March 27, 2015

Senate committee votes 9-5 in favor of medical marijuana bill

Medical-marijuanaA bill that would legalize the use of marijuana as treatment for certain medical conditions that cause seizures, chronic pain and nausea has cleared a Senate Committee on a 9-5 vote this afternoon, but faces key opposition in the Iowa House. Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, has patterned the bill after laws in other states.

“To give Iowans legal access to medicines that most Americans already have,” Bolkcom said.

An Iowa law that took effect July 1 decriminalized possession of cannabis oil for the treatment of chronic epilepsy, but the parents who lobbied legislators to pass that law say they can’t get the drug for their kids here and can’t travel elsewhere to get cannabis oil and bring it back to Iowa. The bill that cleared the Senate Ways and Means Committee today calls for establishing up to four marijuana production facilities in Iowa as well as up to a dozen separate businesses that would dispense the marijuana.

Iowans with one of the medical conditions listed in the bill or chronic and severe pain caused by an underlying medical diagnosis would have to get a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana as treatment. They would pay $100 for a state-issued Medical Marijuana License and then they’ve be able to buy a series of products made from the marijuana plant. However, smoking marijuana would still be illegal. Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, was a “very reluctant” supporter of the bill.

“But because of the…extensive safeguards that are built in at every step of the process, including the safeguard that smoking of marijuana is expressly prohibited under this legislation, I plan on voting for it today,” Hogg said. “…For people who are truly sick, facing debilitating conditions that I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live with, they ought to have the opportunity if they’re working with their medical provider and they think this is an option that they should pursue.”

Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, said marijuana can’t cure “debilitating diseases,” but it can reduce symptoms like seizures, nausea and chronic pain.

“People’s lives, I believe, are at stake,” Dotzler said, “and their health and well-being is at stake.”

Senator Michael Breitbach of Strawberry Point was among the five Republicans on the committee who voted against the bill.

“I’m not ready to vote for it yet, but I think we’re moving in the correct direction,” Breitbach said.

However, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, the top Republican in the legislature, sees a dim future for the bill.

“I don’t believe that the General Assembly will do anything with medical marijuana this year,” Paulsen told reporters late this morning.

Several Iowans with chronic medical conditions are hoping their stories change the minds of legislators like Paulsen. Forty-four-year-old Madena Burman of De Soto has a rare genetic disease that causes colon cancer. There is no cure and she has read research that suggests cannabis can reduce the number of cancer cells produced by hereditary cancers like hers.

“I guess if their life was on the line, they might have a different opinion,” Burman told reporters after today’s committee meeting. “…I have a problem with someone else’s fear overriding my choice for my life and my body.”

Burman sat through today’s senate committee meeting and plans to return to the statehouse to lobby for the bill. Fifty-year-old Shannon Peterson of Des Moines is another Iowan with chronic pain who has been lobbying for passage of this bill and plans to keep at it.

“Show up as often as I can even when it’s hard for me to get up and get going. I’ve had Crone’s Disease for 34 years,” Peterson said after attending today’s meeting. “…It’s just very painful. It’s worse than giving birth.”

She said marijuana could help control her pain and she has considered moving to Denver where she can legally get it.

House endorses ‘Safe at Home’ program for some Iowa crime victims

Dean Fisher

Dean Fisher

Domestic abuse victims trying to keep their “ex” from finding out where they’ve moved would get some help from the “Safe at Home Act” that cleared the Iowa House today.

“This bill will be a step forward in our work to assist the victims of domestic and sexual violence,” said Representative Dean Fisher, a Republican from Garwin who is the bill’s chief sponsor.

The bill sets up a process so victims of domestic abuse as well as victims of sexual assault, human trafficking and stalking can get a new legal address, so they don’t have to list their home address when applying for a job, signing their kids up for school, registering to vote or taking some other action that requires disclosure of a home address — which might be discovered online. Representative Fisher said the bill was inspired by the story of a young mother who was the victim of domestic abuse.

“She was suffering the threats from her ex-husband over a bitter custody battle,” Fisher said. “She ultimately left Iowa for a state that already had a ‘Safe at Home’ problem. It bothered me greatly that (she) did not feel safe at home here in Iowa and felt the need to move to another state to achieve that safety.”

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and his staff would administer the program and provide the victims with a Post Office Box in Des Moines as their new legal address. Mail sent to that P.O. Box would be forwarded back to the victim wherever they may live in Iowa.

“The Secretary of State’s office is the only entity that will have the physical address of the participant unless there are extenuating circumstances that require it,” Fisher said.

The bill is fashioned after similar laws in 33 other states. If the bill becomes law in Iowa, the names and addresses of Iowans who participate in the “Safe at Home” program would not be listed on voter registration records. Secretary of State Paul Pate, a backer of the bill, says victims of these types of crimes too often become reclusive and this program to shield their home addresses “is a tool that can help rebuild lives.”

The bill passed the House on a 100-0 vote and is now eligible for consideration in the Senate.

Expanding ‘buffer zone’ at Iowa military funerals

Zach Nunn

Zach Nunn

The Iowa House has unanimously passed a bill that would double the size of the “buffer zone” that can be enforced between protesters and mourners at an Iowa soldier’s funeral. Representative Zach Nunn, a Republican from Bondurant, said there should be a “reasonable expectation of privacy” at the funeral of a soldier.

“This bill addresses specifically the respect and the sanctity of a passing of a human life,” Nunn said this morning.

The thousand-foot buffer zone around the site of a funeral, a memorial service, a burial or a funeral procession would be in force an hour before the ceremony, during the ceremony and an hour after it’s over. The bill is designed to respond to funeral protests organized by the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

Bobby Kaufmann

Bobby Kaufmann

Representative Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton who is the bill’s sponsor, calls the church members “verbal domestic terrorists.”

“You do not have a constitutional right to infringe on the constitutional rights of the families who are laying their fallen loved ones to rest,” Kaufmann said this morning. “…I was contacted by a widow in Ohio who was moved to tears on the phone because she herself was subjected to the actions of this despicable group of people at her husband’s funeral and she’s just happy that Iowa is extending that buffer zone to 1000 feet.”

Current Iowa law, passed in 2006, forbids protestors from being within 500 feet of a military funeral. The Phelps family from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has led dozens of anti-gay protests at military funerals and a handful of church members protested in Des Moines in January to show their opposition to this bill. A few months ago a member of the Phelps family told The Cedar Rapids Gazette “whiny, crybaby legislators” in Iowa were pushing this bill. Similar legislation has passed in other states and been upheld in the courts.

Iowa Legislature recognizes sister state relationship with Taiwan

state-capitolIowa House and Senate passed resolutions this morning to show Iowa’s support of Taiwan’s “efforts to participate in the international community.”

Calvin Chen-huan Ho — the director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Chicago — was at the statehouse and thanked legislators for the support. “I’m also very happy today to thank the Iowa friend for your support of the Republican of China (Taiwan) which is a democratic country of 23 million people that also shares common values of human rights, freedom and rule of law,” Chen-huan said.

Taipei is the capitol of Taiwan. Taiwan hopes to join the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal and the resolutions passed in the Iowa House and Senate today (Thursday) noted Taiwan’s status as the world’s 19th largest economy. Taiwan and Iowa signed a sister state relationship in 1989. “We highly appreciate, highly value your support, your efforts and friendship,” Chen-huan said.

Taiwan split from mainland China in 1949 during a civil war that hasn’t formally ended. Concerns are growing in Taiwan that China will attempt to reclaim the island by force. None of that was directly mentioned today at the statehouse.


Another statehouse stalemate, this one over school start date

Herman Quirmbach

Herman Quirmbach

A bill that would have set “on or after August 23″ as the school start date in Iowa has been tabled in the Iowa Senate.

On the 10th of March, 32 of the 50 members of the senate voted in favor of letting school boards decide when school starts in the fall. This afternoon, Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, asked his senate colleagues to vote in favor of that “local control” approach.

“I don’t see that our positions necessarily have changed,” Quirmbach said.

But when it came time to vote, a majority of senators sided with the House approach to set “on or after August 23″ as the standard for a school start date. That prompted Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal to use a parliamentary maneuver which has tabled the bill. He’s not saying when it may be brought back up for a vote.

“I’m in no rush,” Gronstal said.

By an overwhelming vote on Tuesday, the House voted to set “on or after August 23″ as the school start date. At the least, Gronstal said the House-backed plan should be adjusted, since as currently written it would prevent any Iowa high school from moving to a year-round calendar.

“We think that’s pretty crazy,” Gronstal told reporters.

Gronstal suggested there was “confusion” as to how many Republicans would side with Democrats in favor of “local control” so school boards may decide when school starts. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said it’s time to get this issue resolved.

“We’ve seen the Democrats stall and delay with respect to K-12 education long enough,” Dix told reporters. “They deserve some certainty…so they can plan and that’s what we ought to be doing on school funding as well.”

In December, Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s administration put schools on notice: no more waivers would be granted for early school start dates. Unless legislators fashion some sort of compromise Branstad will accept, it means schools will have to follow current law which says schools are to start during the week in which September 1 falls. That means August 31 would be the earliest date for school starts in Iowa this year.

‘Rescue vehicles’ cleared for speed, if House bill becomes law

Sandy Salmon

Sandy Salmon

The Iowa House has voted unanimously to let the drivers of “rescue vehicles” speed and run stop lights and stop signs, just as police cars, ambulances and fire trucks may in response to an emergency.

So what is a rescue vehicle? According to Iowa law, it’s a motor vehicle equipped with rescue, fire or life-support equipment used to assist or rescue people in emergencies. The Iowa DOT requires the drivers of rescue vehicles to go through the same training as ambulance drivers and fire truck operators.

Representative Sandy Salmon, a Republican from Janesville, says when it’s a “matter of life and death” — rescue vehicles play an important role.

“This is a good bill that will assist in getting life support equipment to where it is needed in as rapid time as is safely possible,” Salmon says.

The bill, which passed the House this morning, now goes to the Senate for consideration. The Iowa DOT is the agency that determines if a vehicle can be licensed as a rescue vehicle. To qualify, a vehicle must have at least $7,500 of equipment that would be exclusively used for rescues and emergencies.

Two senators wouldn’t meet contact information guidelines of House bill

Mike Sexton

Mike Sexton

The Iowa House has passed a bill that would force many elected officials in Iowa to post a phone number and an email address on the website for the government entity on which they serve, so constituents could contact them. It would apply to legislators, school board members, county supervisors, and city council members.

Representative Mike Sexton, a Republican from Rockwell City, was the bill’s floor manager. “This bill came to us from some folks that tried to contact their local school board members and they called the school to get their contact information and the school refused to release that information,” Sexton said this morning.

If the bill were law today, two members of the Iowa Senate would not meet the requirements. Senators Mark Costello of Imogene and Charles Schneider of West Des Moines merely list their home address as contact information on their pages on the legislature’s website. No phone or email is listed for either of them. Staff for the two Senate Republicans say constituents could find the senate switchboard number elsewhere on the legislature’s main website as a point of contact for either senator.

There are 100 members of the Iowa House and 66 of them merely list their legislative email address, which some fail to check on a regular basis, and the phone number for the House switchboard as contact information. That number is answered from Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. ’til 4:30 p.m., when the House is in session. After hours, and after the legislature adjourns in late spring, callers are directed to the legislature’s website.

Forty-eight of the 50 members of the Iowa Senate list their home phone number, their cell phone number or both on the legislature’s website.

(This post was updated at 4:16 p.m. with additional information.)