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Week in Review: Iowa officials say they don’t track EBT transactions; online schools scrutinized

4/8/2013

DES MOINES – It’s been more than two months since Iowa Department of Human Services officials were asked to disclose detailed information about where welfare dollars are spent and the information has yet to be released.

State officials stalled without noting a reason for the delay in providing a response to Iowa Watchdog in their denial of a request for the information under the Freedom of Information Act. Officials with the Iowa Attorney General’s office finally provided a response Friday.

Iowa Watchdog has requested the dates of transactions, locations, times and dollar amounts. It is not seeking the personal information of recipients.

EBT USE: Iowa officials continue to block the release of welfare debit card transactions.

EBT USE: Iowa officials continue to block the release of welfare debit card transactions.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Human Services, which oversees the Family Investment Program, initially said they lacked access to the records due to federal banking laws, a claim a challenged by Alonzo Wickers IV, a lawyer for Iowa Watchdog. Wickers said that law only applied to federal documents and that the news organization was not requesting the names, or other personal identifiers, of the recipients.

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Diane Stahle, special assistant to the Iowa attorney general, wrote in her reply that the department wasn’t required by law to track the data and, therefore, was not a public record.

“The governmental function of DHS with respect to FIP benefits is to determine eligibility and make payment of the cash benefit to which an individual is entitled,” Stahle wrote in her response. “The documents requested … are beyond the scope of the contract between DHS and Xerox.”

Xerox is the company the state contracts with to manage its assistance program.

Iowa might run into problems, as federal lawmakers are requiring states starting Jan. 1 to pass laws making it more difficult for welfare recipients to use their benefits at strip clubs, bars, liquor stores and casinos. The department introduced legislation last month, but it failed to address the fact that the state allegedly can’t access information pertaining to transactions. Lawmakers have yet to take action on the legislation.

State fails to provide full picture of issues at full-time virtual schools

For-profit virtual school providers in Iowa are under fire again.

A review of state records involving K12 Inc. and Connections Academy shows instances in which the two companies failed to employ properly licensed staff, provide special education services and follow through on their initial promises to the state. K12 Inc. operates in the Clayton Ridge school district, while Connections Academy contracts with the CAM school district.

The shortcomings noted by officials with the Iowa Department of Education during site visits weren’t included in a recent report the department gave lawmakers, who required state officials to provide details of the performance of the schools and their compliance with Iowa law.

The companies receive 96 percent of the state per pupil funding for each of the 315 students they enroll. Based on this year’s enrollment, that equates to $1.8 million in Iowa taxpayer dollars that are diverted from public school coffers to private, out-of-state companies.

Both virtual schools were made available to students for the first time this school year.

Some lawmakers criticized state education officials for what they called a lack of scrutiny of the companies and providing them with a misleading report.

And other news we’ve been following this week:

Nonunion state employees get pay increases; will have to contribute to health insurance costs

Iowa state workers who don’t belong to unions will start contributing 20 percent to the cost of their healthcare premiums, something the state previously fully covered and has been a priority for Gov. Terry Branstad since he took office two years ago.

The Republican last month failed to gain support in arbitration to have members of the state’s largest union contribute to their plans. Currently, employees are provided different health insurance options, with some requiring no employee contribution.

In return, the state’s more than 3,400 nonunion workers will get slight pay increases during 2014 and 2015. The bump in wages and the change to health insurance contributions is expected to cost the state $8.7 million during the two fiscal years.

Long time state auditor announces retirement

For the past decade, David Vaudt, 59, has headed the state agency charged with the financial oversight of public entities. He announced Thursday he was leaving politics and his position as the state’s auditor to take a job heading a national accounting standards board.

Vaudt, who campaigned with Branstad in the 2010 election, said he is through with politics and will retire after he serves the term of his new position.

The vacancy gives Democrats a shot in 2014 at winning a post the party hasn’t held in nearly 50 years.

In the meantime, Branstad will appoint a replacement until the next general election. He will oversee the office and its records until a new auditor is named.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley kicks off senate campaign; comes under fire for neglecting his current job

A majority of Iowa Democrats announced this week they will back U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley in his bid to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by long-time Congressman Tom Harkin, who is also a Democrat. Harkin has held the position for about three decades.

Braley made some of his first stops on the campaign trail Thursday, including one in Osceola, where a man in the crowd asked why he wasn’t in Washington D.C. fixing the national debt.

His response? He’s trying to build relationships with his Republican peers in Congress.

Braley, a Democrat, has served in the U.S. House for six years and spends time in the gym trying to get to know members of the GOP.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Steve King says he is close to deciding whether he will seek the GOP nomination for the seat. He has been named as one of the main contenders, although there has been resistance within his party because some fear his ultra conservative views will keep him from wooing moderate voters.

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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