Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

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Updated: August 3, 2015 at 9:01 am

Des Moines Register. July 29, 2015

Traffic camera scandal raises abuse concerns

A few weeks ago, the former head of Redflex Traffic Systems, a company that several Iowa cities use to enforce their traffic laws, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in Ohio.

Karen Finley, the former CEO of Redflex, admitted that she participated in a scheme in which the company provided elected officials with campaign contributions to secure lucrative city contracts for traffic-enforcement cameras.

The scandal is not limited to Ohio. Finley is also expected to plead guilty to bribery charges tied to allegations of widespread corruption in Chicago's use of traffic-enforcement cameras provided by Redflex. In fact, the company has acknowledged paying up to $2 million in bribes to politically connected Chicago officials.

In addition, one former Redflex executive has alleged in civil-court filings that the company's corruption was national in scope, with "bribes and lavish gifts," including tickets to sporting events and golf outings, doled out to officials in "dozens" of municipalities in at least 13 states.

To date, Iowa is not among the states named in these civil and criminal court cases, although Redflex cameras are used in Davenport, Council Bluffs and Sioux City. In Des Moines, Muscatine and Cedar Rapids, the camera-enforcement contract is with a Redflex competitor, Gatso USA.

Still, the conduct of Redflex, which retains 40 percent or more of the civil fines it imposes on motorists, ought to make public officials throughout Iowa think twice about privatizing traffic enforcement or any other aspect of police work.

It's indisputable that red-light cameras and speeding cameras can be valuable, reliable tools for improving traffic safety and freeing up law enforcement officers to engage in community policing. But the technology also lends itself to abuse — not just by unscrupulous vendors, but by cities more interested in padding their budgets than in saving lives.

In some areas of the country, a single speeding ticket tied to camera enforcement can result in a fine of $500 or more, which is more than enough to cause some people to miss a payment on their home or car. In Sioux City, where state transportation officials say certain cameras are doing nothing to enhance traffic safety, a Redflex-issued speeding ticket can result in a fine of $168 for going more than 10 mph over the speed limit. That's about $100 more than the fine imposed by other Iowa cities for the same violation using the same technology.

When cities use automated cameras and oversized fines not to protect the public but to create new streams of revenue for themselves and their for-profit partners, they're corrupting our system of justice. And when one of the major beneficiaries of such a scheme is a private company facing allegations of widespread, felony-level criminal conduct, this form of "law enforcement" begins to look a lot like government-sanctioned extortion.

In years past, the Iowa Legislature has considered proposals to ban the use of these cameras. That's understandable, but a better solution might be to impose caps on the fines that can be levied, and to continue the ban on their use in areas where they don't improve public safety.

There's no question that people who speed or run red lights ought to be penalized, and automated-camera technology has the potential to achieve that in ways that are both fair and efficient. But as recent history has shown, the technology can also be misused to gouge citizens and generate profits for companies that have no respect for the law.

In the final analysis, camera-enforcement technology suffers from one critical, and perhaps fatal, flaw: It's only as trustworthy as the people who use it.


Quad-City Times. July 28, 2015

Iowa law stymies distillery businesses

Iowa's liquor laws remain anchored in post-prohibition logic and fear, creating a heavy government regulatory environment where the state doesn't just limit competition; it serves as the exclusive hard liquor distribution monopoly, reaping profits and limiting the competition from private beer and wine makers.

We've editorialized on this page regularly about Iowa's unique government liquor business, mostly to no avail. A bill to simply study this conflicted system failed, leaving intact state government's $302 million-a-year business that reaped $119 million in 2014 liquor profits.

A recent Des Moines Register series explores even more problems with Iowa's state-run liquor monopoly. It's standing in the way of Iowa's distillery entrepreneurs. Register reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel disclosed how this government-run business precludes these entrepreneurs from selling their own products.

She described how Iowa Distilling Co. employees in Cumming, Iowa, must bring products to the state distribution warehouse to be scanned, sold to the state, then bought back at a 150-percent markup to be trucked back to the distillery and sold to customers.

State laws allow beer and wine makers to peddle their own products. Iowa distilleries are forced to jump through state government hoops.

Iowa's entrepreneur distillers can't sell by the glass. They can't charge for tastings or even tours that offer tasting. They can't sell online. Distillery customers can buy no more than two bottles per visit.

Pro-business lawmakers should be aghast.

Truly conservative Iowans should be, too.

Our beef with Iowa's liquor monopoly is more fundamental. We don't believe government should be in the for-profit liquor distribution business. We don't believe state government employees should pick preferred brands, determine discounts and dictate the flow of these privately made products. We don't believe taxpayer-owned trucks and warehouses should store and ship these products.

Let Iowa - like 33 other states - regulate and tax liquor. We see no reason for Iowa to continue operating its exclusive liquor distribution business to the detriment of Iowa distilleries. Worse, we see no way around the conflict of the state profiting from hard liquor while regulating every aspect of their beer and wine competitors.

The conflict gets deeper when considering the tax dollars legislators allocate to enforce alcohol consumption laws, treat alcohol addiction and imprison chronic offenders. State government measures its Alcoholic Beverage Division success by increases in per capita consumption and expenses on alcohol.

Increasing alcohol consumption should never be a government role or goal.

Fortunately, plenty of models exist in states across the nation that would finally get Iowa out of the hard liquor business and out of the way of private entrepreneurs eager to jump in.


The Hawk Eye (Burlington). July 28, 2015

Too many roads

Iowa road's chief says state can't afford all its highways.

While debating Jack Hatch last year in Burlington, Gov. Terry Branstad acknowledged the state would need new revenue streams to finance its road network.

He was responding to a question about the fuel tax because his director of the Department of Transportation, Paul Trombino, mentioned the state could not afford the roads it had, let alone any new ones.

It was an important local issue as U.S. 61 between Burlington and the Muscatine County line remains two lanes wide and needs widening.

Specifically, Branstad was asked about his support for increasing the fuel tax, and being the politician he is, he avoided answering directly. Yet as he danced around the question, he noted Iowa may have to explore other options such as taxing the number of miles a vehicle travels.

After defeating Hatch, Branstad did sign off on a dime increase in the fuel tax in February and bottled-up projects — including portions of the U.S. 61 work — got the green light.

Trombino, though, isn't through with his realistic view of Iowa's admittedly large network of roads. After all, the recently completed RAGBRAI has become as popular as it has partly because it relies on the state' lightly traveled, but well-constructed farm-to-market roads.

Talking recently to the Urban Land Institute, Trombino said the road network is overbuilt and not sustainable. Inevitably, he said, it must shrink.

According to the website Strong Towns, per capita driving in Iowa peaked in 2004 and has been declining since. Yet from 2009 to 2011 the state spent 52 percent of its highway money on expansion. The upshot is existing roads got less attention than they deserved.

Smart Growth America, a research group that studies traffic, estimates Iowa must spend about $555 million a year over the next 20 years to get its existing roads ship-shape. But Trobino has access to less than half that.

Raising the fuel tax was no easy feat and unlikely to be replicated anytime soon. So the answer is to shift money from building to maintaining.

Trombino is going one step further. He said Iowans will need to determine which roads "we really want to keep" and let the others "deteriorate and go away."

During Tom Vilsack's administration, the state sloughed off 600 miles of state roads to counties and cities. (A previous study recommended transferring three times that.) What Trombino is saying and what research shows is we should expect another purge. At that point, local voters will have to decide which of those they can afford to maintain.

That may be realistic, but fairness dictates the state must complete the U.S. 61 corridor, which may include a bypass in Burlington. That's because usage on the road is expected to increase from 3,900 to as many as 8,550 vehicles per day — some of that coming from the Iowa Fertilizer Plant, expected to come online later this year. It also will put roads in this area on par with the rest of the state.

Accomplishing it requires Congress getting its act together and passing a long-term highway bill, which will finance much of the work.

But with that project done, Iowa would do well to assess what it has and ask the hard question: What can it afford to maintain in the best possible, yet affordable shape?


Dubuque Telegraph Herald. July 31, 2015

End parking-lot rituals to get care

Government officials should be embarrassed about the scene we photographed in a Dubuque parking lot last week.

We took photos after Jennifer McFadden retrieved her 12-year-old son Liam from Hills & Dales, an accredited facility for mentally and physically disabled children and young adults, so she could give him a dose of cannabis oil, which she hopes will control the boy's epilepsy.

Liam receives the cannabis oil, which is extracted from marijuana, in a parking lot off the Hills & Dales campus. His mother has state government's authorization to possess and administer cannabis oil. But since the federal government still takes a hard line regarding marijuana, and since Hills & Dales can't afford to lose federal funding (or to face federal prosecution), the agency's officials ask that Liam receive the medication off-campus.

So, because the State of Iowa and federal government aren't on the same page regarding cannabis oil for medical purposes, a Dubuque mother and her son have to go through this rigmarole every day, twice a day, rain or shine, summer or winter. That inconvenience is magnified when one considers that these trips to the parking lot are confusing for Liam, who has the cognition level of an 18-month-old.

Jennifer McFadden acknowledges that she could be prosecuted if federal authorities pressed the issue, but she considers it a necessary risk to see if the oil will help her son. Good for her.

This sad situation underscores the disconnect between the Iowa and federal governments regarding legitimate medicinal uses of marijuana and extracts. We are not calling for relaxation of the law to the point that the remedy for any person's made-up malady is smoking a joint or partaking in pot-infused brownies. Cannabis oil has little or none of the chemical properties associated with the "high" of marijuana. This is about better health, not getting high.

Regulate and monitor, yes, but the feds should be more open to allowing people like the McFaddens to try to improve their children's lives.

Iowa isn't totally off the hook on this issue, however. Curiously, the way Iowa law currently stands, parents may secure a permit to possess cannabis oil — it just can't be produced or sold in Iowa. The Legislature failed to address that inconsistency in the last session, so it should take care of that in 2016.

End the parking-lot ritual for the McFaddens and other families. Federal and state laws should regulate but not prohibit cannabis oil for medicinal purposes.