This past week at the Capitol was incredibly busy! Lots and lots of bills assigned in the House Judiciary Committee, many of which won’t go anywhere but which I still need to read and (try to) understand. To give you an example of the kind of bills we’re dealing with in Judiciary, here’s a recap of today’s (Thursday’s) committee meeting. We were scheduled to vote on four bills, including two pretty controversial ones — but as you’ll see, we ended up voting on only one (non-controversial, more or less) bill.
Note that the House Judiciary Committee deals with bills that address legal-type issues, not money/jobs/education type issues. Which is why none of these bills appear to create any jobs, or improve our education system — although some of the bills would require the outlay of a great deal of money. There are many other committees meeting every day, several times a week, some of which I serve on ( here’s a list of all of the House standing committees — if you click on the names of the different committees it will link to a list of the members of that particular committee). So Judiciary doesn’t usually generate as much attention as, say, Appropriations, but a lot of the issues we deal with in Judiciary do impact Iowans, every day, and so prior to voting on any bill it’s assigned to a three person subcommittee, whose job is to ascertain whether the bill is going to do whatever it is that it’s supposed to do and also to ferret out any unintended collateral consequences that might result in the bill doing more harm than good. If at least two of the subcommittee members think the bill is a good one, the chairperson then presents it to the entire Judiciary committee, and we debate/vote on it . Here’s a list of all the Judiciary bills that have been assigned to subcommittees this term (well, so far — for better or worse, there will be quite a few more on this list before the session is over); note that not all of them make it to the full Judiciary Committee for consideration, and many of them don’t even get scheduled for a subcommittee meeting (which is called killing the bill)
So anyhow, here’s what happened with the four bills scheduled for a vote during today’s Judiciary Committee meeting.
HSB 524 is a bill that would require every person convicted of an aggravated misdemeanor to provide a DNA sample (felons are already required to do this). At first glance this may seem like a “why not?” kind of bill — more DNA means law enforcement will have a bigger database for those CSI type investigations, which likely means at least a few more solved cases. Which is a good thing, BUT the fiscal impact analysis provided by legislative services indicates that this bill would cost someone (the State? the Counties?) approximately $650,000 the first year, and $500,000 each year thereafter. That is a huge amount of money, especially considering that the House majority party is proposing a 1.5 million dollar cut to the 2013 Dept. of Corrections budget. In addition to the cost issue, many members of the Judiciary Committee from both parties felt that the bill was over broad — requiring defendants convicted of Driving While Barred, or OWI 2nd, or even aggravated misdemeanor assault or theft charges to provide DNA samples seems fairly pointless. Finally, there were questions about who would have access to the DNA info, and how long the info would remain on file (probably forever, it sounds like) — basically, some members didn’t like the Big Brother routine being applied to non-felons. So based on what appeared to be a pretty general consensus that HSB 524 wasn’t ready for prime time, House Judiciary Chairman Richard Anderson deferred on this bill — I assume we’ll see it again with a greatly reduced target population (I’m guessing aggravated misdemeanor sex offenses).
We were also scheduled to vote on House File 396 , the “Social Host” bill. This bill has entirely good intentions — to discourage under age drinking by making it a crime to permit underage drinkers to possess or consume alcohol on your property. However, the bill was drafted in such a way as to suggest that a person could be guilty of this offense even if he/she was unaware that the drinking was going on; some other questions were “what happens if the underage person consumes alcohol prior to entering the host’s house?” and “how would the State be required to prove that the underage person actually consumed alcohol” and “do we really want to clog up the judicial system with hundreds of jury trials arguing over the definition of “permit”?” So, after a good twenty minutes of debate (here’s a brief recap of what went on), Chairman Anderson deferred on this bill as well. Maybe we’ll see it again this session, maybe not – it’s ultimately up to Chairman Anderson (although I imagine that the Speaker of the House could override a committee chairman, but I haven’t seen that happen yet. That I know of.).
We were also scheduled to vote on House Study Bill 563, a bill that would add “public transit bus operators” to the list of professions set out in Iowa Code section 708.3A that merit an enhanced penalty in the case of an assault — the others are peace officers, jailers, correctional staff, a member/employee of the board of parole, a health care provider (that’s kind of broad, no?), a DHS employee, a Dept. of Revenue employee, and firefighters. Gotta admit, I’ve been practicing criminal defense for almost twenty years and I had no idea that most of these professions were on the list (the other attorneys on the Judiciary Committee were also surprised). I am not a big fan of enhancing criminal penalties without empirical evidence that doing so is actually going to make someone safer; however, I like our local bus operators, I understand why they feel extremely vulnerable to being assaulted by an angry, drunk, and/or mentally unstable passenger, and if this makes them feel safer, then I don’t see any real harm in bumping the penalty up one level. However, we didn’t actually get a chance to vote on the bill due to the absence of a clear definition of who constitutes a “public transit bus operator.” Does it mean someone who drives a bus that the public can ride in for the price of a ticket, or does it mean a bus driver that works for a governmental entity, like a school bus driver or a city bus driver. Or both. So again, we deferred on this bill.
Last but (arguably) not least, we actually passed a bill out of committee, after some debate – HF 627 requires that children whose parents’ parental rights have been terminated be provided with a certified copy of their birth certificate, so that they are able to do things like obtain a driver’s license and passport. Which I know from experience in juvenile court can actually be a really big problem, because once the termination takes place it becomes almost impossible to obtain a birth certificate, and the lack of one can cause kids a lot of unnecessary grief. To be honest, this bill still has a few glitches — e.g., the second part of the bill creates a new crime that already is a crime, so we’ll be getting rid of that provision before running the bill on the House floor. But it is a bill that I know will make a lot of kids’ lives a little easier, and make them feel a little more normal, plus it has virtually no fiscal impact — so that’s a good bill, and I was happy to see it pass unanimously.
Earlier in the afternoon, the House Transportation Committee, which I serve on, voted on whether to outlaw automated traffic cameras throughout Iowa. I understand the concerns raised by those in favor of the ban, kind of. However, info available from Scott County documents a definite and marked decrease in traffic accident injuries and fatalities since implementing the use of automated traffic cameras, and the general consensus of the Clinton County residents with whom I discussed the issue, including some law enforcement officers, was that a total ban was overkill. Like most of us who voted against the ban, I believe that we need to put some legislative limits on the amount that cities can charge for speeding and red light civil citations arising from use of the cameras; we also need to make sure that there is a simple, speedy mechanism in place to appeal a citation, since errors have been documented. But whether to use the automated traffic cameras in the first place should be a decision left up to individual city councils, based on input received from local citizens.
First thing this morning, before the afternoon’s multiple committee meetings, the full House debated/voted on Senate File 93, ”An act enhancing the penalty for certain domestic abuse assault cases and providing a penalty,” better known as the strangulation bill. This was a tough vote for me — I voted against the bill when we initially dealt with in Judiciary, for reasons that I discussed in a prior post (basically, same concern with enhancing criminal penalties for the sake of enhancing criminal penalties) and during this morning’s debate I tried to introduce an amendment that would have resulted in additional funding going to Iowa’s domestic violence shelters, which for various technical reasons I had to withdraw. In in the end, I voted yes — because after giving the bill more thought and discussing it with the many people who had been working on this legislation over the past several years, as well as some of Clinton’s domestic violence advocates, as well as the Attorney General’s office, my personal qualms about the effectiveness of the bill were greatly outweighed by the overwhelming consensus in favor of it, including almost everyone back in Clinton with whom I discussed the bill. I still have some doubts that this legislation really make victims of domestic violence any safer, but I sure hope I’m wrong, and that it does, in fact, save lives. And I still want to find some extra money for domestic violence shelter programs, because I know those organizations do save lives, for sure, and so I’m going to keep working on that.
The full House also voted on House Joint Resolution 2001, which overruled the DNR’s administrative ruling disallowing the use of lead shot when hunting doves (which I blogged about in more detail last week). I know that many of you disagreed with last session’s legislation allowing the DNR to establish a dove hunting season, but that’s a done deal, for better or worse. I listened in on one of the subcommittee meetings on this bill, and reviewed a lot of the material presented by advocates on both sides of the issue, and since the evidence on whether or not lead shot actually harms the environment appears pretty ambiguous (some studies say definitely yes, some studies say definitely no, some studies say maybe) and since the vast majority of input I received on the ammunition issue was pro-lead shot, I voted yes on the bill. And you know, most of the hunters from the Clinton County area who took the time to write or talk to me about the bill were honest about the pros/cons, and struck me as reasonable people who actually care about the environment, and many of them were farmers who hunted primarily on their own land, and I tend to think that they wouldn’t knowingly choose to do something that would put their land/livestock/crops/futures at risk.
And there were other goings-on at the Capitol today, including a discussion between Governor Branstad and a large group of college educators from all over Iowa that took place on the first floor rotunda and which got a little contentious — I wasn’t there but my wonderful sister Christy Wolfe (who’s an education professor at Coe College) was, and she reported back to me. It was great seeing Christy — actually didn’t see much of her all day since I was in various committee meetings, but I dragged her to Zombieburger (right down the hill from the Capitol) for dinner so we could catch up before letting her escape back to Iowa City.
So that was my Thursday — and the rest of the week was pretty similar. It’s exciting, but scary, sometimes, because we have to process a crazy amount of information on a wide variety of issues in a very short amount of time, and sometimes the details get lost in the shuffle, and like they say, the devil is often in the details. So I worry, a lot, about making mistakes, and letting my colleagues and my constituents down. But then I hear my mom’s voice telling me to pull up my big girl pants and get back to work. So I do.