Quad-City Times. May 2, 2014.
Meager results from bitter session
Iowa lawmakers limp away from Des Moines with a meager list of legislation and a pile of undone work that succumbed to election year pressure and Gov. Terry Branstad's mounting management scandals.
The end of the session devolved into legislative hearings on the governor's hush-money scandal, unearthed by Des Moines Register reporters who found solid evidence that Branstad appointees authorized secret payments to keep dismissed state workers quiet. Democrats pushed for disclosure, but resisted Republican efforts to disclose the cause for dismissal along with the secret payouts. Consequently, no new laws were passed to keep this from happening again.
The flap deepened partisan rifts, making compromise on so many issues impossible.
Consequently, lawmakers go home without expanding broadband to rural counties, without expanding preschool and without fixing the Iowa Juvenile Home, closed due to state mismanagement.
The biggest accomplishment is a welcome omission: No gas tax hike. There was no way Republicans or Democrats could support any kind of tax increase while the state enjoys surpluses and rising tax revenue.
Lawmakers actually collaborated to permit heavily restricted use of one form of marijuana extract for one type of ailment. The bill allowing some epileptic patients use of a non-intoxicating cannabis oil extract isn't groundbreaking; it's overdue compassion for a handful of people forced to go out of state to seek treatment for themselves and their children.
Lawmakers dug a bit deeper to help pay for a state university tuition freeze. And they altered tax law to exempt military retirement pay from income taxes, just like Illinois and many other states.
Election year legislative sessions always are hyper partisan. And Iowa's version pales compared to Illinois. Still, lawmakers go home leaving Iowans with little to celebrate and much to debate through the upcoming campaign season.
Globe Gazette. May 4, 2014.
Governor, sign the cannabis oil legislation
Whether the recently concluded session of the Iowa Legislature was a success pretty much depends — as is the case in most years — on who you talk to.
Remember, an election is on the horizon and that no doubt dictated a lot of what took place under the big dome in Des Moines.
For example, we favored looking at a gas tax increase because we're tired of driving on crappy, pothole-filled roads — and wary of reports of unsafe bridges in some parts of the state — and figure out-of-staters could help pay for the repairs if the gas tax were bumped a bit.
State Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, felt that way, too, but no matter how much pushing and shoving he did, election-year politics weren't about to let a tax increase through.
"The difference between a statesman and a politician is a statesman thinks of the next generation and the politician thinks of the next election," he said.
It's pretty clear that lawmakers fell into the politician ranks on that issue.
Another shortfall came in the area of providing broadband to rural communities. Proponents said the goal was to allow each school child to have access to broadband. Gee, what a novel idea. But the Legislature dropped the ball and now all those "complicated issues" some lawmakers referred to regarding the measure could go unresolved.
There was good work, too. As pointed out by our sister newspaper, the Quad-City Times, the Legislature ensured a tuition freeze a state universities — a logical idea if the state is serious about its goal of keeping young people home — and changed the tax law to exempt military retirement pay from income taxes.
But some politicos didn't want to talk so much about what passed and what didn't as they did the so-called secret settlements in which some ex-employees got paid hush money. Hopefully, a partisan effort will lead to a final conclusion of that issue but we're betting that those same election-year politics will turn that thing even nastier than it is now. It seems like an issue that certainly will work against Gov. Terry Branstad.
However, we have a more pressing issue for the governor. Sometime soon, say before he rides in the North Iowa Band Festival Parade May 24, we hope he signs the bill allowing some epileptic patients the use of a cannabis-based, non-addictive oil.
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said she wasn't sure whether the governor would do so. For the sake of kids like Caleb Helland and Maggie Selmeski, and who knows how many other like them, we urge Branstad to act quickly.
Caleb, 9, and his family live in Mason City. His parents, Cassie and Justin, hope he can receive the cannabis oil and be taken off other medicines which have side effects such as liver and kidney damage.
Maggie, 2, and her family live in Colorado where marijuana is legal. Maggie's mom, Rachael, has had Maggie on daily cannabis oil treatments for her intractable epilepsy since October. Last year, Selmeski said, her daughter could have up to 500 seizures in one day — one day! On Thursday, she told the Quad-City Times that since she started taking cannabis oil, the seizures have been reduced by 30 percent.
"Maggie's got a little more spunk to her. She's not that lifeless body anymore," said Rachael, an Iowa native.
If those results can be repeated hundreds or thousands of times, the governor should make it possible. Everything else should take a back seat when relief is possible for those suffering so much.
Governor, sign the bill. And for the rest of the legislation — and the secret settlement situation — we'll stay tuned to see how it all plays out.
Iowa City Press-Citizen. April 30, 2014.
Change needed on what's required of Iowa casinos
That's how the Democratic leadership of the Iowa Senate recently described an amendment proposed by state Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, that would have required the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to grant a casino license to any application from a city with a population of 50,000 or more.
Horn, not surprisingly, was disappointed earlier in the month when the commission, on a 4-1 vote, turned down an application request from the $164 million Cedar Crossing Casino proposed for Cedar Rapids. Since that vote, Chairman Jeff Lamberti has been stressing how, for decades, the regulation of the state's casino industry has followed the "overarching goal" of creating a "stable and predictable gaming environment" that is "free of significant disruption."
If lawmakers want to change that model, Lamberti has pointed out repeatedly, then it's up to them to do so.
For some reason, however, the Senate leadership determined that Horn's amendment on a casino licensing bill wasn't germane to a near-end-of-session bill that would have allowed the state's casinos to get out of the business of greyhound racing business. The bill involved a $92 million deal that would help ensure those involved in the industry would have a soft landing.
Never mind that the very need for the greyhound racing bill is evidence of the risks involved with the state government being too heavily involved in the regulation (and micromanagement) of the gambling industry. (Say nothing of the risks involved with the state government having grown so addicted to the revenue collected from those casinos.)
Never mind how reading through Chapter 99 of the Iowa Code feels like traveling through time to witness all the legislative tweaks and changes that have needed to take place to allow the state's growing gambling industry to keep up with the needs of its marketplace. (Don't forget, this all started with casinos being allowed only on riverboats that actually used to travel on rivers.)
Never mind that the debate over how/whether to provide a soft landing for greyhound gambling sets precedent for similar packages that may have to be negotiated in the future for facilities and gaming that — due to demographic, technological or culture shifts — may not continue to be viable.
Unlike Horn, we think the state Racing and Gaming Commission made the right decision on the Cedar Rapids proposal. For years we been saying that the casino industry has reached a saturation point in terms of dollars it can pull from Iowans' pockets.
But we think the questions Horn raised through his amendment are germane ones that need to be part of future legislative discussions, especially in terms of:
— Casino floors being the last holdout from the state's Smokefree Air Act.
— The philanthropic requirements for casinos being expanded beyond the host county to benefit other counties in the region as well.
Telegraph Herald. May 2, 2014.
Government holds 2 positions on free press
In honor of World Press Freedom Day May 3, the U.S. State Department launched its third annual Free the Press Campaign, championing the rights of journalists who have been "targeted, oppressed, imprisoned or otherwise harassed because of their professional work."
That's nice of the State Department and all, it's just too bad some of the targeting, oppression, imprisonment and harassment is coming from the U.S. government.
Luckily, when the State Department heralded its launch of Free the Press, the journalists in the room were savvy enough to ask a few questions. How, for example, does the government reconcile the Free the Press campaign with the treatment of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen?
Though the State Department spokeswoman dodged the question, it's worth further scrutiny. The U.S. government was speaking out of one side of its mouth in the State Department; meanwhile, the Justice Department had filed court documents urging the Supreme Court to refuse to hear Risen's petition on his reporter's privilege case. A lower court already had pressured Risen to testify about his confidential sources.
Risen was subpoenaed to testify at the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer charged with disclosing classified information, some of which was the same information Risen wrote about in his book, "State of War." A district court judge ruled Risen's testimony was protected by a reporter's privilege. But the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that decision. If the Supreme Court won't hear Risen's appeal, the reporter could be jailed for refusing to identify the source of his material. All this under the Obama administration — which promised to be the most accessible and transparent presidency ever. Instead, it is threatening to jail a reporter while at the same time touting its Free the Press Campaign.
Protection for journalists has long been held as a tenet of American society and is vital to a free and independent press. A reporter digging on an important story might receive some information only with the guarantee of anonymity for the source. If authorities are allowed to poke around in reporters' notes and tapes, there might be no source — and, ultimately, no story with information of service to the public.
The irony of last week's Free the Press announcement tees up an example of why a federal shield law is needed. Congress has been kicking around possible legislation for years. It's about time the federal government adopts some rules protecting journalists from having to disclose confidential sources. Until then, the government should know it can't brag to the press about the effort it's making while persecuting another reporter.