A roundup of legislative and Capitol news items of interest for Wednesday, March 14, 2018:
UTILITIES DEBATE: Paula Dierenfeld, a lobbyist representing Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, speaks to a House Commerce subcommittee on Senate File 2311, a bill making several changes in state utility regulations. The hearing attracted more than 50 people who spoke for nearly an hour on the legislation that has been approved by the Senate, 27-23.
IRISH VISITOR: Wednesday’s Senate floor work took on an international flavor when Gerry Horkan, a Fianna Fail senator from Dublin, Ireland, made brief remarks as a visiting dignitary who stopped in Des Moines en route to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Emmetsburg on Saturday.
Horkan noted that Ireland is one of the few countries that has “far more people” in the United States than in the homeland. He said the population of the Republic of Ireland is about 4.7 million, and there are about 6.5 million inhabitants on the island, while about 75 million Americans claim some link to Ireland.
He read down the list of names on the Senate chamber voting display board and noted that many “are straight out of the phone book in Ireland.”
TAXING ISSUES: The Senate Ways and Means Committee voted to change the way telecommunications and telephone companies are assessed property taxes, by going from a centralized system to one where local assessments are made by counties.
Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, said Senate Study Bill 3152 is intended to modernize an outdated system, given the advancements in communications, but critics said it would cause counties to lose about $885 million in property valuations and have a negative impact of about $30 million annually for counties.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said he could not support the change without having the state “backfill” the lost revenue, especially coming at a time when the state is considering the phaseout of a separate $150 million “backfill” to cover a commercial property tax “backfill” enacted in 2013.
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Also Wednesday, the committee voted to boost fees charged for food, sanitation and other inspections that have put a financial burden on counties and generally are supported by the industry.
Other approved bills would authorize the state Natural Resource Commission to raise hunting, fishing and wildlife fees by up to 5 percent every three years and to authorize the state Department of Natural Resources to modify camping fees at state parks and preserves.
TRACKING TEXTING VIOLATIONS: The Senate voted 48-0 Wednesday to approve legislation that would adopt federal regulations to better track violations of texting with a hand-held mobile telephone while driving a commercial motor vehicle in Iowa. Passage of House File 2196 sends the bill to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her expected signature.
Mark Lowe, director of the state Department of Transportation, had informed lawmakers that federal officials have put the state on notice that Iowa’s laws regarding texting while operating a motor vehicle are not in compliance with federal standards, which could jeopardize Iowa’s $35 million in federal highway funding if corrective action was not taken.
A texting offense is considered a serious violation that, in combination with other offenses, may result in disqualification of a driver’s commercial driver’s license, but that can’t be tracked on a driver’s record under Iowa’s current statutory language.
Lowe said the issue is more of a record-keeping issue than an enforcement issue but needs to be addressed to bring Iowa into compliance.
Currently, a driver of a commercial motor vehicle can use a mobile telephone to make or take a call as long as it is in the hands-free mode, can be dialed or answered by pressing a single button, and can be reached without moving from a seated position while properly belted.
CANDIDATE FILING DEADLINE: Gov. Kim Reynolds was among the candidates filing nomination petitions with the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office this week ahead of Friday’s filing deadline to be on the ballot in the June 5 primary.
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The governor’s campaign said she delivered just under 10,000 signatures and met the county minimum in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Other candidates filing their petitions this week included state Sens. Nate Bolton, a Des Moines Democrat seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and Dan Zumbach, a Ryan Republican running to be the GOP nominee for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.
Also, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and State Auditor Mary Mosiman filed nominating papers for their respective GOP re-election bids.
‘UNNECESSARY AND DIVISIVE’ PRAYER: The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the Iowa Senate leadership to either end its “unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive” tradition of a morning prayer when it gavels in or adopt a policy that includes atheists, freethinkers and minority religions among those invited to offer the invocation.
The cleanest solution, the foundation said in a letter to senators, is to “conduct its work in a wholly secular manner, leaving matters of religious belief to the conscience of each individual.”
The foundation said Christian prayer excludes the 20 percent of Iowans who are not religious.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Irish people are the biggest drinkers in the world, tea drinkers that is. They consume an average of 1,184 cups of tea per person per year, and that’s right out of the Emmetsburg Reporter newspaper so I know it has to be true.” — Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, in introducing Gerry Horkan, a Fianna Fail senator from Dublin, Ireland, before Horkan briefly addressed the Iowa Senate on Wednesday.