Des Moines Register. July 5, 2019
Iowa can cure one form of political cancer: gerrymandering
Iowa has never been particularly effective at tooting its own horn. We Iowans are naturally self-deprecating. I remember back in 1999 when the state held a contest to come up with a new tourism slogan. The entry that made the national newspapers: "Baja Minnesota."
Maybe that's why Iowa has never been terribly successful at touting the fact that this state holds the cure to one form of political cancer that has long plagued our country: partisan gerrymandering. It's time to change that, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has again refused to lift a finger to address an obvious source of dysfunction in our democracy.
Gerrymandering is one way politicians manage to stay in power no matter how ineffective or corrupt they may be. This abuse of political power deserves at least part of the blame for extreme polarization in Congress. Every 10 years, after the Census, the boundaries of political districts have to be redrawn to account for population changes. In most states, the party in power manipulates the redistricting process to benefit its incumbents and to minimize the minority party's chances to gain seats.
That hurts everyone, because it contributes to an environment in Washington where otherwise "safe" incumbents fear only a primary challenge. That adds pressure for incumbents to cater to the far-right or far-left fringes of the party and empowers moneyed interest groups pushing extremist agendas.
In Wisconsin, Republicans used computer models and voting data after 2010 to redraw district lines for its General Assembly. They were so spectacularly successful that Democrats have failed to win more than 39 of 99 seats in the past three elections, "even when they won a majority of the votes cast statewide for Assembly candidates," according to the New York Times.
Clean-government advocates were hoping the Supreme Court would use this case to offer some guidance for how far race-based or partisan gerrymandering can go to disadvantage minority voters. Instead, the court punted the case back to district court on technical grounds, suggesting this is a problem for states to manage.
The good news is that Iowa has managed this problem and has done so extremely well since 1980. That's when the Iowa Legislature adopted the nonpartisan redistricting process that has been used ever since. The law puts nonpartisan legislative staff in charge of drawing district maps for legislative and congressional districts. The maps, by law, cannot consider partisan factors or the effect on officeholders. The primary consideration is creating districts that are as close to equal in population as possible, while respecting political subdivisions and maintaining a reasonably compact area.
The Legislature must vote the first map up or down within a limited period of time, with only corrective amendments allowed. If the first map is defeated or vetoed by the governor, a second map is prepared that takes into account reasons cited by the Legislature or governor for refusing the first map. The second map also must be voted up or down, with only corrective amendments allowed. If the second map fails, the third proposed map could be amended like any other bill. If no plan is enacted or the plan is successfully challenged in court, the job of redistricting falls to the Iowa Supreme Court.
That has never happened, however. Lawmakers feel significant pressure to avoid this outcome. I watched the process work through the Legislature in 2001 and 2011. In 2001, lawmakers rejected the first map because it would have retired 60 out of 150 lawmakers by pitting them against fellow incumbents. The second map was approved in a special session, even though it tossed two incumbent GOP congressmen - Jim Leach and Jim Nussle - into the same district. Leach moved from Davenport to Iowa City to avoid a primary.
In 2011, lawmakers accepted the first map even though it again paired two sets of congressmen - Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King were thrown together, as were Democrats Bruce Braley and David Loebsack. Loebsack moved into the redrawn 2nd District to avoid a primary. Latham moved into the 3rd District, challenged incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell, and won.
Nonpartisan redistricting tends to function as Iowa's form of term limits. It helps create open seats, providing opportunity for fresh blood, while gerrymandering does the opposite. It has not prevented single-party dominance in recent years, but it does maintain the minority party's ability to compete and potentially regain control. That's healthy for the process, no matter which party you prefer. It keeps both sides accountable to voters. We need more of that in Congress, not less.
As Iowans, we can't afford to keep this secret to ourselves. We also can't afford to be complacent. Nonpartisan redistricting tends to benefit the minority party, at least in the short term. There's always the temptation for a strong majority party - such as today's GOP-run Legislature and Republican governor - to try to tweak the process to its advantage. Iowans need to impress on lawmakers and candidates that such action would be a roadmap to their retirement from politics.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. July 7, 2019
Information Act needs a congressional boost
The U.S. Supreme Court just slammed the door shut on the public's right to know how businesses are fulfilling government contracts, reversing 50 years of precedents under the Freedom of Information Act.
Congress needs to reopen it again, even after reaffirming the availability of records that wouldn't "harm" businesses in the FOIA Amendments of 2016.
Eight years ago, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader sought records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding payments to South Dakota grocery stores and other companies involved in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly called food stamps.
The Argus Leader asked the USDA, which administers the program, for the name, address, store type and annual SNAP sales figures from 2005 to 2010. Nationally, SNAP provides 40 million Americans with an average monthly assistance of nearly $125 — $70 billion total.
"The crux of the government program is that the government — with taxpayer dollars — buys groceries for low-income families from stores that wish to do business under the program," the Argus Leader stated.
It added, "The public has a right to know how much taxpayer money grocers, gas stations, big box retailers and others get by participating in the federal food stamp program."
But the USDA wouldn't provide SNAP sales figures, citing Exemption 4 of the FOIA regarding confidential business information with the potential to harm the company.
However, after the USDA surveyed all 321,988 SNAP retailers, it found only a few hundred objected to releasing their food stamp sales numbers.
The USDA lost, but the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group representing 40,000 retailers, picked up the baton, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision with Justice Elena Kagan joining the five conservatives. The majority cited the failure of Exemption 4 of the FOIA to adequately define "confidentiality."
"We cannot approve such a casual disregard of the rules of statutory interpretation," wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Justice Stephen Breyer countered that the ruling "will deprive the public of information for reasons no better than convenience, skittishness, or bureaucratic inertia."
In fact, Congress was pretty specific in the FOIA Amendments of 2016 about its intent, including a requirement "that federal agencies disclose requested information unless the agency reasonably foresees the disclosure of requested records or documents resulting in harm to a protected interest under FOIA."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling upended similar intent in a 1974 U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in National Parks & Conservation Association v. Morton, the former standard, that disclosure of information would be made available unless the government or a third party, usually the business involved, showed it would harm "the competitive position" of the third party or the ability of the government to collect information.
The high court decision has numerous ramifications about accessing pertinent information, particularly with the privatization of many government services — from prisons to Medicaid — or government contracts for voting machines, surveillance technology and facial recognition, database management and consulting on environmental, health and safety issues.
"They want to keep secret anything that a third party submitting information to the government says is secret," said Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The decision could reverberate on state levels.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette has sought information from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics concerning outsourcing its AirCare helicopter ambulance service to Air Methods, a for-profit corporation. The hospital, a public entity, won't say how much money it's getting from the company amid patient complaints about exorbitant costs.
An Osceola man filed a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General's Office after being charged $35,000 for a 40-mile flight to Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines in 2014, which he wasn't sure was necessary. The hospital gets 800 to 1,000 air transports annually.
"What's at stake in this case is whether private companies' dealings with the federal government will be further cloaked in secrecy," said Jonathan Ellis, the Argus Leader reporter who sought the food stamp information.
"If we can't get access to information submitted to government by private companies, then it will be difficult to know whether the government is regulating the private sector effectively, or whether private vendors are carrying out public functions responsibly."
This isn't about disclosing the secret formula of Coca Cola or other proprietary information. Instead, the Supreme Court decision raises the possibility that no outside entity — media or public watchdogs — could review the relationship of government and business interests, a step toward crony capitalism.
We hope noted whistleblower Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, will take the lead in revisiting the FOIA to make Congress' intent abundantly clear to the court.
Fort Dodge Messenger. July 6, 2019
In support of Second Chance Pell
Pioneer program gives inmates the tools they need to succeed on the outside
Gov. Kim Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg traveled to the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City recently to meet some inmates who are working to create a better life for themselves after they're released.
The inmates they met are participating in a program that's different from the usual classes and counseling provided to inmates.
They are taking classes through Iowa Central Community College that will earn them an associate degree, and they're doing so with the help of a new financial aid program called Second Chance Pell. Iowa Central is a pioneer in the Second Chance Pell program because it is one of just 65 schools in the United States that's participating in it.
Second Chance Pell started three years ago. At the end of this year, Iowa Central expects to see its first graduates of the program receive their associate of arts degrees.
Second Chance Pell enables inmates who are within five years of release and who meet financial requirements to apply for federal Pell grants. Those grants are then used to pay for classes offered by Iowa Central.
Through this program, the college offers courses in logistics, welding, carpentry and culinary arts to inmates in the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility and the North Central Correctional Facility. So far, the welding and carpentry programs appear to be the most popular.
The inmate students are serious about their classess and are doing well. The college reports that Second Chance Pell students have a grade-point average of about 3.5, while traditional students with Pell grants have a grade-point average of about 2.2.
State and Iowa Central officials have praised the program. But perhaps the best praise comes from an inmate student who's benefitting from Second Chance Pell.
"This is giving us the tools we need once we get back out," said Jesus Lozano, an inmate at the North Central Correctional Facility.
Second Chance Pell is a valuable program that has the power to change lives.
We thank Reynolds and the leadership of Iowa Central Community College for their support of Second Chance Pell. We hope it grows and becomes a fixture of inmate education programs in Iowa.