Final Legislative Coffee Percolates Concerns, Questions, Comments
By Michael McAllister
As March transitioned to April, attention focused on the Final Four, and, in Grinnell, on the Final Forum—the final legislative forum of the season, that is, held April 1 with Representative Dave Maxwell and Senator Tim Kapucian.
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the 90-minute event took place at Grinnell’s First Presbyterian Church at 8:30 a.m., Saturday, April 1. It was the third and last legislative coffee of the current season since the Iowa legislature will likely close on or about April 18, the 100th day of the session, when per diem expenses end.
Local control, voter ID, and abortion—these are some but not all of the topics on Grinnellians’ minds, and the topics sparked spirited questions and comments at the event.
Introduced by Terese Grant, Co-President with Becca Davis of Grinnell’s LWV, Representative Dave Maxwell and senator Tim Kapucian fielded questions from constituents. Grant noted that disagreements were bound to occur but that the proceedings would be calm and courteous, not the contentious affairs pictured at some locations on national and cable news channels thus far in 2017.
Maxwell, Kapucian, Grant (left to right)
In his opening remarks, Maxwell joked that he and his senatorial colleague had engaged in a heated discussion the previous week about which one of them would be ill on April 1 and which one would have an accident on the way to the coffee. “That didn’t work,” he reported, so both were present.
On a more serious note, Maxwell reported on a traffic bill, authored in part by Senator Kapucian, that would restrict the use of speed cameras to areas in which the cameras could be deemed necessary and that would take the extra step of restricting revenue from traffic cameras to specific operations, thus eliminating the “cash cow” aspect of the instruments.
Bills involving voter rights, a post-twenty-week abortion ban, and Planned Parenthood funding are yet to surface in the House, Maxwell reported. He said that a bill can seem to disappear but can come to life later as an amendment, particularly if it is budget related. Indeed, “Most of the controversial stuff… from now on out will be budget stuff.”
Kapucian, for his opening, discussed transportation issues as he serves on that committee. One contentious issue that has not received much publicity is whether DOT officials should be able to write traffic tickets as state troopers do now. The issue is “being lobbied heavily on both sides,” Kapucian stated. However, if DOT officials are restricted from writing tickets, the state of Iowa could potentially lose “up to four million dollars of federal highway funding,” so Kapucian expressed the opinion that a compromise would likely be achieved.
There is also a movement, Kapucian continued, to use state gambling proceeds to improve water quality—five million dollars the first year, ten the next, and so on—capped at twenty. Money from general funding seems unlikely to go to water quality, however, since the revenue forecasts, already bleak enough, seem even worse in March, Kapucian reported.
This issue has surfaced in various forms this session—the movement to break up the Des Moines Water Works, for example, and the minimum wage question raised when some locations increased the county minimum wage beyond that of the state minimum wage.
One questioner noted that both officials have spoken strongly in favor of local control in the past.
“If you support local control on important issues, how can you justify supporting these bill,” bills such as breaking up the Des Moines Water Works, securing a state-wide minimum wage, and weakening the abilities of cities and counties to regulate the use of firearms.
“There are certain issues,” Kapucian replied, “that we have to have a uniform code across the state.”
“I want local control where it’s going to do the locals the best good,” Kapucian continued, but he drew the analogy of a highway going across Iowa that would force the driver to obey a different speed limit each time the driver entered a new county.
Maxwell, given the microphone, focused the discussion to minimum wage, stating, “I don’t know why we worry about minimum wage” because labor is in such short supply in Iowa. The minimum is only the minimum, he implied—not a cap. In many cases, he stated—citing rural Iowa—the minimum wage of $7.25 is not enough to hire someone, so the question becomes moot.
Another question: “Do you believe that voter fraud is a serious problem in Iowa, serious enough to justify the passage of this voter ID bill, which is going to cost money, at a time when we supposedly have serious budget problems?”
Maxell stated he does not feel that voter fraud is a serious issue in rural Iowa communities. Kapucian, however, referred to an analogy between voter fraud and speeding. There may be no speeding tickets written in Grinnell on a given day, he explained, but that fact does not mean that no speeding has taken place. He went on to mention that it will be necessary to update software in many areas of the state to facilitate electronic voting, and those improvements will be “the real cost” of modernizing the voting process.
Another questioner on this topic raised the issue of signature verification—the proposal that a voter’s signature could be challenged by an election commissioner. Both Maxwell and Kapucian had expressed misgivings about that provision during a previous forum, yet both voted for the bill that included that item.
“There some things that you gotta take the good with the bad,” stated Senator Kapucian, adding, “I don’t get my way on everything. You find that out real fast when you get to Des Moines.” Even disputed signatures, he continued, would not be discarded; they would be designated provisional ballots. Maxwell’s position was that the signature issue should not be a problem since signatures—he used his own as an example—can vary slightly but not significantly even over time.
“I would just like you to explain to me who gave you the right to take control of women’s bodies.” Thus a questioner, early in the session, introduced the issue of abortion. Applause followed. Kapucian chalked the issue up to ideology differences and passed the microphone to Maxwell who stated, “I don’t believe it’s my business to interfere…to tell people how to live their lives.” Applause followed.
A second questioner following the trend asked about the officials’ position on the so-called twenty-week bill, a provision to ban abortions for pregnancies after that point. Maxwell called himself a “fence rider” but judged the provision “a lot better than the heartbeat bill,” an act to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which occurs at approximately five weeks.
Kapucian reported voting for the twenty-week bill, feeling it was “a good move forward for my beliefs,” adding that he was “pretty solid” on the provision. While he did not comment specifically on the heartbeat bill, he did express concerns about implications of legislation that would denote life beginning at conception.[The so-called heartbeat bill has since been withdrawn.]
But the topic of abortion was raised again—poignantly—by Dr. Laura Ferguson of Grinnell who, having delivered babies in Iowa for over twenty years, presented the scenario of a woman learning, at twenty weeks of pregnancy, that her baby has a brain abnormality or a lung abnormality or a congenital defect that is “incompatible with life outside the womb.”
“What would you say to those women?” the doctor asked.
“I fully support you guys’ right not to have an abortion,” she continued, adding a touch of levity to a serious issue—all the more serious because of the scenario she had painted prefacing her question.
Perhaps because of the complexity of the question, neither official offered a ready answer.
Representative Maxwell reported that the very questions raised by Dr. Ferguson led to him being “not too ideologically stuck” on the issue. Kapucian, who (like Maxwell) had voted for the twenty-week ban, replied “My personal opinion at the time—I thought twenty weeks was fair, but I don’t know what I would say [to the women in Dr. Ferguson’s scenario].”
Near the end of the session, a question was directed toward Senator Kapucian that introduced an important principle of our country’s two-party system. The question had to do with Kapucian being among the last to vote on amendments—Was he doing that to deliberate, or was he doing that to vote according to the trend?
He is deliberating, Kapucian replied, but Maxwell weighed in with an important observation.
Sometimes, he said, if a vote will not make any difference, it is better to vote with the party than to try to make a statement. Voting with the party keeps one a team player; making a statement, or attempting to, can reduce a legislator’s effectiveness in future negations with the party.
Participants raised other issues during the session such as water quality, Planned Parenthood, judicial funding, and more—each concern significant—, and Representative Maxwell and Senator Kapucian provided straightforward comments and responses—responses that likely satisfied some but not others. Events such as this point to the complexity of life these days and to the difficulties a legislator faces if he or she seeks to be true to his or her party and people.
Some would see that dilemma as a system flaw; some would see it as a system strength.
In any case, the Iowa legislature will soon end its current session.
If one subscribes to the analogy attributed to Will Rogers that legislators in session are like babies with hammers, that person can relax. The hammers will soon be set aside for at least a few months.