April 19, 2015

Five of 6 cities appeal to keep traffic cameras in place

Traffic-Cameras-in-DSM-3Five of six cities have appealed orders from the Iowa Department of Transportation to remove traffic enforcement cameras that the DOT says don’t meet their guidelines. DOT director of traffic and safety, Steve Gent, says today was the deadline for appealing.

“The Iowa DOT has received appeals from Muscatine, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Des Moines and Council Bluffs. And then Davenport, they’ve chosen not to appeal the automated traffic enforcement ruling,” according to Gent. The DOT asked that 10 of the 34 cameras across the state be removed after creating rules in February of 2014 that required the cities to show the use of the cameras improves safety on the state roadways where they are installed.

Gent says it will take another month to answer the appeals from the five cities who want to keep the cameras. “The Iowa DOT will evaluate the appeals, we’ll take a look at them, do any analysis that needs to be done to determine whether or not to approve the appeals,” Gent says. “That will all be done in the next 30 days.”

Motorists should note that the cities can still operate the cameras until the outcome of the appeal is decided, as Gent says the DOT won’t take any action to try and turn the cameras off during the appeal process.

If the DOT rules against the cities, they still have another step to try and keep the cameras. “The city of course can take it to district court, and then on through the court system, as anybody has those kinds of opportunities with their government,” Gent says. The cameras bring in millions of dollars in revenue to the cities and have been controversial since they began operating.



Senate passes medical marijuana bill with one Republican vote

Charles Schneider

Charles Schneider

The Iowa Senate passed a bill legalizing marijuana for medical use today by one vote, 26-19. Republican Senator Brad Zaun of Urbandale joined 25 Democrats in voting for the bill, while one Democrat, Tod Bowman of Maquoketa, voted against it. The bill’s future in the Republican-controlled House is uncertain.

Senator Charles Schneider, a Republican from West Des Moines, had offered an amendment to reclassify marijuana to would allow doctors to prescribe it as a treatment and allow medical research. That amendment failed and he said he can’t support the bill.

“Some day I may be comfortable with a state program, but until some of these other issues are addressed, until we know that we can address them through a state program, then I think we ought to go through the same process that any other prescription medication does so we can treat this like a prescription drug,” according to Schneider.

Mark Chelgren

Mark Chelgren

Senator Mark Chelgren, a Republican from Ottumwa, credited Democrats for listening and working to make changes to the bill, but he also said he still has concerns that marijuana hasn’t gone through the FDA process for medical use.

“The bill doesn’t define anything with regards to the qualifications. The bill doesn’t define anything with regards to the liability, the bonding side of it. And quite honestly, large pharmaceutical companies aren’t going to be doing this,” Chelgren said. “I think that there will be quite a few people who will step up and say ‘I want to grow or I want to dispense,’ but I’m not sure any of those companies will actually have the financial wherewithal to take care of our citizens if something goes wrong.”

Chelgren said the bill does not address any of those concerns and has gone away from being a bipartisan compromise.”This is a political bill that is simply to say to the House, ‘shame on you if you don’t do it our way.’ That’s really disappointing, because that is not what this should have been about,” Chelgren said.

Matt McCoy

Matt McCoy

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, responded in support of the bill. “And I strongly disagree with the previous speaker who indicated that he believed that this was a political bill — I do not believe that,” McCoy said. “I believe that the courage demonstrated by the families that have been here for really the last two sessions pleading their case to this legislature is about courage. Their courage to come here day-after-day and to plead their case on behalf of their children.”

McCoy said approving the bill will keep the issue moving forward. “I believe that sick Iowans deserve this treatment. I believe that this measure, when it goes to the House, will be a strong indication to the state of Iowa and all those Iowans who so strongly support this measure, that it will move the House,” according to McCoy.

Bill Dotzler

Bill Dotzler

Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, said senators are elected to do the will of the people. “And this is the first issue in my 19 years that I’ve ever seen the public so affirmed about why we should pass a piece of legislation. Never has it reached this type of support on any issue,” Dotzler said.

Dotzler said the legislature has to move the issue forward for those who are in need of the help that medical marijuana will provide. “And if we wait and say ‘okay federal government we want you to do it,’ Iowans won’t have the same opportunity to get the health care they need like 23 other states do, and over a million Americans have these medical marijuana cards. And we’re saying our surrounding states are okay, but we’re afraid here and we want to put it off,” Dotzler said.

Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha has said he has no plans to consider medical marijuana in this session.


Senate confirms DHS chief despite closure concerns

Charles Palmer (DHS photo)

Charles Palmer (DHS photo)

The director of the Iowa Department of Human Services has won senate confirmation to stay in the job, despite complaints from some senators about controversial closings of state-run Mental Health Institutions in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant and the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo.

DHS chief Chuck Palmer was confirmed for another four-year term in the job by a vote of 39-11.

Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, calls the closings illegal because the legislature never approved them.

“So this is a gut check moment for this body,” Hogg said. “I think it is essential that we say, ‘No, we are not going to tolerate lawbreakers as directors of our departments.'”

Senator David Johnson, a Republican from Ocheyedan, said Palmer is a compassionate and stable leader.

“This is a gut check,” Johnson said. “…I have full confidence in director Palmer.”

Johnson also discounted a district court judge’s ruling that Governor Branstad overstepped his authority in closing the Juvenile Home.

“What a judge says is an opinion,” Johnson said. “I haven’t seen anything there that negates what happened last November. Elections have consequences and if there was a lack of confidence by the people in the direction that we’re going, we would have heard that.”

Senator Rich Taylor, a Democrat from Mount Pleasant, responded to Johnson.

“There would have been a bigger consequence to last November had the people of Iowa known the governor for three years has been planning to close these two mental health institutions,” Taylor said, “but he didn’t bother to tell anybody about that before the election.”

Palmer got five more votes than the two-thirds support he needed to win confirmation. The state senate on Tuesday also voted to confirm the governor’s budget director for another four year term. The woman who’s been leading the Department of Administrative Services since the governor fired the former director last year was also confirmed by the senate yesterday.

Quinnipiac poll shows Iowans have split views on marijuana use

marijuana plants

marijuana plants

A new survey shows Iowa voters are divided over the issue of legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Peter Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “Iowans are split right down the middle on the question of legalizing recreational use of marijuana, 47-percent of Iowans told Quinnipiac they favor legalization, while 47-percent oppose it,” Brown says.

Quinnipiac also surveyed voters in two other states on the same issue. Voters in Virginia support so-called recreational pot 54-41 percent, while Colorado voters still back their first-in-the-nation experiment 62-34 percent.

In Iowa, Brown notes support for legalized recreational use of marijuana is much stronger among Democrats than Republicans. There’s also a large gap on the issue among age groups.

Support for personal use of marijuana is 62-32 percent among voters 18 to 34 years old, while voters 35 to 54 years old are divided 47-47 percent and voters over 55 years old are opposed 53-41 percent. Iowans, meanwhile, overwhelming favor the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

The Quinnipiac poll shows 87-percent of the Iowans surveyed support the use of medical marijuana, while 11-percent are against its legalization. Last week, dozens of people took part in a rally at the statehouse and met with legislators to lobby for a new state law that would allow marijuana to be grown and dispensed in Iowa — as treatment for a wide range of medical conditions.

The Quinnipiac University Poll was conducted between March 29 and April 7 and involved phone interviews with 948 Iowa voters.




Highly contagious bird flu found in Buena Vista County turkey flock

Turkey (file photo)

Turkey (file photo)

Iowa Agriculture Secretary, Bill Northey, says the U.S.D.A. has confirmed the H5N2 bird flu in a flock of turkeys in northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County.

“It is the first case of having the highly pathogenic avian influenza in a bird flock in Iowa. We’ve certainly seen it in many of our surrounding states,” Northey says. The 27,000 turkeys at the farm will be destroyed along with other measures to try and prevent the spread of the disease.

“We’ll actually have a quarantine on that facility and the facilities nearby that, whether they are backdoor flocks or whether they are commercial flocks in that area — all avian flocks — so, chickens or turkeys or other birds that are in that area,” Northey says. “We’ll do testing to ensure that it hasn’t spread to any other birds in that area.”

He says the restrictions will be in place while they make sure this is an isolated case. “We’ll have to have a couple of tests to be able to make sure that there is nothing else in that area, and then a period of time, about three weeks to make sure nothing else is impacted. And after that time we’ll be able to allow movement again of birds,” according to Northey. The H5N2 has been showing up in states around Iowa, mostly those in the Mississippi flyway, and Northey says it’s believed migratory birds carried it here too. “That’s been the presumption in other places. We don’t have anything to suggest that it moved in any other way, so we believe it is likely migratory birds as we have seen it in other parts of the midwest,” Northey says.

Iowa is the top egg-producer state in the country and one of the top turkey producers, so the Ag Secretary says it’s important to move quickly to handle the outbreak. “Generally it’s very contagious to birds — especially turkeys — it’ll usually cause death loss within those turkeys very quickly and it’s certainly contagious within the flock. So, it’s important to limit the opportunity for this to spread to other birds,” Northey says.

He says there’s no concern about humans catching the avian flu. “We know of no cases that this type of flu has ever impacted humans, so this is mostly about making sure that those birds in this area are not allowed to spread that to other birds,” Northey says. Northey says the commercial operations in the state have good bioseurity measures in place to help prevent the spread of the avian flu.

The state of Wisconsin just confirmed its first case of the bird flu Monday and it has been confirmed in Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.


Former governor Vilsack not ruling out another run for office in Iowa

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack says he wants to come back to Iowa and he isn’t ruling out another run for political office. Vilsack has served in President Obama’s cabinet since January of 2009, as the nation’s ag secretary.

“I have been really blessed and privileged by this state and the one thing I definitely want to do, regardless of the future, is I want to come back here and I want to contribute in some way,” Vilsack says. “I don’t want to go some place else. I want to come back home because this is where the people of Iowa gave me all these extraordinary opportunities and I will be forever indebted to them.”

Vilsack, who grew up in Pennsylvania, met Christie Bell of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in college and adopted her hometown as his own after the couple married. Vilsack was elected mayor of Mount Pleasant and won a seat in the state senate before being elected governor in 1998. Vilsack won reelection in 2002, but did not seek a third term, saying eight years was enough. He’s not ruling out the idea of putting his name on an Iowa ballot again, though.

“You know, you never want to say never,” Vilsack said. After disappointing losses in 2014, the Iowa Democratic Party is in the midst of a rebuilding process and Vilsack seems personally committed to the effort. “It’s going to require a lot of work and it’s going to require all hands on deck,” Vilsack says. “And it’s going to require making sure that we are competitive and getting the message out and working in all 99 counties.”

Vilsack says it’s partly about fashioning a message to explain the role government plays in the economy. “I don’t think Iowans understand that $24.8 billion has been invested in their state from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Vilsack says. “I don’t think that they have a sense of the reason why we’ve got a 4.4 percent unemployment rate is in part because of the investments we have made and maybe if we understood that a little better, there’d be a different attitude, generally, about government. I don’t think they understand that we are currently working with an operating budget at the U.S.D.A that’s less than it was when I became secretary. Well, shoot. That’s an indication that we get it. That we have to be more efficient and more effective.”

Vilsack says he is not interested in continuing to serve as the nation’s ag secretary if Hillary Clinton wins the White House in 2016. Teaching at a university would be of interest to Vilsack after his time is done at the U.S.D.A., but Vilsack says he is not interested in becoming the next president of the University of Iowa.

Vilsack made his comments during taping of the “Iowa Press” program that will air this coming Friday night on Iowa Public Television.


DeCosters sentenced to 3 months in prison in tainted egg case

gavel-thumbnailThe two former operators of an egg production facility in Wright County were each sentenced Monday to three months in prison and fined $100,000 in connection with a nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010.

Eighty-one-year-old Jack DeCoster of Turner, Maine was the owner of Quality Egg, and his 51-year-old son Peter of Clarion, Iowa, was the chief operating officer.

Jack and Peter DeCoster each pleaded guilty to one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. Their former company, Quality Egg, pled guilty to one count of bribery of a public official, one count of introducing a misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud and one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. The company was sentenced to pay a fine of $6.79 million and placed on probation for three years.

Court records show the company knew of salmonella in their egg laying plant, but mislead customers and tried to bribe inspectors to conceal the positive salmonella tests prior to the disease outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control says the outbreak likely caused nearly 2,000 people to become sick. Jennifer Zwagerman of the Drake University Agricultural Law Center says it’s surprising that the DeCosters received jail time at all.

“The fact that they got jail time at all is very significant in terms of sending a message from the government and the courts that they are taking food safety and the responsibilities of the corporate world that are providing food products very seriously.

The DeCosters will each have to serve one year of probation following their prison time. Both say they plan to appeal their jail sentence.