Weekly News Roundup: State GOP Hires HR Director, Ferentz Goes to War with Neighbors

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University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, left, speaks with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel before a game in 2009. Photo: Asolsma1988/Wikimedia Commons

The Informer’s weekly news roundup, presented in partnership with KHOI community radio.

Reynolds Gives First Condition of the State Address

Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds delivered her first Condition of the State address. Her wide-ranging speech covered issues including tax reform, water quality, sexual harassment, and a defense of her predecessor Terry Branstad’s controversial decision to privatize the state’s Medicaid program. The speech was fairly well received, with some observers saying that in it she made a step toward forging her own identity independent of Branstad, whom she served under as lieutenant governor since 2011 until he left to be the US ambassador to China last year. But critics pointed to comments Reynolds made including exaggerated claims about the state of mental health services in Iowa and taking credit for a major benefit in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act while also calling on Congress to repeal the law.

New HR Director Hired in Response to Statehouse Sexual Harassment Scandal

The Iowa Legislature has hired a new HR director who will be tasked with addressing sexual harassment at the Statehouse, the Associated Press reported. Republicans first announced the position in November in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit settlement filed by a former staffer against the Senate GOP’s office that cost taxpayers $1.75 million. Following the settlement, an internal investigation was conducted that Republicans initially kept confidential but was eventually released after public pressure. The report found that there was an ongoing culture of harassment in the office and that some staffers feared reporting incidents because of the potential for retaliation.

ISU’s Failed Fight Against Pro-Pot Student Group Costs Taxpayers Big

Iowa State University’s unsuccessful legal battle to prevent a student group from using university logos on T-shirts supportive of legalizing marijuana will cost state taxpayers at least $343,000 and possibly as much as $1 million, the AP’s Ryan Foley reported last week. The case began in 2014, when two former students who led ISU’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws sued the university, alleging it had violated their free speech rights by bowing to pressure from anti-drug politicians and changing rules to disallow them from printing the shirts. The university repeatedly lost in federal district court, a judge consistently ruling that it had not applied the rule changes in a viewpoint-neutral fashion. ISU NORML has begun to print the shirts again.

Iowa Football Coach Refuses to Play Nice with Neighbors in Road Dispute

According to another report from the AP last week that quickly made national news, University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has been involved in a longstanding property dispute with three neighbors over a private road near his home outside Iowa City. A lawsuit set to go to trial in early February alleges that Ferentz and his wife Mary refused to join a homeowners’ association in 2015 in part to avoid paying $9,400 in shared road maintenance costs. Ferentz has filed a counter suit. With a $5.2 million contract this year, he is the highest-paid public employee in Iowa.

Study: Percentage of Population with Felony Convictions Nearly Tripled Over 30 Years in Iowa

In the three decades leading up to 2010, every state in the US has seen a sharp increase in the percentage of its population with felony convictions, according to a recent study conducted at the University of Georgia. In Iowa, the population almost tripled, from 2.05 percent in 1980 to 5.72 percent in 2010. The spike in convictions, in Iowa and across the country, has disproportionately affected African Americans, and Iowa is one of the only states that permanently bars felons from voting unless they are able to make a successful appeal to the governor after completing their sentences.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.