Des Moines Register. April 10, 2019

Legislative failure on felon voting rights should prompt Reynolds to act

Do Republicans controlling the Iowa Legislature not want people to vote? One can't help but wonder.

First there was the 2017 Voter ID law to respond to nonexistent fraud. It resulted in confusion, expense, court challenges and unnecessary barriers to casting a ballot. This year the GOP proposed legislation to ban hosting satellite voting stations in state-owned buildings. This would prevent early voting on college campuses and the Iowa Veterans Home.

Now, a Senate committee has refused to advance a bill taking the first step toward allowing Iowans to decide whether to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their criminal sentences. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, was among those who refused to move the measure forward.

"It's not the end of the world," he said. "This is a long process."

The GOP is doing its best to ensure that giving voters the opportunity to amend the state constitution is an especially long process — or perhaps will never happen.

The Senate committee's failure to act was also an insult to Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has said restoring rights is one of her top priorities. She understands the importance of giving people a fresh start after paying their debt for wrongdoing.

She knows that permanently marginalizing people makes it harder for them to feel like part of a community and forge a better future.

She said she was "disappointed" by the lack of legislative action and would "not give up the fight for Iowans who deserve a second chance."

Now it's time to see if Reynolds is serious about not giving up. Because restoring rights does not have to be a long process. It doesn't require legislative action or amending the constitution.

The governor can and should sign an executive order restoring voting rights for felons who are not incarcerated. She has an opportunity to show she can be an independent leader who is not beholden to the extremists in her political party.

And signing an executive order is hardly a radical move. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack did exactly that in 2005. It allowed tens of thousands of Iowans to be active participants in democracy. Six years later, Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded the order, returning Iowa to one of only a few states banning felons from voting for life unless they successfully beg a governor to restore their rights.

Reynolds is no longer Branstad's sidekick. She has the power to do what is right and fair for Iowans. If restoring voting rights to felons is really her priority, she can prove it with an executive order.

Numerous states have restored voting rights to felons using constitutional amendments and legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, governors can and do act on their own.

In 2018, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order removing the restriction on parolees voting.

In 2016, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their prison sentence and their term of supervised release.

In 2015, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order to automatically restore the right to vote (and to hold public office) to certain offenders, excluding those who were convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason.

In 2013, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed an executive order creating new rights restoration processes for people with prior felony convictions.

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Quad City Times. April 10, 2019.

Respect local decision-making

The attempt in the Iowa Legislature to limit property taxes has been a bit like a bouncing ball this year.

It's hard to follow and keeps moving.

The latest twist came Tuesday when we heard lawmakers were going to amend a House bill to shield local pension obligations from the property tax growth cap some Republicans want to impose on city councils and county boards.

We've already said we think Big Brother in Des Moines ought to leave local decisions on spending and revenues to mayors, council members and county supervisors. These elected leaders know best the needs of their communities - and they are keenly aware of the price they'll pay if they get too far out of line with the public.

That line of reasoning, though, hasn't been persuasive with some Republican state lawmakers. They still seem to be moving ahead with a bill that would limit property tax revenues to 2 percent per year. And the deliberations have included subjecting employee benefit expenses to that cap.

The problem is that costs in this category have been growing at a far faster rate than 2 percent. Let's face it, employee benefit expenses, in the public- as well as the private-sector, are rising far faster than general inflation.

Subjecting those to a 2 percent property tax cap would likely mean cuts in other city and county services just to make the budget work.

Where would those cuts come from? It's hard to tell. But we'd rather not see street repair budgets or police staffing suffer as a result.

We would guess there is some sympathy for the idea of putting a lid on property tax increases at this time of year. New assessment notices just went out and, with the economy recovering, property values are naturally rising.

In Davenport, the residential property tax base is up 5 percent over last year, the city assessors office said. The Scott County assessor could not be reached this week, so we don't know what the changes were in other jurisdictions. (We should note that property valuations vary and how much a person pays in property taxes based on these new values will depend on the rates approved by local jurisdictions. Those won't be set for another year.)

There is a safety valve in the proposed legislation that would give local governments a way to raise revenues beyond the cap by holding a public referendum. However, we suspect, that would be little-used. Instead, we think aldermen and supervisors are likely to start looking for other ways to raise money - like raising fees.

They also would likely turn more frequently to borrowing. Which isn't exactly a good financial option, in our view. Especially since the tax limitation proposal we've seen also requires local governments to trim their cash reserves. A healthy reserve is what bond rating agencies like to see when assigning a credit rating to local debt issues.

We understand the complaints about property taxes going up. But we also think they should be put in perspective.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership published an analysis last month that said property taxes, as a share of total personal income in the state, have remained pretty steady over the past 20 years, at between 3 and 4 percent.

Also, the share of city and county property taxes, which are the main target of the limitation measures, made up less than 2 percent of personal income, according to figures compiled by Peter Fisher, research director at the Iowa Policy Project, and David Swenson, an associate scientist in the economics department at Iowa State University.

In our view, that doesn't exactly paint a picture of a rapidly rising tax burden.

We also think that, in our border community, where Iowans have a distinct advantage over Illinois in the property tax department, investments to spur growth are better directed to items other than those areas where we already have an advantage.

So, we end where we began some weeks ago when we first took up this issue. We believe local spending and taxing decisions should be in the hands of city councils and county boards, not the state legislature. The local officials know their priorities and budgets far better than lawmakers in Des Moines.

We hope our legislative delegation would respect the judgment of their local peers and not hamstring them.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. April 11, 2019

There was too much at risk

Agriculture carries with it inherent risk. Any farmer can tell you that.

But the risk, no matter how tiny, that African swine fever could make its way into the United States is one no one wants to take.

Therefore, the National Pork Producers Council's decision Wednesday to cancel its 2019 World Pork Expo is both necessary and bold.

It is necessary because the damage to U.S. agriculture, should ASF be introduced here, could likely bring not only American pork production, but agriculture in general, to its knees.

Just look at the staggering loss projections estimated through studies led by Dr. Dermot Hayes, an Iowa State University economist, Center for Agricultural and Rural Development Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute:

$8 billion: The estimated amount the United States would lose in pork commodity revenue in the first year of an ASF outbreak.

$4 billion: The estimated amount the United States would lose in corn commodity revenue in the first year of an ASF outbreak.

$1.5 billion: The estimated amount the United States would lose in soybean commodity revenue in the first year of an ASF outbreak.

The annual World Pork Expo is the largest pork industry-specific trade show in the world. It brings together pork producers and other industry professionals.

"We have 20,000 people over three days gathering at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines for the World Pork Expo and many of those folks are international visitors and some would be coming from regions of the world where African swine fever is present," according to Jim Monroe, NPPC's senior communications director.

ASF continues to spread in China and other parts of Asia. It is a swine-only disease. It brings no food safety or human health risk.

"We are a producer-led organization. The decision was made by our board of directors, which is principally made up of U.S. pork producers," he said. "They made the decision out of an extreme abundance of caution. The U.S. swine herd and livelihood of our producers is NPPC's top concerns."

Gregg Hora, a Webster County pork producer from Fort Dodge and past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, put it another way: "Vendors that come into the World Pork Expo are going to be extremely disappointed. However, if we had African swine fever on the shores of the United States, we would lose 25 percent of our market overnight because the borders would be shut down. It would have a tremendous negative affect on, not just pig farmers, but on so many other sectors of the U.S. economy."

The World Pork Expo was going to be held June 5-7 on the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.

Although the NPPC said it feels the risk of ASF entering the United States through the World Pork Expo is negligible, it acknowledged that even a low risk is a risk not worth taking.

"Because our No. 1 concern is swine health and our farmers, the board decided to make the decision because we can't say the risk is zero. And because we can't, we decided to be conservative and make this call," Monroe said.

And, so, though multiple vendors and countless others stood to gain monetarily from this key event staged every year in Iowa, the NPPC stepped up with a bold decision that we applaud: Put U.S. agriculture first.

There was simply too much at risk to choose otherwise.

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