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state government

Term limits would be terrible for the Iowa legislature

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Apr 19, 2015 at 20:19:39 PM CDT

Annals of the absurd: Iowa's longest-serving state legislator, who sought a ninth Senate term last year at the age of 80, is now beating the drum for term limits.

What a terrible idea, especially for a state whose governor already takes an expansive view of his own powers.  

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Shorter Terry Branstad: It's good to be the king

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Apr 07, 2015 at 20:26:59 PM CDT

Governor Terry Branstad made a remarkable claim at his latest press conference: because "the people of Iowa elected me to reduce the size and cost of government," he has the authority to "make tough decisions" on closing state-run mental health facilities and reorganizing Medicaid services for more than half a million Iowans.

To justify his position, Branstad channeled President Harry Truman: "The buck stops with me." But his view of governance reminds me more of Mel Brooks in the movie "History of the World, Part 1": "It's good to be the king."

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Outgoing Iowa Utilities Board member slams Branstad's attempt to "appease" major utility

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Apr 03, 2015 at 09:45:28 AM CDT

Outgoing Iowa Utilities Board member Sheila Tipton sent Governor Terry Branstad a scathing letter after not being reappointed to the three-member board last month, Ryan Foley reported yesterday for the Associated Press. Tipton defended a board decision from earlier this year, which greatly displeased MidAmerican Energy. She warned that by removing her and demoting Iowa Utilities Board Chair Libby Jacobs, Branstad was undermining state agencies' independence "in order to appease MidAmerican Energy," thereby doing "a disservice to the citizens of this State."

Tipton also characterized Branstad's recent personnel changes as  "unfair," saying she had received verbal assurances in 2013 that she would be reappointed to a full six-year term if she accepted the governor's offer to serve out Swati Dandekar's unexpired term.

I enclose the full text of Tipton's letter after the jump, along with a statement provided by the governor's office, which defends the appointment of Geri Huser and denies that Tipton was promised a full term on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Even if Branstad or his staff did promise verbally to reappoint Tipton, the governor retains the right to change his mind. However, Tipton is unquestionably correct that the latest Iowa Utilities Board changes look like "an attempt to 'bring the agency in line' and to influence its future decision-making in a way that favors the utilities."

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August 23 to be set as earliest start date for most Iowa schools

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Mar 31, 2015 at 16:16:11 PM CDT

A bill prohibiting school districts from starting the academic year before August 23 is on its way to Governor Terry Branstad, who has indicated that he can accept the compromise. UPDATE: The governor signed the bill on April 10.

The school start date issue has taken up a lot of oxygen at the statehouse this legislative session, despite a lack of evidence that the timing of the academic year affects Iowa's tourism sector in any meaningful way. Follow me after the jump for details on Senate File 227's journey through the legislature, including how Iowa House and Senate members voted on different versions of the bill.

The governor's determination to use state power to supersede decisions reached independently by more than 300 school boards and superintendents is yet another example of the Branstad administration's disregard for local control in many policy areas. For my money, that's one of the most under-reported Iowa politics stories of the last five years.

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Newest Iowa Utilities Board member may have conflict on Bakken pipeline

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 26, 2015 at 18:00:10 PM CDT

Geri Huser may need to recuse herself from the Iowa Utilities Board's upcoming decisions regarding the Bakken Pipeline proposal, according to a report by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press.
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Branstad insists he pressured Workers' Comp official because of business, not bias

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 19, 2015 at 10:17:05 AM CDT

New details have emerged about Governor Terry Branstad's testimony in the lawsuit Iowa's former Workers' Compensation Commissioner filed three years ago, charging discrimination, defamation, and other claims. Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported highlights from the transcript of Branstad's deposition last November.
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Three ways to help save an important rule for Iowa water and soil

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Mar 18, 2015 at 07:30:17 AM CDT

The next few weeks will be critically important for deciding whether Iowa keeps a statewide rule designed to preserve topsoil and reduce stormwater runoff, which carries pollution to our waterways. Bleeding Heartland discussed the 4-inch topsoil rule here and here. Todd Dorman has been on the case with several good columns for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, most recently here.

Follow me after the jump for background on the issue and details on how to weigh in. Submitting a comment takes only a few minutes, or Iowans may attend public hearings in Cedar Rapids tonight, Davenport on March 25, or Des Moines on March 27 (scroll down for times and locations).

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U.S. Department of Labor wants Branstad administration to clean up Teresa Wahlert's mess

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Mar 17, 2015 at 12:16:30 PM CDT

The U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration has given Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend a list of tasks to "strengthen Iowa's compliance with Federal law" and address various concerns about the actions of Teresa Wahlert, Townsend's predecessor.

It's another sign that while Wahlert may not be Governor Terry Branstad's worst appointee during his current administration, she's a solid contender.

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New AFSCME contract: Branstad gets his way on salaries but not on health insurance

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Mar 16, 2015 at 18:14:54 PM CDT

For the third time in a row, binding arbitration was needed to finalize a two-year contract for state workers covered by Iowa's largest labor union. For the first time in decades, workers covered by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) will pay a small amount toward their health insurance premiums, but not nearly as large a share as Governor Terry Branstad wanted them to contribute.

On the other hand, the arbitrator accepted the state's final offer on salary increases for the roughly 40,000 public employees covered by AFSCME Iowa Council 61. Details are after the jump.

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Weekend open thread: New jobs for former Iowa lawmakers edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Mar 15, 2015 at 09:56:11 AM CDT

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Looking through Governor Terry Branstad's latest set of appointments and nominations, I was again struck by how many former Iowa House and Senate members end up on state boards and commissions. I remember Governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver appointing lawmakers to high-profile jobs too, but the trend seems more pronounced under the current governor. Background and details on the new appointees are after the jump.

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Branstad names Geri Huser to Iowa Utilities Board, demotes Libby Jacobs (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 12, 2015 at 15:52:26 PM CDT

I missed this story last week, but Ryan Foley didn't: Governor Terry Branstad is replacing Sheila Tipton with Geri Huser on the Iowa Utilities Board. Not only that, Branstad appointed Huser to chair that three-member board, demoting current Chair Libby Jacobs for the remainder of her term, which runs through April 2017. A recent board ruling that disappointed MidAmerican Energy, an investor-owned utility serving a large area in Iowa, precipitated the governor's decision.

Details from Foley's report are after the jump, along with background on Huser and first thoughts on her chances to be confirmed by the Iowa Senate.  

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Two ways 40,000 Iowans could lose their health insurance

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Mar 04, 2015 at 14:40:13 PM CST

At least 40,000 Iowans are in danger of losing their health insurance later this year, and not only because of the King v Burwell case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Regardless of how justices decide that case, Iowans could lose access to federal subsidies they need to buy insurance policies.

State legislators and Governor Terry Branstad could eliminate the risk by working together to establish a fully state-run health insurance exchange this year. But for reasons I can't comprehend, I see no sense of urgency to prevent a potentially devastating outcome for thousands of families.  

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Bakken pipeline links and discussion thread

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Mar 02, 2015 at 09:51:19 AM CST

The proposed Bakken pipeline is one of the most urgent issues facing Iowa's environmental community. The Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners wants to build the pipeline to transport crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, crossing eighteen Iowa counties in the process. Governor Terry Branstad has made clear he won't support any legislative action to stop the pipeline. That will leave the initial decision up to the Iowa Utilities Board, though approval by other state and federal agencies would be needed later; more details on that are below.

Two dozen non-profit groups have formed a coalition to fight the pipeline. You can keep up with their work on Facebook or at the No Bakken website. I'm active with several of the coalition members and enclosed the full list after the jump. The Sierra Club's Iowa chapter outlined some of the key concerns concisely and explained how members of the public can submit comments.

Former state legislator Ed Fallon, who ran for governor in 2006 and for Congress in 2008, is kicking off a 400-mile walk along the proposed pipeline route today, starting from southeast Iowa and heading northwest over the next several weeks. I've enclosed below an excerpt from his first e-mail update about the walk, in which Fallon recounts a conversation with Lee County farmers whose land lies along the proposed pipeline route. Click here to view upcoming events, including a public meetings for residents of Lee County this evening, for Van Buren County residents in Birmingham on March 5, and for Jefferson County residents in Fairfield on March 6.

The latest Iowa poll conducted by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics found that a majority of Iowans support the Bakken pipeline, but a larger majority oppose using eminent domain to seize land for the pipeline. Excerpts from the Iowa poll findings are at the end of this post.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. - The company that wants to build the pipeline has claimed "the project would have an Iowa economic impact of $1.1 billion during two years of construction, creating enough work to keep 7,600 workers employed for a year." Economist Dave Swenson explained here why such estimates are misleading.

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Weekend open thread: Love and marriage equality edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Feb 15, 2015 at 15:21:03 PM CST

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? I'm not big on "Hallmark holidays," but if Valentine's Day (or "co-opting Valentine's Day") is your thing, I hope you enjoyed February 14. This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

I wanted to catch up on news from a couple of weeks ago, which may continue to reverberate during the Republican Iowa caucus campaign. The owners of Görtz Haus agreed to settle with a gay couple who had wanted to get married at their venue in Grimes. Betty and Richard Odgaard are Mennonites who don't believe in same-sex marriage. Since the law doesn't allow them to discriminate against LGBT couples, they have decided not to hold any weddings at their place of business. They also dropped their own doomed-to-fail lawsuit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Clips with background on the episode and reaction to its resolution are after the jump.

Social conservatives are outraged over what they see as an assault on religious freedom. Both talk radio host Steve Deace and Bob Vander Plaats' organization The FAMiLY Leader have indicated that the Görtz Haus controversy will be a salient issue in the coming presidential campaign.

What these folks can't acknowledge is that no one is forcing the Odgaards or anyone else to approve of or "celebrate" gay weddings. Many of us have ethical or religious objections to some marriages; for instance, if the couple began dating while married to other people, or if one person appears to be marrying solely for money, or if there is a large age gap between the spouses. Plenty of Jews and Christians would disapprove of my own interfaith marriage. No one is demanding that the whole world applaud every marriage, only that the religious beliefs of some don't interfere with the civil rights of others.

Additionally, it's important to note that no house of worship in Iowa has ever been forced to hold same-sex weddings. If the Odgaards ran a church, they would be fully within their rights to refuse to serve LGBT couples. Görtz Haus is a for-profit business, subject to the same civil rights statutes as other public venues.  

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The Iowa Board of Medicine's grotesque double-standard on protecting women

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Feb 14, 2015 at 15:00:00 PM CST

The Iowa Board of Medicine released a remarkable file on Thursday detailing its settlement agreement with Dr. Fredric Sager, an obstetrician/gynecologist based in Clive. You can read the full document here (pdf). After the jump I've enclosed the first five pages, which cover the charges of "unethical or unprofessional conduct" and "disruptive behavior," as well as the main terms of the settlement. Reading what Sager did with some of his patients, including staying with them at his vacation home in Florida, it's mind-boggling that his license to practice medicine was not revoked or at least suspended. Instead, he will pay a fine of $7,500 (a token amount for a well-compensated doctor in Iowa), undergo some counseling on "professional boundaries," transfer certain patients out of his care, and be forced to have a "female healthcare professional chaperone" present when treating female patients in the future.

Multiple acquaintances who work with vulnerable populations in Polk County have told me that Sager treated many patients without a strong support system, such as pregnant teens, homeless youth, and young single women. In fact, one person had heard a teen in Sager's care talk about possibly going to Florida with him, but brushed it off as delusional thinking. It makes me sick that the Iowa Board of Medicine is allowing him to continue to practice medicine as an OB/GYN--even with a chaperone--after establishing his pattern of predatory and inappropriate behavior with patients.  

In contrast, the state Board of Medicine rushed through without adequate public input a rule banning the use of "telemedicine" for medical abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics around Iowa. Board members moved to ban that procedure despite studies demonstrating the safety of telemedicine abortions. Advocates were not able to cite any evidence of adverse outcomes among more than 5,000 Iowa women who had used the teleconferencing system to receive abortifacients. Planned Parenthood's lawsuit challenging the state rule is pending before the Iowa Supreme Court.

Governor Terry Branstad appointed all ten current members of the Iowa Board of Medicine. Six are physicians, and four are members of the public.  

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Iowa legislature sends first tax bill to Branstad's desk

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Feb 10, 2015 at 17:18:12 PM CST

Lawmakers from the two parties remain far from consensus on high-profile tax and budget questions, but the Iowa legislature has unanimously approved its first tax bill of the 2015 session. Senate File 126 (full text here) passed the Iowa Senate by 49 votes to 0 on February 4 and passed the Iowa House by 95 votes to 0 today. It "conforms Iowa's revenue laws to incorporate federal changes" made during 2014. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

The bill would extend a tax break to Iowa business owners, allowing them to claim the first half a million dollars worth of new equipment purchases as a tax deduction for the business. It also allows Iowa teachers to claim a tax credit for up to $250 for the supplies, equipment and materials used in their classroom.

Unlike most bills, which take effect on July 1 (at the start of the next fiscal year), SF 126 "takes effect upon enactment" and "applies retroactively to January 1, 2014, for tax years beginning on or after that date." The fiscal note indicates that this bill will reduce state tax revenue by $98.98 million in the current fiscal year. About $83.5 million of that comes from one part of the bill:

Of the extended provisions, the most significant from a fiscal impact perspective is the extension of favorable depreciation expensing known as "Section 179 expensing." This provision allows business taxpayers (including corporate taxpayers and business entities taxed through the individual income tax) to write off additional depreciation in the year a qualified depreciable asset is placed in service. Since the provision accelerates the claiming of depreciation, the provision reduces taxes owed in the first year, but increases taxes owed in later years.

Looking through the lobbyist declarations, I didn't see any lobbyists registered against this bill. The Iowa Society of Public Accountants, Deere & Company, Iowa Community Foundations, and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation all registered in favor. Speaking to Radio Iowa, Republican State Representative Chris Hagenow said certified public accountants and tax preparers had told lawmakers "this is a priority for them" to provide "certainty" going into tax season.  

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Iowans haven't heard the last from Brenna (Findley) Bird

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Feb 07, 2015 at 16:18:43 PM CST

Governor Terry Branstad's office announced on Thursday that Brenna Bird (whose maiden name was Findley) is stepping down as the governor's legal counsel "to pursue opportunities in the private sector." Her LinkedIn profile hasn't been updated yet, so it's not clear whether Bird is returning to the Des Moines-based Whitaker Hagenow law firm. She joined that firm in 2010 after leaving Representative Steve King's staff, but did not practice much law, since she was running for Iowa attorney general full-time.

Branstad named Bird as his legal counsel shortly after the 2010 election. She appears to have influenced several of the governor's policy choices. At one time, Branstad had supported a mandate to purchase health insurance, but soon after being inaugurated in 2011, he joined a lawsuit to overturn the federal health care reform law (a key issue in Bird's unsuccessful attorney general campaign). Branstad's legal counsel also appears to have helped convince Branstad to change his position on banning lead shot for hunting mourning doves in Iowa. When the state legislature refused to overturn a rule mandating non-toxic ammunition, Bird worked several angles to overturn a rule adopted by the state Natural Resource Commission.

Bird's work as legal counsel has also gotten the Branstad administration involved in some major litigation. In 2011, she participated in efforts to pressure Iowa's Workers Compensation Commissioner to resign before the end of his fixed term. As a result, she and the governor, along with other former staffers, are co-defendants in a lawsuit filed by the former workers' compensation commissioner.

In 2013, Bird was a key contact for Iowans seeking to ban the use of telemedicine for providing medical abortions in Planned Parenthood clinics. As the Iowa Board of Medicine considered a new rule containing verbatim wording from anti-abortion activists, the state Attorney General's Office "cautioned the board against moving so quickly." But as the governor's counsel, Bird encouraged board members to adopt the telemedicine abortion ban immediately. Planned Parenthood's lawsuit challenging that rule is pending with the Iowa Supreme Court.

Bird may be leaving the public sector for now, but I suspect Iowans will see her name on a ballot before too long. She reportedly considered running for Congress last year in Iowa's third district and has served on the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee since last June. I could easily see Bird running for a Republican-leaning Iowa House or Senate seat if one were to open up in central Iowa. Alternatively, she and 2014 attorney general nominee Adam Gregg (now Iowa's state public defender) are likely GOP candidates for attorney general in 2018.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. After the jump I've enclosed a press release on Bird's departure from the governor's staff, with background on Michael Bousselot, her successor as legal counsel.  

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Someone should investigate state's role in Iowa's health insurance coop failure

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jan 26, 2015 at 09:59:10 AM CST

What has seemed likely since Christmas Eve was confirmed on Friday: Iowa's non-profit health insurance coop is liquidating. At the end of this post, I've enclosed the e-mail CoOportunity Health members received on January 23. Members are strongly encouraged to enroll in other health insurance before February 15, the end of 2015 Open Enrollment under the federal health care reform law. In Iowa, only Coventry now sells policies through the exchange, allowing eligible people to receive federal tax subsidies to help cover the cost of insurance.

CoOportunity Health was created to sell individual, family, and small-business health insurance policies in Iowa and Nebraska. Its membership greatly exceeded projections, but so did the costs of insuring a population that had largely been uninsured before the 2010 Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014.

Some politicians, like Senator Joni Ernst, have nothing to say about CoOportunity's collapse beyond empty talking points about Obamacare. Others, like Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02), are digging for answers on why federal officials didn't do more to help the health insurance coop survive. Those are important questions.

As far as I can tell, no one in a position of power is examining how decisions by Iowa officials stacked the deck against CoOportunity ever becoming solvent. Did Iowa's insurance commissioner Nick Gerhart seal the coop's fate by bending over backwards to suit the 800-pound gorilla in Iowa's health insurance market (Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield)? Now that CoOportunity's failure leaves only one company selling policies on Iowa's health insurance exchange, what is Gerhart's "plan B" if Coventry decides later this year against continuing to participate on the exchange for 2016?

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Branstad wants private firms to manage more Medicaid care

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jan 23, 2015 at 09:52:16 AM CST

Governor Terry Branstad will expand the number of Medicaid recipients who are covered under private managed-care companies, Tony Leys reported for the January 21 Des Moines Register.

Details are scarce on how the plan would work, but Branstad projects it would save $51.3 million from January through June 2016, its first six months. [...]

"Through better coordinated care in Medicaid, focused on improving outcomes, Iowa can better serve Medicaid patients and provide more predictability for Iowa taxpayers," [Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers] wrote in an email to the Register. "The growth of Medicaid spending in Iowa is unsustainable over the long-term and it limits Iowa's ability to provide high-quality and stable health services to our most vulnerable residents as well as our ability to invest state taxpayer dollars in other key programs aimed at growing our state." [...]

Rep. Linda Miller, a Bettendorf Republican who serves on the [Human Resources] committee, said most of the savings would come from improved care, so Medicaid members wouldn't need hospitalization or other expensive services as often. She said legislators want to make sure the shift won't lead to cuts in services or in payment rates to medical providers.

Amy McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, said the state and federal governments spend about $4.2 billion annually - including $1.5 billion of state money - on Iowa's Medicaid program. That's up 73 percent since 2003, she said.

If Branstad's plan really would save $51.3 million each year (I am skeptical), that figure represents a little more than 1 percent of Medicaid's total annual costs in Iowa, or about 3.4 percent of the state's share of Medicaid costs.

Approximately 564,000 Iowans are now covered under the Medicaid program. It's not clear how many of them would be shifted to private companies; the Department of Human Services is expected to release a plan in March. Magellan of Iowa has offered "a broad range of mental health and substance abuse services" to most Iowans on Medicaid since 1995. Meridian Health Plan has been providing coverage to some Medicaid recipients since 2012 "through a contract with the Iowa Department of Human Services." Currently about 17,000 beneficiaries are covered through Meridian.

Leys quoted Iowa House Republican Dave Heaton as saying the governor can implement this change without legislative approval.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. - Who is old enough to remember when Republicans demonized the idea of "managed care" as evil interference between doctors and their patients?

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Iowa to introduce online voter registration in 2016

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Jan 20, 2015 at 17:56:23 PM CST

Starting next year, Iowans who have a driver's license or other state-issued identification will be able to register to vote online. From a press release the Iowa Secretary of State's Office sent out this afternoon:

(DES MOINES)  Today, the Iowa Voter Registration Commission adopted a rule that will allow eligible voters who possess a valid driver's license or state ID to apply for their voter registration on-line.  This system is scheduled to be in place by early 2016. [...]

On-line voter registration will be available to eligible voters with a valid Iowa driver's license or a state issued ID.  This represents 93% of the state's eligible voters.  The goal is to continue to work on ways to expand this opportunity in the future so that on-line registration will eventually be available to all eligible voters, including those without driver's licenses.

Secretary Pate said, "This is a significant step.  We had a productive meeting with the DOT and are confident we can be up and going before the 2016 election.  We'll continue to work further on the issue to expand voter registration to other groups for on-line access."

The voter registration application will be hosted on both the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Iowa Secretary of State website.

Jason Noble reported for the Des Moines Register,

Because the system will rely on electronic signatures on file with the DOT [Department of Transportation], online registration will be available only to Iowans with a driver license or non-operator ID. [...]

The potential lack of access has raised concerns among some voting-rights advocates and appeared to trouble Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Troy Price, a member of the commission.

"Are there ways that we'll be able to capture those folks who currently don't have a driver's license?" Price wondered aloud during the meeting.

A growing number of young people are in no hurry to obtain drivers licenses for various reasons. In addition, Iowa's aging population includes more and more people who can't or don't drive anymore. I'm glad Pate is promising that his office will keep working to reach Iowans without a driver's license, but Democrats should not take their eye off this ball.

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