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Capitol Digest, 1-26-2012

Rod Boshart, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa –

A roundup of legislative and Capitol news items of interest for Thursday, Jan. 26:

MOTOR VEHICLE ENFORCEMENT: Branstad administration officials said Thursday they are making initial moves in a process that ultimately could merge the state Department of Transportation’s motor-vehicle enforcement duties within the Iowa Department of Public Safety to improve operations, enhance traffic safety and save a projected $5.3 million. DOT Director Paul Trombino III and DPS Commissioner Larry Noble confirmed that they are implementing a common emblem for Iowa State Patrol and DOT enforcement vehicles and are looking at purchasing vehicles with similar coloring schemes in the future as a way to increase the presence of law enforcement on interstate and state highways in Iowa. “We feel the color scheme of the vehicles is the first presence that any person on the (highway) system sees,” said Trombino. “We think that in itself is a terrific boost for traffic operations and safety on the system and will prove a long-term dividend.” Trombino and Noble said their departments have begun efforts to integrate their operations across common missions but would not be coming with a formal merger proposal for the Legislature to consider until the 2013 session. That likely would seek to move the DOT’s 131 full-time motor vehicle enforcement employees – many who are so-called “blue coat” officers whose primary jobs are to enforce weight requirements, equipment safety and other laws pertaining to the commercial trucking industry operating on highways in Iowa — into the DPS as a division reporting to the public safety commissioner – effectively consolidating all state law enforcement and investigative units into one state agency, they said. Lawmakers said the overall change would need their sign-off because the motor vehicle enforcement officers are funded from the state’s road-use tax fund while the Iowa State Patrol is financed by the state’s general fund.

GUARD EDUCATION BENEFIT APPROVED: The House approved Senate File 2007, a $1.3 million supplemental appropriation for the National Guard Education Assistance program, 96-0 and sent it to the governor who has indicated he will sign it. The appropriation, which was approved earlier 49-0 by the Senate, will allow the Guard to cover about 90 percent of returning Guard members’ tuition costs at Iowa colleges, universities and community colleges. “It’s certainly the proper thing to do,” said Rep. Jerry Kearns, D-Keokuk, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. “I think everyone here probably believes we owe them that. It was kind of a promise we made in the original bill.” The Guard announced in December it would reduce the maximum Education Assistance Program award to 50 percent, which translated to a loss of up to $1,300 per semester for students at Iowa’s regents’ universities. The Guard said the cut was necessary because more Guard members enrolled in college in the current semester than anticipated. When the cut was announced, the regents’ universities and community college began looking for ways to offset the cut, shifting funds for other budget line items to tuition assistance. SF 2007 increase the tuition assistance from $3,186,233 to $4,486,233 to pick up the tuition costs for Guard members enrolled in college this semester. The Guard anticipates the $1.3 million will more than cover students’ costs this semester. The remainder will be carried forward for use in the next semester. “I can’t think of a better way to spend our dollars than helping out our veterans,” Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, said. The House also gave final approval to SF 2008, which contained clarifying language regarding the $3 million appropriation the Legislature approved for the restoration of the USS Iowa battleship, which will be docked in Los Angeles.

NO PARTY FOR SOCIAL HOST BILL: Legislation targeting state criminal penalties for social hosts who knowingly allow unrelated 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to possess or consume alcoholic beverages illegally on property not licensed dispense such drinks failed to clear a House subcommittee for the second time this week. Backers of House File 396 removed a section that sought to create an offense for consumption of alcoholic beverages by people under the legal drinking age of 21 but included language to prohibit parents or other social hosts from “permitting under legal age consumption or possession on certain property” by young people other than their children. Representatives of county attorneys argued in favor of the measure, saying such illegal situations are covered under local ordinances but not state law. However, detractors argued that the bill’s wording is still vague and should pre-empt local jurisdictions from having ordinances that may conflict with the proposed statute. H.F. 396 would exempt parents who might allow an under-aged child to consume wine, beer or liquor in their private home but would cover other under-aged friends at a residence, house party or outdoor gathering on farms or other properties. A person of legal age who permits under legal age consumption or possession of alcohol in violation of the proposed law would commit a serious misdemeanor punishable by a minimum fine of $500.

LEAD SHOT BAN: The House Natural Resources Committee voted 17-4 Thursday to lift the ban on using lead shot during dove hunts and now the measure moves to the full House for consideration. Rep. Guy Vander Linden, R-Oskaloosa, said the legislation was necessary because the state’s Natural Resources Commission tried to “usurp the authority of the Legislature” last year when it banned lead shot from being used during the rule-making process. Stephanie Fawkes-Lee, a lobbyist representing people who want to ban the use of led shot, said it was “unfortunate” that the debate took the turn that it did. “The saddest part of it for me is that it became about power for some of the legislators, not about the lead shot,” she said. Proponents of the ban say lead shot that is left in the field can poison the ground and is sometimes eaten by animals. Opponents of the ban say the concern is overblown. Earlier this week a Senate committee voted 9-3 to remove the rule banning lead shot. “I’ve been hunting for all my life and I’ve never seen lead shot in a bird other than what he was shot with,” said Lyle Goodrich, 80, of Indianola, who was one of about two dozen hunters that attended the meeting. “I’ve never seen it logged in their throat because they tried to swallow it or anything like that.”

HEALTH INSURANCE BENEFIT: Superintendents at Iowa public school districts and area education agencies who receive health-insurance coverage as part of their contract would be required to pay at least 25 percent of the total monthly insurance premium cost under a bill that cleared a House subcommittee on Thursday. Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City, said House File 2053, which he co-sponsored, could save state taxpayers up to $1.3 million in yearly costs that go to subsidize top school administrations compensation package – money that should be redirected to classrooms where it’s most needed. Taylor, a school teacher, said superintendent salaries have grown 68.7 percent since fiscal 1998, an increase that is out of step with the levels that Iowans’ personal income have grown over that same period. “We need some way of limiting the amount of dollars that taxpayers are going to pay in subsidizing health-insurance premiums. He said the bill was a fairness issue, since majority House Republicans are seeking to have state employees as well as legislators to make a minimum $100 monthly contribution for health insurance premiums. Rep. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, said his wife is a long-time school employee who has been asked to take on extra duties to stretch scarce resources and it seemed justified to ask superintendents making four to five times more money than rank-and-file employees to pay a share of their insurance benefits. “To me, it’s only fair to ask everyone to have some skin in the game. Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, a former teacher of the year, joined Taylor and Lofgren in shipping the bill to the full House Education Committee. Tom Narak of the School Administrators of Iowa said his group opposed the bill and believed it was a decision best left to locally elected school board members to decide.

DRUG TESTING FOR FIP BENEFITS: Low-income Iowans who qualify for the state-administered Family Investment Program (FIP) would first have to pass a drug test before they or family members would receive welfare benefits under three House bills that got initial consideration by a House subcommittee on Thursday. The three-member panel heard detailed explanations of the House files (H.F. 2036, 2045 and 2046) and the differences in their approaches and received some public comments – all in opposition – before time ran out with no vote taken. Lyle Krewson, a lobbyist for the National Association of Social Workers’ Iowa chapter, said his group opposed any of the proposed approaches because it treated poor people differently, noting that Iowans are required to submit to a drug test to receive the homestead credit on their property taxes or obtain a driver’s license. Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said similar attempts to establish drug-testing requirements in other states have been met with court challenges or did not pass constitutional muster. He said there are no studies or research findings that indicate problems exist with the FIP program and there likely would be a cost associated with the requirement since the state would reimburse FIP applicants for the cost of the test when results are negative. Rep. Mark Brandenburg, D-Council Bluffs, said he plans to schedule a follow-up meeting for more discussion of the proposals.

NUCLEAR POWER BILL ADVANCES: All three members of a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee signed off on H.F. 561 that would allow MidAmerican Energy to pass costs of developing a small-scale nuclear power plant on to customers before it’s even built. The bill now goes to the full committee. The subcommittee heard from several opponents who called the bill and the amendment unfair to utility customers by imposing the risk associated with power plant development on them rather than investors. The question is not whether or not Iowa should consider building a nuclear power plant, but “whether we should change the way Iowa builds and pays for multi-billion dollar utility projects and who bears the cancellation risk for these ventures,” said Anthony Carroll of Iowa AARP. The Legislature is getting the cart before the horse, added Mike Carberry of Friends of the Earth, because there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. “If we bet the farm on nuclear energy, we won’t have much left to invest in what Iowans really want: clean, green energy,” said Marybeth Gardam of Iowa Move to Amend.

STRANGULATION BILL: House Judiciary Committee members voted 16-2 Thursday to approve a domestic violence bill which would make it an aggravated misdemeanor to strangle someone during an incident of domestic abuse. Current law treats strangulation in domestic abuse as a simple misdemeanor. The bill, Senate File 93, also provides for a Class D felony if there is bodily harm incurred by the victim. An aggravated misdemeanor is punishable by confinement for no more than two years and a fine of at least $625 but not more than $6,250. A class “D” felony is punishable by confinement for no more than five years and a fine of at least $750 but not more than $7,500.

FLAGS TO BE LOWERED: Gov. Terry Branstad has ordered all flags under the control of the state in Iowa be flown at half-staff from 5 p.m. Jan. 27, 2012 until 8 a.m. Jan. 30 in honor of Marine Corps Master Sgt. Travis Riddick, 40, formerly of Centerville, who was killed in action Jan. 21 in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan. Individuals, businesses, schools, municipalities, counties and other government subdivisions are encouraged to fly the flag at half-staff as a sign of respect. Riddick is survived by his wife, Jennifer Riddick; six children, Victoria Riddick and Levi Riddick and Charles Lovelace, Matt Lovelace, James Lovelace and Zachary Lovelace; his parents, John and Barbara Riddick; and two brothers, Tim and Troy Riddick. Memorial services for Riddick will be Jan. 29 at Centerville High School’s Simon Estes Auditorium. Branstad plans to attend. The U.S. flag flown over the Iowa Capitol Jan. 29 will be presented to Riddick’s family.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It’s said that behind every great man is a great woman and no one is more surprised than the mother-in-law.” — Janice Lund, chairwoman of the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees board, in honoring Kay Kibbie during a Thursday Statehouse tribute to her husband, Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, who plans to end his long legislative career after the 2012 session.

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