Des Moines Register. May 29, 2020.

It’s foolish, unnecessary for Iowa lawmakers to return to the Capitol; they can do their business remotely

When the Iowa Legislature dismissed because of the novel coronavirus in mid-March, there were a handful of confirmed cases in this state and no reported deaths.

A few months later, COVID-19 has taken the lives of more Iowans than car accidents do in an entire year. Dozens of Iowans die each week. The virus is not less deadly now. It is not less contagious. Public health experts repeatedly stress the importance of keeping distance between people.

Yet the GOP-controlled Legislature is reconvening on June 3.

Bringing 150 lawmakers from all corners of the state to Polk County — a relative hotbed of viral activity in Iowa — is a bad idea.

It is also not necessary.

In the 21st century, legislators can conduct business largely or entirely from their homes, the same way numerous workers have been doing for months. They can hold subcommittee meetings using teleconferencing tools like Zoom. (This could actually increase public transparency of the legislative process).

The only truly essential business before the Iowa Legislature is crafting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Republicans are already likely doing that behind the scenes. Minority Democrats have little power. And while we’d like to see a check on the executive branch of Iowa government right now and important legislation furthered, this is simply not the time to gather.

If lawmakers need to introduce amendments or vote in person, they can drive to the Capitol, wait in their cars and enter in small groups.

“It’s totally possible for us to do from home 95 percent of the work we need to do. We could come in and within an afternoon vote on everything we had previously worked on,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City who plans to wear a face mask and face shield when lawmakers reconvene.

“We have already done Legislative Council meetings over the phone. The Administrative Rules Committee has met over the phone. We have many members over the age of 65 and members with chronic health care conditions. It is virtually impossible to social distance in the Capitol.”

Some lawmakers who spoke with the Register wondered aloud about what the Iowa Constitution requires. While interpreting the document is the job of the courts, let’s look at a few sections that may be relevant.

Article III, Section 8 states that a quorum is needed “to transact business” and that legislators totaling less than a quorum “may compel the attendance of absent members in such manner and under such penalties as each house may provide.”

Being “absent” has taken on a new meaning with real-time videoconferencing. You’re not absent from work or class when you’re present online. Doctors are not absent when they’re treating patients via telemedicine.

A case could be made that lawmakers are present if they’re meeting online.

Article III, Section 14 states that “neither house shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other place than that in which they may be sitting.”

This was intended to prevent one chamber from calling it quits midway through a session or heading off to somewhere they aren’t available. The reference to “place” indicates a physical presence, but, again, the “place” could also be construed as a Zoom meeting.

Article III, Section 13 states that “the doors of each house shall be open” unless secrecy is required.

Metaphorical doors can be wide open to the public via livestreamed debates, meetings and votes.

Doing government business remotely makes sense in the midst of this pandemic. It would also be good to get such a system in place for January, when the virus will still be circulating, as well as for any future pandemic.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved rules allowing members to operate from a distance as long as the public health emergency persists. They are allowed to vote remotely by giving precise, binding instructions to a proxy present on the House floor. The goal is eventually to cast votes from home through a secure online portal or video conferencing.

That allows lawmakers from across the country to avoid travel and transmitting or catching the virus.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced in April it would operate remotely and hear oral arguments by telephone conference. The public was able to listen to the live audio in real time, which is not normally permitted.

“In keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the Justices and counsel will all participate remotely,” according to the court’s press release.

If businesses, churches, families, courts and 435 members of U.S. Congress can figure out how to operate remotely, the Iowa Legislature certainly can.

Because the risk of bringing a huge group of people together right now is not worth it. And the virus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican.


Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. May 31, 2020.

New normal evident in Tuesday elections

Iowa’s primary elections are Tuesday, but in some instances may have been decided well in advance by write-in ballots.

Recognizing 2020’s “new normal,” Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, blanketed the state with write-in ballot applications — something President Donald Trump criticized Pate’s Democratic counterpart in Michigan for doing.

Yet Pate deserves credit for boosting turnout in an election marked by varying degrees of wariness of going to the polls — by voters and precinct workers alike — because of COVID-19. Illinois’ chaotic March primaries, where some precinct workers stayed home — were an early warning.

Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder reported in early May that 9,961 ballot requests were received compared with 1,202 absentee ballots and only 8,573 voters overall in the 2018 primaries.

If your absentee ballot isn’t postmarked by Monday (or deposited at the County Courthouse by 4:30 p.m.), take it to a polling place. Just not your regular precinct.

In Black County, only seven sites will have in-person voting: East and West high schools serving Waterloo, the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center for Cedar Falls; the Evansdale Community Response Center and Hudson, Dunkerton and Union high schools.

Because so many ballots were cast early, belated advertising campaigns may have been for naught.

Hoping to unseat first-term Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee early on anointed Theresa Greenfield, a real estate management executive, who also received financial support from Emily’s List, a national women’s group, and unions. U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack and Abby Finkenauer endorsed her.

But Greenfield, who withdrew from the 3rd Congressional District primary in 2018 after self-reporting her campaign manager for forging nominating paper signatures, has been subjected to recent attack ads by Des Moines businessman Eddie Mauro.

Mauro, who is largely self-funding his $4 million campaign, criticized Greenfield’s aborted congressional bid and her 2008 business insolvency. He previously lost in the 3rd Congressional District primary and failed to unseat Democratic state Rep. Jo Oldson.

But it’s former Navy three-star Admiral Mike Franken who may be her foremost challenger after Des Moines Register endorsements and Republican contributions he cites as indicative of bipartisan support.

Rather than bashing Mauro on Greenfield’s behalf, Emily’s List sensed a Franken groundswell. It ran ads calling him a recently lapsed Republican, who returned to his native Iowa only last year and still has a Washington area residence, while working as a defense consultant following his 39-year military career.

While Greenfield, Mauro and Franken have espoused centrist Democratic positions — emulating Finkenauer and Rep. Cindy Axne who both upended Republican incumbents in 2018 — attorney Kimberly Graham, who represents abused or neglected children, comes out of the Bernie Sanders camp.

Alone among the Democrats, Graham supports a single-payer health program. Greenfield wants to build on the Affordable Care Act, Mauro on the congressional health program, and Franken something similar to the military.

The Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the U.S. Senate. So ousting Ernst — along with GOP incumbents in Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Montana — is essential for Democrats, particularly if Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., loses. According to the Des Moines Register-Medicacom Iowa Poll, Ernst’s support slipped from 57% in February 2019 to 47% in March.

The other Iowa race that could be impacted by early voting is in the 4th Congressional District, which extends into the Courier’s western circulation area. Incumbent Republican Steve King has been losing ground in polls to state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who has unleashed a massive late ad campaign.

King, who had served on the Judiciary, Agriculture and Small Business committees and chaired the Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee, was booted from all by the House Republican leadership after telling the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

Then he justified his opposition to provisions against rape and incest in anti-abortion legislation, stating, ”What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape or incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?”

King claims he’ll have his committee assignments restored if re-elected. “I have Kevin McCarthy’s word that that will be my time for exoneration,” he told a May 11 forum. McCarthy, the House minority leader, denied making that promise.

Feenstra is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former Gov. Terry Branstad and GOP kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, among others.

King only eked out a 3% win over Democrat J.D. Scholten in 2018 in a “ruby-red” district, and mainstream Republicans are wary he could hurt Ernst’s candidacy. But he has been resilient over nine terms. Scholten will be the Democratic nominee again.

If your mind is numbed by political ads already, consider that the primaries are only an appetizer before the general election onslaught.


Dubuque Telegraph Herald. May 31, 2020.

More information would help citizens assess risk of COVID-19

As Americans are able to move toward the resumption of normal activities, the pace at which the transition happens will vary widely among individuals.

For some, it will be a gradual and cautious return to public places. For others, it will be full immersion after a longtime delay.

What would help all people make informed decisions about the risks of their behavior would be more information. It is difficult to draw conclusions from the currently available data.

Top medical researchers at University of Iowa can’t even claim to have the key to predict what’s to come. The epidemiology group’s research published May 4 forecast a median outcome of 747 deaths by Thursday, May 28. In fact, Iowa’s death toll stood at 519 on Friday morning.

Their research was published shortly after the April 29 high point of 787 new cases in Iowa. Was that the peak? Hard to say. On Monday, May 25 — Memorial Day — the state had just 162 new cases. “This is the beginning of the end,” an optimist might have thought. Then on Tuesday, May 26, the state had 554 new cases. “This is the surge following the reopening of business,” another might think.

Whether you’re tracking deaths or positive cases, the numbers alone are not necessarily predictive of trends and telling in terms of risk assessment. When a county increases testing, beginning with long-term-care centers, a spike often follows.

But too often, we have no idea why spikes are occurring.

Last week, there were hundreds of new positive cases in Sioux, Wright and Buena Vista counties in Iowa. Yet there was no information forthcoming about an outbreak in any business or facility.

Even the state, it seems, doesn’t have all the information it wants. Iowa Department of Public Health officials talked last week about an outbreak among workers at the Tyson Foods plant in Storm Lake, where 555 of the plant’s 2,017 employees have tested positive so far. That prompted multiple questions about where other outbreaks might be, in light of some county spikes. But IDPH officials noted that businesses are not required to report outbreaks to the state — even when they involve more than 10% of employees. Some businesses have voluntarily reported outbreaks. But the state can’t necessarily confirm an outbreak on its own, given that workers can be tested through various outlets.

Locally, the Dubuque County Board of Health learned it has no power to compel the use of personal protective equipment or other requirements in long-term-care facilities, even if there is a known outbreak.

In Wisconsin, even less information about long-term-care centers is available, even when they are not privately owned.

Grant County, Wis., has 94 confirmed cases and 12 deaths. This is a county with a population half the size of Dubuque County. A contributing factor is very likely the outbreak at Orchard Manor in Lancaster.

At least 27 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the Grant County nursing home, but state health officials for weeks have declined to disclose whether additional cases have occurred at the facility as the county’s total cases climb. Nor have state officials confirmed whether any of the county deaths are linked to the Orchard Manor outbreak. The last update came on April 28, when it was reported that eight staff and 19 residents had COVID-19.

County officials also have refused to release updated case figures — and this is a county-owned facility.

Meanwhile, Grant County Health Department Director Jeff Kindrai recently said 70% of people in that county who had been diagnosed in the previous 14 days did not know where they could have contracted the virus, which suggests the county will experience more cases in the future.

Limited and sometimes spotty information leaves area residents to draw different conclusions about their risk of contracting COVID-19. Are a majority of cases in the state related to outbreaks at long-term-care facilities, meatpacking plants or other businesses? Or is community spread growing? Knowing that would help people assess risk.

It wouldn’t violate patient privacy to indicate a basic indication of transmission when it is known. Are these front-line workers? Are they people who have traveled by air? Are they folks who have been cautious about social distancing?

Or, as Kindrai noted, are these folks who have no idea how they might have gotten it?

Telling people to be smart and responsible doesn’t do much good when they can’t easily discern what’s cautious and what’s overcautious.

Elected officials and health experts should work toward providing people with as much information as possible. Without more context, it’s pretty easy for people to use pieces of information to support their preordained position about just how safe it is to move about our communities as we typically would.