March 30, 2015

Governor finds ‘no earlier than August 23′ acceptable school start date (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad says there’s no reason to add an accommodations for year-round high schools in the bill that would resolve the controversy about when Iowa schools may start classes this fall.

“We don’t have any year-round high schools in Iowa, so there’s not something that we need to address,” Branstad says.

Both the Iowa House and Senate have approved bills that would let schools start “on or after August 23.” A December memo from the Branstad administration put schools on notice that it would no longer grant waivers and enforce existing law, which means schools would have to start during the week in which September 1 falls.

“I can live with the present law or this compromise is something that I would find also acceptable,” Branstad says.

The Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate has placed a hold on the compromise date of no earlier than August 23. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal has said since the bill grants a waiver to year-round elementary schools, it should include waviers for year-round high schools, in case districts want to move in that direction in the future. Branstad rejects that argument.

“I see no reason to address something that’s a non-issue when there are no year-round high schools,” Branstad says. “I can’t see what his problem could be.”

In addition to resolving the dilemma about when Iowa schools can start classes in the fall, lawmakers have also failed to decide how much state aid districts will get for 2015-2016 school year. Branstad told reporters this morning during his weekly news conference that he’s sticking with his bargaining position, which would provide about $100 million to schools. Democrats in the legislature are holding to their bargaining position, a four percent boost in per pupil spending that would amount to a roughly $200 million increase for public K-12 schools.

AUDIO of Branstad’s weekly news conference

Photo by John Pemble Iowa Public Radio

Graham: ‘I’m going to campaign the way I would govern’

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham poses for a photo.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham poses for a photo.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — a likely Republican presidential candidate — made a two-day swing through the state this weekend.

“Is every meeting like this, where you have like 400 cameras?” Graham joked to a crowd gathered Friday night in the banquet room of an Italian restaurant in Des Moines.

About 60 people were in the room, along with a small contingent of media. Graham spoke briefly of his own background before addressing looming issues, like the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Graham didn’t back down when a woman in the room said cuts elsewhere in the federal budget were the answer.

“Please get this. All the checks you’re going to write in taxes by 2042 go to pay two things the federal government is in charge of — not the Department of Defense, not the EPA, not the Department of Education — to pay the Medicare and the Social Security bill. That is a fact. Please don’t be misled,” Graham said. “You’re a nice lady. I don’t want you to leave this room thinking there is a way to fix this without means testing benefits and adjusting the age of retirement.”

Graham said with his own congressional pension along with his military pension, “it’s not fair” to ask younger workers to pay more taxes to support all he’s been promised in future Social Security and Medicare benefits. Graham, who has been in the Air Force for 33 years, also argued for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Every time a girl goes to school, that’s like dropping a bomb on the Taliban, so here’s what I tell people in my party: Getting to the left of Barack Obama is not the answer to the world’s problems,” Graham said, getting head nods and audible “uh huhs” from the crowd. “Getting to the left of him in terms of leading from behind only creates more chaos.”

That was a direct shot at Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who will formally enter the presidential race April 7. Paul and Graham, along with the other likely candidates Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, had a battle in the senate late last week over defense spending. Paul criticized the other three for supporting what he called a “reckless” and “irresponsible” increase in defense spending without making corresponding budget cuts elsewhere. Graham laughed about the competition when a reporter in Iowa asked about it.

“Everybody is trying to outdo this and outdo that,” Graham said. “So, yeah, we’ll be using our day jobs to try position this and try to position that and I’m trying not to tell people in Iowa something I can’t do.”

During his remarks to the crowd, Graham warned he would seek to suspend U.S. support of the United Nations if the deal the Obama Administration is trying to negotiate with Iran goes to the U.N. rather than congress for a vote. Graham’s goal is to ensure “radical Islam” doesn’t get to “marry up” with nuclear capabilities.

“This decision about the Iranian nuclear program is going to be the most important decision in your lifetime and my legislation will require it to come to congress before he can lift congressional sanctions and we will look at that deal, we will debate that deal, we will vote on that deal and you will know what’s in that deal,” Graham said, to applause.

On Saturday, Graham held a town hall meeting in Coralville and attended a regional meeting of GOP activists in Fairfield, but Graham is making it clear Republicans must find a way to work with Democrats to resolve the country’s toughest problems.

“I’m going to campaign the way I would govern and I don’t see how you can solve America’s problems without some level of bipartisanship,” Graham said. “It’s o.k. to fight. I like a fight, but you know at the end of the day, all we do is fight. Somebody’s got to step up and solve a problem and I’m going to offer myself to be that somebody.”

Graham plans to make a formal announcement about his White House intentions in May.

Iowa’s two major parties collaborate to produce ‘timely, accurate’ Caucus results

Republican Party Chair, Jeff Kauffman and Democrat Party Chair Andy McGuire.

Republican Party Chair, Jeff Kauffman and Democrat Party Chair Andy McGuire.

The leaders of Iowa’s two major political parties will soon announce a plan for releasing timely, accurate electronic results of the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.

The precinct caucuses are not elections, but are run by the two parties. The 2012 results from Iowa Republicans were jumbled. Mitt Romney was declared the winner on Caucus Night, by a margin of eight votes, then a few days later when official results were tallied, Rick Santorum was declared the victor by 34 votes.

Jeff Kaufmann was elected chairman of the Iowa GOP this past June and he’s in charge of organizing for the 2016 Caucuses.

“We’re going to learn from our mistakes,” Kaufmann said this morning.

Kaufmann said it’s “exciting news” about the envisioned electronic system for collecting and reporting Caucus results, but he’s not ready to reveal all the details yet.

“There are some other factors involved in that announcement and we have to wait for the timeliness of that,” Kaufmann said. “But we will make believers out of Iowa.”

Andy McGuire was elected chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party in January and she also describes the envisioned electronic reporting as “exciting.”

“It’s electronic and wonderful and I think you will really think it’s very accurate,” McGuire said. “It’s timely and certainly will be good for both parties.”

The Iowa Caucuses are scheduled for February 1, 2016 and the two parties will each hold neighborhood gatherings for each of Iowa’s 1684 precincts. While some precincts may consolidate meeting places, McGuire said there will still be hundreds of sites from which results must be collected.

“I don’t think people understand how small they can be and how large they can be and how differing they can be in parts of the state that are more electronic and less electronic,” McGuire said. “It is a large job and we take it very seriously and that’s what we work on it every day. We have a caucus director. That’s her job, every day, to make sure that we have all of those results and we can trust all of those results and we’ve always done well in previous years.”

Democrats engage in far more math on Caucus Night than do Republicans, who merely take a straw poll to measure support for the candidates. Democrats at each caucus site have a “viability test” that calculates which candidates have at least 15 percent support in the room. If a candidate is “non-viable” then his or her supporters must join another candidate’s group. The ultimate Caucus Night calculation determines how many delegates each candidate has secured from each precinct.

McGuire and Kaufmann made their remarks this morning during taping of the “Iowa Press” program which airs tonight on Iowa Public Television.


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.