April 21, 2015

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.


August 23 is now the earliest date school may start in Iowa

Students from Indianola lean in to get a close view of Gov. Branstad signing the law

Students from Indianola lean in to get a close view of Gov. Branstad signing the law

Governor Terry Branstad signed Iowa’s new “school start date” policy into law early this afternoon. Dozens of grade school kids were at the statehouse to watch as Branstad took action on the legislation.

“We have had a law on the books for over 30 years that said school is supposed to start the week that includes the first of September, but the Department of Education has routinely granted waivers that lets schools start earlier and earlier that led to the point where we had some schools starting in the early part of August, which was causing a lot of concerns for a lot of Iowa families,” Branstad told the crowd.

The bill Branstad signed into law sets August 23 as the earliest date Iowa schools may start the fall semester.

“I believe that this piece of legislation strikes a good compromise,” Branstad said.

Branstad’s Department of Education put schools on notice four months ago that it would no longer grant waivers so schools could start classes earlier in August. School officials asked legislators to help them retain “local control” and the ability to make school calendar decisions. The state’s tourism industry has long complained the earlier school start dates deprive them of income from families who stop vacationing because school activities have started, plus they lose their teenage workforce. Branstad noted the August 23 date ensures the Iowa State Fair will nearly always be concluded before school starts in Iowa.

“I think it really is a very reasonable and fair compromise,” Branstad said. “Families can enjoy their summer break up to the last week of August and students can enjoy, in addition to the opportunities in the classroom, educational opportunities that can be gained through organizations like 4H and FFA as well.”

Branstad said he’s hopeful the compromise on the school start date controversy “sets a tone” for other “tough issues” that need to be resolved in the legislature.

AUDIO of bill signing ceremony, 6:00

Five young Iowans die in Benton County pickup/semi crash

Police car lightsA crash Thursday afternoon in eastern Iowa killed five young people near the Benton County town of Urbana.

The victims have been identified as 19-year-old Quentin Ary; 20-year-old Nicole Jacobson; 14-year-old Hunter Tuttle; and 12-year-old Zoey Tuttle of Vinton, all of Vinton; and 17-year-old Triston Randall of Urbana.

The Iowa State Patrol says the victims were in a pick-up truck that collided with a semi. All five died at the scene.

An accident report from the Iowa State Patrol says Ary was driving the pick-up on a rural road, entered an intersection with Iowa Highway 150 and struck a north-bound semi, driven by Jack Youde of Sutherland. Youde escaped injury.

According to investigators, Ary was the only person among the five victims wearing a seatbelt.

By Elwin Huffman, KOEL, Oelwein