• Funnel Week Bills

    We’ve just completed the first funnel week, the week in which all individually-sponsored bills must be voted out of a committee. Those bills that don’t make it through the funnel are dead until the beginning of the next session. This deadline is imposed in order to ensure bills have sufficient time to make it through both chambers during the legislative session.  Now is a good time to give everyone an update on some of the bills I’ve drafted and/or shepherded through the funnel.

    My synthetic drug bill made it unanimously through the Public Safety Committee.  This bill would make it easier for law enforcement to prosecute synthetic drug offenses, improving upon current code which makes prosecution almost impossible. Additionally, the bill lowers the penalty for crack cocaine in accordance with the Public Safety Advisory Board’s recommendation to better align crack and powdered cocaine penalties. It just doesn’t make sense for an abuser of crack cocaine to receive a significantly worse penalty than an abuser of powdered cocaine, particularly when this causes a disparate impact upon minorities. Finally, as part of overall drug penalty reform, the penalty for possession of the smallest amount of cocaine is reduced for first-time offenders. This is part of an effort to shift the focus from incarceration to treatment for minor drug offenses.

    My child endangerment bill made it through the Judiciary Committee. This bill would add child endangerment resulting in death, when it involves intentional uses of unreasonable force, torture or cruelty, to the list of crimes requiring a mandatory 35-year sentence before eligibility for parole. As the law stands now, a person can beat a baby to death, receive a 50 year sentence, and be immediately eligible for parole. I’ve met with family members who have gone through such a tragedy, and they can’t understand why the person who killed their child isn’t treated the same as those who commit second degree or attempted murder.  This reform is long overdue.

    My bill establishing joint physical care of a child as the presumptive standard in custody situations cleared the Judiciary Committee.  This bill treats fathers and mothers equally when it comes to parental responsibility and care.  While joint care is the presumptive standard, the court can adjust that based on the best interests of the child or with parental agreement.

    My constitutional amendment adding “electronic communications and data” to those things afforded protection against warrantless government search and seizure, made it through the Judiciary Committee.  When our country’s founding fathers drafted the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, they intended to protect citizens against the government reading their mail or accessing their personal files without a warrant.  This amendment updates that intent for the 21st century, ensuring that government authorities in Iowa can’t access email or electronic data without a warrant.  This necessary update is consistent with our state motto, “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.”

    In addition to my own bills, I’ve chaired 2 other bills through the funnel. The first is abill that combats human trafficking by prohibiting traffickers from applying for and using a credit card in a human trafficking victim’s name. This will take away a tool that traffickers use to profit from and trap their victims. The second bill adds bio-based industrial lubricants to those that receive preferential treatment for state contracts. This expands the preference beyond just recycled lubricants, improving competition, helping the environment, and leveraging Iowa’s agriculturally based bio-lubricant sector.

    It’s an honor to serve the people of Marion, Bertram, Ely and the surrounding parts of Linn County. If you have any questions, comments, feedback, would like to meet or would like to visit the Capitol, please contact me at [email protected] or on my cell at 319-651-7316.

  • First Session After Action

    In the Air Force, whenever a commander leads Airmen on a deployment, he completes an After Action Report so his boss knows what the unit accomplished. As a legislator having completed my first session in Des Moines, I feel the same responsibility to report back to those I represent. This After Action Report hits the highlights of what I did to represent the great people of Marion, Bertram, Ely, and the surrounding parts of Linn County.

    In general, this session produced what one might expect with split government: mixed results. Here are some of the highlights:

    • Budget: For the fifth year in a row we balanced ongoing expenses with ongoing revenue; this will leave approximately $300 million in the ending balance for FY16 while topping off the reserve funds; Iowa’s fiscal house remains in good shape.
    • Medicaid: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed a budget with major Medicaid reform, transitioning to Managed Care. This was necessary to stem double-digit Medicaid growth, which threatened to overcome the rest of the budget, including education. As in 37 other states, this reform will provide critical Medicaid services at significantly reduced cost. The executive branch projects savings of $51 million in FY16, with as much as $100 million in the first year of execution. Major questions exist regarding DHS’ transition plan, but all are in agreement that Managed Care is a necessary reform.
    • Infrastructure: The Legislature narrowly passed and the Governor signed a 10-cent increase in the gas tax. While our roads and bridges require significant investment, I voted against this measure. I believed we should prioritize infrastructure within our given revenue rather than increasing the gas tax, particularly given that the gas tax increase was not earmarked for road and bridge repair and it unduly affects those on fixed/low incomes. While we were promised that this increase would only be used for necessary road and bridge repair, we’ve seen this money used for hiring staff, buying land for highway projects, creating new programs unrelated to infrastructure repair, etc. Siphoning these monies off from their intended purpose will not solve our infrastructure problem, and will instead require the Legislature to readdress the infrastructure funding deficit within 5-10 years.
    • Education: The Legislature passed, in a bipartisan way, significant increases for education. This included $50 million more than last year for K-12 and $50 million more than last year for the Teacher Leadership and Compensation Program. Most significantly, it included $55.7 million in one-time money for school districts and AEAs to use for such instructional expenses as textbooks, library books, instructional materials, and student equipment as well as for transportation and student achievement initiatives in math, literacy, or science. After meeting with all 5 of my district’s superintendents, I worked in my capacity as the Vice Chair of Appropriations to advocate for an allotment of one-time money for our schools. I was satisfied with and supported the agreed upon $55.7 million one-time allotment for education. I was subsequently surprised and disappointed in the veto of this bipartisan deal.
    • Mental Health Institutes: The Legislature passed and the Governor vetoed closure extensions for the MHIs at Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. The back-story on this issue is long and complicated. The short version is that under the Olmsted Supreme Court decision interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act, mental health patients (with few exceptions) must receive their services in the most integrated environment possible (ie. in the community). This has led to a nation-wide movement of all but the most serious mental health patients from institutions to community-based services. The Obama Justice Department has accelerated this movement by taking 44+ legal actions in 25+ states. As a result of the small number of patients still residing at Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, the threat of federal legal action, as well as the capacity at Cherokee and Independence, the Governor notified the Legislature in January of his intent to close Clarinda and Mount Pleasant on July 1st. Concerned by the lack of a transition plan as well as questions about whether community-based services had been sufficiently built up to absorb these patients, the Legislature took action to delay closure. I actually ran the bill in the Appropriations Committee to prevent closure until a transition plan was approved by the Mental Health and Disability Services Commission. The final bipartisan deal between the House and Senate included a six-month extension for Clarinda and an indefinite extension for Mount Pleasant. I believe the extension passed by the House Appropriations Committee was the correct approach, and was disappointed at how this issue concluded.
    • Property Rights: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed major property rights reform, providing that condemned property not used for the stated purpose be offered back to the original property owner.
    • Ultrasounds: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed the first pro-life language in some time, requiring that women undergoing an abortion be offered the opportunity to view an ultrasound of the unborn baby. Since current standard of practice already involves an ultrasound, this creates no additional burden upon patients or medical staff. Giving the woman the option not to view the ultrasound creates no additional pressure for those who choose not to view it. For those who choose to view the ultrasound, it helps to better inform the subsequent decision, cutting down on abortions.
    • Water Quality: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed legislation spending $9.6 million for the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. $5.2 million of this is new money from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund, aimed at implementing conservation practices that will reduce nutrient transport to bodies of water in Iowa.
    • Psychiatric Bed Tracking System: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed legislation creating a psychiatric bed tracking system. This is critical to an efficient mental health response system, as it allows online access to bed availability/booking, preventing the horror stories of sheriffs transporting patients hours away only to find that a previously available bed was occupied.
    • Funerals & Protests: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed legislation prohibiting disorderly conduct within 1000’ of a funeral or memorial service (previously 500’). This bill balances freedom of speech with the right of mourners to bury their dead in peace, preventing organizations from harassing or dishonoring military veterans and other deceased persons.
    • School Start Date: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed legislation allowing schools to start as early as Aug 23rd. My preference would have been for local school districts to decide their own start dates, but it became clear that state fair and other tourism concerns would prevent such legislation from receiving the Governor’s signature. Aug 23rd was the earliest date we could expect the Governor to support.

     

    In addition to the major legislation outlined above, following are a number of legislative efforts I had a major role in this session:

    • Plasma Gasification: On behalf of Marion, I filed a bill that would add waste conversion technologies to the hierarchy of acceptable means for disposing of waste. I shepherded the bill through the House and then worked in a bipartisan manner to get support in the Senate. The bill passed and the Governor signed it. This opens the door for Marion and other communities to use cutting-edge technologies to dispose of and recycle waste, keeping garbage out of landfills and preventing such dirty disposal methods as incineration.
    • Synthetic Drug Bill: I sponsored a bill that would change the state’s law regarding synthetic drugs. I filed it on behalf of Gwen Meeks, who wrote an editorial asking for state help on synthetic drugs after her son, who was an Afghanistan combat veteran, committed suicide while addicted to these drugs. I worked with the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy on language that would solve the problem of non-prosecution of synthetic drugs due to drug manufacturers changing the drug compounds faster than the law could keep up. We found some language in Florida and perfected it based on a Cedar Rapids ordinance and two Public Safety Committee meetings. The final bill had language that defined an “imitation controlled substance” as one that was marketed, sold, consumed, and got one high just like a synthetic drug that was already on the controlled substance list. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support but hit some snags in the Senate, where some wanted to amend the bill to include medical marijuana (which is a non-starter in the House and a completely different issue than synthetic drugs). To make a long story short, we thought we had a compromise deal with the Senate in the waning days of the session, but for unknown reasons Senate leadership backed away from the deal at the last minute. We will reattempt in this next session.
    • Human Trafficking: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed into law language making human trafficking a forcible felony. Additionally, the bill provided funding for enforcement, training, and public awareness, all of which will go a long ways towards eliminating the trafficking of children and young women in our state. I was proud to have played a role in keeping this legislation alive in the House, and ultimately floor-managed the legislation to House passage.
    • Child Support: The Legislature passed and the Governor signed legislation aligning Iowa’s child support system with that of other states and nations. This will better enable collection of child support from “deadbeat parents” who leave the state. Additionally, the law created a process for suspending child support when it no longer makes sense (such as when the parent responsible for paying child support gains custody). I was proud to have floor-managed this bill to House passage, particularly given the fact my own biological father (not my adopted father whose last name I have today) was a “deadbeat dad.”
    • Victim Assistance Grants: When the House originally passed its Justice Systems Appropriations bill, it included a $1 million cut to victim assistance grants, which provide services to victims of domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault. I engaged with the Chair of the Justice Systems Appropriations Committee as well as House leadership and the Chair of the Appropriations Committee to restore that $1 million. I had visited our local domestic abuse shelter, and understood the need for these resources. In the end, the $1 million was added back in during the conference committee, providing a total of $6.734 million for victims.
    • Standing Appropriations Bill: The Chair of the Appropriations Committee trusted enough in my leadership to appoint me as the floor manager for the Standing Appropriations Bill, which at $3.5 billion is the largest and most complex state budget bill. Various versions of this bill had as many as 50 unique pieces of policy, all of which I needed to explain, justify, and defend during floor debate. I floor-managed the bill to passage, and the Governor signed it into law.
    • Airbags: I chaired the subcommittee and floor-managed a bill that made it an aggravated misdemeanor to manufacture, import, install or sell an airbag that is unsafe, counterfeit, or non-functional. The bill also made it illegal to tamper with a vehicle’s diagnostic system to make an airbag appear functional. The bill passed in both chambers and the Governor signed it, providing important consumer protection to vehicle owners/operators.
    • School Funding Timeline: I floor-managed a necessary change to the school funding timeline as part of the Standing Appropriations Bill. Under current law, the Legislature is required to pass K-12 funding at the start of a General Assembly within 30 days of the Governor submitting his budget. This has proven problematic with split government, particularly in regards to determining the appropriate funding for the second year given a lack of information regarding projected revenue for that year. If unable to know K-12 funding levels by April 15th, schools must validate their budgets without any clear indication of how much they might receive. This is a horrible system that puts our schools in a difficult position. To remedy this problem, the House passed legislation that requires the non-partisan Revenue Estimating Committee to include a second year revenue projection in its March estimate. Armed with that estimate, the legislature would be required to set the second year school funding level prior to adjournment. This is eminently doable, and it would get the schools the numbers they need well in advance of validating their budgets. Unfortunately, Senate leadership only agreed to accept the March revenue estimate element, preferring the current broken system to this simple improvement.
    • Military Victim Advocates: I chaired the subcommittee and floor-managed a bill giving the same confidentiality protections to military victim advocates as exist in the civilian world. The bill passed both chambers and the Governor signed it. This law will increase the reporting of sexual assaults among our Guard & Reservists, ultimately providing greater prevention of sexual assaults, providing needed services to victims, and increasing the likelihood of sexual assault prosecution.
    • Sledding: I chaired the subcommittee and floor-managed a bill that addressed the problem leading to the Dubuque ban on sledding. Cities like Dubuque were afraid to allow sledding or other recreational activities to occur in public parks for fear that people might get hurt and file frivolous lawsuits against the city. The bill provided limited liability to cities for the inherent risks associated with recreational activities, putting the responsibility for predictable risks of such activities on the people engaging in them. It covered not just parks, but public buildings as well, which made it possible for schools and other public facilities to open up their facilities to community use. So long as the city shows no gross negligence, it won’t be held liable for predictable injuries sustained in recreational activities. The bill passed both chambers and was signed by the Governor. This was the first bill I worked that made it into law, and it was an honor to receive the first pen from the Governor after he signed it.
    • Federal Block Grant Bill: I chaired multiple subcommittees and a public hearing on this bill before floor-managing it to passage. The bill addressed all of the federal monies the state receives in various grant programs, and is relatively uncontroversial. Nevertheless, at the request of the Democratic member of the subcommittee, I required all the affected departments to justify their administrative costs for the grants, providing necessary legislative oversight of taxpayer dollars. Secondly, I received feedback in the subcommittees and the public hearing expressing concern over the Mental Health and Disability Services Block Grant, which was slated to go for the first time to the mental health regions instead of directly to providers. After researching the issue, I responded to the feedback by working with the department and amending the bill to provide the money directly to providers, cutting out an unnecessary bureaucratic layer. The result was strong bipartisan support for the bill, which the Governor signed into law.
    • Nuisance Ordinance: A bill came up that was going to nullify municipal nuisance ordinances that provided any sort of penalty or fine for excessive 911 calls. These ordinances have been highly effective in cleaning up neighborhoods, so I sprung into action to preserve them. Working closely with several fellow members, we crafted language that would prevent punishing people for legitimate 911 calls while preserving nuisance ordinances. The change led to bipartisan passage in the House. The bill died in the Senate, but nuisance ordinances remain.
    • Tanning Beds: A bill came over from the Senate that banned tanning beds for minors. As a believer in individual liberty and parental rights, I felt an outright ban was too draconian. Most states in the union allow exceptions for 16 and 17 year olds with parental consent, and doing so seemed to make sense given that minors of those ages in Iowa can engage in such risky behaviors as to drive a car, ride a motorcycle, fly a plane, fly a glider, fly a balloon, hunt, have sex, get a sunburn outside, have an abortion (with parental notification), and even fight and die for their country (with parental consent at 17). Allowing a 16 or 17 year old to tan before prom (with parental consent) in an FDA-certified tanning facility seemed much less risky than those other behaviors. As a result, I offered an amendment to the bill in committee that allowed an exception for 16 and 17 year olds with parental consent. While the amendment lost on a close vote, it split the caucus enough that the bill never came up for a floor vote. I believe the only way to get a tanning bill to the Governor’s desk is to allow an exception for 16 and 17 year olds with parental consent or to ban tanning bed usage for those under 16.
    • Smoke-Free Casinos: I co-sponsored a bill that would have directed the Racing and Gaming Commission to grant two licenses to smoke-free casinos under a pilot program. The bill would have allowed Cedar Rapids to apply for one of the licenses, reflecting the overwhelming will of the people of Linn County to have a casino. The bill died in subcommittee, but now there is an interim study committee exploring the issue.
    • Disability Tax Deduction: I sponsored a bill that would have updated the tax deduction currently on the books for employment of people with disabilities. The current tax deduction is restricted to very small companies, and my bill would have expanded the eligibility to small businesses as defined by the Small Business Administration. This would incentivize the employment of people with disabilities for a far greater number of Iowa companies, helping transition people with disabilities from sheltered workshops (many of which are closing) to integrated, community employment. The bill died in committee.

    This concludes my After Action Report. It is an honor and privilege to serve the people of District 68, and I’ll continue doing my best to serve with integrity and excellence. I look forward to the next session and welcome your input on how best to represent you. Please contact me anytime at [email protected] or call my cell at 319-651-7316.

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