Iowa’s 2015 legislative rundown: Red light cameras, medical marijuana and flag burning, oh my!

Illustration by Adam Burke
Stars and stripes forever: Rep. Bobby Kaufman (R-Wilton) wants Iowa to protect the flag. — illustration by Adam Burke

Another year, another legislative session.

State lawmakers head back to Des Moines this month, fresh off last November’s legislative races. State government is once again split between a Republican House, a Democratic Senate and a Republican governor. Here are a few of the issues on which leaders will try to hammer out compromises.

Medical Marijuana

An Iowa City lawmaker says he’ll push again this year for a workable medical marijuana law.

Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) says he and allies will try to pass a “comprehensive medical cannabis bill” that goes beyond the bill passed in the 2014 session: It would cover more medical conditions; allow for production, processing and dispensing within the state; and establish an advisory board that could approve new conditions.

Bolkcom led the effort for last year’s medical cannabis bill, but says the narrow rules are unworkable. Under the law signed by Gov. Terry Branstad last spring, Iowans with severe epilepsy and a neurologist’s recommendation can get permission to use cannabidiol oil, a derivative of the cannabis plant.

The Iowa Department of Public Health tells patients on its website that they can’t apply for patient cards yet because the rules haven’t been finalized. Even when the state does start issuing cards, though, you can’t produce or purchase the substance here in Iowa. There are states where one can buy it, but it’s difficult for out-of-staters, and it would be illegal to take it on an airplane or drive it through a state where it’s prohibited.

“It was an important first step for the legislature to recognize that cannabis is medicine. Beyond that, it hasn’t helped a single person,” Bolkcom said. “I’m hopeful the legislature will get back to work and respond compassionately to help suffering Iowans.”

Additionally, marijuana is still a schedule 1 drug in Iowa, meaning it has no medicinal value, according to the law. The Iowa Pharmacy Board has recommended that lawmakers reschedule the drug.

Some observers give the proposals long odds—the Des Moines Register said its prospects “appear dim”—but the same was said this time last year. The limited bill eventually passed the Democrat-held Senate and Republican-held House, but only after a huge lobbying effort by epilepsy patients’ families. Branstad said when he signed the bill that it “shows the power of people talking to their legislators and to their governor about important issues to them.”

Some of those same advocates have vowed to return to Des Moines this year to push for broader legislation.

“We’ve had a ton of feedback from the people this was supposed to help. No one has been able to get the medicine they need,” Bolkcom said.

Flag Desecration

The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church and the American Civil Liberties Union may be unlikely allies, but the two groups’ recent legal win is stirring discussion about free speech rights.

A federal judge ruled late last year that Iowa laws against flag desecration are unconstitutional. The case came about after Westboro used American flags during protests of soldiers’ funerals in Iowa. The Kansas-based activist church had support in the case from the ACLU.

Iowa Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton) took issue with the ruling and said he’ll try to work on a legislative response in the coming session. Kaufmann’s district includes the eastern portion of Johnson County.

“I value our first amendment rights, but just like you cannot shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, you should NEVER, EVER be allowed to spit and stomp on our flag while protesting the funeral of someone who died fighting for our freedoms,” Kaufmann wrote in an email to constituents shortly after the ruling came down. “I do not know what I can do specifically at this point, but count on me to fight with a fiery passion to defend the honor of our flag and our fallen soldiers.”

Red light Cameras

Traffic-enforcement cameras have been a hot topic in Iowa City and across the state for a few years, and the issue could get another look from lawmakers this year.

The surveillance devices—meant to catch speeders and those running red lights—have been installed in various Iowa communities over the last decade, generating millions in annual revenue for cities like Cedar Rapids.

Iowa City’s interest in installing red light cameras was foiled in 2013 when citizen activists gathered thousands of signatures in favor of an ordinance banning automated traffic cameras, license plate readers and drones. The City Council adopted the ordinance, but they’re only required to keep it in place for two years.

The common criticisms of traffic cameras are various: They enrich private camera vendors; there isn’t an opportunity for proper due process when a machine is issuing tickets; and they infringe on drivers’ privacy, potentially allowing authorities to piece together detailed accounts of motorists’ movements.

Iowa Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale) is introducing legislation this year that would ban the devices throughout the state and require existing cams to be removed. Zaun has sponsored similar legislation in recent years, attracting a handful of co-sponsors, but not enough support to clear the legislature.

Education Funding

Education funding at various levels is likely to be a sticking point between lawmakers this year.

Primary and secondary school leaders across the state have staked out the same priorities they’ve had for the past few years—increase per-pupil funding for school districts by more than a couple percentage points, and fully fund preschool for all of the state’s four-year-olds. Iowa has slipped below the middle of the pack nationally in terms of spending per student, and educators say some sizeable increases are needed in order to keep pace.

And at the higher education level, some lawmakers will look to retool the new funding system approved by the State Board of Regents last year.

The so-called performance-based funding model calls for funding allocations to be based to a greater extent on how many in-state students are enrolled at the state’s three public universities: The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa.

Critics say the new scheme puts colleges in a race against each other to attract students, while proponents say it rightly rewards colleges for educating Iowans. The University of Iowa, which draws many out-of-state and international students, could be negatively impacted by the change.

Adam B Sullivan is an activist and freelance journalist in Iowa City.

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