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Iowa News Analysis: February 5, 2009

posted on February 6, 2009 at 12:42 PM

Memories of the floods of '08 remain strong in the minds of both victims and public officials.  Prodded by the statewide impact of the floods, the legislature and governor worked fast to approve a bill to help flood victims.  The bill was signed earlier this week.

Governor Chet Culver: So this bill must be the first step of many we will take together this session and in subsequent sessions in our common efforts to help address the unmet needs of Iowans who were impacted by the disasters.

Paul Yeager: Backed by a bi-partisan throng of lawmakers Governor Culver this week signed into law disaster recovery legislation that will direct some $56 million to a variety of flood relief projects.  Much of that money is for housing and rebuilding.  The Rebuild Iowa legislation may offer immediate assistance to flood victims.  But does it answer the long-term question of how to better control future floods.  Some think the state needs to take a harder look at the landscape. 

We'll explore that issue in a few moments but first we turn to some of the news of the week with Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Kay, thank you for stopping by tonight.  We're talking about floods and it is I guess appropriate that the Rebuild Iowa Office has popped up in the news this week.  Tell me what the story is and why they are making news.

Kay Henderson: The house Rebuild Iowa Committee invited the chief of staff of the Rebuild Iowa Office to testify. She talked for 45 minutes and legislators only got about 15 minutes worth of questions in and it is apparent that legislators of both parties are upset. It was revealed that one of the expenditures in this office was $19,000 to buy new carpeting. 

The chief of staff had told the committee that it was because the lieutenant governor wanted the office to be carpeted.  This afternoon I got a phone call from Tina Pothoff who is the communications director for the office and she told me that they had to replace the carpeting because they are in the Wallace Building which is kind of a well known landmark here in Des Moines, it's a state government building. 

The space that the Rebuild Iowa Office is occupying used to be the DCI Crime Lab so she argued it was an environmental issue. They had to take that carpeting out and replace it with $19,000 worth of what she described as standard carpeting. Legislators weren't happy about that, they weren't happy about the salary sheet that the chief of staff from the Rebuild Iowa Office outlined for them. 

It reflected that some of the staff are being paid, four of them in fact, over $100,000 a year in salary.  The lowest paid employee according to that was earning about $47,000.  And Kraig Paulsen recalling a weekend meeting he had in a really, really tiny Cedar River town of Rochester said, how can I go home to these people and justify these salaries? 

Now, back to my conversation today with Tina Pothoff, she tells me that's a combination of salary and benefits, that $100,000 package and she says no one in the office makes more than $77,000 a year.

 Paul Yeager: But that still is a hard number for a lot of people to swallow.  So, what is going to happen to this?  Are they going to break up the team or what's going on?

Kay Henderson: Well, the Rebuild Iowa Office was created with a $3 million appropriation from the U.S. government and the Rebuild Iowa Office chief of staff insists that money can not be used to help victims.  It's got to be used for planning and orchestrating this government effort to respond to the floods.  But legislators are getting short fused on this issue and I think the Rebuild Iowa Office is in serious political trouble at the capitol because of some of the spending.

Paul Yeager: And it will probably hurt some of their legitimacy of claims that they are making and it could hurt credibility for them as well is what you're saying.  Okay, but it's also looking at fine numbers of budgets and economy, we'll get to the budget in a moment but let's talk about the economy.  You had a discussion on Radio Iowa for a story with a think tank about the economy.  Tell me what you found.

Kay Henderson: A gentleman who works at a D.C. think tank came in, he looks at all state budgets and he indicated that Iowa has fared a bit better than other states but bad is coming.  And he said, which is very sobering, that given the unemployment data that seems to be out there that this thing is going to last for eighteen months. 

So, even if there is a fix to the current year's budget and the budget that they're drafting for the state budgeting year that starts on July 1st there is going to be more pain in the coming year for legislators and the governor to deal with.

Paul Yeager: And this could last eighteen months to two years.  And this budget discussion is going on right now.There was a question last week, is 6.5% going to be enough?  Do we think that will be enough?  Or are we going to see a bigger cut?

Kay Henderson: Well, the senate democratic leader Mike Gronstal has repeatedly said in the press that he wants people to sharpen their pencils and find deeper cuts because of the economic situation that is going on.  However, the economic stimulus package that they are debating in the U.S. Senate this week and President Obama is pressing it will pass would by most estimates provide about $1.5 billion to the state of Iowa.  And the argument of many of those legislators privately is that money is going to be funneled into the budget to cover some of the gap there.

Paul Yeager: Is that what it's intended to do?  Or is it going to be earmarked for certain things?

Kay Henderson: There are earmarks in the bill.  Over $100 million is earmarked for transportation projects, another $46 million I believe is for transit so buses and the high speed rail that we don't have here.  Obviously they're not going to build high speed rail with $46 million but there obviously are some earmarks in this laundry list, a long laundry list of items.

Paul Yeager: Very good, Kay Henderson, News Director of Radio Iowa, thank you so much for stopping by The Iowa Journal.

Tags: Iowa news

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