Dubuque Telegraph Herald. March 21, 2014.
State seeks answers with more secret meetings
It might seem fitting to hear a lieutenant governor talking so much about government transparency during Sunshine Week — a period dedicated to public access to the workings of government.
But Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds' recent impromptu references to openness came in response to questions about a Des Moines Register investigation that shows a half-dozen state employees were fired — allegedly because they were Democrats — and paid to keep quiet.
There's nothing sunny about this story. And it gets worse.
Reynolds was out front on this because Gov. Terry Branstad was enjoying some real sunshine on an Arizona vacation. But Reynolds claims neither she nor the governor know anything about payoffs. She intends to find out exactly what happened by creating a working group to look into who authorized the settlements and how that came to pass. Reynolds said the group assembled will include all stakeholders and will restore openness and transparency.
But there's a problem: The meetings will be secret.
Yes, the Branstad administration's effort to get to the bottom of secret government payouts will be led by a group that will meet in secret.
This is no way to observe Sunshine Week.
First of all, it's a little hard to believe that the governor and lieutenant governor knew nothing about the six employees getting paid more than $280,000. But if they really didn't know, then why didn't they know?
The Register's investigation revealed the employees had jobs related to project labor agreements initiated by Branstad's predecessor, Chet Culver. It wouldn't be so unusual that the Republican administration that followed a Democrat would eliminate those positions, but where the secret settlements came into play is unclear. The settlements didn't get processed through the Iowa Appeals Board — as is typical, so the payouts never became public.
Reynolds is right that a group of stakeholders needs to cut to the heart of the issue and find out who authorized the payments and why nobody told the governor's office about it.
But surely she must see the irony in instructing this group to meet in secret.
Let's hope the governor brings a little sunshine back from Arizona and shines the light of public scrutiny on this dust-up before it turns into a real storm.
The Des Moines Register. March 20, 2014.
Jury rightly decides a mistake is not a crime
Kelli Jo Griffin has a criminal record, but she got her life back on track and wanted to become engaged in her community by voting in a local election. For that act, the state of Iowa accused Griffin of a criminal act that could have put her in prison for up to 15 years.
That would have been a personal travesty and a cruel injustice.
Fortunately, a Lee County District Court jury acquitted her Thursday on charges she intentionally violated state law by registering and voting even though as a convicted felon she had lost that right.
Griffin's criminal prosecution is a result of Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz's campaign to go after non-citizens and persons with felony records who have registered or voted in Iowa elections. Griffin's case, the first to go to trial, clearly illustrates why Schultz's campaign is so terribly misguided.
Griffin was convicted in 2008 of delivery of cocaine, which under the Iowa Constitution means she lost her right to vote and to hold public office. Griffin testified, however, that she was told by her attorney that her voting rights would be automatically restored once she completed probation.
That would have been true under an executive order issued by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, but Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded that order in 2011. Griffin's probation officer testified that she did not inform Griffin of the change.
So, when she registered to vote in the Montrose City Council election, Griffin left blank questions about whether she was a convicted felon or had her voting rights restored by the governor. She did that, she testified, because she misunderstood her voting rights status.
Griffin is not eligible to vote, but it's easy to see how she would be confused, given the bad or incomplete advice received from her lawyer and her probation officer.
Yet, Lee County Attorney Michael Short insisted to the jury that Griffin willfully lied on the registration form because she wanted to be seen as a "normal citizen" rather than as a convicted drug dealer.
That assertion is rich with irony: Griffin did, in fact, want to put her criminal record behind her and to be seen as a normal citizen. But she did not fill out the form incorrectly with criminal intent.
She testified that her desire to vote was motivated by a desire to participate in her community. After a history of physical abuse and drug addiction, she is now remarried, raising three young children and volunteering in her community. She was motivated to vote in part to set an example for her stepdaughter by participating in the local election.
When asked at trial why she wanted to vote, Griffin testified, "That's where I live."
This case serves as a classic example of why it is so wrong to want to make criminals of people who make a mistake in filling out a form because they want to exercise the right to vote. It is particularly egregious in the case of people with criminal records who are trying to get their lives back on track by becoming engaged citizens in their communities.
This criminal prosecution of a voter in Lee County is the first case to go to trial. It should never have gone that far, and we can only hope there will be no more like it.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. March 20, 2014.
Most Iowans would approve of medical use of marijuana
Shortly after state leaders failed to act on making marijuana available for prescription medical purposes, a new poll shows most Iowans would approve of such a measure.
As reported earlier, Iowans, by an 87 to 17 percent majority support legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. Even more interesting was that legalization for that purpose was supported by at least 68 percent or more of every party, gender and age group.
Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which conducted the study, said that level of support is comparable to other states.
"Iowans overwhelmingly think marijuana should be legal for medical purposes, but most voters oppose legalizing personal recreational use," Brown said. On the other hand, "Opposition to personal marijuana is higher in Iowa than in any state we've surveyed so far on this subject."
The issue is one that regularly finds itself appearing in discussions at the Statehouse, only to be left behind.
Gov. Terry Branstad, also has his reservations.
"I think we have to be careful about drafting our laws just for a few people that have a particular problem or ailment," Branstad has stated.
Well, there are all kinds of prescription drugs designed for people with any number of particular ailments. The issue here is whether it is effective in alleviating problems or offering relief.
Earlier this month, medical experts addressed a Senate panel, while doctors joined advocates for the legalization of medical marijuana at the Statehouse.
"I think its time has come," Thomas Carlstrom, a retired Des Moines neurosurgeon told lawmakers. "I think the medical uses for marijuana are absolute, they are happening. I think we really need to give serious thought to approving it."
Carlstrom said that for patients suffering from seizures and other forms of chronic pain, including epilepsy, marijuana has proven to be therapeutic.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in Iowa and at the federal level.
However, 20 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing medicinal marijuana programs.
The polls also show that Iowans don't want to go the way of Colorado or Washington State. Regulation would be key. And Iowa has already shown that it has the capability — successfully regulating pseudoephedrine — an ingredient in many cold and allergy medicines that abusers use to make methamphetamine.
State lawmakers should do some research, knowing that this issue will probably return in the next session. They should also consider that approval of such a measure is fine by an overwhelming percentage of their constituents.
Quad-City Times. March 17, 2014.
Iowa tourism message faces stiff competition
Iowa tourism ads will begin showing up soon in surrounding states, touting vacation opportunities through a $1.5 million ad campaign that is big news for Iowa, but nickels and dimes compared to our competition.
All of the states targeted by these ads — Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska, spend much more on tourism marketing than Iowa, according to rankings by Skift.com, a travel industry news source.
Illinois tops our region with $55.4 million last fiscal year, thanks to more attractions, a nationwide market and, most of all, dedicated hotel/motel taxes to pay for it.
Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri all spend at least twice as much as Iowa promoting tourism in the same markets Iowa is trying to crack.
So this spring's $1.5 million buy is a start, but will be fighting for attention among much more sophisticated and better funded ad campaigns.
Missouri's "Enjoy the Show" ad campaign is targeted specifically to female travel decision makers. The plan targets 17 medium-sized markets within 200 miles of the state, including our Quad-Cities and five Iowa markets. It includes extensive co-op advertising that partners with private tourist attractions, as well as extensive social media campaigns.
Missouri budgeted $10.7 million for tourism marketing alone last fiscal year, a number Iowans can only dream of. Missourians don't need to dream. The legislature established a reliable revenue stream in the 1990s by earmarking a portion of sales taxes from tourism-related businesses, like restaurants, hotels and attractions. This increment of sales tax — not additional hotel/motel taxes — allows Missouri to find long-term marketing strategies, not hustle up programs after a one-time appropriation.
Illinois earmarks about 40 percent of hotel/motel taxes for tourism.
Most Iowa hotel/motel taxes go to municipalities, which decide individually how much, if any, goes to marketing.
Without reliable statewide tourism marketing revenue, Iowa's message relies on periodic appropriations, all of which fall far short of our Midwest tourism competitors.
Even with this year's special $1.5 million campaign, Iowa's terrific tourism attractions are relying on visitors from surrounding states who manage to remember the few Iowa references among a flood of Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois ads.