Iowa House district 4: John Kooiker vs. John Buntsma

In what might be described as a Christmas miracle, a Democrat has stepped up to run in the January 6 special election to represent Iowa House district 4. The vacancy arose when State Representative Dwayne Alons passed away last month.

John Buntsma is the first Democrat since 2008 to contest the Iowa House district covering most of Sioux County (scroll down for a detailed map). Of the 100 Iowa House districts, this is the most Republican, with only 1,498 active registered Democrats, 13,279 Republicans, and 3,555 no-party voters according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. GOP presidential candidates routinely top 80 percent in Sioux County, and Governor Terry Branstad got about 91 percent of the votes there this year. In a statement I’ve enclosed below, Buntsma said he is running because “It is important for all of us to have choices. I felt that the voters should have more than one choice.” Good for him. I would love to see Democratic candidates compete in every Iowa House and Senate district, no matter how hopeless the race may appear.

I haven’t seen any detailed background on John Kooiker, the “military veteran, family farmer and retired postal service worker” who won a Republican nominating convention in House district 4. A short press release noted that Kooiker “heavily emphasized his social conservative beliefs,” which helped him secure the GOP nomination on the third ballot. That probably makes him a pretty good fit for the district. Alons was one of the most outspoken social conservatives in the Iowa House Republican caucus.

After the jump I’ve enclosed two press releases containing background on Buntsma. Note the difference between the version circulated by the candidate himself and the shorter release from the Iowa Democratic Party. I’ve often heard Democratic candidates complain that party types warn them against speaking their minds on potentially controversial issues. In a race like this, what difference could it make to downplay Buntsma’s beliefs on immigration, the minimum wage, or the exemption casinos received from Iowa’s public smoking ban?

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More proof smoking bans save lives

How about a little good news on a lousy day? A new study confirms previous research, which showed public smoking bans reduce hospitalizations for heart attacks and other life-threatening problems. The Iowa Smokefree Air Act, which went into effect in July 2008, has likely prevented many premature deaths.

UPDATE: The smoking ban was controversial while it was debated in 2008. Below I’ve listed all of the state legislators who had the courage to send that bill to Governor Chet Culver’s desk.  

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Weekend open thread: New fiscal year, new Iowa laws

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? Many laws approved during the 2012 legislative session go into effect today. After the jump I’ve posted links about some of the new laws and the end of the road for the Malcolm Price Laboratory School in Cedar Falls. I also included excerpts from a good article by Steve Gravelle, who examined the impact of Iowa’s public smoking ban four years after it became statewide law.

This is an open thread.

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Wellmark made me defend smokers' rights

Until this morning, I would have considered myself the blogger least likely to defend the right to smoke. Because of the many health risks associated with secondhand smoke, I strongly supported the Iowa Smokefree Air Act adopted in 2008, as well as the Iowa Department of Public Health’s decision to enforce that ban in all restaurants. I had no sympathy for smokers who whined about “Big Brother Democrats and Turncoat Republicans” and called the public smoking ban “Soviet” or “fascist.” I knew restaurant and bar owners who challenged the smoking ban in court were wasting their time and money.

However, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield is going too far with its new personnel policy on tobacco use. Beginning on June 1,

The insurer will “require applicants to assert that they are tobacco-free in order to be considered for a position,” said Rob Schweers, spokesman for Wellmark, which employs approximately 1,600 people in Des Moines and another 200 throughout the rest of the state.

Wellmark is asking existing employees to stop using tobacco by Oct. 1. The new policy also prohibits any smoking during work hours, including scheduled breaks and during lunch.

The Des Moines Register quotes Schweers as saying the company wants to provide “incentive for people to quit [smoking], which will result in a healthier, more productive work force.” If Wellmark wants to pay for counseling or nicotine patches or other support for smokers trying to quit, I’m all for it. Nicotine is highly addictive, and many people need extra support to stop using it. But smoking is still legal in private homes and many outdoor spaces, and employers should not try to control how employees live when they’re not at work. Yes, smokers cost employers more in health care costs, but so do people who eat unhealthy diets or engage in other risky (but legal) behavior.

According to the Register, several other large employers in central Iowa ban smoking during working hours, including lunch breaks, but don’t prohibit their employees from smoking during private time. Wellmark has not yet threatened to fire employees who don’t quit smoking by October 1, but apparently, they would have the legal right to do so. Peggy Huppert of the American Cancer Society said violating that organization’s policy on tobacco use is grounds for termination.  

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Bar owner drops futile challenge against smoking ban

From the Des Moines Register’s blog:

A West Burlington bar owner won’t appeal an Iowa District Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of Iowa’s Smokefree Air Act, which bans smoking in most public places.

Larry Duncan, the owner of Otis Campbell’s bar, still strongly believes the smoking ban is unconstitutional, said Darwin Bunger, Duncan’s lawyer. But there was no guarantee Duncan would win an appeal, and losing an appeal would have resulted in two-year license revocation, he said. […]

District Judge Mary Ann Brown, in an April 1 ruling, affirmed the findings of state alcoholic beverage regulators who had revoked Otis Campbell’s liquor license. It was the first ruling on the constitutionality of the enforcement of Iowa’s Smokefree Air Act. Brown said there is no fundamental or protected right to smoke in public or to allow patrons to smoke in a public business.

State records showed that dozens of smoking complaints had been filed against Otis Campbell’s after the Smokefree Air Act took effect July 1, 2008. Visitors described an environment in which customers freely ate and drank and puffed cigarettes amid a haze of tobacco smoke. Ashtrays remained on the bar and tables, and tables and there were no no-smoking signs.

In a settlement, Duncan agreed to comply with the smoking ban. His bar’s liquor license will be restored after a 50-day suspension.

Duncan’s case was doomed from the start. No lawsuit has ever successfully overturned a local or state public smoking ban in this country. The only realistic legal challenge would have been against the unfair exemption Iowa lawmakers granted to casino owners. However, the remedy for that would be to toss out the casino exemption, not the smoking ban. Anyway, I’ve been told that a court would likely uphold the casino exemption, on the grounds that legislators had a “rational basis” for making exceptions in the law for some businesses. Judges considering this kind of appeal wouldn’t use the “strict scrutiny” standard that applies in civil rights cases.

UPDATE: The Burlington Hawk Eye covered the judge’s ruling against Duncan here.

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Caution: Now entering a fact- and logic-free zone

I’ve heard some strange arguments against marriage equality, but the latest from Iowa Family Policy Center President Chuck Hurley is a doozy. Reacting to a new report on HIV and syphilis rates among gay and bisexual men, Hurley asserted,

“The Iowa Legislature outlawed smoking [in some public places] in an effort to improve health and reduce the medical costs that are often passed on to the state,” Hurley said. “The secondhand impacts of certain homosexual acts are arguably more destructive, and potentially more costly to society than smoking.” […]

“Iowa lawmakers need to pay attention to hard facts and not be persuaded by emotion laden half-truths,” he said. “Because of their unwillingness to correct the error of last April’s Iowa Supreme Court opinion, the Iowa Legislature is responsible for sanctioning activities that will lead to dramatically higher rates of HIV and syphilis in Iowa.”

Where to begin? Smoking increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and various respiratory ailments, causing an estimated 438,000 preventable deaths every year nationwide. In Iowa, smoking directly causes an estimated 4,400 deaths each year, and secondhand smoke claims another 440 lives. Smoking causes about $1 billion in health care costs every year in Iowa, of which about $301 million is covered by Medicaid.

AIDS is a serious health threat in the U.S., but not on the same scale as smoking. AIDS has caused fewer than 20,000 deaths nationwide per year in the past decade. The total number of AIDS deaths in this country since the epidemic began is estimated at just under 600,000. I was unable to find statistics showing how many Iowans have died of AIDS, but according to this report for the Iowa Department of Public Health, 114 Iowans were diagnosed with HIV in 2005, and 79 Iowans were diagnosed with AIDS the same year. The numbers may have increased somewhat since then, but AIDS is nowhere near as “destructive” and “costly” to Iowans as smoking. Iowa’s syphilis rate is far below the national average, and none of the states with the highest syphilis rates permit same-sex marriages. If Iowa legislators want to influence the syphilis rate, they should focus on providing adequate funding levels for STD testing and ensuring that young people have access to medically accurate sex education.

Hurley’s argument is not only fact-free, but also illogical on several levels. He seems to think that allowing same-gender couples to get married is going to encourage many more Iowans to experiment with gay sex. Do you know anyone who decided to become gay because they knew they’d be able to get married? Has homosexual activity diminished in New York and New Jersey since those states’ legislatures declined to legalize same-sex marriage? Did California’s Proposition 8 reduce the number of gays and lesbians having sex there?

If Hurley is worried about promiscuity and sexually-transmitted diseases, he should be happy to see gay couples settle down and get married.

Contrary to the strange fantasies of the Iowa Family Policy Center crowd, the Iowa Supreme Court didn’t make the sky fall last April. Fortunately, most Iowans understand that our state legislators have more important things to do than overturn same-sex marriage rights. They also sense that giving legal recognition to the relationships of committed same-sex couples does no harm to other people. More than 90 percent of respondents in a statewide poll conducted last September said gay marriage had caused “no real change” in their lives.

Hurley’s position on gay marriage is more coherent than, say, Terry Branstad’s, but it’s also more detached from reality. Maybe his latest comments aren’t the worst argument ever against gay marriage, but they are certainly a contender.

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