- Associated Press - Monday, August 8, 2016

Dubuque Telegraph Herald. August 5, 2016

For September referendum, a more convenient way to vote.

With lots of media attention focused on the upcoming national election, it might have escaped your notice that people in Dubuque may already vote absentee.



Just not for THAT election.

As of Thursday, residents of the Dubuque Community School District may cast ballots in the Sept. 13 special election for the district. The vote is to renew the physical plant and equipment levy for 10 years. The levy has been in place for nearly five decades and must be approved by voters every 10 years. The current PPEL, as it is known, expires June 30, 2017.

So why not just vote on the PPEL along with all the federal, state and county elections in November? Good idea, but it doesn’t work that way. Iowa law mandates that school elections be separate. Now, the district could have opted to put the PPEL on the ballot last September when four school board seats were decided. That would have been a good move, as it would have spared voters both a brief trip to the polls and the expense of another election. But the district opted to conduct the vote this year, closer to when the levy expires. That timing cost taxpayers some money.

On the bright side, Denise Dolan, whose duties as county auditor includes those of elections commissioner, has a plan to save money on the September referendum. It will require some change in routine for regular voters, but it could provide some convenience while saving taxpayers about $10,000.

For the Sept. 13 referendum, county election officials will use voting centers instead of traditional precinct polling places scattered around the district. Voters will be allowed to cast their ballot at any one of eight voting centers located around the city and the rural areas within the school district. For this election, it doesn’t matter where in the district you live, any site is fine. This approach will require fewer poll workers and will be a streamlined operation.

To generate even more savings, Dolan will opt to use paper ballots for the simple, one-question ballot. That will make matters easier than programming the voting machines, hauling them to sites and having the voting machine company print the ballots.

Of course, without the machines, poll workers will have to count the ballots by hand. But judging from past turnout for school elections, that shouldn’t be an arduous task. Each of the eight voting centers likely will collect but a few hundred votes.

It makes sense to seek ways to bring down the cost of special elections. When maybe 3 to 5 percent of the eligible voters will bother to show up and cast a ballot, it’s frustrating to see thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted. Kudos to Dolan for her effort to seek a more affordable approach.

If the voting centers work smoothly this time, they could make a repeat appearance a year later in the school board election of 2017.

But it will be back to the precinct voting sites come November. With many different races on the ballot, voters will have to vote within their precinct to ensure each person gets the correct ballot.

Absentee voting - now through Sept. 12 - will work as usual. But for voters casting a ballot on the Sept. 13 referendum day, you have eight sites to choose from. When voting is more convenient for voters and costs taxpayers less money, that’s a double win. Let’s hope that this convenience boosts voter turnout. But even if it doesn’t, taxpayers will have less money tied up in the process.

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Quad City times. August 5, 2016

Illinois moves forward on pot policy

Colorado leaped. Illinois crawled. And, to its social and fiscal detriment, Iowa is a stationary observer.

Marijuana policy is, quite literally, all over the map. Illinois last week joined the eastern model, using decriminalization as the next cautious step toward reasonable pot policy. It’s a stark, logical approach to an issue that, out West, is an all-or-nothing potential cash cow.

In signing legislation making pot possession akin to a speeding ticket, Gov. Bruce Rauner showed that he, like so many, is evolving on the issue. Last year, Rauner vetoed legislation, which featured higher allowable amounts and lower fines. In a rare feat of compromise, the General Assembly responded with legislation that decriminalizes possession of up to 10 grams and institutes fines of $100 to $200 for those amounts. It’s a huge step for a state that, researchers say, had some of the nation’s most draconian marijuana laws, leading to more than 50,000 arrests every year. That’s more than 50 percent of all drug arrests every year in Illinois.

Truth is, Nixonian marijuana policy is more than just scientifically unjustifiable and disproportionately damaging to racial minorities. It’s economically and fiscally ridiculous.

The story happens too often: Get busted for pot. Find yourself unable afford the fees and fines associated with misdemeanor and felony crimes. Get arrested on a bench warrant. Go to jail.

Lives ruined. Jails filled. Taxpayers foot the bill.

Illinois’ new law doesn’t fix the problem. But it’s an absolute improvement, especially against Iowa’s unwillingness to accept strong scientific evidence that marijuana has a place within modern medicine. Meanwhile, Illinois’s fledgling medicinal program looks to be coming into its own.

Detractors are correct when they argue that laws such as Illinois’ decriminalization bill are simply steps toward Colorado-style legalization. And their doubts about treating marijuana similarly to booze aren’t unfounded. Growing research suggests that, like alcohol, in-uterine exposure to marijuana adversely affects brain development. The jury’s still out on its effect on adolescent minds. Technology doesn’t yet exist allowing police to accurately test for intoxicated drivers, either. But it’s also objectively true that the War on Drugs is a failure and, like it or not, pot is more readily available to teens than booze in even the most regulated states.

It’s also possible the long trumpeted “gateway drug” effect is more linked to pot’s illegal, black market status than anything else.

These questions remain unanswered. The sudden legitimacy of the pro-pot crusade, long stranded in the political fringes, has resulted in an explosion of research. The federal government continues to lag behind, putting otherwise legal distributors in a regulatory straitjacket. And states such as Colorado and Washington state jumped headlong into a pond of unanswered questions.

Illinois, on the other hand, is doing it right. It’s moving slowly toward fact-based pot policy that recognizes the social, legal and scientific realities.

Maybe Illinois last week took a step toward legalization. Or, as the science evolves, it changed course altogether. It’s a level of flexibility reserved solely for those who crawl before they run.

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Des Moines Register. August 5, 2016

Iowa treats animal abuse as minor infraction.

Last spring, 23-year-old Keegan Bucklin of Des Moines was caught on video viciously beating his dog.

Police were notified of the incident by Bucklin’s neighbor, who shot the video that showed Bucklin in his yard, picking up his dog, Smokey, and slamming him to the ground. The video also showed Bucklin kicking the dog multiple times and slamming its head into a pole.

According to police, Bucklin defended his actions by saying Smokey had defecated inside his house. Bucklin was arrested and both of his dogs, including Smokey, were taken to the Animal Rescue League and put up for adoption.

Unfortunately, this crime took place in Iowa, where animal abuse, neglect and torture rarely result in a sentence of any magnitude. In May 2015, Bucklin was charged with a simple misdemeanor and fined $100 - which, according to court records, he never paid.

For years, Iowa and federal regulators have coddled disreputable puppy-mill operators. It has turned a blind eye to the neglect of exotic animals confined in roadside zoos. It has criminalized undercover reporting that exposes the corporate abuse of farm animals. And it has responded to documented cases of animal abuse with fines that are comparable to those for traffic violations. The Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks Iowa 49th in the nation for its animal-protection laws.

And now, many people around the nation are asking how it is that an Iowa dog groomer who allegedly confessed to kicking and seriously injuring a corgi could be charged with only a simple misdemeanor.

The answer is simple. Iowa has a systemic, institutionalized, fully codified disregard for the welfare of animals.

Take the case of Lucas Van Orden, the 22-year-old dog groomer who until recently worked at the Creature Comfort Veterinary Center in Iowa City. Police say that on July 9, Van Orden was grooming a corgi named Jasper when he kicked the animal, causing multiple rib fractures and a bruising of the dog’s lungs.

After he allegedly admitted his conduct in an interview with police, Van Orden was charged with violating a city ordinance that prohibits animal “neglect.” The maximum penalty for such an offense is 30 days in jail. Had police charged Van Orden with violating the state’s animal-abuse law, an aggravated misdemeanor, he would be facing a sentence of up to two years in prison. The reality is, however, that few convicted animal abusers are ever sentenced to jail in Iowa.

Among the more recent cases:

Last April, a Des Moines police officer, Stephanie Graves, was driving down Southwest Ninth Street on a Tuesday afternoon when she saw a man standing near the street, hitting and kicking a dog. Officer Graves drove past just as the man, Timothy Gifford, picked the dog up by its neck. She turned her car around and confronted Gifford. In her report, Officer Graves wrote that the dog was “huddled close to the ground, shaking uncontrollably” and “was so terrified it had defecated all over itself and would flinch every time (Gifford) made a movement.” Gifford was charged with violating a city ordinance pertaining to the care and treatment of animals, and the dog was turned over to his girlfriend. Gifford pleaded guilty to the charged offense and was fined $150, which he never paid, according to court records.

Last December, Trey Sudbrock of Indianola was accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s Chihuahua, Bambi, by snapping its neck. Sudbrock was charged with first-offense animal torture. He was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of simple-misdemeanor animal abuse, paid a $625 fine and was placed on probation.

Last year, George Harrington of Mason City stood in his driveway and beat his sickened dog, Boom Boom, with a five-pound steel hammer in what he described as an attempted “mercy killing.” The dog had to be euthanized, and Harrington was sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined $625 for animal torture - but 58 days of his jail sentence were suspended, as was the fine. Harrington was placed on probation for one year and ordered to perform four hours of community service.

In 2013, Sheena Cornwell of Des Moines pleaded guilty to a charge of animal torture after admitting that she killed her boyfriend’s dog, a pit bull terrier named Lillie, by hanging it from the rafters in the couple’s garage. Cornwell was fined $625 and sentenced to two years of probation.

These penalties are so inconsequential as to be almost meaningless. It’s outrageous that the deliberate abuse of a defenseless, domesticated pet is punishable by a fine that’s less than that of a speeding ticket.

Iowa legislators know all about these types of injustices, but House Republicans have steadfastly refused to enact stiffer penalties for fear that laws pertaining to domesticated pets will, in some unfathomable way, put law-abiding hog farmers in the crosshairs of their local police. This year, the House rejected a Senate-approved bill that would have increased the penalties for animal abuse and torture and restricted pet ownership for those convicted of such crimes.

So, if some of your friends or relatives asks why convicted animal abusers are getting away with such light sentences, just point to the Capitol building and tell them, “This is Iowa, a state where legislators have decreed that animal abuse is not so much a crime as a minor indiscretion.”

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Sioux City Journal. Aug. 7, 2016

Cellphone use and driving do not mix

Perhaps next year will, finally, be the year Iowa lawmakers take substantive steps to crack down on the pervasive, dangerous problem of distracted driving.

At his July 25 weekly news conference, Gov. Terry Branstad said he asked Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan to lead a task force in a study of driving distractions. Ultimately, the panel will make recommendations to Branstad ahead of the next legislative session.

Branstad said safety on Iowa’s roads will be “one of the major issues” he will discuss in his January Condition of the State address.

“We’ve seen not only an increase in the deaths of cyclists, bicyclists (and) motorcyclists, but also motorists,” Branstad said. “And I do want to see us address those issues.”

We commend state government for undertaking this study, which we hope will help push the issue of distracted driving to near the forefront of next year’s session, where it deserves to be.

We have used this space on multiple occasions in the last several years to advocate for state action on distracted driving — in particular, use of a cellphone while driving.

We support making use of a handheld cellphone while driving illegal. At a minimum, the state should make texting while driving a primary offense. The state was right in 2010 to make texting while driving illegal, but because the ban is enforceable only as a secondary offense, or only when a law enforcement officer stops a driver for a primary offense, it lacks impact.

We also support discussion, pushed by the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, of changes to the state’s reckless driving law. In response to the deaths of nine bicyclists on Iowa roads so far this year (the most since 2010), the coalition advocates for an expanded definition of reckless driving (to include, for example, texting while driving), with a goal of stronger charges and punishment for motorists who strike bicyclists. Under current law, drivers must be drunk, high, drag racing or fleeing from police to be considered reckless.

Alarming statistics about the scourge of cellphone use by drivers abound. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, some 660,000 drivers use cellphones or manipulate electronic devices while driving at any given daylight moment. The National Safety Council reports use of cellphones causes 26 percent, or roughly one in four, of the nation’s car accidents, resulting in some 1.6 million crashes each year.

Iowa should seek to become a leader in protecting the public from this national epidemic.

To this end, we look forward to reading what the new task force recommends. And we urge state lawmakers to join Branstad and make distracted driving a priority legislative issue next year.

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