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Tax reform, water quality, budget issues await 2018 session

DES MOINES — Legislative leaders from both political parties expect to face another tough budget when they convene in January, but majority Republicans said Thursday they are in a position to cut taxes and commit long-term funding for water quality improvements.

Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said tax reform will be the top priority of the 2018 session. Republicans plan to revamp Iowa’s corporate and individual income tax system for the first time in more than two decades.

“We would like to take a look at making sure that Iowa’s tax system is flatter, fairer and that everyone gets a break in that,” House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, told about 150 participants in Greater Des Moines Partnership’s annual legislative leadership luncheon.

“I think it’s obviously going to be a challenge because there are so many moving parts to whatever it is we decide to do and I also think it depends what the federal government may do on tax reform,” Hagenow said. “So once those pieces are in place, I think we’ll be able to make better decisions.”

Whitver said optimism is always riding heading into a new session. Republicans, who hold a 28-20-1 edge in the Senate and 59-41 majority in the House, are looking to build on a 2017 session many believe was “the most historic and productive” in state history.

The Senate president said the focus next year will be on growing Iowa’s economy in key areas of beefing up workforce skills and improving the tax climate, telling reporters “we feel it’s time to take a fresh look at that and see if our tax structure is set up for the 21st century economy. Now is as good a time as any.”

However, Democratic leaders Rep. Mark Smith of Marshalltown and Sen. Janet Petersen of Des Moines expressed concern tax cuts should not come at the expense of education improvements, mental health and Medicaid concerns and other priorities that have been on starvation diets as revenue collections grow below expectations.

“Unfortunately, this upcoming session we’re facing a budget that is in a horrible mess. We have a governor who promised to create 200,000 jobs, and we haven’t seen that job growth,” Petersen told the business crowd.

“The Medicaid mess is going to be another issue we must tackle,” she added. “Democrats were not interested in privatizing our Medicaid system. We’re seeing what happens when we dumped the entire program into a privatized MCO model, and it’s not working and we need to take a serious look at bringing Iowans back under Iowa care.”

Sue Huppert, a partnership official, said the business group hopes the Legislature will simplify and reduce state corporate and personal income taxes, maintain economic development tools, and provide funding to address water quality concerns.

Petersen said the water quality issue provides the best opportunity for bipartisan work next session, noting the feedback she’s getting after lawmakers were unable to act last session is that “Iowans don’t want to be Flint, Mich.”

Hagenow said he expected legislators will work out their disagreements and get a bill to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk early in the session. Reynolds, who became governor in May after former Gov. Terry Branstad resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, said she hopes a water quality measure will be the first bill she signs into law.

“It’s still a priority,” said Whitver. “At the end of session, we decided there was too many dollars on the line and too much policy to hammer out to do that at the last minute and just patch it together.

“We decided that we wanted to take time and make sure that we did it right because that’s a plan that’s going to be around for 20 or 30 or 40 years and hopefully more. So we decided to take a step back,” he added. “I’m confident that we can do something major for water quality this year.”

Waterloo 'puts the shine' back on downtown pedestrian bridge

WATERLOO — The iconic but sometimes derided covered pedestrian walkway on the Fourth Street Bridge is shining again.

After some false starts and a debate over funding, the summer-long renovation of the walkway and its canopy is complete. Pedestrians were using it for the first time in months this week. The bridge also was closed to vehicle traffic most of the summer, reopening in September.

The canopy has been completely renovated, windows replaced and new energy-efficient lighting added. Structural repairs also were made to the concrete. The brighter lights now cast a striking view at night.

“We’re very pleased overall with the project,” City Engineer Eric Thorson said. Some finishing touches remain, but the barricades at either end of the pedestrian bridge have been removed.

“It’s really close. We’re going to try to a ribbon cutting sometime next week,” he said.

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said, “I’ve received a lot of great calls and comments from people on how good it looks. It brings our entire downtown together.”

The project took about a month longer than anticipated. The canopy windows had to be special ordered through a local vendor. The final look was recommended by the Main Street Waterloo design review committee.

The walkway and bridge were built around 1974, Thorson said, part of a downtown revitalization plan that included construction of the convention center.

The walkway’s deteriorated conditions had been a point of criticism over the years, along with vandalism. That has changed.

“There’s so much more activity downtown,” Thorson said “Downtown has really come back.”

Members of the Youth Art Team, about 30 students from 16 Waterloo-Cedar Falls schools, decorated support beams on one of the canopy’s “bump out” expansions. City staff will have a regular maintenance schedule for the walkway.

The Waterloo City Council in April approved a $1.49 million contract with Minturn Inc. of Brooklyn, Iowa, including an estimated $93,000 to replace the faded windows in the steel canopy. The project was funded in part by a $750,000 grant from the Black Hawk County Gaming Association.

The bridge originally included side panels to shelter pedestrians from wind, but they were removed due to vandalism. Panels could be re-installed in the future if deemed necessary, Thorson said.

While some people may have questioned renovating and restoring the walkway, given periodic vandalism, Hart said, “We cannot allow those random acts to slow up progress in our community.”

Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka said, “Lighting is always a great deterrent to nefarious activity, and we appreciate the incorporation of adequate lighting in this venture.

He said police will monitor the bridge regularly.

Cedar Falls filmmaker makes video-game fan film to premiere Saturday

WATERLOO — Once he played it, Carrsan Morrissey couldn’t get a particular video game out of his mind.

The game, “Life is Strange,” follows a character named Max who discovers she has the ability to rewind time at any moment. Morrissey finished the game in three days.

“I am not a particularly avid gamer, but something about this story and these characters deeply affected me,” he said. “I desperately wanted to make a film adaptation.”

After getting the OK from the game developer, Dontnod Entertainment — provided he makes no money from the film — Morrissey began scripting, casting and shooting “What If? A (Fan-Made) Life Is Strange Story” in the fall of 2016.

“Obviously there were liberties taken with the film, but I truly believe we have captured the spirit of the game really well,” he said.

Morrissey, 22, of Cedar Falls, has been making films since he was a kid with his family’s camcorder. To date, he’s made around two dozen short films and two full-length feature films. “What If” is his third.

“This is entirely what I plan to do with my life,” he said, adding he wants to be the “first big indie filmmaker in the Midwest who stayed here and made it work.”

“I want to make it work in Iowa. Why not?” Morrissey said. “We have the talent and the potential.”

Morrissey pointed to the stars of “What If,” including Shelby Davis, Mads Hoofnagle, Abigail Van Patten and Skyler Ferguson, as proof this area has plenty of talent.

“I’m always most proud of my actors, and I’m extremely proud to show off the characters,” he said.

“What If” will have its world premiere with a screening at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Waterloo Center for the Arts’ Town Hall Room. The screening is free and open to the public, and Morrissey and his cast will host a question-and-answer session after the film. The film’s run time is around two hours.

He emphasized attendees will not need knowledge of the video game to enjoy the film.

“It’s specifically made so that, if you’ve never even heard of ‘Life is Strange,’ you’ll enjoy it,” Morrissey said.

Morrissey wants to make another film based on more adventures in “Life is Strange.” But he’s also about 45 pages into a completely original script for an “intense, dramatic thriller.”

“These are characters I’ve been working on for a long time,” he said, calling the script “go(ing) back to my roots.” “It’s by far the biggest project I’ve ever made.”

And he also has plans to keep screening “What If,” including perhaps entering it into film festivals.

“This project has been the most fun, collaborative, passionate project,” Morrissey said. “It’s been a blast.”

Trump weighs plan to oust Tillerson, put CIA's boss at State

WASHINGTON — After months of clashes on policy and personality, President Donald Trump is considering ousting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replacing him with hard-nosed CIA Director Mike Pompeo following less than a year on the job, senior U.S. officials said Thursday as turmoil within Trump’s national security team burst into the open.

The White House plan, which Trump has not yet signed off on, would force a major realignment early in his term, also creating a vacancy atop the CIA officials said could be filled by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The overhaul could produce a significant shift in both the tone and direction of the president’s foreign policy, removing it from the understated former oil man whose style has never fit well with Trump’s.

It is exceedingly rare for a secretary of state, America’s face on the global stage, to be fired or to serve for a year or less. Nor is it common for presidents to have such a significant Cabinet revamp so soon after taking office. Too much churn could fuel the perception of chaos in the Trump White House — perhaps one reason he has yet to pull the trigger.

Tillerson’s likely ouster, which was first reported by the New York Times, loomed awkwardly over an Oval Office meeting Thursday between Trump and the visiting Bahraini crown prince. Asked by a reporter whether he wanted Tillerson to stay on the job, Trump was coy, merely pointing out Tillerson was in fact in the building.

“He’s here. Rex is here,” the president said.

Timing for any move was uncertain.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Tillerson’s closest ally in the administration, simply brushed off the report. “There’s nothing to it,” he said when asked.

But White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t deny it. She did suggest no move was imminent, saying the president and Tillerson planned to “work together to close out what we’ve seen to be an incredible year.”

Does the president still have confidence in Tillerson? “When the president loses confidence in someone, they will no longer serve in the capacity that they’re in,” she said.

Friction between the president and the nation’s top diplomat has grown increasingly public through the year.

After a report last month that Tillerson had called the president a “moron,” Tillerson was forced to appear before cameras at the State Department to pledge fealty to his boss. Soon after, Trump publicly challenged his secretary to an IQ match.

For Tillerson, who left his job as Exxon Mobil’s CEO, a premature departure from the Cabinet has seemed increasingly inevitable.

“There’s been a Tillerson death watch since the spring,” said Derek Chollet, a former State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council official in the Obama administration.

When Tillerson was tapped for the job late last year, many Trump critics expressed quiet relief that he’d picked a sober “adult” who could form a counterweight to the president’s brasher, impulsive approach, especially on critical matters of war and peace.

Yet divisions on key foreign policy issues emerged quickly, and Trump has repeatedly undermined Tillerson by voicing positions at odds with those the State Department was pushing.

When Tillerson in June called on Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar, Trump emerged in the Rose Garden hours later to lambaste Qatar for funding terrorism. Trump also deemed diplomacy with North Korea a waste of time, when Tillerson was pursuing just that. Tillerson’s advice to Trump to stay in the Paris climate deal and certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal was similarly overruled.

Pompeo, in contrast, has formed a tight relationship with Trump that’s led to a role much broader than many past CIA chiefs. A former businessman and conservative Republican congressman from Kansas, Pompeo is at the White House nearly every day to deliver the daily intelligence briefing, a task often delegated to less senior officials. He sometimes stays longer to accompany Trump to other meetings. He shares the president’s hardline stance against Iran.

Cotton, a top contender to take over at CIA, has been one of Trump’s staunchest defenders on foreign policy in Congress. Yet moving him would create a Senate vacancy just as Republicans need every vote possible. Under Arkansas law, if Cotton steps down before next July, the state’s Republican governor would appoint a replacement who would serve until the November 2018 election. If Cotton stays in the Senate, his current term doesn’t end until 2020.

Cotton’s office wouldn’t comment other than to say: “Senator Cotton’s focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.”

Several administration officials said that Pompeo has said previously he’s open to the job.

Tillerson’s top priority as secretary has been his sweeping overhaul of the State Department, a “redesign” that has been lambasted by lawmakers from both parties and that the State Department concedes has hurt morale among diplomats. Still, Tillerson aides say he expects to remain in his role to see the overhaul through.

At the White House, meanwhile, frustration with Tillerson has mounted over what officials have described as Tillerson’s aloofness and his slowness in filling key roles to carry out the president’s agenda.