September 30, 2014

Senate Democrats propose ‘clean gov’t’ recommendations, GOP senators dismiss as ‘political gimmick’

Senator Matt McCoy, Senator Janet Peterson, Senator Brian Shoenjahn.

Senator Matt McCoy, Senator Janet Peterson, Senator Brian Shoenjahn (L-R) listen to Senator Julian Garrett during the committee meeting.

Democrats on the Iowa Senate’s Oversight Committee have endorsed a series of recommendations they say will “clean up state government.” Republicans on the panel accuse Democrats of engaging in “political theater” to try to discredit Republican Governor Terry Branstad.

AUDIO of committee meeting, 18:00

Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines who is chairwoman of the committee, said the recommendations are the culmination of public hearings over the past several months.

“These reforms are intended to fix underlying problems in state government,” Petersen said, “problems which if not addressed could damage the effectiveness of state government and leave the door open to similar scandals in future Democratic or Republican administrations.”

Senator Julian Garrett, a Republican from Indianola, accused Petersen and other Democratic colleagues of pursuing “petty” complaints.

“No laws were broken. No codes of ethics were violated,” Garrett said. “Instead, we have discovered that there is a difference of opinion in management philosophies…and we have learned that sometimes front-line workers don’t care for or particularly agree with their bosses.”

Senate Democrats are proposing spending millions to “update or replace” the current call-in system for filing unemployment claims. A computer glitch this past spring led the state to issue checks to Iowans who weren’t eligible for unemployment. Democrats are also proposing new protections for “whistleblowers” in state government. Garrett said the list of recommendations is a “campaign gimmick.”

“Senate Democrats have shown no proof of the allegations they’ve made,” Garrett said. “The truth is Iowa’s being run exceptionally well by Governor Branstad and Democrats are simply trying to tear him down for political gain.”

After the committee’s 20-minute meeting, Petersen responded to Garrett’s accusation.

“That’s just a bunch of baloney,” Petersen told reporters. “I believe Iowans deserve clean government and we told them we would go looking for answers and they were not the same (as) Governor Branstad and his secret investigation team uncovered.”

Republicans say the Democrats’ investigation into Branstad Administration activities has cost taxpayers $100,000. Democrats say that’s how much Department of Administrative Services staff say had to be spent to find and copy documents Democrats requested under Freedom of Information rules.

Both Democrats and Republicans say if they win majority control of the state senate in November, they’ll pass bills next year to respond to some of the issues raised during the past six months.

$1.9 million in state money for parks to three NE Iowa counties

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Governor Branstad announces money for parks.

Three northeast Iowa counties are getting nearly two-million dollars in state funds to enhance parks, trails and other outdoor recreation areas in Dubuque, Jackson and Jones Counties.

Larry “Buck” Koos of Lamont is a Jackson County Supervisor and he says there’s a “regional plan” that involves raising up to $4 million locally in cash, services or land for the effort.

“We have some land that was just donated to the conservation department,” Koos says. “It’s just right close to Maquoketa, so that’ll be in the works.”

Some of the money is likely to be used to build new cabins at the four state parks which are located in those counties, but a new state park may also be developed. Whitewater Canyon is currently a county-managed wildlife area.

“It touches all three counties, so that’s exciting,” Koos says. “It’s a beautiful place. It’s not real well known yet, so there’s just endless opportunities out there.”

The award of $1.9 million in state money for the three counties was announced this morning (Monday) during a news conference on the steps of the statehouse. Joe Gunderson of the Iowa Parks Foundation says the grants aren’t just for state-owned facilities.

“In Iowa, the county conservation system has twice the public land area that the state park system does, so it’s critical to the movement,” Gunderson says.

AUDIO of news conference, 29:00

Republican Governor Terry Branstad formed the Iowa Parks Foundation a few years ago with former Congressman Neil Smith, a Democrat from Des Moines. The public-private partnership was created to plan a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the state park system in 2020. Branstad says it may take a few decades to complete the effort to spruce up the parks.

House Democrats call for year #3 of tuition freeze at state universities

Democratic candidates for the Iowa House are promising to raise the state’s minimum wage and take steps to improve the lives of “regular Iowans” if enough Democrats are elected in November.

Republicans currently hold a 53 to 47 seat majority in the Iowa House, which has given the GOP control of the debate agenda. House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown says other priorities for his party are expanding job training programs and taking steps to protect Iowa’s water resources.

“We have recruited excellent candidates to run for the General Assembly,” Smith says. “We feel that our responsibility is to get out there and sell ourselves as to why we are the best choice to serve in the Iowa House.”

Democrats are calling for tuition rates to remain the same for Iowans attending the state universities. That would be year three of a tuition freeze. Smith says Democrats also want to “revitalize rural Iowa” by expanding broadband and wi-fi service.

“We believe that the kind of effort we’re putting forth in the campaign is what will work well for us in the November election,” Smith says.

Republicans predict they’ll gain seats in the Iowa House this November and GOP leaders say Democrats are offering Iowans “tired ideas.” Democrats currently hold a narrow, two-seat edge in the Iowa Senate.

Branstad: allow GPS surveillance of some accused domestic abusers

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad says it’s time to give judges the authority to order electronic surveillance of some of the men and women who are accused of stalking or domestic abuse in Iowa.

“I think it makes sense to have GPS tracking of people that have a no-contact order,” Branstad says.

The governor doesn’t envision putting an electronic bracelet on every Iowan who is the subject of a “no contact” order, but he says judges should have the discretion to order it in certain cases.

“One of the big tragedies that we’ve had occur is when somebody that’s had a no-contact order violates it and then murders their estranged spouse or partner or whatever,” Branstad says. “And this would be a way to make sure that you knew where they were and that they were not violating the no-contact order.”

There have been 253 domestic abuse homicides in Iowa in the past 19 years. Advocates for domestic abuse victims say electronic monitoring isn’t effective and accused abuser who are deemed a threat should be kept behind bars until trial. In addition to electronic monitoring for accused abusers, Branstad says those convicted of violent sexual crimes should be required to serve out their full prison sentence, too.

“If they fall in that category of being a violent sexual predator, they would not be eligible for ‘good time’ and ‘honor time,’” Branstad says.

Branstad cites the 2013 case involving Michael Klunder (rhymes with “thunder”) of Stratford. Klunder had been released early from prison after serving about half his sentence for kidnapping two toddlers. Klunder kidnapped two girls in Dayton and one escaped, but Klunder killed 15-year-old Kathlynn Shepard before hanging himself. The Republican-led House this spring passed a bill to get rid of time-off-for-good-behavior for violence sex offenders, but the bill failed to pass the Senate where Democrats hold majority control.

Hatch says new cannabis oil law ‘needs more work’

Jack Hatch, the Democratic candidate for governor, says allowing the production of cannabis oil in Iowa is a logical step after decriminalizing possession of the marijuana derivative. Hatch, who is a member of the Iowa Senate, voted this spring for the new law that shields Iowans who have severe epilepsy from prosecution if they use cannabis oil as treatment for their seizures.

“I think what was finally negotiated showed a willingness on the part of Republicans and Democrats to solve a problem,” Hatch told reporters today. “Clearly we have not. It needs more work.”

The parents of children diagnosed with a rare and severe form of epilepsy are asking Iowa officials to allow marijuana to be grown here, so cannabis oil can be produced and purchased here. Hatch said those parents make a compelling case, because if they go to Colorado to buy cannabis oil, they have to bring it back through Nebraska, where it’s illegal. Some states where cannabis oil can be legally purchased also restrict sales to residents of that state.

“So we really haven’t done very much,” Hatch said. “I think the obligation and the committment we made to those families has got to be fulfilled and if it means that we have to produce it here and dispense it here under tight regulations, then that needs to be part of our obligation.”

Governor Branstad this morning said he’s willing to discuss the idea, but he wants to ensure “the safety of Iowans is protected.” Hatch suggested Branstad’s living in a time warp when it comes to pot.

“He still falls in this category of this cultural recognition that marijuana was a recreational drug and he’s got to get over that,” Hatch said. “It now has sound medical purposes and our consumers are needed it. Our families need it.”

Hatch also faulted the governor for failing to speed up the process for issuing the I-D cards that will protect epileptic patients from prosecution if they’re caught with cannabis oil. The state law on the subject took effect July 1st, but officials at the state agency in charge say those cards won’t be issued until January 30.

Pate outlines his priorities for secretary of state’s office

Paul Pate

Paul Pate

The Republican candidate for Iowa secretary of state has released a list of proposals to deploy new technology for voter registration and require a photo ID check to ensure all voters are eligible to vote. Paul Paul, the Republican running to be Iowa’s next secretary of state, says he wants to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat.

“We want to encourage voter participation and we want to maintain the integrity,” Pate says.

Pate says 93 percent of all eligible Iowa voters currently have a driver’s license and he’d seek funding from the legislature to ensure the other seven percent get a state-issued photo ID. Pate favors a state law requiring eligible voters to have that photo ID — and he says with new technology, electronic poll books for precincts on Election Day would have a photo of the voter beside their name, as another cross-check for poll workers.

“You’d have to have some proof of who you are and once that’s done, clearly we’ve done the best we can to ensure you’re a legitimate voter,” Pate says.

Pate’s also proposing that auditor’s offices in all 99 Iowa counties be equipped with software that could verify a voter’s signature on an absentee ballot.

“Dallas County, for an example, has over 50 percent of its voters voting absentee and it’s going to be growing more and more,” Pate says, “so I think we need to step up some of the protections if we can on that.”

Pate’s Democratic opponent is Brad Anderson. Anderson says he’s glad Pate has joined his call for “electronic poll books,” but Anderson says some of Pate’s other proposals, like new photo IDs and the new signature verification software, would require a dramatic increase in taxpayer spending. Pate says it wouldn’t cost that much to buy a laptop for each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Pate is a former member of the Iowa House and Senate who also served as Iowa’s secretary of state for one term in the late 1990s. He’s seeking the job again this year. The current secretary of state, Republican Matt Schultz, is not seeking reelection.

Interim panel embraces concept of growing, making medical marijuana in Iowa

Six of the 10 members of a legislative committee say it’s time for Iowa to make growing and distributing marijuana legal, if it’s used for medical purposes.

Iowa has a new law that allows possession of cannabis oil as treatment of severe epilepsy, but parents of seizure-prone children say too many barriers still exist since they have to go out of state to get it. Sally Gaer of West Des Moines has a daughter who has been diagnosed with a severe and chronic form of epilepsy.

“We can and must do better,” Gaer said Thursday.”Iowa needs to have its own cannabis grown in the state. Growing and dispensing fits in with the healthiest state initiative.”

That’s a reference to Governor Terry Branstad’s push to improve Iowa’s ranking among the state on health issues. Gaer spoke Thursday to the 10-member legislative committee assembled to review the new state law that decriminalized possession of cannabis oil and consider changes to it. Gaer said at least two dozen states regulate the production and distribution of cannabis oil, but only for their own residents, so Iowa families are left out.

“Working together, we can come up with a program that can benefit our medically fragile and the leader in the nation in safety and common sense,” Gaer said. “This program has to include growing, processing and distributing the medicine in Iowa.”

All five Democrats and one of the five Republicans on the committee voted for such a move, although the Republican who voted yes only supports providing the cannabis oil that might be produced in Iowa to chronic epileptics.

Legislative leaders appointed the 10-member committee to review the new state law on cannabis oil and consider changes to it. Their recommendations will be drafted in a report and presented to all 150 legislators in January.