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Iowa Capitol Building

The Iowa Capitol in Des Moines is shown in June 2018.

A roundup of legislative and Capitol news items of interest for Thursday, March 14, 2019:

DISASTER DECLARATION: In response to flooding and severe weather beginning Wednesday (March 13), Gov. Kim Reynolds has issued a disaster proclamation for 21 Iowa counties.

She also activated Iowa’s State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate the response to Iowa’s flooding.

Counties included in her proclamation are Butler, Cerro Gordo, Clayton, Hancock, Harrison, Humboldt, Ida, Iowa, Kossuth, Mills, Monona, Montgomery, O’Brien, Pottawattamie, Sioux, Webster, Winnebago, Winneshiek, Woodbury, Worth and Wright.

The proclamation allows state resources to be utilized to respond to and recover from severe weather and activates the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program for qualifying residents along with the Disaster Case Management Program.

For information on the program, go to iowacommunityaction.org.

CELL TOWER: A bill to overrule an Allamakee County Board of Adjustment decision blocking construction of a cell tower state officials say is necessary to complete a statewide emergency communications network was approved, 38-10, by the Iowa Senate. The bill, approved earlier by the House, goes to the governor.

The board denied an application for an AT&T communications tower near New Albin, where Iowa and Minnesota meet along the Mississippi River. It was opposed because it could obstruct bluff views of the Mississippi River.

The tower would be part of FirstNet, a nationwide high-speed wireless broadband network for first responders and public safety professionals.

The bill is narrowly written to apply to Allamakee County and would sunset after the tower is constructed.

However, it was opposed by local government groups that see it as an attack on local control.

CAMPUS FREE SPEECH: A bill to ensure that Iowa public universities and community colleges adopt policies making clear they promote free expression and are not in the business of protecting students from other’s free speech was approved by the Iowa House, 52-44, with Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, joining Democrats in opposition.

An amendment to remove a provision to prevent institutions from denying benefits to any organization that denies leadership positions to people who disagree with their beliefs was rejected, 45-51.

That’s in response to the University of Iowa’s attempt in 2018 to disband a Christian student organization the university said was in violation of its human rights policy.

Supporters of the amendment said the language amounted to state-sanctioned discrimination.

The bill earlier passed the Senate, 35-11, with five Democrats joining Republicans in support of the bill. It now goes to the governor.

According to the Legislative Services Agency, the state could see legal expenses through “increased future exposure to litigation.”

The number of future complaints is unknown, and the cost of settlements cannot be estimated.

BALLOT TRACKING: A plan to mandate that all 99 counties use absentee ballot tracking from the U.S. Postal Service was approved by the House, 95-0, and now goes to the Senate.

The legislation stems from a contested northeast Iowa election where 29 mail-in absentee ballots were not counted because they arrived in the auditor’s office after the election deadline without appropriate postmarks or tracking bar codes.

House File 692 would require county auditors to use a system for the tracking and counting of mailed absentee ballots utilizing a postal service bar code printed on absentee ballot envelopes and a tracking information database containing the tracking information for absentee ballots.

An elections bill in the Senate would require absentee ballots be returned to the auditors’ offices by the time the polls close on Election Day.

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said that seems to be the preference of county elections officials.

EDUCATION ROUNDTABLE: Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Secretary of Education Betty DeVos will host a roundtable discussion Friday (March 15) with state elected officials, advocates and educators on the Education Freedom Scholarship policy proposal and how Iowa might implement it.

COLD, WET FEBRUARY: Confirming what most Iowans know, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported that February was cold and wet.

The average statewide snowfall for February was 22.6 inches, making this February the snowiest on record.

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For the month, Swea City in Kossuth County in north-central Iowa reported 41.1 inches of snowfall, while Bloomfield in Davis County in south-central Iowa had only 4.6 inches.

Temperatures fell as low as 20 degrees below zero, according to the latest Water Summary Update.

Statewide, temperatures averaged 15.6 degrees, or 8.4 degrees below normal, ranking February 2019 as the 16th coldest in 147 years of state records.

Statewide precipitation totaled 2.25 inches, or 1.20 inches above average, ranking it as the seventh wettest February on record.

Streamflow was returning to normal levels until the recent March rain and snowmelt. Soil moisture is high, and frost remains in the ground across the state.

BILL SIGNING: On National Ag Day, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill she said will “improve the security and safety of Iowa farmers by criminalizing the entrance of unapproved individuals who use deceit to enter farms and intend to cause harm.”

Senate File 519 https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislation/BillBook?ga=88&ba=sf519 creates a criminal trespass offense for using deception to gain access to a farm with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or to injure a facility’s operations, property or persons.

“A key component of managing risks, is controlling what and who comes on to farms,” Reynolds said as she signed the bill Thursday in front of legislators and representatives of farm commodity groups. “Untrained, unapproved and unwanted people entering farms put farmers and the economy of the state at risk.”

The bill follows an earlier law that a federal judge ruled violated the First Amendment.

Opponents of the bill said it will incur similar challenges requiring the state to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

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