- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Des Moines Register. Dec. 30, 2015

Don’t exclude 145,600 from online registration.

On the face of it, Iowa’s online voter registration system, scheduled to launch next week, should make it easier to participate in elections.

But legitimate concerns have been raised over the system’s potential impact on the rights of the disadvantaged, and so far the state has been slow to respond.

The new system will enable only those individuals who have a driver’s license or non-operator identification card issued by the Iowa Department of Transportation to take advantage of online voter registration. That’s a problem because, according to the DOT’s own estimates, roughly 145,600 eligible Iowa voters don’t have a license or ID card.

This new process is also inconsistent with state law, which doesn’t require Iowans to be a licensed driver or to possess a DOT-issued ID card to exercise their right to register and vote in an election.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa argues that a system that excludes almost 7 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters - many of whom are veterans, elderly or disabled - is inherently unfair and could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The organization strongly supports online voter registration, but says the process needs to be open to all Iowans, and should be hosted on ADA-compliant websites.

The ACLU’s position is shared by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Iowa and Disability Rights Iowa, which is a federally funded advocacy group for Iowans with disabilities and mental illness. Similar concerns have also been raised by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

The most disconcerting aspect of all this is that these organizations shared their concerns with the State Voter Registration Commission last year when the proposed rules for implementing the new system were first suggested. For whatever reason, the commission chose not to make the suggested changes in the rule-making process.

Deputy Secretary of State Carol Olson says she doesn’t believe the new system will violate the ADA, and she points out that all Iowans will still be able to register using traditional paper forms.

Olson seems to have missed the point, which is one of equal access. The state cannot construct a “new and improved” process that is intended to facilitate the voting process but is accessible only to a certain segment of eligible voters. That is inherently unfair and very likely illegal.

Fortunately, Secretary of State Paul Pate can refine the online voter registration process without scuttling the DOT-connected process that for most Iowans will, indeed, provide an almost effortless means of registering to vote. All he needs to do is create a parallel path to registration for the 145,600 Iowans who lack a DOT-issued license or ID card. This process might require applicants to provide a digital signature - which Iowa law already recognizes as a valid alternative to a written signature - as well as a Social Security number, date of birth and address.

There’s no reason such a system can’t be implemented. Five states, including Minnesota and Missouri, have already rolled out online registration that’s accessible to all eligible voters, and Disability Rights Iowa has offered to help Iowa’s secretary of state with technical assistance to ensure compliance with federal disability laws.

Pate should be commended for attempting to make voter registration easier, but he needs to make it easier for all Iowans, not just some. Tying online voter registration to a subset of eligible voters - a subset that, by most estimates, excludes many minorities, as well as elderly veterans and the disabled - is, by definition, discriminatory.


The Quad-City Times. Dec. 30, 2015

Stop rushing Medicaid overhaul, Governor.

Maybe Gov. Terry Branstad should take up yoga or meditation. Take a deep breath and slow down, Governor. Otherwise, more than 550,000 of Iowa’s poor and elderly might find themselves up a creek.

Branstad has soldiered forward with his plan to privatize Medicaid, hoping to achieve a transition in a matter of months what other states took years to accomplish. And, predictably, the wheels are falling off.

Earlier this month, regulators with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services demanded a two-month delay for Iowa’s roll-out, which had been planned for Jan. 1. The program just isn’t ready, they concluded. Too many questions remain unanswered, they noted. It’s not even clear that the four insurance companies slated to take over Iowa’s Medicaid program are prepared for the job. An administrative law judge ruled this month that the state’s contract with one of the companies, WellCare, be tossed out completely. That firm has been repeatedly sanctioned for mismanagement and fraud and, last year, three former executives were sentenced to prison.

And, to boot, the two-month delay tosses health care access for 37,000 children in the lurch.

Throughout the lead-up to Branstad’s Jan. 1 deadline, thousands of Medicaid recipients signed incomplete contracts with one of the four providers contracted with the state. As of last week, the state had just 10 days to notify thousands of families about the coming change to their insurance. And, as reported by The Des Moines Register, the four insurance companies contracted to take over Iowa’s Medicaid program have collectively paid more than $10 million in fines over the past five years.

Vetting. Analysis. Research. All have been sacrificed at the altar of speed.

Branstad’s administration says the switch would shave $51 million in just six months from Iowa’s $4.2 billion Medicaid program. Critics, however, have made sport of punching holes in that estimate. Florida, which spent eight years testing its privatization program before last year’s full implementation, reported an initial savings. But, in June, the insurance companies claimed underpayment and demanded a renegotiation, which could consume more than $400 million of that savings.

Look, at least 39 states force Medicaid recipients into some form of “managed care,” which would be more correctly labeled “managed payment.” The fiscal results are mixed. But too many other programs - including roads and education - have been slashed because of ballooning Medicaid costs. We can appreciate the urge to save some cash.

House Republicans say Democrats “sabotaged” the controversial privatization effort. Democrats say Republicans are targeting the state’s most vulnerable out of party canon instead of reason. And medical providers are weary of the paperwork nightmare that awaits them once for-profit companies start denying services.

The simple fact is this: Branstad’s haste makes the Obamacare roll-out appear flawless in comparison. Stops, starts and setbacks have plagued the privatization effort from the start. The feds had to apply the brakes just this month because the rush-job could be a disaster for 560,000 Iowans.

It’s exceedingly clear that ramming through the Medicaid privatization trumped all other concerns within the Branstad administration. And it’s even more obvious that the focus on speed threatens the initiative’s long-term viability.

The well-being of tens of thousands of men, women and children are at stake, Governor. It’s no time for pride-driven stubbornness.

Please, slow down and get this right.


The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Dec. 31, 2015

End of ban on live bird exhibits is welcome.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship announced the ban due to avian influenza on all live bird exhibitions at county fairs, the Iowa State Fair, livestock auction markets and other gatherings of birds is being lifted.

“This is very good news and another sign that we continue to recover from this devastating animal health emergency,” Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said. “We know the ban on exhibitions caused some real challenges for those anticipating showing or selling birds, but we appreciate everyone cooperating as we worked to stop the disease and then allow the industry to recover.”

Those words from Northey were a lot more pleasant than the ones he uttered last June.

“Animal-health wise, there is nothing that we’ve ever had like it,” he said.

The statistics from 2015 were mind-boggling, with the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza ranking as the worst animal health emergency in Iowa history.

Approximately 50 million birds died or were euthanized in 15 states as the virus spread from the Pacific Northwest to Midwest farms. Especially hard hit were chicken farms in Iowa, the nation’s leading egg producer, and turkey farms in Minnesota, the nation’s leading turkey grower.

According to the USDA, scientists determined wild birds introduced the virus onto farms. They also reported lapses in biosecurity on farms and environmental factors likely contributed to the spread of the disease. The USDA said its staff found infected and noninfected farms shared equipment, employees moved between them and vehicles were not disinfected when moving between farms. It also heard reports of rodents or small birds inside of poultry houses.

The avian flu epidemic nixed plans for poultry at any of the county fairs in Iowa or at the Iowa State Fair. In Black Hawk County, the fair is designed to showcase work of 4-H youth and Future Farmers of America in the county. The ban on poultry took a big chunk out of the animal showcase last summer.

However, there was an Avian Influenza Display, designed to educate consumers and producers about the disease, biosecurity and poultry in general. That was a good move, since education is proving as important as ever.

Lifting the poultry exhibition ban comes as a result of no new cases of bird flu in Iowa since June and the lifting of the final quarantine on Dec. 1.

Iowa is now considered free of avian flu. Northey is correct; this is great news. However, we hope some lessons have been learned during this process.

We realize preventing outbreaks is nearly impossible, and that containing them takes vigilance in adhering to the biosecurity checklist, no matter how mundane.


The Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Dec. 31, 2015

Things we cheered and jeered in 2015.

Here’s a look back at the issues that made us smile and frown in 2015 … many of which will still be around in 2016.

It was a dose of doggy deja vu in early 2015 when Dubuque City Council members voted exactly the same way they had months earlier (5-2) to defeat a measure to open most city parks to pets. It was the right call the first time, and it was the right call in 2015. Council does allow pets in some parks, just not all parks. Dog lovers need to give it a little time before expanding the list. Here’s one we hope won’t be back in 2016.

With the City of Dubuque tightening its belt in all sorts of ways, we thought taking another shot at All-America City status was an expense the City just didn’t need. With a projected budget deficit of about $2 million, we urged the City to scrap plans to spend $40,000 to pursue the award. Instead, the City found another funding source. That works, too, though we anticipate that the City will still be investing staff (and payroll dollars) to the endeavor. Local officials still seem more enamored of this award than we are.

2015 will be known as The Year of the IRS Phone Scam. Nearly every month, one area police department or another was issuing a warning about the scam. Here’s the thing: If the Internal Revenue Service is going to prosecute you for tax evasion or unpaid tax debt, you won’t be informed through a phone call. If you get a call like that, hang up, report it and certainly don’t give any money or information.

A generous private donation could leverage even bigger things for the Galena (Ill.) School District — if voters support the idea of renovating an existing facility and constructing a new combined middle and high school building. Donald and Sandy Wienen, of Elizabeth, Ill., donated 19 acres valued at $1 million — if voters approve a bond measure within 24 months of accepting the gift. The Wienens’ gift is impressive, and a clever way to entice voters. Whether it works will be answered at the March 15 referendum.

Whether or not you love Spam, the spiced ham in a can got nearer to Dubuquers’ hearts in 2015. Hormel Foods added Spam to the lineup of Bacon Bits, Hormel Compleats and other microwavable foods produced at Dubuque’s Progressive Processing facility. Workforce at the plant keeps growing, and more products and more jobs just solidify Hormel’s presence as a boon to the community and a source of good-paying jobs.

Dubuque’s own barber with books captured hearts nationwide when this story went viral. Barber Courtney Holmes was interviewed by multiple national media outlets and TV shows after a TH story highlighted his initiative to give out free haircuts to children while they read. The Little Free Library reached out to Spark Family Hair Salon, where Holmes works, to establish a free micro-library there. Several local groups got in on supporting the effort as well. It’s heartening to know that Holmes’ simple gesture has resonated with so many.

For years, we’ve been pretty supportive of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and we have typically liked his method of operation. This year revealed a side of the governor that was quite disappointing. First, he vetoed supplemental education spending after lawmakers spent months negotiating a compromise deal. Then he ordered the Department of Revenue to change an administrative rule to exclude “consumable supplies” from the state sales tax — after an effort to get the change made legislatively failed. That will cost the state $37 million. Most recently, the governor has stubbornly refused to hear the concerns about the rushed timetable for Medicaid privatization. In 2016, we’re hoping to see Branstad more as a consensus-builder.

Citizens of Dubuque are increasingly aware of and, in increasing numbers, concerned about City spending. Now, City officials sought a way to provide as much information as possible. They launched “Open Budget,” an online tool citizens may use to navigate the City budget and view expenses and revenue. We applaud the City’s effort to make financial information readily available.

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium was home to an epic exhibit. Over a 20-week period, from May into October, “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” attracted 154,065 people to the museum. The real artifacts, room re-creations and personal stories made for a compelling presentation of this fascinating event in history. We’re thrilled that it brought more traffic to our museum and aquarium. This gem in the Port of Dubuque is one of the city’s finest assets.

The Dubuque community this year lost a local icon of civil rights leadership and community action with the death of Ruby Sutton. She had been in declining health for several years.

It is a fitting tribute to her legacy that the Dubuque City Council gave the facility housing the city’s Multicultural Family Center a new name: the Ruby Sutton Building. Sutton communicated the message of inclusion by the way she lived her life, including many long years in a nearly all-white Dubuque. What a perfect way to honor her memory.


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