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Iowa agencies face $52 million in spending cuts

DES MOINES | Senate Republicans on Thursday proposed $52 million in spending cuts for the current fiscal year to address a projected revenue shortfall that could mean further belt-tightening for state university and community colleges, Iowa courts and economic development efforts.

Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the mid-year adjustments would not impact K-12 schools, Medicaid or public safety programs but would impact other budget areas in an effort to enable the state to end the year June 30 with a $35 million cushion in a $7.2 billion budget.

Shortly after the proposed adjustments were announced, State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio said the proposed $4.83 million cut to the judicial branch likely would leave “no other choice that to close courthouses and eliminate personnel branch-wide.” He projected more than 30 county courthouses would be closed indefinitely and proportionately over eight districts and the caseload shifted to other offices.

Overall, the Senate GOP plan, which cleared Senate committee on a 13-8 party-line vote Thursday, would cut spending by $52 million and scoop $7 million in unobligated economic growth funds while supplementing nearly $2 million in utility and indigent defense money and leaving untouched any state benefits from the federal tax cuts.

“We want to make sure that we’re being fiscally responsible with taxpayer money,” said Schneider in discussing proposed cuts that go deeper than Gov. Kim Reynolds has recommended but are fairly close to levels advocated by majority Republicans in the Iowa House.

“We’re very close,” House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said of budget talks with Senate Republicans. “We’re probably going to cut a little more than the governor.”

In her first state budget presentation last month, Reynolds proposed paring back current-year funding by $34.7 million via a mix of cuts and adjustments to erase a projected shortfall created by state revenues growing at a slower rate than projected. But legislative Republicans were looking at deeper spending cuts as they worked to balance the state ledger with five months left in the fiscal year.

“This is part of the process. This is how it works. I put my budget forward. We looked at everything. We thought this was the most fiscally responsible budget so we could still honor some of the commitments and fund some of the initiatives,” Reynolds said in an interview.

The governor sought to de-appropriate $19.4 million in selective cuts to various budget areas, while also making a $10 million adjustment in Medicaid spending and using about $11.2 million in revenue the state will gain when Iowans begin seeing lower federal wage withholdings in February that they will owe state tax on. She proposes plowing any future state gain from the federal tax changes into lower individual state income tax rates, eliminating federal deductibility and simplifying Iowa’s complicated tax system.

By contrast, the Senate GOP de-appropriations bill called for cutting education by $27.3 million, human services (excluding Medicaid) by $11.77 million, justice systems (excluding the Iowa State Patrol and law enforcement training academy) by $7.7 million and economic development programs by $1.12 million.

Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines described the GOP cuts as “massive.”

The proposed $19.3 million cut to Iowa Board of Regents' institutions equated to $8.7 million for the University of Iowa, $6.9 million for Iowa State University and $3.7 million for the University of Northern Iowa will lose over $3.7 million, along with a $5.4 million cut in general aid to Iowa’s 15 community colleges and $1.7 million to the Iowa Department of Education.

“The real news today is the Republican budget crisis has gotten worse in the last three weeks,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “When you have people who don’t like government running government, here’s what the results look like, and it’s not pretty.”

However, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said Senate Republicans for years had opposed state spending that outpaced growth by using surplus money that they contended was not sustainable and eventually would cause a day of budgetary reckoning that has now arrived.

“This is what it looks like. We’re going to fix that,” Dix said. “We want to make sure that we do this as quickly as possible, the sooner the better. It gives everybody more time to find a way to accommodate the services that Iowans expect and do it in a manner that gives Iowans a better deal.”

Reynolds administration officials had warned state agency directors last fall that mid-year budget adjustments could be needed, so many have prepared for the likelihood of making additional spending cuts, Upmeyer noted.

“We were expecting it to come so we were not naïve to this,” said Debi Durham, director of the state Economic Development Authority.

“For the last six months we’ve been figuring out how we could adjust to a new normal,” added Durham. “They keep expecting us to do more with less so I guess we’ll continue to deliver. We’ve been able to lean down the institution and we’ll continue to do it but we’ll have to prioritize.”

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Iowa fisherman spots muskrat while ice fishing in Clear Lake (with video)

CLEAR LAKE | A fisherman was greeted by a furry friend while ice fishing on Clear Lake earlier this week.

Clayton Will, an avid fisherman from Madrid, posted a YouTube video of his encounter with a muskrat on Jan. 22, while he was ice fishing on Clear Lake. The muskrat is seen chilling at the surface of their fishing hole, and then shoots back down into the water.

Will said via email Thursday that he was fishing on the north side of the lake with his son, Chris, in one of Kevan Paul's ice houses, when the muskrat appeared.

"I was waiting for him with my camera the next time he returned," Will said about capturing the video. "Chris told me not to get too friendly with him which was good advice!"

Scott Grummer, a local fisheries biologist with the state's Department of Natural Resources, said the incident is a sign of the high number of muskrats in neighboring Ventura.

The marsh there was recently drained, he said, meaning the creatures have had to look elsewhere and to live comfortably and to eat. Sometimes, this leads them to near Clear Lake's shorelines, which may cause ice fishermen seeing them in their fishing holes.

Muskrats are not dangerous, according to Grummer.

"There’s really no danger, the best thing is to leave them alone," he said. "It’s not any different than having a mouse in the house, it’s not waves of them you’re going to have … anytime we have the late winter thaws, they’re bound to be around."

Mike Platts, an employee at Crazy Minnow Bait Shop in Clear Lake, said incidents like Clayton's "happen more than you think."

"There have been several of them popping up in ice houses," Platts said.

He also described muskrats as harmless rodents, but added they will actively seek any wet living conditions.

"If they find a pot of water ... they'll definitely take advantage," he said. "They're not destructive, it's just the way they are."

Both Platts and Grummer say various environmental conditions can impact where muskrats tend to live and feed, from weather cycles to differing water levels.  

Platts said muskrats feeding on and near the lake has been relatively common the past few years. He added, however, that given multiple factors, it's difficult to predict the behavior of them on a year-to-year basis.

"It's like looking in the rearview mirror while driving down the highway, and not knowing where you're going," Platts said. "It's tough to say."

Will, who regularly posts YouTube videos of his Iowa fishing experiences, said the unexpected visitor was a great touch to a fine day of fishing.

"They (Kevan Paul) had the holes drilled out and the heat turned on so we just had to step out of the truck and start fishing," he said of his experience. "The muskrat just added to our memorable day."

Racist chants reported at Storm Lake, Spencer high school basketball games

SPENCER | Some Storm Lake parents and fans are upset over incidents that happened at high school basketball games in Spencer last Friday.

Spencer fans chanted “USA” at the ethnically diverse Storm Lake delegation visiting, and local students reported some racial slurs aimed at the visitors and cases of Spencer fans jingling their keys at Storm Lake players and yelling, “lock your car doors.”

The incidents follow others during other sports — including some Spencer fans telling Storm Lake students, “Go back where you came from” — after a football game last season.

The schools have tried to combat the situation, with an unique student exchange where kids from each school spent a day in the other's building and classes.

Storm Lake High School Principal Beau Ruleaux said he did not become aware of the basketball incidents until the following day, when he started getting texts reporting “some ugly situations.”

He said the school administrations have communicated about the situation. “I’ve know the Spencer High School principal for years, and I know she felt horrible about what happened. We’ll keep moving forward. We want to keep the spirit of this rivalry — there’s nothing wrong with a sports rivalry as long as we make sure there is respect too, and that we’re not displaying hatred,” Ruleaux said.

The principal noted Storm Lake has a rivalry with neighboring Cherokee as well, and there was spirited chanting at games at that school recently. “But they kept it clean, and the players for both teams showed a lot of good sportsmanship on the floor helping each other up and so on.”

He noted that Spencer was hosting Storm Lake on an “USA Night” for the school, and did not feel that was aimed at the visitors. Storm Lake also has several theme nights during sports seasons.

“Some slurs seemed to be happening randomly during and after the game, probably involving only a few people,” Ruleaux said.

Storm Lake students said that concerns were expressed to Spencer staff monitoring the game, but no action was taken to stop the behavior.

“It depends on perception. Some of our students said it wasn’t bad, and some were offended. Some of the adults I talked to said it wasn’t really a problem, and some thought it was horrible,” Ruleaux said.

Neither school is sure where the “lock your cars” comments came from. Ruleaux said he isn’t sure if it was a “personal jab” meant to imply that the Storm Lake students are criminals, or a threat. He noted that some fan bases in college sports have in the past jingled keys in the crowd as a “not in our house” message.

Storm Lake fans did not respond much to the incidents during either basketball or football games.

“This is not to say that we’re always innocent. People get heated during rivalries. And we don’t always know what is going on in the kids’ world with social media going back and forth,” Ruleaux said.

“We’re proud of our kids, for the most part they live up to the standards we want them to. A lot of times, I think the Storm Lake students have shown a lot of restraint.”

SLHS will continue to stress positive interaction, but Ruleaux said the message will be to “not let a few bad things overshadow the overall good.”

He said that he thinks the political climate is contributing somewhat to both racial tension and reactions to racial slights.

“I think things will improve moving forward,” he said.


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Update: Missing Clear Lake woman may have been spotted in Mason City earlier this week, police say (with photos)

CLEAR LAKE | The Clear Lake Police Department is asking for the public's help in locating a missing woman.

Dawn Renae Debell, 50, was last seen Wednesday wearing black pants, a plain black sweatshirt with no logos, a black leather jacket and gray shoes.


Her last known location was America's Best Value Inn, according to Clear Lake Police Chief Pete Roth, but she may have been seen in Mason City Wednesday. 

Foul play is not suspected, Roth said, and her direction of travel is unknown. 

Debell's vehicle is a green 1994 Mazda truck with Iowa license plate FNK064. She does not have a topper on the truck. 

“Our investigation continues and we are working with other law enforcement agencies in the area,” police said in a news release. 

Anyone with information on her location is asked to contact Clear Lake Police at 641-357-2186 or

— Courtney Fiorini