Des Moines Register. Jan. 21, 2021.
Editorial: Iowa Legislature’s streaming of committee meetings is welcome, but the House’s procedure is an unfair mess
Before this year, if you wanted to know firsthand what lawmakers thought about early-stage bills, you usually needed to go to the Capitol, whether by bus from downtown Des Moines or four-hour road trip from Rock Rapids, and track down a room. And those steps were absolutely required to share an opinion to lawmakers’ faces.
COVID-19 has brought the 21st century to the Statehouse. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Iowa has this month become one of the last few states to provide live streams online of committee-level meetings.
The accommodations permit Iowans anywhere with an internet connection to view the proceedings where much of the work shaping laws is done. The live streams should be retained after the pandemic threat has eased, but another step is needed to make the innovation truly meaningful.
On Tuesday, three-lawmaker subcommittees weighed a number of measures, including a pair of constitutional amendments in the House.
One would undo an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that the state constitution protects a woman’s right to have an abortion. The other would make explicit Iowans’ right to bear arms and prescribe how the judiciary should evaluate gun-control measures.
Anybody could watch online, but only those inside the Law Library could speak. And for the abortion measure, only supporters did, to a pair of unmasked Republicans and one masked Democrat.
Viewers also left formal written comments, but otherwise, all they could do was hold signs up to their cameras, react with emojis, and type into a chat. A screen was set up for the lawmakers, but it’s unclear whether the virtual feedback was visible.
If the subject matter weren’t so serious, the impotency of the tools available to people outside the library would be comical.
The Democrat, Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell of Ames, said she wasn’t aware of any recording of the meeting. “The advocates for reproductive freedom chose to stay safe from COVID and other threats of violence to state capitols,” she said in an email.
Contrast that with a Senate subcommittee hearing held on Zoom a few minutes later. The Republican chairman observed remote participants on a screen and called on those who raised their hands to speak, even hearing comments virtually from the panel’s Democrat, who was in another room.
Leadership in the Iowa House ought to adopt the Senate’s procedures, ideally immediately. (Both chambers should find a way to record for playback video of their meetings, too, as they already do for floor action before their entire bodies.) The ability to participate without being in the room would mean a lot for years to come to Iowans who live far from Des Moines, who can take only a short break from work or child care, who are disabled, who are sick — the list goes on. Those who make the effort to travel to the Statehouse will still make an impression by appearing in person. But others won’t be fully excluded, needlessly, from live testimony.
Gabriela Fuentes, 32, of Des Moines, is an advocacy strategist with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa. She said watching Tuesday’s “very dangerous and careless” meeting, with unmasked speakers coming to a lectern that was never sanitized, vindicated her decision to not risk her health by testifying in person.
Still, she said, “I was feeling very useless.” She can’t know whether any lawmakers will read the scores of written comments and said nobody acknowledged comments written in an online chat during the meeting.
To be sure, written comments about bills, lawmakers’ regular gatherings with constituents, and their easy-to-find contact information are valuable venues for advocacy and accountability, too.
Live streams of committee meetings are a vital first step to opening the legislative process to participation by more Iowans. But legislators who shout that recorded videos and written lessons are largely inferior to in-person teaching for Iowa’s kids should recognize the shortcomings of virtual meetings where participants around the state can’t make their voices heard — and take every possible step to ensure their live involvement throughout the legislative process.
Quad-City Times. Jan. 18, 2021.
Editorial: Reduce the size of the Rock Island County Board
Eight years after voters in Rock Island County overwhelmingly demanded a smaller county board, it appears members of that oversized panel are getting around to acting.
Last week, members of the county Governance, Health and Administration Committee spent an hour talking about how cutting the number of board members might be done. The discussion appeared to yield two options: One was to cut the number of districts from 25 to 15, with one member representing each district. The other option was to reduce the number of districts to five, with three members representing each district.
We’ll get to these options in a moment, but first let us make this point: Shrinking the size of the board to 15 members in a county with a population of 141,000 people (and shrinking) isn’t exactly a revolutionary step. We know this is what’s been talked about for years, and the size of some other county boards in the state are also big. But look around: In Iowa, the board of supervisors in Scott County, which has a larger (and growing) population, has only five members. The same is true in Polk County, where the population is more than three times what it is in Rock Island County.
In DuPage County, with a population of nearly one million people, there are 18 board members, seven fewer than in Rock Island County. There’s even been discussion in that county of shrinking the board’s size, although members there voted narrowly last year against putting the question before the voters.
Rock Island County’s 25-member board is no longer defensible. This has been clear for years. It’s also been clear the people of the county agree. In 2012, 72% of the people who cast ballots on a non-binding measure in Rock Island County voted in favor of shrinking the size of the board from 25 members to 15. We’d bet a majority would have supported reducing the board even further if they’d been asked.
In 2016, the county board itself even voted on a non-binding resolution to shrink its size to 15 members.
Unfortunately, little has been done to lay the groundwork to get there, even with the public’s will clearly expressed. In 2019, when a board member had the nerve to broach the subject, he took flak from some other members for doing so. Which is why we urge the board to move quickly down the path to downsizing.
New political boundaries – at all levels of government – will be redrawn later this year, and it is imperative that Rock Island County move forward now to rationalize the size of the board.
Some on the board said last week that reducing the number of districts will hurt minority and underrepresented communities.
To be sure, we believe these communities have been underserved in the Quad-Cities for far too long. But we don’t believe the current number of districts are what determines good representation. That hinges more on the quality of the people we elect to office, rather than the number of districts.
As for reducing the number of districts to five, with three board members each, this seem unwise. If the idea is to maintain representation, particularly for traditionally underrepresented populations, we don’t see how drawing larger districts, but with more members each, will accomplish that purpose. It would seem to be a recipe for overlap.
The county has taken important steps to better its financial condition in recent months. The sale of the Hope Creek Care Center was a good step, even though it was flawed and took far too long to accomplish. The board also passed a budget that, for the first time in years, did not include an increase in the property tax rate.
Those are good steps that ought to contribute to a more positive view of the operation of county government. But there still are many people who take a dim view of the board, and the inflated size of the body is a major reason. The board has the opportunity to send a message by moving quickly and smartly on this issue. If it flouts the public will and refuses to significantly reduce its size, the board will risk losing whatever credibility it has achieved.
Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Jan. 22, 2021.
Editorial: Feeding community needs key during pandemic
Officials at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dubuque have reacted to community needs for decades.
In the 1990s, the organization launched a meal program at the club to fill a void in the lives of the kids it serves. Later that expanded to include summer meals in partnership with the City of Dubuque.
But the pivot the local club took in 2020 was probably its biggest undertaking to date. Last week, the club served up its 100,000th free meal since March 23. To meet the need during the pandemic, Executive Director Brian Meyer and his team of partners began offering hot meals each weekday at locations throughout the city to help families feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 economic downturn.
That would be challenging in any environment, but COVID-19 precautions added an extra layer of challenges.
Still, staff and volunteers started off providing about 600 meals per day across about 15 sites. Now, they serve about 400 meals daily across five locations. The meal program is funded largely by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supported by local private donors.
Credit to the Boys & Girls Clubs team for answering the dinner bell and meeting this critical community need.
Also meeting the needs of the food insecure in our community are the Little Food Pantries that have sprung up in neighborhoods in and around Dubuque.
Those who fill the pantry locations got a stark reminder of just how deep that need runs when an anonymous note was left in one of the pantries. It read, in part:
“I have always provided for my family. That was before. Now, my pay is cut in half, and I can’t afford to pay the mortgage. ... We make too much to qualify for government benefits, and the stimulus payment only goes so far. I don’t want the neighbors to know I am failing. On this night, my heart is as dark as the sky. I make my way to the magic box of love to gather food to supplement our cupboards.”
The note reminds us that we don’t necessarily know who is hungry, who is in need, who is struggling. Blessings to all those who visit the Little Food Pantries — the contributors and those in need.
Future or additional confirmed Little Food Pantry locations can be found at mapping.littlefreepantry.org.
Don’t feel bad about not winning the Mega Millions lottery on Tuesday. No one did. So now today’s drawing will be the second-largest jackpot in history, estimated at $970 million.
Or maybe you’ll get lucky on the Powerball, where the Wednesday jackpot was $730 million. Someone in Maryland just won that. Everyone who buys a ticket has a chance. A one-in-302,575,350 chance, but a chance nonetheless.
Here’s another way to look at it. Lots of people who don’t normally buy lottery tickets, and all of the people who do, rush out to get tickets when the jackpots soar like this. It’s as if the idea of winning $700 million or $900 million is so much more appealing than winning a mere $200 million. Millions of people managed to find a few extra bucks to purchase lottery tickets this week. How many spent a few extra bucks to help out those in need in their community?
The two smiles above are examples of groups working to help address a most basic need: putting food on tri-state tables. A few extra bucks from those who can spare it would go a long way toward bolstering those efforts. And unlike the lottery, helping to fill a community need has its own payoff every time.