Telegraph Herald. April 6, 2014.
Iowa at forefront of changing views on gay marriage
"The general assembly shall not grant to any citizen or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens."
That's the statement in Iowa's Bill of Rights that weighed on the Iowa Supreme Court five years ago when the justices took up the issue of same-sex marriage. In order for the state of Iowa to extend the right to marry to one group while denying it to another, the court would have had to have found that treating one group of citizens differently was "substantially related to an important governmental objective."
The state argued that those objectives were tradition, encouraging procreation and creating a proper environment for raising children.
But when the seven legal minds elevated to Iowa's highest court looked at those justifications, they all came to the same conclusion:
— Tradition is no reason to keep a law on the books. Slavery was once a tradition. So was allowing only white men to vote.
— Procreation doesn't hold up as an argument. The state allows people to marry whether or not they intend to have children. No one even asks the question.
— Even if the court believed a same-sex relationship wasn't the proper environment for raising children, saying no to same-sex marriage wouldn't change anything. Same-sex couples were already allowed to raise children.
So, all seven justices agreed: Iowa's ban on same-sex marriage was in violation of the Iowa Constitution.
Thus, in 2009, Iowa became the first state in the nation to reverse such a ban, paving the way for legal same-sex marriage. The decision was both heralded with praise and excoriated as activism from the bench. A year later, after a fierce campaign by opponents of the decision (a campaign heavily bankrolled by out-of-state money) voters ousted the three Supreme Court justices up for retention. But just two years later, the next time a justice faced a retention vote, the campaign to target justices who made the decision had lost steam; Justice David Wiggins retained his seat with 54 percent of the vote.
What was a ground-breaking decision just five years ago doesn't seem quite so extraordinary today. Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage by court rulings, by statute or by popular votes. Four states — Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin — recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships. The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling invalidating California's Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Change has spread in Europe as well, where Spain upheld its gay marriage law and France legalized gay marriage last year.
As each new barrier is broken, the clamor from the opposition gets a little bit quieter. People have begun to realize that allowing same-sex marriage doesn't have the negative impact on heterosexual marriage that opponents feared. Since the ruling in Iowa five years ago, there has been no decline in heterosexual marriage, nor has such a decline been seen in any state where the law changed. Marriage rates are about the same whether a state allows gay marriage or not.
Iowa's ruling five years ago was the right thing to do — not because it was time to support gay marriage — but because our state constitution says we won't treat one group differently than another. As the justices wrote, "To decide otherwise would be an abdication of our constitutional duty."
That ruling and the decisions that followed helped citizens' opinions on the issue evolve. A majority of people now accept gay marriage as both a legal right and a part of society. Iowans can be proud that the state Supreme Court upheld the state's constitution five years ago, putting the state at the front of a tide that just keeps turning.
Quad-City Times. April 5, 2014.
Muscatine activists provide relief for entire Q-C
Breathe easy, Quad-Citians, and thank a zealous group of Muscatine families for the privilege.
Four years of community organizing by Clean Air Muscatine and litigation by the Iowa Attorney General led Muscatine's Grain Processing Corp. to a court-approved settlement that will curb air pollution that is hurting Muscatine families and our entire Quad-City region's economic development potential.
Our region has struggled to meet Environmental Protection Agency air standards for years, primarily because of polluting industries near the EPA and Iowa Department of Natural Resources air monitors. One of the monitors was next to GPC. Chronic compliance problems with that monitor contributed to our entire area pushing against EPA limits on particulate matter clouding the air.
Thanks to Clean Air Muscatine and the Iowa Attorney General, GPC agreed March 27 to fuel boilers with natural gas and abandon the coal that fouled our air.
"We hope implementation of control strategies being developed with GPC will bring the area consistently into compliance with PM 2.5," said Brian Hutchins, environmental program supervisor at the air quality bureau of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. PM 2.5 refers to airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These fine particles "are believed to pose the largest health risks. Because of their small size (less than one-seventh the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs," according to the U.S. EPA.
Clean Air Muscatine member Bonnie R. Adkins says the group formed after hearing over and over again about Muscatine families with respiratory problems. "The evidence is all over town. You can see it on playground equipment in Musser Park," she said.
GPC agreed to a court settlement that requires more than $15 million in improvements, mainly installing the natural gas burners. Company officials said the changes will add at least $5 million annually in fuel and operations costs. The company also is paying a $1.5 million fine and agreed not to appeal the ruling. Clean Air Muscatine members cheered the court action and GPC's long-sought cooperation.
Gage Kent, the CEO and chairman of GPC parent Kent Corp., told the Muscatine Journal his firm agreed to "collaboratively develop specific plans to address the full scope of concerns. GPC has and will continue to make a huge commitment of resources to deliver on the promise of air-quality improvement."
It's a promise Clean Air Muscatine members longed to hear. The company already had been fined $538,000 in 2006 for a previous attorney general complaint about air pollution. This time, the settlement spells relief.
"There are some really good controls implemented as part of this settlement that will reduce air pollution in the Muscatine area," said DNR's Hutchens.
Even without Clean Air Muscatine's intervention, GPC knew for years it was exceeding state and federal emission limits. Still, it took volunteer community organizers along with the state attorney general to convince a judge to hold GPC accountable.
That accountability won't put GPC out of business. Instead, it will require it to stop hurting the hometown community that provides the workforce and raw materials vital to its success.
GPC should be thanking Clean Air Muscatine for forcing this long-delayed solution.
All of our Quad-Cities should thank them for winning a victory against a company whose emissions threatened economic growth throughout the region.
Iowa City Press-Citizen. April 3, 2014.
Continuing the conversation on end-of-life care
Talking about end-of-life care is a subject that most people already find scary enough. And the rhetorical firestorm a few years ago around supposed "death panels" and "pulling the plug on grandma" not only served to distract people from having a rational discussion of overdue health care reform, but it also scared some people further away from taking the steps necessary to make sure their family members and their doctor know their preferences for end-of-life care.
Since then, the 2011 film "Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject," has become a very helpful tool for persuading families of the benefits of discussing such an important topic. Produced by Terry Kaldhusdal and Michael Bernhagen — who both lost loved ones to severe chronic disease — the film is focused on helping people take the steps necessary to ensure that end-of-life care is "more person-centered and less system-centered."
"When it's your time to die, where would you like to be and with whom?" Bernhagen asked in a 2013 interview with Milwaukee Public Radio. "What kind of care would you want? Why is hope not the same as having a plan? What does quality of life mean to you? What matters most to you at the end of life, how would you like to live at the end of your life?"
To help area families recognize they have nothing to fear from asking such questions, the local group Honoring Your Wishes and the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center will be teaming up for a screening of "Consider the Conversation" at 7 p.m. April 16 in the Senior Center's Assembly Room, 28 S. Linn St. The film will be followed by a panel discussion with Pat Heiden, executive director of Oaknoll; the Rev. Steven Protzman, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City; Nicole Peterson, lecturer with the University of Iowa College of Nursing; and Syndy Conger, a volunteer at the Senior Center and New Song Episcopal Church.
The event will be a powerful reminder that, if people don't prepare some form of advanced care directive outlining what end-of-life they want to receive, then their family members are left trying to figure out what their wishes would have been. (And if those family members disagree passionately enough, then the courts are left to decide.)
Such discussions are not merely theoretical. The only thing each of us knows for certain is that we are going to die one day. If that death comes quickly, no decision needs to be made. If it is prolonged, however, then the situation can become overwhelmingly complicated.
Iowa law sets up a process that allows for the withholding or withdrawing of life-sustaining procedures if a doctor agrees with the person who has been appointed to make decisions for the individual. If there is no one appointed, the law basically sets up a hierarchy of individuals who can consult and agree with a physician: The appointed proxy, the incapacitated person's guardian, the person's spouse, a majority of the person's adult children, the person's parents and then the person's adult siblings.
If discussions about end-of-life care can be done when everyone is lucid and able to think rationally — albeit the discussions themselves often can get emotional — then they save everyone pain and anguish at a time when few are able to think rationally.
That's why it's so important for family members to begin to talk with each other about these decisions. And then, because people change their minds about what counts as appropriate life-saving measures — a healthy 35-year-old will view these issues differently when she becomes a chronically ill 75-year-old — it's equally important that these discussions happen on a regular basis.
For more information, visit Iowa City Hospice's Honoring Your Wishes program at http://honoringyourwishes.org.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. April 6, 2014.
Change in funding formula needed for state universities
We've known for a long time that when it comes to state funding formulas for regent institutions, the University of Northern Iowa usually gets short shrift.
State leaders are beginning to recognize that, and are making moves to bring a little more equity into the equation. That help, however, is coming in one- or two-year lump sums — not a great long-term solution.
Gov. Terry Branstad has budgeted an additional $4 million for UNI in each of the next two fiscal years. Of course that's appreciated, but some legislators are asking the Iowa Board of Regents to find a more permanent fix.
"UNI doesn't have the out-of-state tuition, or a law school, medical hospital and the research areas the other two universities have," said Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, vice chair of the education appropriation subcommittee. "Northern Iowa's mission is different."
UNI depends on revenues from in-state tuition more than the other two state universities. Back-to-back in-state tuition freezes have hit UNI harder than the other universities.
First, we were solidly behind the tuition freeze, simply because students and their families deserve a break from continued tuition increases that stretch back to 2000. Iowa tuition rose by almost 60 percent between 2001 and 2005 alone.
However, the freeze is only accentuating the problems in current funding schemes.
"A tuition freeze is good news and bad news," said University of Northern Iowa President Bill Ruud. "It's great for Iowa families but a double-edged sword for UNI. We have no opportunity for $50 or $100 more per semester to use to grow and develop programs."
UNI is still dealing with a loss of $24 million in state funding between 2009 and 2012. If $10 million were permanently added to its budget, it would be close to 2009 funding levels.
About 90 percent of UNI's enrollment comes from within Iowa's borders.
Former Iowa lawmaker Willard Jenkins has calculated that UNI supported 23 percent of Iowa students at the three regent universities during the fall semester, but was appropriated 18 percent of the state dollars budgeted for higher education.
Ruud has proposed that 75 percent of the state appropriations go toward resident students.
"I just need to be put on a level playing field," he said.
Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, is also speaking about long-term solutions.
"The concern is that if UNI continues to accept the crumbs from the other two institutions, then that's what they will get into perpetuity," he said.
He added that the University of Iowa has over a half a billion dollars in cash and cash equivalents, while UNI has $27 million.
The Iowa Board of Regents and our lawmakers need to continue working toward a long-term solution that gives UNI a fair shake going forward.
The bottom line is we shouldn't be punishing one university because a greater percentage of its enrollment comes from our own state.