April 24, 2014

Cooler weather keeping number of tornadoes in Iowa down

This tornado hit Belmond in June of last year.

This tornado hit Belmond in June of last year.

Only two tornadoes have touched down in Iowa this year so far, well below the average of around 15 by this date. Nationwide, not a single tornado death has been recorded this year, the first time that’s happened this far into spring since 1915.

Meteorologist Jeff Johnson, at the National Weather Service, says the prolonged chilly weather may be frustrating for Iowa farmers, but it helps keep twisters at bay. “There’s been thought that maybe it’s due to the cool spring we’ve had nationwide, especially east of the Rockies,” Johnson says. “Cold air and tornadoes don’t mix well so you need the warmer air moving north to get the clash of the air masses and to get the conditions that are necessary for tornadoes.”

Iowa gets an average of 46 tornadoes per year, but the numbers have been down significantly in recent years. “In Iowa, it’s been quiet since really 2011,” Johnson says. “There was a period of time from May of 2012 to May of 2013 where Iowa went for nearly a calendar year without a single tornado. I think we were just four days short of that.”

While Iowa’s only seen two tornadoes this year — in south-central Iowa in March and in east-central Iowa in April — Johnson says we need to remain vigilant. “Historically, once we move into May, the tornado season really cranks up,” Johnson says. “May and June typically account for about 70% of our tornado figures for the year.”

Tornadoes kill about 60 Americans each year, on average, though more than 550 people died in twisters in 2011, including 158 deaths in the huge Joplin, Missouri, storm. Iowa, he says, has been relatively lucky. “Since the late 1980s, we’ve had about 25 deaths in the state and if you draw that out, we’ve had less than one death per year,” Johnson says. “We’ve had some really bad years, such as 2008 in which we had more than 10 people killed in the Parkersburg event and also in west-central Iowa. A lot of years, we don’t see any deaths in the state, thankfully.”

That tornado on Memorial Day weekend in 2008 was a mile wide and killed seven people in Parkersburg, injured dozens and destroyed more than 220 homes, about half the town.

New superintendent chosen for the special schools in Council Bluffs and Vinton

The Board of Regents has selected a man from Montana to become the new superintendent of the state’s two special schools. The board chose Steven Gettel, the current Superintendent of the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind, from three candidates to become the superintendent of the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs, and the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton.

Gettel is scheduled to begin his duties on August 1st.  He will replace Patrick Clancy who is retiring. Clancy began as superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in 2008 and added the same position for the Iowa School for the Deaf in April of 2012.

Absentee voting begins for June primary

The start of election season in Iowa begins today. Chance McElhaney with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office says today is the first day you can cast an absentee ballot for the June 3rd primary.  “You can fill out an absentee ballot in person at the local county auditor’s office, and in certain counties there are satellite locations as well. So if that is something you would be interested in, you can check with your local county auditor’s office,” McElhaney.

There are some other ways you can get an absentee ballot. “Go to the Secretary of State’s website, SOS.Iowa.gov, and fill out the official State of Iowa voter registration form. You can also go to your local county auditor’s website as well and you sent that in to your local county auditor,” McElhaney explains.

McElhaney says the absentee voting is open today through June 2nd. He has this warning for procrastinators. “The absentee ballots do need to be received by the county auditor before 9 p.m. on election day, Tuesday June 3rd to be eligible for counting,” McElhaney “If and absentee ballot is in the mail and is received by the county auditor after the polls close –  it just has to have a postmark of Monday June 2nd or earlier.”

He says more people have been voting early in Iowa. “In the general election in 2012, a little of a third voted by absentee I believe. That can be people who vote in person at their county auditor’s office, or it can be people who request an absentee ballot by mail,” according the McElhaney.

Iowa has an open U.S. Senate seat for the first time since 1974 after Democrat Tom Harkin announced he would not run again. Six Republicans are competing in the primary for a chance to run for that seat. There are three Republicans and five Democrats running to replace Congressman Bruce Braley, who is the only Democrat running for the U.S. Senate seat. Six Republican candidates are vying for the Third District Congressional seat being left open by the retirement of Tom Latham.

Rebuilding set to begin for Lake Delhi

Drained Lake Delhi.

Drained Lake Delhi.

Eastern Iowa will soon be home to a new tourist destination: Lake Delhi in Delaware County. The recreation spot vanished nearly 4 years ago, when the dam failed after torrential rains, draining the 9-mile long lake.

A ground breaking ceremony will be held at noon today signaling the end of a long struggle to rebuild the facility. Steve Leonard helped lead the way for Lake Delhi’s comeback. “Our community has waited a long time for this day,” Leonard says.

The $16 million project includes more public access to the lake, which had previously only been accessible to those who owned property around the lake. “We will be adding an additional boat ramp, additional parking areas, additional restrooms, and an additional beach, all in addition to the boat ramps and beaches we already had,” Leonard says.

Nearly one third of the money for the project is coming from the State of Iowa. If all goes well, Lake Delhi could be back in business sometime next summer. Leonard expects the rebuilding of the dam and the refilling of the lake will provide a major boost to the local economy, which has suffered since the disaster in July 2010.

“We know that many folks have been talking about adding additional restaurants or retail facilities in and around the area,” Leonard says.

Senate panel votes to ban confidential settlements in all three branches of state gov’t

The three Democrats on the Senate Oversight Committee have approved a bill that would offer new protection for whistleblowers in state government. It also would impose new rules for the so-called “blacklisting” of former state workers and expand the governor’s executive order barring confidential settlements with laid off workers to include the legislative and judicial branches of state government.

“I believe that the legislation before us does a good of trying to tackle some of the issues or many of the issues that have come before our committee,” Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines, said during Wednesday afternoon’s committee meeting.

Senator Julian Garrett of Indianola, one of two Republicans on the senate committee, said the bill has a major flaw.

“It continues to allow the state to conceal the real reasons for a person’s termination,” Garrett said.

Senator Sandy Greiner of Washington, the other Republican on the panel, agreed.

“I’m gravely concerned about the fact that you’re not putting anything in the bill about exposing why state employees have been released,” Greiner said.

The Republican-led House has endorsed the idea of opening personnel records so the public can find out why state workers have been dismissed. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, said that was left out of the Senate Democrats’ bill because it would expose the state to defamation lawsuits.

“It’s really difficult for an employer, even the state, to state that an employee was fired with cause for, you know, theft because unless there was a clear pursuit of due process and everything was handled perfectly, one of these scheister attorneys will come in and sue you…even in a situation like that,” McCoy said.

McCoy, who works in human resources in the private sector, said that’s why most private companies will only reveal a former employee’s dates of employment and their job title when someone calls to ask about that employee.

Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican who has a law degree, has asked legislators to open state personnel records so Iowans can learn why state employees were fired. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock accuses Democrats of bowing to the wishes of state employee unions which oppose the idea.

Senate sends governor a bill containing tax break for Knoxville Speedway

The Iowa Senate has given final legislative approve to a plan that would give the Knoxville Raceway a tax break to help finance an upgrade of the facility. Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, says the track already has a $50 million annual economic impact on the state.

“They’re marketing it as a ‘dirt track heaven’ and it really is in Iowa,” Dotzler says. “It’s a special, special place.”

Over 200,000 people visit the track in Knoxville each year, but Dotzler says with NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s recent investment in a dirt track in Ohio, Knoxville needs to keep up with the competition.

“This bill would allow them to move forward with a planned project,” Dotzler says. “They plan to add new suites, a main entranceway to the facility and additional seats that would modernize the facility and really keep Knoxville as the premiere place in America to race sprint cars.”

If  Governor Branstad signs the bill into law, the Knoxville track would get a rebate of sales taxes charges on goods and services sold at the track from 2015 ’til 2025. However, the total rebate could not exceed $2 million and it is also limited to 25 percent of the total cost of the facility upgrade project. Senator Randy Feenstra, a Republican from Hull, is a racing fan who supports the bill.

“If you ever get to the Knoxville Nationals or the Knoxville Speedway, it’s one of the funnest things you’ll ever do and we get to do it in Iowa,” Feenstra says. “It’s one of our own precious jewels that we have here.”

The bill passed the Senate on a 39-10 vote. A few weeks ago Governor Branstad went to Newton to sign a bill that provided a similar tax rebate to NASCAR, the new owners of the Iowa Speedway.

Deal would end greyhound racing in Council Bluffs

Bluffs-RunA deal has likely emerged that would end greyhound racing in Council Bluffs by the end of 2015. Dog racing would continue at the track in Dubuque, but it would no longer be bankrolled by the casino there.

The Iowa Greyhound Association would lease that track and run it as their own “racino” in Dubuque. Senator Jeff Danielson, a Democrat from Cedar Falls, said this evening that he senses “broad, bipartisan support” in the legislature for the deal.

“The stakeholders — the two track managers (in) Council Bluffs and Dubuque and the Greyhound Association itself — deserve high praise,” Danielson said. “They have worked together all session in a spirit of cooperation to reach compromise and as someone who’s worked on gaming bills in the past, I couldn’t be more happy with what they’ve presented us.”

The deal is outlined in a bill that was introduced in the Iowa Senate this afternoon. A senate subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Thursday morning at 8:30.

“It has solved both the policy and the politics in a pretty elegant, simple way that I think can work going forward,” Danielson said.

The final race at the “Bluffs Run” at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs would be on December 31, 2015 and Caesar’s, which owns the casino, would pay $65 million over seven years, money the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission would distribute to greyhound owners and trainers who quit the business. Danielson said “rescue” groups that find new homes for the greyhounds retired from racing would be eligible for some of that money, too.

“So the net take away from the bill is that we would reduce in half the current footprint of greyhound racing in Iowa,” Danielson said. “We will have solved all the economic and community concerns which I think we needed to do in order to have a product that senators and (representatives) could vote for and know that it would work going forward, and we will have done it without a dime of taxpayers’ money involved.”

The dog racing currently managed and bankrolled by the Mystique Casino in Dubuque would end October 31, 2014, but the Iowa Greyhound Association would then be able to step in and manage racing there next year. The Dubuque casino would pay far less, about a million dollars a year, into the “cessation fund” for greyhound owners who leave the industry. If the bill as currently written become law, the Iowa Greyhound Association would also be given authority to simulcast their Dubuque races at any other casino in Iowa.  Under current law, simulcasting is only permitted at the three state gaming facilities which have live racing.

The two casinos have complained there are few customers for greyhound racing and it costs the Council Bluffs and Dubuque casinos $13 million a year to subsidize the two dog tracks.