February 21, 2014

Week Six
Legislative Forum – Saturday
Visitors To The Capitol
Strong Workforce Builds A Strong Economy
Student Poverty Increases Classroom Needs
Protecting Seniors From Abuse And Exploitation
Helping Victims Of Human Trafficking
Eliminating Texting While Driving To Make Roads Safer
Beware Of Identity Theft During Tax Season
Upcoming Events

I was proud of my Senate Democratic colleagues this week. They moved legislation out of committee to increase the minimum wage and stop wage theft by Iowa employers. Unfortunately, there were NO Republican votes to support either bill (see details below).

A few of the bills I have been working on got stuck in the first funnel this week. They included a bill requiring MidAmerican Energy to develop and provide solar electricity to their customers; one to help suffering Iowans have safe, legal access to medical cannabis; and another to ban formaldehyde in our kids toys and clothes.

I have spent the last five weeks working with all the key stakeholders and my Republican colleagues to develop a model treatment program for our most troubled delinquent girls. The plan calls for an accredited, state-owned and operated facility with quality education, oversight and qualified, trained staff. We have worked to depoliticize Governor Branstad’s massive leadership failure in his management, oversight and closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo. The bill came to the Human Resources Committee on Wednesday. Unfortunately, every Senate Republican bailed out on this effort at the last minute and all voted against the bill. You would think that the Senate Republicans would want to separate themselves from a Governor that allowed on-going, abusive treatment of very troubled girls under his administration's control and watch.

On Thursday, we passed a consumer protection bill out of the Commerce Committee to make sure the $1.4 billion reserve fund that is held by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa is not excessive. We approved legislation giving the Iowa Insurance Commissioner the ability to audit the reserves and determine an appropriate reserve level. If he finds it to be excessive, he can require customer refunds. Sadly, again, all the Senate Republicans voted against protecting Wellmark insurance policy holders.

Finally, this week I joined Senators Courtney and McCoy in introducing SF 2215, a bill to establish a medical cannabis program modeled after New Mexico’s successful program. We have worked hard since the beginning of session with Senate and House Republicans and Democrats to get a bipartisan consensus bill. After many meetings, much discussion and the funnel approaching, it was time to file a bill. We could not coax or cajole a single Republican legislator to help the moms and their kids that have literally begged us to act. Until we have a bipartisan bill there will not be meaningful progress made on this issue. The Iowa Board of Pharmacy called for us to act in January 2010. That was FOUR YEARS AGO. Twenty states now have programs. It’s time for my Republicans friends who privately say they want to help to publicly get their act together, study up and come with a plan. Vulnerable people need help NOW. Next year?

Here is the news conference video about the failed medical cannabis bill: http://youtu.be/kVGmlX76CQw. Here is the Des Moines Register coverage: http://blogs.desmoinesregister.com/dmr/index.php/2014/02/18/iowa-families-wait-anxiously-for-medical-marijuana-support/article.

Here is some reaction to the dead legislation: www.press-citizen.com/article/20140220/OPINION03/302200028/Our-View-Iowa-should-look-New-Mexico-medical-marijuana. John Deeth Blog: http://jdeeth.blogspot.com/2014/02/winning-by-losing-on-medical-marijuana.html .

Please join me on Saturday, February 22, at 9:30 a.m. for the Johnson County League of Women Voters Forum at the North Liberty City Council Chamber.

Sally Gaer of Des Moines spoke at a Statehouse news conference advocating for access to medical cannabis to help her daughter Margaret, who has a rare form of epilepsy that causes frequent seizures. Gaer appeared with several Democratic Senators when we announced we were unable to convince a single Republican member of the Iowa Legislature to support legalization of the medical use of cannabis. From left: Senator Matt McCoy of Des Moines; Gaer; Senator Tom Courtney from Burlington; Maria La France, the Des Moines mother of an epileptic child who would benefit from medical cannabis; and me.

Jim Walters, Iowa City AFSCME
Larry Fitzpatrick, Iowa City AFSCME
Nancy Porter, Director, League of Women Voters of Johnson County
Barbara Beaumont, President, League of Women Voters of Johnson County
Alex Salisbury, Regina Student
Bob Welsh, Iowa City, AARP
Dan McMillan, Director of Communications and External Relations, University of Iowa College of Public Health
Bill Barker, Marketing & Community Outreach Coordinator, University of Iowa College of Public Health
Liz Swanson, Director of External Relations, University of Iowa College of Nursing
David Johnsen, Dean, University of Iowa College of Dentistry
Jean Robillard, Vice President for Medical Affairs, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
Debra Schwinn, Dean, University of Iowa College of Medicine
Stacey Cyphert, Assistant Vice President for Health Policy, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
Ken Kates, Chief Executive Officer, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics

Senate Democrats want to put more Iowans back to work, strengthen our middle class, and grow our state's economy. Several proposals we worked on this week would do just that.

1. Keep childcare affordable. Iowa is ranked third in the nation when it comes to households with young children in which both parents work. That means Iowa families need good childcare, which can come at a high price. A federal child and dependent care tax credit allows working families to deduct 20 to 35 percent of eligible childcare expenses from their taxes. The maximum credit is $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more.

SSB 3181 improves our state tax credit by allowing Iowans to claim a state credit of up to 93.75 percent of the federal credit, increasing income eligibility to $67,410 and indexing for inflation. Another bill, SF 2143, allows parents who work and take classes to count the hours for both in calculating eligibility for childcare assistance. This encourages Iowans to continue improving their prospects for a better career and higher salary.

2. Increase pay. A higher minimum wage would put more money in the pockets of hard-working families, making them more self-sufficient and able to spend at local businesses. SSB 3194 would gradually increase Iowa's minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2016. A full-time employee making $7.25 an hour lives below the poverty line, earning only $15,080 a year. In Iowa, 81 percent of those who'd benefit from a minimum wage increase are 20 and older. Many are raising children and may be the sole breadwinner for their family.

3. Ensure Iowans can get to work. Transportation should never be a barrier to employment. A new initiative (SF 2076) will offer grants to transit providers that help Iowans get to their jobs. Up to $150,000 would go to projects on a competitive basis and require a dollar-for-dollar match. Transit providers might use the money to expand hours of service, create a ride-share program or offer shuttle service. Good transportation makes for reliable employees, and that's always good for business.

4. Make sure workers get paid. Wage theft cheats Iowa workers out of $600 million annually. Failing to enforce wage laws means Iowans don't get paid what they've earned, drives down wages and is unfair to businesses that play by the rules. SF 191 sets minimum standards to ensure Iowans get paid for the work they've done and allows wage investigators to more easily go after businesses that fail to pay what they owe.

On February 19, it was good to see Bishop Martin Amos of the Davenport Diocese at the Capitol this week. We talked about the contributions that Iowa’s many Catholic schools have made to Iowa. We also visited about the great work of Pope Francis.

The number of Iowa kids growing up in poverty is at a 50-year high, and our state’s childhood poverty rate is climbing faster than the national average. In fact, 41 percent of students in Iowa schools live in poverty and are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Education is considered a great equalizer, capable of helping less advantaged kids improve their chances for success in life. But history has shown that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. While the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap in student achievement between well-off and low-income students is growing.

Schools with lots of students from low-income families send fewer graduates to college than schools with high-income families, according to a new study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Schools with more than half of their students in poverty had lower rates of college enrollment and saw more of their students drop out of college than did higher-income schools.

We must do more to help students from low-income families. One idea is to provide schools with an extra $250 for each student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches (SSB 3160). That amounts to less than 10 percent additional funding for these Iowa students. The national average is an additional 29 percent. Schools use the money to boost student achievement among low-income students, through before and after-school education programs, summer school, intensive tutoring, mentoring and more.

Our students could benefit from these extra dollars now more than ever. Iowa is more than $1,500 below the national average in terms of how much we invest in each student. In recent years, we've fallen to 37th in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending. With our state budget in excellent shape, it's a trend we need to reverse.

Thousands of older Americans are abused, neglected and exploited every year in the U.S. Many victims are particularly vulnerable, depending on others to help them with the most basic activities of daily living.

In 2001, Iowa implemented an Elder Abuse Initiative in 22 counties to focus on prevention, intervention, detection and reporting of elder abuse. Between 2007 and 2011, the initiative received almost 12,000 referrals of potential elder abuse. Of these, 44 percent concerned financial exploitation.

With the demonstrated need, we must strengthen efforts to help vulnerable seniors throughout the state. SF 2117 creates an Elder Abuse Resource & Referral Program to work with area agencies on aging to increase awareness of elder abuse and to provide help.

Another bill will specifically address financial exploitation of Iowa seniors, which often occurs at the hands of family members or caretakers. Many seniors give a “power of attorney” to someone they trust so that person can make financial decisions on their behalf, including managing their money, paying their bills and purchasing necessities.

Power of attorney is exercised responsibly among most Iowans. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence of unethical people who prey on vulnerable seniors, stealing from them and abusing their power. Based on recommendations of Iowa's Elder Abuse Task Force, the Senate Judiciary Committee developed an “Iowa Uniform Power of Attorney Act” to address the problem. SF 2168 will help prevent and detect power of attorney abuse.

Our seniors deserve respect and dignity. These are two steps toward protecting some of Iowa's most vulnerable citizens.

The financial exploitation of elders is an increasingly common crime across the country. By strengthening Iowa’s laws, we can protect our seniors. I spoke with Don Corrigan, an AARP volunteer from Des Moines, about new legislation to ensure the financial safety of senior citizens.

Human trafficking is a form of slavery that often involves making money off the sexual exploitation of children. These atrocities take place right here in Iowa.

Human trafficking is thought to be the fastest growing and one of the most lucrative endeavors of organized crime. According to the Polaris Project, the total number of human trafficking victims in the United States reaches into the hundreds of thousands each year. Many of the victims are run-away teenage girls, who are forced into prostitution.

In response, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved SSB 3169, which aims to help law enforcement combat human trafficking and to provide assistance to victims. The legislation imposes a $1,000 criminal surcharge on anyone who purchases or offers to purchase the services of a prostitute, those who lure or force others into prostitution, and those convicted of human trafficking. The money will go toward efforts to combat human trafficking, including resources for victims and educating Iowans about this horrific crime.

In addition, the bill gives law enforcement new tools to fight human trafficking by:

• Extending the statute of limitations for sexual exploitation of minors from three years to 10 years.

• Giving authority to the Iowa's Attorney General to request a court order to intercept communications relating to felony human trafficking.

• Clarifying that enticing a minor can be done through any medium, including all forms of communication.

To learn more about human trafficking, go to www.polarisproject.org.

Texting while driving endangers all drivers and pedestrians.

In 2010, Iowa made it a crime to write, read or send a text message while driving. However, Iowa's texting while driving law is a secondary offense, meaning a driver can only be cited if they are stopped for another violation, such as a broken tail light or speeding. Police say that makes Iowa's texting while driving law difficult to enforce.

A new bipartisan proposal (SSB 3191) would make texting while driving a primary offense, giving officers the authority to pull over a driver specifically for texting. Why do we need to take this step? Research shows that texting is the most dangerous form of driver distraction because it takes our mind off driving, our eyes off the road and at least one hand off the steering wheel.

National Occupant Protection Use Survey show that, at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving. And at least 28 percent of vehicle crashes are caused by texting and cell phone use, according to the National Safety Council.

Teens have been the focus of most distracted driving outreach and laws. Texting results in car crashes that kill an average of 11 teens each day. However, they aren't the only ones practicing this dangerous behavior. A recent report from AAA indicates that drivers between the ages of 25 and 39 are the most distracted by their cellphones.

Mick Mulhern of the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau travels the state to talk with Iowa teens about the dangers of distracted driving. He's learned that parents don't always set the best example. When he asks students if their parents text while driving, half the hands in the room go up.

Capitol Project is an opportunity for high school sophomores and juniors who are interested in government to learn more about our democratic process. The Capitol Project accepts 20 students every year. I was able to meet with Alex Salisbury, a junior, from Regina High School who participated in the program this year. During their week in the capitol students help draft bills and learn about the legislative process.

The Iowa Department of Revenue is warning Iowans to beware of phony calls or e-mail scams regarding state taxes. If somebody calls asking for personal information, such as a Social Security number, or contacts you via e-mail, it may be fraudulent. The Iowa Department of Revenue does not initiate contact with taxpayers via e-mail to request personal or financial information.

If you have any doubts about providing information, don't do it. Contact the Iowa Department of Revenue directly to confirm if the call or e-mail you received was official. The department can be reached at idr@iowa.gov or by calling the Taxpayer Services line at 515-281-3114. For more information, go to www.iowa.gov/tax/educate/ID.html.

• The Johnson County Heritage Trust is hosting the 31st Prairie Preview “Small is Beautiful: The Value of Small Conservation Properties” on Thursday, March 13th. Bring friends and family to this free educational event to learn more about small conservation properties from Lon Drake and Judy Joyce. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for registration and exhibits with Lon and Judy presenting at 7:30 p.m. Prairie Preview will be held at Parkview Evangelical Free Church, 15 Foster Road in Iowa City. For more information, contact Tammy Richards at (319) 338-7030 or e-mail info@jcht.org.

• The Youth Off Road Riders Spring Benefit and Hand-Built Bike Show will be taking place March 7th. Support young people and bicycling at the Spring Benefit and Hand-Built Bike Show to benefit Youth Off-Road Riders, a cycling program through the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. Join us for a silent auction of local goods and services from the Iowa City area and hand-built bike exhibition from Professor Steve McGuire's class at the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History. The event takes place at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, 4213 SE Sand Road in Iowa City from 6 to 9 p.m. Refreshments will be provided. For more information, please check out the Facebook event page at www.facebook.com/events/469743916464353/.

How to Contact Me

Joe Bolkcom
728 2nd Avenue
Iowa City, IA 52245

About The Networker

The Networker provides brief summaries of some of the things that I am working on, the work of the General Assembly, and political perspectives on issues. I also use it to announce meetings and how to find useful information about state government.

Additional information

Senator Joe Bolkcom is an Assistant Majority Leader and chair of the Ways & Means Committee. He also serves on the Appropriations, Commerce, Environment & Energy Independence, Human Resources, and Natural Resources committees.