Government

Iowa voices: Six responses to Republican legislative landmarks

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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The Gazette asked Eastern Iowans for their takes on measures passed by the 87th General Assembly, the first time in two decades the GOP held control over all aspects of the state’s lawmaking agenda. Here is a sampling of their comments.

WATER QUALITY

Connie Mutel, 71: Science writer from Iowa City

 

Mutel called Senate File 512, water quality legislation passed in January, a “weak bill,” adding that sometimes a weak solution is worse than no solution.

“We know that with climate change we’re still at the point we can affect the tipping point, but we don’t have forever,” Mutel said. “This bill is kind of like putting a Band-aid on a gaping wound. We’re likely to ignore the wound as it becomes larger and more infectious.

“Because it’s voluntary and doesn’t mandate farmers don’t take actions or targeted to a specific region, it will be very hard to see results. It’s just a blank card for industrial agriculture to continue what it’s been doing for 12 years without addressing the problem. There was some talk about this being a beginning. I don’t think with the way the current Legislature is moving, I don’t see that (additional legislation) happening unless we have a major change in the next election.”

— Erin Jordan

Jack Boyer, 65: Farmer from Reinbeck

 

Boyer, who is soil and water conservation district commissioner for Tama County, has been growing cover crops on his farms spanning Tama and Grundy counties for seven years. He believes farmers want to use conservation strategies, but can’t always afford it.

“With grain prices so low, people who haven’t put it in, say ‘that’s more money than I have,’” he said.

Iowa’s new water quality legislation provides additional state funds to help farmers try cover crops, bioreactors and other strategies shown to reduce nitrates and phosphorus going into streams and rivers.

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“It allows the farmer to try it and see the benefit of it,” Boyer said. “There’s also money for urban environments with permeable pavers and water treatment plant upgrades.”

Boyer doesn’t think further water quality legislation is needed now.

“This is certainly a start,” he said. “Let’s get this in play and make it as effective as possible.”

— Erin Jordan

MINIMUM WAGE

Abby Luther, 31: Front house manager with Zeppelins Bar and Grill in Cedar Rapids

 

Luther, who has been with Zeppelins Bar and Grill for more than two years, said Linn County’s recent increase in the local minimum wage — and then the subsequent pre-emption of such local ordinances by state lawmakers — had little impact on servers at the Cedar Rapids eatery.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors in late 2016 voted to increase the countywide minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour, effective the following January. The rate was planned to reach $10.25 on Jan. 1, 2019.

But the Legislature last spring passed pre-emption rules stripping counties of their ability to pass a rate higher than the state rule.

Despite the fluctuation in local rates, Luther, who used to be a server at the restaurant, said there was little change to employee paychecks. Per Iowa Code, tipped employees — typically hosts, servers or bartenders — are to receive a base pay of 60 percent of the existing minimum wage, or $4.35 an hour for a $7.25 rate.

Luther said the majority of servers make enough in tips, so changes to the minimum wage were moot.

“As a server, you rely on your tips. You don’t ever think about your paycheck,” the 31-year-old said. “Most of our tipped employees didn’t even notice.”

— Mitchell Schmidt

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GUN LAWS

Shafona Jones, 39: Mother of Kaleek Jones, 22, who was killed by Lamar Wilson, 22, on the Ped Mall in Iowa City Aug. 27, 2017.

 

“I pray they reverse the stand your ground law” so another family doesn’t have to go through the waiting and pain that she went through over six months, she said.

She not only had to deal with the uncertainty of a conviction for her son’s killer, but also months of agonizing over the fact that Wilson claimed the shooting was in self-defense and asked the court for immunity under the gun rights law, enacted a month before the fatal shooting.

A Polk County jury convicted Wilson, originally charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder, in February on lesser charges of voluntary manslaughter and others. After the two-week trial, 6th Judicial District Judge Paul Miller ruled on the immunity issue.

“It made the trial process very long and there was so much evidence withheld to give him a lesser sentence — he killed one man and injured two other who will have permanent injuries,” Jones said. “There will be a lot of trials where people will be devastated over this law.”

Jones said she was aware of the law but she didn’t understand how this could “give someone a way out to kill” another person.

Miller concluded there was undisputed evidence and testimony to show Wilson “indiscriminately discharged” a gun five times into a crowd of people on the mall that early morning, striking Kaleek Jones in the back three times and seriously injuring Xavier Hicks and his cousin, D’Andre Hicks.

Miller concluded the law was “void for vagueness” and could not be enforced in this case. He pointed out there was no uniform procedure to follow and every judge possibly would interpret it differently.

Wilson was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

— Trish Mehaffey

TRAFFIC CAMERAS

George Burrows, 64: Belle Plaine

 

Burrows was notified earlier this year his state income tax is being withheld through an income offset program because he owes more than $850 from 11 unpaid automated traffic camera tickets issued on Interstate 380 between 2012 and 2017.

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“It makes me feel they aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Burrows said of his frustration over the inaction of the Iowa Legislature on speed and red light cameras. “They aren’t representing their constituents.”

Burrows claims he never received any of the 30 notices he was told had been mailed. He is critical of using the income offset program, as well as the automated cameras generally.

He said he is disabled and has been in poor health since 2012, and is unable to execute the processes outlined in his offset letter. Plus he claims he’s been misdirected as to who to speak with and messages aren’t returned.

The cameras should be banned or at least regulated so uniformity and state oversight exist to insure the programs are run fairly, he said.

Lawmakers have been stalemated for years about whether to regulate the cameras or ban them outright, and despite assurances there was support to ban the controversial technology this year, the session ended again with no law.

Coupled with a recent Iowa Supreme Court decision striking down rules created by the Iowa Department of Transportation, there’s no statewide oversight of the cameras.

“It’s a huge stalemate, and now they are gone,” Burrows said of the lawmakers. “They should do their jobs. I get the impression they really don’t think it is that big of a deal. It’s beyond the back burner. It’s off the stove.”

— B.A. Morelli

HIGHER EDUCATION

Matt McBride, 38: Lecturer in the University of Iowa Rhetoric Department

 

He’s been in Iowa for only two years, but McBride is leaving. Not because of the weather. Not because of any previous allegiances to, say, his home state of Ohio.

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“It’s just sustainability,” McBride said. “I want a job where I know the university is going to invest in me when I’ve invested in it.”

McBride next fall will begin teaching at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Penn. His new gig has the option of becoming tenure-track, something that wasn’t available for him at Iowa. It also comes with annual raises, access to travel funding and a voice in university governance.

“All the things I don’t have here at Iowa,” he said.

Among a growing group of UI non-tenure-track faculty protesting working conditions and demanding more rights — even organizing to unionize — McBride has plenty of criticism for UI leadership. He thinks they could be making better choices about how they spend their money — especially when it comes to faculty and administrative pay.

But he also acknowledges the pressure Iowa’s public universities are facing from the state.

“Legislators are not making it easier by dis-investing in public universities,” he said. “Universities are right. They lack the money, and that gives universities an excuse to start paying people less.”

— Vanessa Miller

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