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Reynolds proposes constitutional amendment to restore some felons’ voting rights

DES MOINES -- Felons who complete their sentence would automatically have their voting rights restored under a constitutional amendment proposed Tuesday by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Iowa and Kentucky are the only two states that require felons to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored after completing their sentence.

Reynolds proposed language to amend the Iowa Constitution. The change, the governor’s staff says, would make felons eligible to vote once they have completed their sentence, bringing Iowa’s policy in line with 35 other states.

A change to the Iowa Constitution must be approved by two consecutive Iowa General Assemblies and then Iowa voters.

“I believe in second chances,” Reynolds said Tuesday.

Reynolds said she does not think felons should be permanently banned from voting, and one person should not hold the sole authority over whether those rights are restored. Her amendment would do that automatically once a felon has completed his or her sentence.

Iowa law defines a sentence as including any probation or parole. It does not include court-ordered restitution, nor does Reynolds’ proposal.

Key Republican legislators said they think some form of restitution should be included. Stipulations could include partial or complete repayment of fines and court fees, and period of time after completion of the sentence before the rights are restored.

That could mean legislators approve the governor’s proposed constitutional amendment while also crafting legislation that would put those stipulations into state law.

“The Senate Republicans’ position is that there will have to be some additional stipulations,” said Republican Sen. Dan Dawson, the vice chairman of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee. “Our focus would be try to restore the rights of those individuals who truly have moved past their bad act or bad behavior, and part of that is, have you made your victim whole? Have you paid back your court debts that would have been ordered as well, if there were?”

The top Democrat on the Iowa House Judiciary Committee said she supports Reynolds’ proposal. Rep. Mary Wolfe has proposed a House Joint Resolution similar to the governor’s proposal.

“I think that will work just fine,” Wolfe said after reading an explanation of Reynolds’s plan. “Good for the governor. I can support that 100 percent.”

Wolfe called the governor’s approach a “clean” way to address voting rights restoration and said trying to write into law stipulations like requiring payment of restitution and court costs could be problematic.

“It would a) be difficult to get the language right and b) I think it might cause real problems moving it forward,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe also said she would like to see Reynolds use her executive authority to restore felons’ voting rights while legislators debate the proposed constitutional amendment.

Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack granted automatic restoration of felons’ voting rights through executive order in 2005. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded that action immediately after taking office in 2011.

Reynolds, who was Branstad’s lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2017, said she is focused on the constitutional amendment because it is a more permanent solution and it ultimately puts the question to Iowa voters.

“(By issuing an executive order), depending on who the governor is we could switch back and forth, and I don’t think that’s the path that we should take,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds has restored the rights of 88 felons since she took office in May 2017.

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Iowa's Ernst says she turned down chance at Trump's VP due to marital problems

SIOUX CITY — Sen. Joni Ernst says she turned down President Donald Trump after interviewing to be his running mate, according to a court filing that describes an "extremely painful journey" that led to her divorce from a man she alleges was abusive.

Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, wrote in an affidavit for her divorce proceeding that after Trump interviewed her in 2016 to be his vice president, "I turned Candidate Trump down, knowing it wasn't the right thing for me or my family." The filing doesn't explicitly say whether Trump asked her to join the ticket.

Trump interviewed Ernst at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, in July 2016 as he was considering potential running mates. Ernst told reporters later that she made clear she was interested in continuing to serve Iowa in the Senate, to which she was elected in 2014 after serving as a state senator and county official. Trump eventually chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who is now vice president.

Ernst's office, the White House and the Trump campaign didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kicking off her annual tour of the state's 99 counties, Ernst visited three Northwest Iowa businesses Tuesday. None of the stops -- at Seaboard Triumph Foods in Sioux City, at Midwest Industries in Ida Grove and at Cookies Food Products in Wall Lake -- were open to the public. 

Ernst called her withdrawal from consideration as Trump's vice presidential pick a sacrifice for the good of the relationship with her husband Gail, a retired Army Airborne Ranger who she said wasn't supportive of her fast-rising political career.

"I continued to make sacrifices and not soar higher out of concern for Gail and our family," Ernst wrote in the affidavit in October. "Meanwhile, he hated any successes I had, and would belittle me and get angary any time I achieved a goal."

The filing and several others were made public earlier this month, in accordance with court rules for Iowa family law cases, after Joni and Gail Ernst settled their previously contentious divorce. The couple had been married 26 years and have one adult daughter together.

A lawyer for Joni Ernst filed an emergency motion Monday seeking to seal some of the files after their existence was first reported by Cityview, a Des Moines alternative newspaper. A judge granted the request on Tuesday, which means the public can no longer access the affidavit.

Ernst filed the affidavit in asking the court to reject Gail Ernst's request that she be required to make monthly alimony payments. She said that she had supported Gail Ernst during his military career, in which they moved several times before settling in Ernst's hometown of Red Oak, Iowa, but that he hadn't returned the favor when she entered politics.

"Although Gail seems to think he can live off my salary for the rest of his life, he is doing everything he can to destroy me and ruin my chances for re-election, which would end the gravy train he apparently plans to ride," she wrote.

Ernst, 48, recently indicated that she will run for a second six-year Senate term in 2020. She alleged that her husband promised to divorce her if she did so — an allegation he denied.

Gail Ernst, 65, filed for divorce in August. In requesting alimony, he noted that he was retired and partially disabled from his military service, saying that his "standard of living" shouldn't suffer from the split. Joni Ernst's $174,000 salary as a senator was the couple's primary income.

The settlement, signed in December and accepted by a judge earlier this month, doesn't require either side to pay alimony. It granted Joni Ernst the couple's condominium in Washington, D.C., and Gail Ernst their home in Red Oak.

Before the agreement, both parties made explosive allegations against each other.

Joni Ernst alleged that Gail Ernst had physically abused her following an argument while she was serving as Montgomery County auditor in the 2000s. She wrote that she told the county's victim advocate, who suggested she seek medical treatment for her throat and head. But she said she was embarrassed and humiliated and kept the abuse quiet, even during marriage counseling sessions.

Ernst said that she was devastated after discovering email messages between her husband and another woman last summer.

"I started a downward spiral of not sleeping and eating and I rapidly lost 17 pounds about 13 percent of my body weight. My staff had to cancel two days of my appointments because I couldn't function," she wrote.

Gail Ernst said that he never had an affair and alleges in one filing that she was the one who was unfaithful. He accused Joni Ernst of exhibiting "very bizarre behavior" after he requested divorce, including accessing his email account and sending messages under his name.

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Woodbury County Sheriff pushes again to add more deputies

SIOUX CITY -- Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew returned to an annual request Tuesday, again asking the County Board of Supervisors to approve adding more money for deputies to patrol roads.

Every time for six years, Drew's request for more workers has been denied. This time, again, no immediate affirmation was given by the supervisors.

"We have asked continually for more bodies...Our staff is stretched thin and at the point of burnout from working additional hours," Drew said in an interview.

While Drew makes decisions on where sheriff's office employees perform their varying tasks, the supervisors set the budgets for each county department and office. In discussing his multi-million budget proposal for the 2019-20 fiscal year, Drew said on Tuesday that he wants to add three deputies and one jailer, which would cost $254,000, for wages and benefits.

"The total number of employees have stayed the same since I have taken office. We have shuffled people around to try to fill gaps. With all the new demands regarding mental and substance abuse work, we are stretched to thin, which ultimately shortens patrol functions in our rural area," Drew said.

In January 2017, Drew asked the supervisors to add a deputy, and he asked for more in other years. On Tuesday, Drew told the Journal he thinks the best way to plan for staffing is through a five-year plan, phasing in sheriff's office workers.

The supervisors made no final decision, so the matter could come up again on Feb. 12. They are trying to keep costs low, in order to not raise the county property tax levy.

Board chairman Keith Radig said he would not support the additional deputies, in order to keep a lean budget. Supervisor Marty Pottebaum said working through a five-year plan on deputy additions is a logical way to take a longer look.

Iowa counties must set budgets by March 15. The budget being vetted would cover revenue and expenses for the period from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020.

The supervisors have been holding weekly budget hearings on the proposals of departments, and those will run into early February. When the proposed budget was first presented at the beginning of the month, it totaled $56.9 million, or $2.3 million more than the current year budget.

Going into the Tuesday meeting, county Finance Director Dennis Butler's projection showed the property tax rates at $7.47 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for city residents and $9.90 per $1,000 for rural residents. The tax rates in the current year are $7.29 per $1,000 for city residents and $9.53 per $1,000 for rural residents.

One element of the budget is how much is spent on mental health services for low-income residents and others. A proposal Tuesday said the county's costs would be $3,445,900, or $33.63 for every resident of the county.

The spending will come in a new region, as Woodbury County on July 1 will exit the Sioux Rivers Regional Mental Health and Disability Services agency and become a member of the Rolling Hills Community Services Region. The entire 2019-20 Rolling Hills budget is projected at $7.5 million, with the other $4 million coming from the other seven region counties, which lie east of Woodbury County.

Additionally concerning the budget, on a motion by Supervisor Jeremy Taylor, the board unanimously moved $300,000 from Sioux City Hard Rock Hotel & Casino county gaming revenues into another budget category, in order to reduce property taxes by that same amount. That still leaves $133,000 in county gaming revenues as a cushion for other expenses, Butler said.

Also in the meeting, the supervisors approved a lawsuit settlement with Michael Lane, who lives in Monona County.

The settlement is for $24,750 being paid to Lane, after a county snow plow driven by Karl Frederick John Johnk drove through a stop sign and collided with Lane in November 2015 near Hornick, according to a court document. The action was a compromise settlement of a disputed claim.

Steve King mum about his first town hall meetings of 2019

SIOUX CITY -- Two weeks ago, Rep. Steve King unveiled a schedule for town halls in each of the 39 counties in Iowa's 4th District this year, with the Iowa Republican urging constituents and the media to "save the dates."

But, as of Tuesday night, the embattled congressman still had not released places and times for the first two meetings on Thursday and Saturday, as he had promised at the time of his Jan. 4. announcement.

King's office and top spokespersons did not immediately respond to a series of Journal inquiries about details for this week's meetings, or even if the sessions will take place as scheduled. 

Since listing the 39 dates, King has faced a firestorm of criticism for his comments in a New York Times. In an interview for a story about immigration and race relations, King was quoted as saying, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?"

After a flurry of officials condemned his remarks, House GOP leaders on Jan. 14 stripped King of his committee assignments for the next two years. The following day, the House overwhelmingly approved a resolution intended to rebuke King for the comments. The resolution, which King voted for, called for the chamber to reject white nationalism and white supremacy as “hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”

King has pushed back heavily on the white supremacist and white nationalist charges. In an email last week, he urged supporters to donate to his re-election campaign, casting himself as a victim of a cabal of the "unhinged left" and "NeverTrumpers" who are out to "destroy" him because of his unwavering opposition to illegal immigration.

Unlike many members of Congress, the nine-term incumbent has shunned town halls in recent years, saying he feared out-of-state paid protesters would hijack the meetings and prevent district voters from asking their questions and voicing concerns. He also expressed concerns for his own safety, citing a Republican House leader who was wounded after a gunman opened fire at a baseball practice for GOP House members two years ago in suburban Virginia.

"I do meetings all over the place, with people that request them, that have policy issues that they want to discuss with community leaders. But in this climate, to advertise town hall meetings, just so that protesters have a forum, just doesn't make a lot of sense to me," King told the Journal in 2017.

That's why his Jan. 4 announcement represented an about face, attracting a great deal of local, state and national media attention for committing to 39 meetings in 2019. 

“Town hall meetings are an opportunity for members of the public to express their concerns to me, and for me to deliver my constituents an overview of the work I am doing in Washington on their behalf," he said in a statement.

At the time, King's office said as more details about the town hall schedule become confirmed, they would be distributed via press releases and would be available on his official congressional website at:

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Palmer Specialty Foods' Katie Bay said a variety of different cheeses will bring oohs and ahhs from even die hard Super Bowl party-goers.  

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 


Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal file 

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, speaks at a town hall meeting in Sioux City in August 2010. King on Jan. 4 said he would hold town halls in each of the 4th District's 39 counties in 2019. The first two dates are Thursday and Saturday, but King has not yet released the places or times.