Government

Reduced penalties for first-time marijuana offenders?: Iowa Capitol Digest, Jan. 18

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)

A roundup of legislative and Capitol news items of interest for Jan. 18, 2018:

SEXUAL HARASSMENT: In the wake of a $1.75 million settlement is a lawsuit brought by a Senate Republican staffer who claimed she was unjustly fired, Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, is proposing to make state employees personally liable if the commit sexual harassment in the workplace in violation of state or federal law.

Under HF 2044, which was referred to the State Government Committee, the state would not defend the employee.

Lawmakers are disappointed and concerned about that lawsuit and settlement, said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, who was involved in hiring a human resources director for the Legislature.

However, any legislative action must consider the impact on all state employees. It is not unusual for claims to be filed against the state involving regents’ universities and health care facilities, for example.

“What we do needs to include the other kinds of things that happen in the state,” she said.

REDUCED MARIJUANA PENALTY: The penalty for possessing marijuana for a first-time offender would be significantly reduced under a bill that cleared a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, 3-0, on Thursday.

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Provisions of SF 432 would change current Iowa law so that possession of five grams or less of marijuana would be a simple misdemeanor punishable by no more than 30 days in jail and/or by a fine between $65 and $620. Currently, first-offense possession of marijuana is a serious misdemeanor punishable by confinement for not more than six months and/or a fine of not more than $1,000.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said the measure was not intended to condone illegal drug activity but dealt with the reality of today’s culture by giving young people or adults who are arrested for possession a one-time chance to made amends and get a new start.

“The reality is that it’s happening,” he said.

Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, joined several speakers who did not think the bill goes far enough, given that 30 states have legalized medical marijuana and several have granted recreational use.

Opponents worried about lowering the possession penalty for a “gateway” drug and did not want to see legislators go any further in easing penalties or legalizing marijuana in Iowa.

STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT STAYS: A three-member Senate Education subcommittee Thursday balked at the idea of abolishing the Iowa Department of Education and assigning its duties to other state agencies.

“This is 100 percent local control,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who authored SF 2017, a bill that would eliminate the Department of Education, its director and state board, and shift responsibilities for programing and federal funding estimated at $427 million annually to other agencies in charge of revenue, public health and other duties associated with funding and educating children attending schools in Iowa.

Education officials said the change would result in lost federal funding and end collaborative efforts that benefit local schools, education groups, area education agencies and community colleges.

Subcommittee members Sens. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, and Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, cited problems they have encountered with the state education department but concluded the solution was not elimination — a step they said would cause more complications and hurdles.

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SAVE YOUR BRAIN: The Iowa Department of Public Health has launched an online quiz to help older Iowans determine their risk for cognitive decline and what steps to take to reduce that risk.

According to state officials, anyone can take the Save Your Brain quiz online at https://idph.iowa.gov/save-your-brain.

“The assessment analyzes diet, physical activity, brain engagement and social interaction, and comes up with a list of things an individual can do to lower their risk for dementia or other forms of cognitive decline,” said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the department’s medical director.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in Iowa and the United States and cognitive decline and dementia are often contributing factors in other deaths, according to health officials.

Quinlisk recommends taking the quiz, working on the suggested improvements for six months, and then taking the quiz again to see how the risk of dementia has been reduced.

SETTLEMENT DEADLINE: Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller issued a reminder Thursday to Iowans who wired money to scam artists via Western Union from 2004 through mid-January of last year that they have until Feb. 12 to submit a refund claim.

Consumers who previously reported losses to government agencies or Western Union should have received a settlement claim mailing from a settlement administrator.

Victims do not need to have previously reported the fraudulent transaction to be eligible for a refund through this settlement. Iowans are likely owed millions of dollars through the settlement, according to Miller.

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His office mailed settlement notices to more than 18,000 Iowans, based on information the Consumer Protection Division obtained from Western Union. The company’s list includes Iowans who wired $500 or more in recent years to certain countries known for an elevated risk of fraud activity.

People can apply through a link at ftc.gov/wu or westernunionremission.com.

Victims also can call (844) 319-2124 for more information.

NATURAL GAS PRICES RISE: Iowa’s declining temperatures have natural gas prices on the rise, according to survey information issued Thursday by the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

State officials say the price of natural gas prices rose 35 cents to $3.25/mmBtu in the past week.

Prices for other heating fuels also rose, with propane prices up a penny to a statewide average of $1.51 per gallon. Home heating oil prices rose 4 cents, ending with a statewide average of $2.47 a gallon this week.

Turning to motor fuels, officials said the price of regular unleaded gasoline averaged $2.53 a gallon across Iowa, according to AAA. That was up 8 cents from last week and 16 cents higher than one year ago.

By comparison, the national average was $2.53 a gallon, up 4 cents from last week’s price.

Retail diesel fuel prices in Iowa rose 4 cents from last week’s price, with a statewide average of $2.93 per gallon. One year ago, diesel prices averaged $2.49 a gallon in Iowa. The current Iowa diesel average is a penny lower than the national average of $2.94.

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CAPITOL DOME UPDATE: Managers of a nearly $10 million project to repair the interior and exterior of the Iowa Capitol building’s golden dome told a legislative panel Thursday they are running ahead of schedule and under budget.

Mark Willemssen, facilities manager for the Legislature, said work has progressed well and should be concluded this summer on the iconic landmark.

Project architect Scott Allen told members of a House-Senate Budget subcommittee that repairs have been done to failing joints and cracks in the building’s mortar caused, in part, from water leaking and humidity.

Extensive tuckpointing has taken place, but officials said the dome won’t have to be regilded with gold leaf for another 10 or 15 years.

Also, new LED lighting is being used to illuminate the building at night, they said.

“All the things those guys are doing, this is going to be amazing,” said subcommittee member Sen. Craig Johnson, R-Independence.

The Iowa Capitol building was built between 1871 and 1886. The golden dome rises 275 feet above the ground floor, with four smaller domes situated at the four corners of the Capitol.

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