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DIGEST: Iowa absentee ballot deadline could change

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A roundup of legislative and Capitol news items of interest for Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015:

ABSENTEE BALLOTS: A Senate subcommittee approved legislation Wednesday that would change the deadlines for absentee ballots received by county auditors.

Under current law, an absentee ballot received by a county auditor is valid if it is received before the polls close on Election Day or if it is clearly postmarked no later than the day before the election and is received by the auditor not later than noon on the Monday following the election. An amended version of SSB 1173 that cleared a Senate State Government subcommittee states that an absentee ballot must be received through the postal service at the auditor’s office by the close of business (5 p.m.) the day after Election Day to be counted. Or the ballot must be clearly postmarked by an officially authorized postal service no later than the day before the election and received by the auditor no later than noon on the Monday following the election – a provision that also would be applied to military absentee ballots in order to be counted.

A similar bill passed the Iowa Senate last session but was not approved by the Iowa House.

FLU VACCINES: State lawmakers are considering a bill that would require pharmacists to report immunizations and vaccinations to the state registry. Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, said the goal of HSB 147 is to prevent Iowans from receiving the flu vaccine twice in the same season. Most groups monitoring the bill have registered “undecided," but the Iowa Pharmacy Association and Hy-Vee oppose it.

SCHOOL FUNDING: Republicans on the House Education Committee rejected Senate Democrats’ proposal for a 4-percent increase in K-through-12 school funding, amended it to 1.25 percent and passed it along party lines. Democrats say a 1.25 percent increase is insufficient and will lead to school staff layoffs, larger class sizes and program cuts. Republicans say their proposal shows responsible budgeting under tight constraints. The proposal is likely headed for a conference committee, where lawmakers from both parties and both chambers will attempt to reach a compromise figure.

NATURAL GAS PRICE SPIKE: The price of natural gas rose 32 cents this week, ending the week at $2.95/MMbtu. Likewise, home heating oil rose 11 cents from last week’s figures, ending with a statewide average of $2.33 a gallon, according to a weekly report issued by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Propane prices were down a penny compared to last week’s price with a statewide average of $1.52 per gallon. Turning to vehicle fuel prices, regular unleaded gasoline averaged $2.18 a gallon earlier this week across Iowa, according to AAA. That price was up a nickel from last week and down $1.13 a gallon from one year ago. Retail diesel fuel prices in Iowa were up five cents a gallon with a statewide average of $2.68. The current Iowa diesel average was 17 cents per gallon lower than the national average of $2.85.

DATING RELATIONSHIPS: Advocates for domestic violence victims asked a Senate panel Wednesday to expand current state law to include dating relationships under the state’s domestic abuse laws.

Laura Hessburg of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence said violence in dating relationships is just as dangerous as violence involving married or cohabitating couples. Yet, she told members of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that abusers in many dating relationships are penalized less for committing the same crimes. SF 138, which won subcommittee approval, allows offenders in dating relationships to be criminally prosecuted for domestic abuse assault rather than simple assault. The change would afford victims enhanced protections of automatic arrest for the offender and criminal no-contact orders, as well as batterer’s education for offenders and escalating penalties for repeat offenders, she said.

Currently, domestic partners must be living together, be spouses or former spouses, or have children together for an offender to be prosecuted for domestic abuse assault, Hessburg said.

DEFINITIVELY DEFINING: A Senate panel began work on a measure that attempted to tighten up the definition of a sex act in state law to include intentional groping or fondling of the breasts of a female age 14 years or older that is not adequately addressed under current law, according to subcommittee chairman Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center. Subcommittee members planned a second meeting to attempt to address concerns that SSB 1161 as drafted was too broadly worded.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “This is cutting not just flesh, this is cutting bone. … You’re going to be cutting off whole limbs, not just bones.” --- Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, on Republicans’ proposal for K-12 school funding.

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