Legislators discuss ag gag law, vouchers, voting rights

ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo

Students in the Fairfield Community School District meet two local state senators after Saturday morning’s legislative forum at Best Western Fairfield Inn. From left are Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Fairfield High School student Devyn Redmann, Sen. Rich Taylor, 9-year-old Emmalyn Sandbothe, FHS students Abyni Garner and Hannah Clubb, and Fairfield school superintendent Laurie Noll.
ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Students in the Fairfield Community School District meet two local state senators after Saturday morning’s legislative forum at Best Western Fairfield Inn. From left are Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Fairfield High School student Devyn Redmann, Sen. Rich Taylor, 9-year-old Emmalyn Sandbothe, FHS students Abyni Garner and Hannah Clubb, and Fairfield school superintendent Laurie Noll.

The four legislators representing Jefferson County answered questions from the public during the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s legislative forum Saturday at Best Western Fairfield Inn.

The topics ranged from school vouchers to public lands to voting rights. It was the final legislative forum that will be held at Best Western Fairfield Inn this year. Next month’s forum will be from 7:30-9 a.m. April 20 at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center.

Ag gag/farm trespass bill

Diane Rosenberg of Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors Inc. asked the legislators about their vote on Senate File 519, a law that makes it a crime for a person to lie to gain access to an agricultural facility with the intent to cause financial or physical damage. It would allow the prosecution of people who go undercover to investigate livestock operations, slaughterhouses and puppy mills.

Senators Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Ottumwa) and Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant), as well as Rep. Joe Mitchell (R-Mt. Pleasant) voted for the bill, which Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law Thursday after it was approved by the Senate 41-8 and by the House 65-32. Rep. Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield) voted against the bill.

The law was a second attempt at criminalizing undercover investigations of farms where an employee gained access to the grounds under false pretenses. The first ag-gag law Iowa passed in 2012 was declared unconstitutional in January by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Judge James Gritzner wrote that the law violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Supporters of the bill rewrote it in the wake of the Southern District’s Court ruling to make it narrower. The new bill specifically criminalizes the act of using deception to gain access to a business with the intent to cause harm to the business, verbiage missing from the first law.

In his ruling on the 2012 bill, Gritzner said there was no evidence presented to show biosecurity was threatened by a person making a false statement to gain employment at an ag production facility. He wrote that the First Amendment protects false statements “whether they be investigative deceptions or innocuous lies.”

Gritzner wrote that the bill appeared to be prompted by undercover investigations of animal confinements in recent years. For instance, a 2011 undercover investigation at Iowa Select Farms produced reports of workers hurling small piglets onto a concrete floor.

Legislators respond

Taylor said that he did not perceive the law as an “ag gag” bill. Instead, he said the purpose was to protect livestock producers.

“I wish it wasn’t limited to the ag community,” he said. “I think every business should have that same [right], that someone’s not going to use an illegitimate reason to get onto their property and cause harm.”

Taylor said the bill does not silence whistleblowers who see abuse in their daily line of work, just those who use deception to harm ag facilities.

Opponents of the bill said the 2012 bill has a chilling effect on speech. For instance, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which joined the lawsuit to overturn the original bill, said in January that no undercover investigations had taken place since the law was passed seven years ago.

Miller-Meeks echoed Taylor’s comments, telling the audience that the bill was narrowly crafted to apply to people who sought to cause economic harm to a business.

“If you’re an existing employee in the business and you see what you consider animal abuse, you can still report it,” she said.

Rosenberg asked why the Legislature would pass a bill so similar to one that had already been found unconstitutional. Miller-Meeks said the new language was taken from an anti-trespassing law in Idaho that was found constitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mitchell reiterated that the bill does not prevent employees from reporting animal abuse.

“This bill stops people from trying to get hired to expose the agriculture industry for stuff that they’re doing that’s legal,” he said.

Shipley said he voted against the bill because it was poorly worded. He said it would be too difficult for a judge to determine whether an employee sought to inflict “economic harm” on a business.

Weight limits

Fairfield High School student Hannah Clubb asked the legislators for their thoughts on Senate File 184, a bill that would increase weight limits on roads allowing forestry industry haulers to transport 130,000 pounds of raw products, an increase of tens of thousands of pounds over what is currently allowed on secondary roads.

Clubb told The Ledger that she heard about the bill earlier that morning while speaking with Joe Ledger of Jefferson County Farm Bureau, one of the event’s sponsors.

Miller-Meeks said the legislation is designed to put Iowa’s weight limits in line with Wisconsin, because the difference in weight limits was causing problems for logging operations in northeast Iowa. She knows there are at least some sawmills in her district. She hopes the issue can be resolved in a way that helps logging firms without putting a burden on county governments. Miller-Meeks had not made up her mind on whether to support the bill or not.

Taylor said he lives within 3 miles of a sawmill. The owner is a personal friend whom Taylor has known for more than three decades. He said the owner of the sawmill has not contacted him about the bill, so Taylor suspects the man doesn’t need the higher weight limits.

“Who has been contacting me are every county engineer in my district telling me, ‘Our roads will not take this,’” Taylor said. “This will cause terrible expense and we’ll have problems with farmers getting up and down their roads.”

At the March 11 meeting of the Jefferson County Supervisors, Jefferson County Engineer Scott Cline said the bill would require counties to analyze all bridges without posted weight limits. He worried that the posted weight limits would prevent farm implements from traveling on them, even though the ag traffic has been using them for years with no problem.

Taylor said he plans to vote against the bill. Mitchell and Shipley said they had also received several emails from county engineers and county supervisors opposed to the bill. Mitchell said the bill did not seem necessary, but wanted to research it more. Shipley said he would likely vote against the bill.

Jefferson County Supervisor Daryn Hamilton attended the forum and asked the legislators to vote against the bill. He said it would cost the county $7,000-$10,000 to analyze each bridge. Hamilton remarked that it makes more sense for Iowa’s weight limits to be tailored to farming since it’s a farm state. Wisconsin, in contrast, is covered in timber, so it makes sense for that state to have weight limits designed for logging.

School vouchers

Fairfield Middle School teacher Lisa Greenig asked the panel to vote against school vouchers. She said they take money away from public schools to help “a smaller number of students.”

The idea of a voucher is that each student receives a check for the amount of money the state would have spent on that child in a public school, which for Iowa is about $6,700 per year. If the child enrolls in a private school, they can use the $6,700 voucher to defray the cost of private education.

“When we look at what Wisconsin has done, and what they’ve done to teachers by stripping their collective bargaining … those teachers have left the state,” Greenig said. “In Iowa, we’re having a teacher shortage as well. Contact [the University of Northern Iowa] and see how many people are enrolling to be a teacher. The profession is losing respect.”

Greenig referred to last month’s forum where Shipley spoke about how apps, such as those for learning foreign languages, were replacing the role previously held by teachers.

“We come to meetings and hear we can be replaced by an app. I take offense at being replaced by an app,” Greenig said. “Some students will thrive doing online education, but the students who are in a home with abuse, lack of food, with parents in prison, with mental illness … who will take care of those students? When they come to school, and I feed them, and give them hygiene items, and the hugs and encouragement they need, an app will not replace that touch.”

Shipley said he appreciated Greenig’s passion and commitment to students. He felt the educational system shouldn’t be asked to handle the problems Greenig mentioned such as mental illness and substance abuse.

On the subject of vouchers, Shipley said, “We have to ask ourselves why so many parents want to take their students out of school? Is it because the public schools are being saddled with substance abuse, mental illness, teenage suicide and bullying? These are very serious problems.”

Shipley was the only one of the four legislators to express support for vouchers. Mitchell said he appreciated Shipley’s concerns but added, “Stripping money from schools isn’t going to help this.” He reminded the audience that the Legislature passed $90 million in new dollars toward K-12 education this year.

“I support our public schools, and if someone wants to send their kid to a private schools, that’s perfectly fine,” Mitchell said. “But I don’t think we should be subsidizing vouchers for people to go to private schools.”

Taylor said vouchers “sound like a good idea” but are not. He said that if public schools lost $6,700 for each student who enrolls in a private school, “public schools could not stay open.” Taylor said the state should have done better than allocating $90 million in additional supplemental state aid.

“Somehow we can afford to give John Deere $40 million [in tax credits] that they don’t even ask for,” Taylor said.

Miller-Meeks said she had made “no promises” that she would support school vouchers, and guessed they would “die on the vine.” She spoke about how the state must balance promoting economic growth and funding necessary government services.

“Education and health care are the top things that drive our budget,” Miller-Meeks said. “I am proud of the $90 million that was given to K-12 education. We have a bill coming forward on the children’s mental health system, so we’ll finally have a mental health system in the state of Iowa for children.”

After the forum, Shipley told The Ledger that vouchers are unlikely to be approved this legislative session.

“I can’t imagine it happening next year, either,” he said. “To me, the question is, whose money is it? Is it the taxpayers’ money? Is it the pupils’ money? Or does the money belong to the public schools? I believe the money belongs to first, the taxpayer, and then to the parents and pupils. The parents and students can decide what is the best education for them.”

The Ledger asked Shipley, “What are some examples of successful voucher programs you’re aware of?” Shipley said he wasn’t sure on specific examples, but heard that Florida had success with its vouchers and that Michigan had a good charter school program.

Public lands

Joe Ledger of Jefferson County Farm Bureau asked the legislators for their take on a bill to limit the ability of governments and private organizations to purchase new land for conservation and public use. The Iowa Farm Bureau has come out in support of the bill. Conservation groups such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation oppose it.

Taylor said he understands why some farmers would want to limit competition for farmland, but said most of the land used for conservation can’t be farmed anyway, and would otherwise be pastureland.

Miller-Meeks said she’s received lots of letters from both sides of the debate. She said the Senate’s version of the bill is much narrower than the House’s, and that the Senate’s bill only bars the use of the state revolving loan fund, with its low interest rates, from being used to purchase land.

Shipley said he’s received mostly negative comments on the bill. He agrees with the part of the bill that limits using public money to get a loan for a land purchase, calling that an unfair use of government funds.

Mitchell said the House file was killed in committee, though he’s not sure what has happened to the Senate file.

Miller-Meeks mentioned there was talk of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization, acquiring land and selling it to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Ledger said he didn’t think that was a good idea.

“They can’t take care of our state parks. I don’t think they need to be purchasing more land,” he said.

Voting rights

Audience member Mary Tarnoff asked the legislators about Senate Study Bill 1241, which would make several changes to voting laws in Iowa. The bill would close the polls for statewide elections at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., ban state-owned buildings — including public universities — from serving as early voting satellite locations (the ban would thus not apply to private universities), require all absentee ballots be received by the local auditor before Election Day, and require cross-checking of signatures on absentee ballots.

The bill would require the roughly 70,000 students at Iowa’s public universities to fill out a form when they graduate indicating if they plan to stay in Iowa or move out of the state. If they plan to leave the state, they would be purged from the voting rolls.

Tarnoff said it made no sense to ask only college students if they planned to remain in Iowa since other voters don’t have to sign such an affidavit.

“I think we should keep the polls open as long as possible to allow all the working people to vote,” she said. “I don’t think we should be limiting our satellite polls. I think we should be increasing them.”

Mitchell said the voting bill is a “nightmare.” He said closing poll locations is not a good idea, and that he expects the bill to change markedly when it comes to the House.

Shipley said he wasn’t very familiar with the bill, but remarked that anything that restricts voting is “probably not the best idea if we’re counting on citizens in a democracy to be involved.”

Shipley said he hoped to restore voting rights for felons this year, but that bill died in committee.

Taylor said he is strongly against the voting bill. He said the four county auditors in his district told him to oppose the legislation because it would make their jobs harder.

“Even if you don’t care about restricting voting rights, you should at least care about what it’s going to do to our auditors,” Taylor said. “We should be making voting as easy as possible. I think at some time we’ll go to an online voting system, probably long after I’m gone.”

Taylor concluded by saying he supported voting rights for felons.

Miller-Meeks said she supported voting rights for felons, too, but disagreed with her colleagues on the merits of Senate Study Bill 1241.

“I think it’s good for the polls to close at 8 p.m.,” she said. “You have different closing times for the polls. For some elections they close at 8 p.m. and at others they close at 9 p.m.”

Miller-Meeks said she could understand keeping the polls open late if Election Day were the only day to vote. However, she said given that citizens can vote 30 days before Election Day with an absentee ballot, there is plenty of time to vote. Unlike Taylor, she said county auditors have told her they like the idea of closing uniformly at 8 p.m.

“You also need to consider the poll workers who come in before 7 a.m. and stay until after 9 p.m.,” Miller-Meeks said.