Throwback Thursday: When state lawmakers chose not to change "infamous crime" to "felony" in the Iowa Constitution

A 2008 amendment to the Iowa Constitution became a matter of debate in Griffin v Pate, the major voting rights case before the Iowa Supreme Court. The amendment changed Article II, Section 5, which as adopted in 1857 read, “No idiot, or insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, shall be entitled to the privilege of an elector.” The same section now reads, “A person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector.”

Two of the seven Supreme Court justices have previously held that when approving the 2008 constitutional amendment, the legislature “ratified its own existing interpretation of that provision under which infamous crime meant a felony.” In its brief for the Iowa Supreme Court on behalf of defendants in Griffin, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office carried forward that claim: “By failing to alter the Infamous Crime Clause when other portions of Article II, section 5 were amended, the Legislature and the public ratified the definition of infamous crime as all felonies under state and federal law.” During the March 30 Supreme Court hearing on Griffin v. Pate, Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson likewise argued “the simple answer here” is the 2008 constitutional amendment was “passed twice by the General Assembly, adopted by the people of Iowa, in the context of a legal system and historical cases and practices that said felonies are the line.”

My curiosity piqued, I decided to look into the legislative intent behind the 2008 constitutional amendment. What I found does not support the view that Iowa lawmakers envisioned “infamous crime” as synonymous with “felony” or intended to ratify such an interpretation when voting to remove offensive language from the state constitution.

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Iowa legislature not serious yet about preserving soil and clean water

The Iowa House and Senate wrapped up the 2014 session during “Soil and Water Conservation Week.” While certain environmental programs did well in the budget for fiscal year 2015, the legislature did not adequately address some of the biggest problems affecting Iowa’s soil and water.

The Iowa Environmental Council blog linked to several recent articles by “top experts on Iowa soil conservation,” who “expressed alarm about the state of our soil” and in particular the rapid rate of erosion. Along with other kinds of agricultural runoff, soil erosion contributes to toxic algae blooms in rivers and lakes, not only in Iowa and neighboring states but also across much of the U.S. Nutrient pollution is a major reason that more than half of the country’s rivers and streams are “in poor condition for aquatic life.”At the end of this post, I’ve enclosed an infographic explaining how toxic algae blooms form and how to prevent them.

Iowa lawmakers continue to throw money at the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, without insisting on numeric criteria for nitrogen and phosphorous levels in water and without the goals, timelines and monitoring needed to assure Iowans that waterways are becoming cleaner. In fact, the fiscal year 2015 appropriation for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship removed wording requiring that money for watershed projects be used to reduce nutrients. Follow me after the jump for the disturbing details.

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Iowa DNR and EPA sign work plan on CAFO inspections (updated)

Some potentially good news for Iowa waterways: after months of delays, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally signed a work plan on new procedures for permitting and inspecting large livestock farms.

Iowa’s confined animal feeding operations create more untreated manure annually than the total sewage output of the U.S. population. An EPA report published last summer concluded that the DNR’s CAFO permitting and inspection protocols did not conform to the Clean Water Act.

Federal and state officials negotiated a draft work plan to address these problems last fall, and the plan was ready to be signed in January of this year. However, the DNR requested changes to the plan based on feedback from the Iowa Farm Bureau, which tries to protect corporate agriculture from effective public oversight. Governor Terry Branstad tried to intervene with EPA officials to reduce inspections of factory farms. (Click here to read the correspondence.) To the dismay of some environmentalists, the governor also insisted that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy meet with industry representatives to discuss the CAFO inspection regime.

Although the final work plan isn’t ideal and provides for fewer in-person inspections than the earlier draft, the agreement looks like a big improvement on the status quo at the DNR. After the jump I’ve posted statements on today’s news from the DNR and environmental organizations that have been involved with this process. I also posted the seven-page work plan for inspecting thousands of CAFOs over the next five years. For more background, check out the EPA Region 7’s website and the Sierra Club Iowa chapter’s documents on CAFOs.

It will take a lot of follow through to make sure the DNR implements this plan. The agency indicated last fall that it would need thirteen new livestock inspector positions to meet Clean Water Act goals. Then DNR Director Chuck Gipp formally asked for eleven new positions in the 2014 budget, but Governor Branstad requested funding for only five new inspectors. Iowa Senate Democrats approved funding for thirteen new inspectors, but Iowa House Republicans supported the governor, and final budget for fiscal year 2014 included funding for just seven new DNR positions in this area.

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Iowa House votes to relax manure storage rules for CAFOs (updated)

In an ideal world, evidence that more than half of Midwest rivers and streams can’t support aquatic life would inspire policy-makers to clean up our waterways. Rivers that are suitable for swimming, fishing, and other recreation can be a huge economic engine for Iowa communities.

We live in Iowa, where most of our lawmakers take the Patty Judge view: “Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave in any of four directions.”

Yesterday the Iowa House approved a bill to relax manure storage regulations for large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). All of the House Republicans and two-thirds of the Democrats supported this bad legislation. Details on the bill and the House vote are below.

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Iowa Senate confirms Gipp, Lukan, and other Branstad appointees

Yesterday the Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed eleven of Governor Terry Branstad’s appointees. You can find the full list of confirmations in the Senate Journal (pdf). The department or agency heads confirmed were:

Chuck Gipp, who has been serving as director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources since last May, shortly after his predecessor resigned;

Steve Lukan, whom Branstad hired to run the governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy last June;

Nick Gerhart, who replaced Susan Voss as state insurance commissioner at the end of 2012;

Robert von Wolffradt, whom Branstad appointed as Iowa’s chief information officer last May.

Seven of the nominees senators confirmed yesterday will serve on state boards, councils, or commissions, including Joanne Stockdale, a former chair of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry who is one of Branstad’s appointees to the Environmental Protection Commission.

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