March 28, 2014

Week 10
Legislative forum – Saturday
Visitors to the Capitol
Taxpayers deserve answers to reports of “hush money” payouts
Making Iowa the best place for veterans
Be attentive to roadside emergencies
News you can use

This week, the Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said the target date for the end of the legislative session is April 11. We have a lot of work to do to make that date, but it is a good goal. I think it will be closer to Easter! At any rate, we have a lot of work to get done in the meantime.

Last week, I noted Iowa City nurses that were among the top 100 Great Iowa nurses. My list was incomplete. Please congratulate Valerie Mattison from Mercy Iowa City for being named to the list!

On Monday, supporters of medical cannabis met with a bipartisan group of legislators to share their stories and advocate for safe, legal access to cannabis. Here is a link to their presentations and news coverage of what they said. The following people shared their stories:

Rachael Selmeski, mother of a child benefiting from medical cannabis who has moved to Colorado.

Logan Edwards, veteran from Davenport moving to Colorado.

Don Karr, veteran, Cedar Rapids business owner and former city council member.

State Senator Jack Hatch announced this week his support of efforts to provide legal protections to Iowans that obtain cannabis to treat their epilepsy. Here is a link to the story.

I will participate as guest on Monday on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River Program at noon. We will discuss the progress made this session on medical cannabis. I will join my colleague Senator Charles Schneider (R-West Des Moines) on the program.

The Senate continued to be stonewalled by Governor Branstad this week in providing a clear explanation and details on the hush money payments made to fired state employees. The Senate Oversight Committee was planning to meet on Thursday and cancelled the meeting because there wasn’t anyone to come and answer questions. The meeting is rescheduled for next week to give people time to get their stories straight. See the article below for more details. Here is some news coverage today.

I met this week with parents that are struggling to care for their kids with significant but treatable mental health problems. We have hundreds of families in the state that are trying their best to meet their needs. There are 1,600 families on the children’s mental health waiver waiting list. These families are waiting up to two years for funding of basic services to help them maintain their children at home. Last year, we approved funding to help these families but Governor Branstad vetoed it. We are taking another run at it. This is a classic case of pay me now or pay me later. The earlier we provide help to these kids, the more successful they will be later in life.

I also met with county mental health leaders and the Department of Human Services administrators to figure out an on-going funding plan for mental health services. Unfortunately, the Branstad administration is trying to force funding cuts to an already fragile mental health system. Providers are financially stressed and people are on waiting lists. The current funding scheme means that 45 counties will NEVER EVER get an increase in funding for mental health care services. We will be working in the next few weeks to push back on the Governor’s plan.

The Senate approved an increase in solar energy tax credits to help homeowners and businesses deploy solar energy technology this week. If you are thinking about solar at your home or business, this is a great time to move ahead.

I had the honor of presiding over Senate debate yesterday. Senate President Pam Jochum had a tax bill to run, and I was asked to take her place in the President’s chair. I was able to preside over several bills. It was fun, but I was nervous the whole time. I have a renewed appreciation of the smooth job Senator Jochum does as our Senate President!

I joined veterans and parents of Iowa children who suffer from repeated, life-threatening seizures for a news conference advocating for appropriate treatment. A medicine made from cannabis, the scientific name for marijuana, has produced dramatically positive results in these cases. The medicine is legal in 20 states but not in Iowa. Last month, the National Epilepsy Foundation issued a statement saying that “an end to seizures should not be determined by one’s zip code.” Iowa is seriously considering making medical cannabis available through a restricted, responsible, medically supervised approach.

Please join us on Saturday, March 29, at 9:30 a.m. for the Johnson County League of Women Voters Forum at the Coralville City Council Chambers, 1512 7th Street. The forum is an opportunity to talk about important issues face to face. The event is co-sponsored by the Iowa Federation of Labor.

Les Weber, Eastern Iowa Coordinator, Tar Wars
Gerene Denning, Director, Emergency Medicine Research, University of Iowa
Eileen Fisher, CAFÉ Iowa
Christopher Squier, Professor, University of Iowa
Doug Beardsley, Director, Johnson County Public Health Department
Gail Agrawal, Dean, University of Iowa College of Law
Joan VandenBerg, Youth and Family Development Coordinator, Iowa City Community School District
Bruce Walker, Iowa Bar Association
Kris Artley, Johnson County Mental Health
Tammy Nyden
Cole Bullock
Sorry if I missed you.

Recently, Iowans learned that hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars were paid in secret settlements to former state employees who were asked to sign confidentiality agreements.

After saying that he didn't know about the hush money paid by state agencies until last week, Governor Branstad issued an executive order intended to end the use of confidentiality agreements going forward, make employee settlements readily available to taxpayers and increase scrutiny of settlement agreements.

While this is a step in the right direction, Iowans deserve to know how this abuse of taxpayer dollars happened. In the Legislature, we are taking our own steps to find out and to prevent it from happening again.

First, the Senate Oversight Committee is investigating 24 confidential settlements in several agencies. We want to know why confidentiality agreements were created, and what information they were intended to conceal. In addition, how was more than $400,000 paid out without regulators noticing? When the Legislature writes the state budget, we give every dollar a purpose. There should not be any secret slush funds.

Second, the Administration & Regulation Budget has been amended to include an audit of terminated employee agreements handled by the Department of Administrative Services going back to 2011. The audit will include the nature of the positions subject to termination with nondisclosure provisions, the payments provided and the funding source of the payments, and the identity and authority of those agreeing to the settlement on behalf of the state.

Finally, I am supporting efforts to make sure all of the various state budgets going forward specifically prohibit tax dollars from being used for payments to state employees as a part of confidentiality clauses.

Legislators take oversight of the state budget seriously. It's your money, and we want to ensure that it's used as intended.

Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place. Girls from across the state brought fun and plenty of smiles to the Capitol when they visited on March 20. Girl Scouts is a wonderful opportunity for young women to learn, grow, and get involved in their communities.

In the coming years, our nation will see a lot of retiring military personnel. These Americans have skills that make them invaluable to Iowa businesses. Attracting them to our state will bring skilled workers who can help grow our economy.

In the Legislature, we have worked in a bipartisan way to make Iowa a national leader in state support for veterans, service members, and their families. These efforts have helped Iowa become one of the first All-Star Vet States, along with Michigan and Tennessee. The initiative highlights the opportunities, services, and support that states offer to attract military families.

This year, we continue to explore opportunities to enhance services at the state and county levels, help returning service members reenter civilian life, and encourage more veterans to make Iowa their home.

Here are three initiatives the Iowa Senate has approved so far this session to do just that:

SF 303 will exempt all military retirement pay from Iowa individual income tax starting this year. All Iowa residents receiving a pension for service in the Armed Forces, the Reserve, or National Guard will receive this benefit. Those who are eligible have given 20 or more years of military service to the nation. This commitment is good for the communities where veterans choose to live.

SF 2242 expands eligibility and financing options for the state’s Military Homeownership Assistance Program. This program provides service members and veterans with a $5,000 grant that may be used toward the down payment and closing costs on a qualifying home purchase.

SF 2321 sets response and reporting requirements for sexual abuse allegations involving members of the Iowa National Guard, makes the process simpler for victims, and gives them more options. It prohibits a commander from interfering with a victim’s right to report an assault to civilian law enforcement, but those who do not wish to press charges may still choose to report to the commander. The Iowa National Guard already has trained female and male advocates to help victims of sexual assault.

The Iowa Afterschool Alliance serves students outside of the traditional school day. That includes out-of-school time, before and after school, and summer school. Whatever the program, the group supports high-quality efforts to serve students through structured, hands-on experiences that engage students in learning and positive activities. Pictured: Rep. Sally Stusman, Jan VandenBerg (Iowa City School District) and myself.

Here in Iowa, it's the law that drivers move over and slow down for vehicles with flashing lights responding to roadside emergencies. Most of us are well aware of this law, but the increasing epidemic of driver distraction means many drivers don't notice they are approaching an emergency until it is too late.

This serious danger was evident in a recent Iowa dash-cam video of a very close call. A vehicle left the road at the exact location where a state trooper was responding to a roadside emergency. Apparently, a pickup was rear ended and pushed off I-80 by a semi that failed to slow down in a timely manner. The video from the scene is shocking. You can view the video on KGAN's website.

By following two simple rules, you can help save lives, avoid a traffic ticket, and prevent the potential loss of your driver’s license. Iowa law requires drivers to:

1. Change lanes or slow down when approaching a stationary emergency, tow or maintenance vehicle that has its flashing lights activated.

2. Yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle displaying flashing lights or giving an audible signal by moving over to the right, stopping and waiting until the vehicle has passed before proceeding.

These laws are designed to protect all road users, those being transported in emergency vehicles, and emergency responders at high risk while performing their duties on Iowa’s roadways.

A violation is a simple misdemeanor punishable by a scheduled fine of $100. However, if a violation causes damage to the property of another person, the Department of Transportation (DOT) will suspend your driver’s license for 90 days. If the violation injures another person, DOT will suspend your license for 180 days, and a court could impose an additional fine of $500. If the violation causes death, you will lose your license for a year and could face an additional fine of $1,000.

Learn more at


Farm mentorships for female veterans
Iowa’s female military veterans interested in exploring careers in sustainable agriculture are invited to participate in a new project sponsored by Women, Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN). Those selected will spend 10 weeks working with an established female farmer in Iowa. They will learn skills related to production, harvest, post-harvest handling and marketing.

WFAN will pay a stipend of $50 a week to help offset expenses. Mentor farms will offer a compensation package including an hourly wage and in some cases room and board. To learn more or to apply, go to

Arts Council invites nominations for Governor’s Arts Awards
The Iowa Arts Council is seeking nominations for the Governor’s Arts Awards, which recognize and honor those that have had a significant impact on the vitality of the arts in Iowa. Nominations may be submitted through April 30 at Individuals, organizations and businesses can be nominated in four categories:

• The Public Art Leadership Award recognizes those that demonstrate leadership and commitment to developing public art in Iowa.

• The Collaboration & Partnership in the Arts Award recognizes those that undertake an artistic cooperation that brings together diverse partners.

• The Excellence & Innovation in the Arts Award recognizes those dedicated to artistic excellence and that capitalize on new or emerging methods or trends in the arts.

• The Impact & Accessibility in the Arts Award recognizes those that initiate a community artistic undertaking that is broad in scope and serves a significant number of Iowans or that improves access to the arts.

Iowa Cultural Trust accepting applications for funding
Through May 1, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs is accepting applications for two funding opportunities. Cultural Trust Stability Grants assist Iowa cultural organizations in reaching fiscal stability and instituting best practices in organizational strategic planning and management. Cultural Trust Endowment Challenge Grants encourage giving to Iowa's cultural organizations by providing matching dollars to endowment funds intended to supplement cultural organization operating budgets. Learn more at

Johnson County Financial Literacy Fair
On April 1 and 2, 8th graders will participate in a Johnson County Financial Literacy Fair at the Coralville Public Library. In class, students have selected a career and determined their salary/taxes. They’ll come to the fair to face the reality of monthly bills for necessities (transportation, insurance, food, etc.) and extras (where it really adds up!). At the end, they’ll meet one-on-one with a financial counselor to discuss their choices.

We are looking for volunteers to help at the booths. Would you like to join the fun? We’d love to have you or a team of folks from your organization join in the fun. No experience necessary! We’ll train you the ½ hour before students arrive.

If you (or your team) would like to volunteer, register at

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.