- Associated Press - Monday, May 22, 2017

Des Moines Register. May 19, 2017

Iowa should allow needle exchange programs

The Iowa Department of Public Health in February released its first report on hepatitis C infections in this state. The number of Iowans diagnosed with the liver-damaging virus that can lead to death has increased nearly three-fold, from 754 cases in 2000 to 2,235 cases in 2015. The number of infected Iowans aged 18 to 30 has quadrupled in recent years.

National data mirror this increase. The highest rate of newly reported cases is among young people who inject drugs, namely opioids, according to a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These new infections are most frequently among young people who transition from taking prescription pills to injecting heroin, which has become cheaper and more easily available,” said Dr. John Ward, an author of the new report and director of the division of viral hepatitis at the agency.

An increase in Iowa cases is likely an indication more people are being tested and treated, said Randy Mayer, a bureau chief at IDPH. That is good news - if individuals have health insurance to help pay for treatment, which cures them.

The bad news, however, is that being cured does not provide immunity from contracting hepatitis C again. Someone who underwent treatment and then shares a needle can be reinfected.

That is why preventing the spread of the virus is so important, and Iowa is not doing all it can.

Las Vegas will be the first place in the U.S. to have this kind of service for drug users. Video provided by Newsy Newslook

Unlike several other states, we do not have a needle exchange program, which is an important part of infection prevention. Existing law on drug paraphernalia makes it illegal to carry or possess any equipment used to inject non-prescription drugs. That makes a needle exchange program impossible.

House File 228, introduced in the Iowa Legislature this year, would allow distribution of clean syringes, but the bill did not become law. Next year it should.

Though Republicans have historically opposed needle exchange programs, they are finally seeing the light. Vice President Mike Pence was among those forced to do so as governor of Indiana.

After nearly 200 people in a rural county contracted HIV after sharing needles to inject drugs, public health officials finally convinced the governor to agree to lift a ban on programs that distribute sterile ones. (Of course the outbreak may have been avoided if exchange programs had already been in place, and a subsequent lack of funding has prevented counties from setting up programs.)

In Utah, reported cases of hepatitis C increased by about 37 percent between 2013 and 2014. There was also a small increase in residents newly diagnosed with HIV. In 2016, Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed a bill allowing public and private organizations to accept used needles and provide new, sterile ones in return.

Utah’s staunchly conservative Legislature offered little resistance after learning about the success of such programs elsewhere. Iowa, which also now has a staunchly conservative Legislature, should follow suit.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. May 17, 2017

Crime reforms are necessary

Despite a bipartisan effort to reduce the U.S. prison population, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to increase the nation’s leadership in incarceration instead.

In an address to the New York City police union Friday during National Police Week, Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest penalties possible against criminal defendants, although with discretion to avoid sentences “that would result in an injustice.”

Sessions called it “a key part of President Trump’s promise to keep America safe.” While violent crime has declined over the past 30 years, it started spiking in some major cities in 2015.

“The murder rate has surged 10 percent nationwide, the largest increase in murder since 1968, and we know that drugs and crime go hand in hand. They just do. The facts prove that’s so,” Sessions said.

As a senator from Alabama, Sessions backed legislation to make a second conviction for marijuana trafficking a capital offense, possibly including the death penalty.

Sessions reversed a policy Obama administration U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder initiated in 2013 that prosecutors avoid charging certain defendants with offenses triggering long mandatory minimum sentences. Among other criteria, those defendants could not belong to a large-scale drug trafficking organization.

Holder called Session’s policy “dumb on crime. It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”

The U.S. has 4.4 percent of the global population, but nearly a fifth of its inmates - nearly 2.3 million of the 11 million behind bars in 2016.

Sessions’ policy won’t put a huge dent in the overall prison population because federal incarcerations are only 197,000 of the total, topped by drug offenses (97,000), according to Prison Policy Initiative.

Another 1.33 million people are in state prisons, while 630,000 languish in local jails, including 443,000 awaiting trial. The inability of low-income people to make bail - even at $500 - accounts for the disproportionate of the latter number, according to the PPI.

The U.S. prison population began to soar in the 1980s following a drug epidemic that prompted passage of legislation for mandatory minimums and “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” sentences that often resulted in either prolonged or life terms for nonviolent crimes. States followed suit.

The bill for federal, state and local incarcerations is $80 million annually. Housing a federal inmate cost $31,977.65 in 2015, according to the Federal Register. States have attempted to reduce their prison populations by diverting lower-risk offenders to community-based programs and reclassifying high- and low-risk offenders to reduce their time behind bars.

Lawrence Leiser, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, praised Sessions for restoring “the tools that Congress intended assistant U.S. attorneys to have at their disposal to prosecute drug traffickers and dismantle drug trafficking enterprises.”

But groups from the American Civil Liberties Union on the left to organizations funded by the Koch brothers on the right saw it differently.

“Jeff Sessions is pushing federal prosecutors to reverse progress and repeat a failed experiment - the War on Drugs - that has devastated the lives and rights of millions of Americans, ripping apart families and communities and setting millions, particularly black people and other people of color, on a vicious cycle of incarceration,” stated Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

“We favor a different approach, which requires changing some of the existing federal laws,” said Mark Holden, chairman of the Koch’s Freedom Partners. “There are less costly and more effective ways to help low-level offenders who aren’t a threat to public safety other than incarceration.”

A year ago, it seemed a bipartisan group of senators had majority support to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for first-time and nonviolent offenders and establish new programs to enable offenders to adjust to life after prison.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a co-author of the SAFE (Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective) Justice Act, said, “There’s no doubt that drug and human trafficking and gang-related crimes continue to persist and poison the well of civic life, endangering public safety daily. And yet, there’s room for sensible reforms that improve the criminal justice system so that it’s fair and just to victims, the accused and taxpayers. The right policy mix of reforms can give low-level offenders who have paid their debts to society a second chance to rejoin their families and find employment in their communities.”

Sessions helped keep the bill from coming to the floor. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called him “the number one opponent of the bipartisan effort.”

Grassley is correct reforms are needed, particularly with low-level offenders who pose little threat to society and whose incarceration unnecessarily boosts taxpayers’ bills. Unfortunately, Sessions seems intent on sticking a stake into the heart of that bipartisan approach.

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Quad City Times. May 19, 2017

BettPlex should spur TIF review

Make no mistake, it’s the taxpayers that are floating a loan to the developers of BettPlex.

And, amid shrinking state support for schools, BettPlex should be a wake-up call at Scott County that standards for hand-outs to for-profit firms need to be tightened going forward.

There’s plenty of merit to the planned sports and entertainment complex near Interstate-80 in Bettendorf. That part of town could use an economic lift.

But, as Scott County supervisors suggested this week, there’s just something off about the whopping incentive package Bettendorf is offering lead developer Doug Kratz. All told, a proposed Tax Increment Financing district would fund a $4.9 million loan upfront and additional rebates for 20 years. The project’s first phase is expected to cost $45 million, developers have said.

TIFs are complicated, widely tapped means of subsidizing economic development, particularly in blighted neighborhoods. The quick and dirty is this: Government officials estimate how much a project would boost property value and use that expected bump in taxes to finance some of the costs. There’s a hitch. That additional tax money must only be spent within the TIF district.

By and large, it’s the schools, already struggling under Iowa’s austerity budgets, that end up getting shorted.

In fact, schools across Iowa couldn’t collect $115 million in taxes in 2012 thanks to existing TIFs, says a 2013 study by the state Department of Revenue. State taxpayers made up $51 million of it through Iowa’s education funding formula. The remainder fell to the school districts, and the local tax base that support them.

Meanwhile, the results on the economic development front are mixed, researchers concluded.

“These results suggest that greater concentration in the usage of TIF within a county does not explain either higher employment growth or aggregate wage growth within a county,” the analysis reads.

It’s also unclear whether TIFs are driving development or if these projects would have happened anyway, the state analysts noted.

But, even with those questionble results, the number TIFs have exploded in Iowa in recent years. Less than 1 percent of property taxes statewide were diverted to TIFs in fiscal year 2000. That number jumped to 6 percent in FY 2014, totaling more than $300 million. Again, it’s the remainder of the tax base making up for the shortfall.

It’s cash Iowa’s strapped districts can’t afford to lose.

Scott County supervisors this week rightly groaned at the generosity of Bettendorf officials. Some griped about the 20-year life of the TIF. Others expressed legitimate concerns about offering taxpayer subsidies to a for-profit firm that intends to compete with other hotels and restaurants throughout the county.

At the end of the day, it’s likely county supervisors will OK the Bettendorf’s incentive package and BettPlex will be under construction by this summer. The sports complex could indeed be a significant boost to the I-80 corridor. And, by all accounts, it will be a fine addition to the Quad-Cities economy.

That said, live or die, it’s the taxpayers - state and local - that will be on the hook for decades. And it’s the local school district that will miss out on tax revenue because incentive packages are given away these days like lollipops at the bank.

After much grumbling, supervisors agreed to review their standards for TIFs going forward. It’s a reasonable position, considering how far along BettPlex is and the political momentum behind it.

That’s the least taxpayers can expect from officials gambling with house money.

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Burlington Hawk Eye. May 18, 2017

The name means something

Give Gov. Terry Branstad credit for dexterity.

The 70-year-old governor managed Friday to underscore the importance of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, provide a vision for its future and knock out its funding.

With a series of line-item vetoes, Branstad surgically reworded a Republican-backed measure repealing the center, named for Burlington-born conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

“The veto of these particularly specified items will preserve the existence of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture while also maintaining the sections transferring funding to Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to continue valuable research into environmental and water quality issues,” Branstad explained in his veto message.

Of course, it flies in the face of Leopold’s famous explanation of what came to be known as his land ethic, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Branstad has none of Leopold’s moral uprightness. He does what is politically expedient.

Ultimately, the governor wanted to have it both ways. He realized the benefit of the 30-year-old Leopold Center even if he wanted to divorce it from state funding. Much like Leopold himself, whose essays rose to prominence after his 1948 death, the governor seems to believe the center will sustain itself after it is no more.

Last year, the Leopold Center received a $397,417 state appropriation and about $1.5 million collected by the 1987 Groundwater Protection Act., which assesses fees on nitrogen fertilizer sales and pesticide registration.

Now, Iowa State University will have to find replacement funding, which will be no easy task given other cuts in higher education.

“Although it will operate without the state appropriation,” said Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll. “We will look at options for the future of the center and opportunities for support through private philanthropy. The ability to retain the name of the center is meaningful to the university in that it continues the name recognition and reputation so important in recruiting prospective graduate students in sustainable agriculture.”

In its 30 years, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture earned the trust of Iowans, in the words of former director Dennis Keeney, by regarding sustainable agriculture not as a set of restrictive practices, or a philosophy opposed to development, but as a vision for agriculture.

Through an accident of nature, Iowa was provided the richest soil on the face of the earth. When the first soil was turned over in the state, settlers found 14 to 16 inches of topsoil. Left to their own devices, Iowans developed a reputation for wasting it. By 2000, the average topsoil depth was 6 to 8 inches. Tons continue to wash down the Mississippi River. The Leopold Center offered a home to address issues presented by technology, economics and politics while maintaining a touchstone to the essential goodness of stewardship.

Through grants to researchers, investigators and educators beyond Iowa State University, the Leopold Center has garnered an international reputation for supporting cutting-edge research for cleaner water, better conservation of natural resources and greater agricultural vitality.

Gov. Branstad may not have seen the value in funding such an institution, but give him credit for keeping it alive.

It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Preserving the center demonstrates the value of the Leopold brand. We have the opportunity to make certain it persists and succeeds.

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