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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

By By The Associated Press

Dubuque () — Telegraph Herald. Dec. 6, 2013.

Cities shouldn't 'zone out' payday loan industry

There are problems with the payday loan industry. For the borrowers, that is, not the lenders. When lenders charge as much as 400 percent annualized interest, that's a problem.

When people already in financial straits take out these loans, only digging themselves deeper, it's a problem.

Payday loans are the short-term, high-interest loans that allow customers to borrow money, ostensibly until their next paycheck comes in. These lenders say they are providing a needed service, at a critical time, to people who are turned away by (or don't apply to) conventional lenders like banks and credit unions. They tend to be vulnerable, desperate people. Lenders know this. Iowa limits the fee on a two-week, $100 loan to $16.67. That amounts to an APR of 433 percent.

That this problem is not being remedied is frustrating for many people, including governmental and civic leaders.

But this serious problem is not a zoning problem. The City of Dubuque shouldn't try to "fix" the problem of the payday loan industry through zoning.

Going after an enterprise for its business practices is not a zoning issue. Payday lenders' exorbitant rates is the issue — an issue for the state Legislature.

Cities have limited power to rein in the proliferation of businesses they don't like, so they use one of the only tools they have to curtail them: zoning laws. That strategy can be effective, too. Cities do it all the time with strip clubs. Several cities in Iowa — Des Moines, Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Rapids — all have zoning laws that dictate where payday loan businesses can and cannot operate. Drawing a buffer around schools, churches, day care centers and parks, for example, greatly limits the number of places a new business could open, thereby stopping the growth of the industry.

It's understandable that cities are frustrated with the Iowa Legislature's failure to rein in the predatory rates charged by payday-loan shops. Every year since 2010, lawmakers make noise about capping the interest rate. And every year, the industry lobbies against it, and the measure stalls. When the state's two largest cities have devised an end-around the law to keep these businesses at bay, it's pretty obvious the Legislature has failed to do its job.

Typically the discussion in the Legislature centers around a cap of 36 percent, on par with what banks and credit unions pay. But the clients seeking money from a payday lender are likely higher risk than typical bank clientele.

There's a cost to doing business, so perhaps 36 percent is too low for these high-risk loans. But surely we can do better than 433 percent.

Lawmakers need to work with industry officials to help solve this problem. More than a dozen states have banned the industry entirely. If lenders want to continue to work in Iowa, they can help find a reasonable rate while allowing lawmakers to protect consumers.

That's a better way to address the problematic industry of payday loans. Cities shouldn't use zoning to hamstring a legitimate business when the Legislature is equipped to fix the problem.

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The Des Moines Register. Dec. 8, 2013.

Insurance issue is bigger than birth control

It has been 13 years since the Iowa Legislature voted to require many employers to pay for birth control in health insurance plans. Senate File 2126 ordered employers offering prescription coverage to also cover "contraceptive devices which prevent contraception and which are approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration."

The Iowa House passed the bill with 85 votes. Of the 49 senators who voted, 44 voted "yes." Gov. Tom Vilsack signed the bill into law.

Religious organizations were not exempted. Neither were for-profit businesses whose owners who had religious objections.

Iowans may not remember any of this because the mandate was hardly controversial.

Flash forward a decade.

When the Affordable Care Act required coverage for birth control in health plans, President Obama faced backlash from religious groups. Churches were exempt, but his administration quickly moved to exempt religious-affiliated nonprofit employers, such as Catholic hospitals.

Some for-profit businesses are challenging the requirement. The owners of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. say their Christian beliefs rule out covering some forms of contraception. So far courts have been split on whether businesses can deny this coverage based on rights to religious expression. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide the issue.

But the controversy isn't just about birth control or First Amendment rights or the fact that this medication is misunderstood by some (it prevents pregnancy; it doesn't terminate a pregnancy). The bigger issue is a fundamental flaw with Obamacare: The health reform law cemented in place employer-based health insurance.

American employers had never been required to offer health insurance to workers. The practice started after a labor shortage following World War II when some businesses offered it in an attempt to attract workers.

Time passed, health insurance evolved and what began as a perk became an obligation for U.S. businesses that makes no sense. Your boss doesn't select and help pay for your home owner's insurance or car insurance.

At the very time this country should have moved away from the employer-based insurance model, the reform law required many companies to offer coverage to workers or face a penalty. Conflicts such as the one over birth control were inevitable. It would be no surprise if more ensue.

What if the owner of a company has a "moral objection" to cancer treatment or vasectomies or any number of routine drugs or procedures? Will they also challenge the law? What are workers supposed to do in the meantime?

Our employer-based health insurance system is a fluke of history that has been the source of numerous problems over the years. Businesses can't afford the cost. Workers blame their bosses when their health plan is poor. Companies that should be focused on manufacturing cars or building houses employ teams of people to stay current on regulations.

A law codifying this flawed system now has some businesses mired in a controversy over a government requirement to cover an inexpensive, widely used prescription drug.

It's crazy. And it's an issue Washington lawmakers must eventually address.

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Quad-City Times. Dec. 4, 2013.

Rare towboat accident merits full investigation

The notorious Rock Island rapids — our bend of the river long since tamed by the locks and dams — appears to have struck again.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday began investigating what ripped a 12- by 30-inch hole (about 8 inches deeper than this page) into the hull of a sturdy towboat, and how that relatively small rupture caused it to sink in minutes just off the LeClaire riverfront.

Towboat accidents are rare. NTSB public affairs spokesman Terry Williams reported no more than 30 investigations in the past five years among the thousands of registered tow vessels in the U.S. Our review of NTSB investigations as well as news accounts finds only a handful. None involved towboats damaged by submerged structures or river bottoms.

We can't recall the last major towboat accident on this bend of the river. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the 14-mile stretch from LeClaire through Rock Island was so dangerous, downriver tows would tie up at LeClaire and let an experienced pilot take over. The lock and dam construction of the 1930s raised the river level high enough to render the Rock Island Rapids harmless.

Until now.

This accident has generated intense interest in the commercial navigation most of us take for granted. Curious spectators, including many families, have watched crews attempt to contain and capture fuel and raise the towboat. And we've been heartened by accounts of LeClaire residents and emergency crews pitching in to help.

The NTSB's arrival on the scene will help provide answers Quad-Citians need. Few suspected the towboats that regularly ply our bend of the river carried 90,000 gallons of fuel. Fewer suspected that a rip in the hull could sink a tow in less than 15 minutes.

The NTSB investigates towboat accidents with fatalities, or with at least $500,000 in damage, as well as those that represent a recurring threat. We're glad no lives were lost in this accident, but are certain that vessel and environmental damage should easily exceed the NTSB threshold.

Mostly, we're eager to find out what's lurking beneath the river surface that so quickly imperiled the Stephen L. Colby, just one of dozens of towboats that navigate our bend of the river.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Dec. 6, 2013.

Medical marijuana deserves a look

At least one state legislator has stated that he will pursue the legalization of medical marijuana in Iowa during the upcoming 2014 session.

We'd favor hearing some further discussion. If that discussion takes place, we'd like to see the possibility get a fair look.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, told The Associated Press that he will pursue such legislation even though similar efforts have failed over the past decade. During that time, however, more states — including some in the Midwest — have come to the conclusion that the medical benefits outweigh any further possibilities of abuse.

To date, a total of 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana, although their oversight policies and procedures vary. Those oversight policies go a long way in determining the success of the law.

We feel it's time for an objective, open and honest discussion on the pros and cons of the medical use of marijuana.

"I think we're a cautious state. We have some conservative views on this issue," Bolkcom said. "I think what has been missing in Iowa is the compelling stories and recently, people are courageously coming forward and are sharing stories about not getting the care they need."

Supporters of legalization of medical marijuana use say it eases symptoms of illnesses like cancer, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.

According to The Associated Press, a 2010 poll conducted for The Des Moines Register showed that 64 percent of Iowa residents favored legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Regulation would be an important safeguard. The state has already shown that it has the capability, regulating pseudoephedrine — an ingredient in many cold and allergy medicines that abusers use to make methamphetamine — with successful results.

Bolkcom has stated that he plans to offer two bills in the next session. One would re-classify marijuana as a drug with medical benefits. The other would create a medical marijuana program modeled on the system in New Mexico. That program features strict oversight for patients seeking the drug for medical needs.

The New England Journal of Medicine has written in favor of marijuana's medical use. In 2008, the nation's second-largest group of physicians, the American College of Physicians, also came out in favor or marijuana use for some medical conditions.

That includes chemotherapy-induced nausea and appetite loss.

In the interests of quality-of-life issues, a prospective pain, nausea or lack-of-appetite remedy that could aid in the comfort of some of our sickest patients should be given a discerning and fair look.

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