face of a national distracted driving epidemic. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, some 660,000 drivers use cell phones or manipulate electronic devices while driving at any given daylight moment. The National Safety Council reports use of cellphones by drivers causes 26 percent of the nation’s car accidents, resulting in some 1.6 million crashes each year.
We understand texting while driving remains a difficult violation for law enforcement personnel to detect, but we commend ISP for making a strong effort. We urge local police and sheriff’s departments throughout the state, including Sioux City and Woodbury County, to join ISP in using the power provided by the new law to crack down on this problem.
Our hope, of course, is texting while driving will decline across Iowa as the number of tickets for violations grows and the awareness of increased potential for tickets spreads.
Again today, we urge the Legislature next year to take an additional step in the name of public safety and debate a ban on all uses of a hand-held cellphone while driving.
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