The Exchange: Emotions Run High at State Hearings, WANAM, and Russell Wooley

Mar 8, 2017

Russell Wooley, Siouxland Public Media's Artist of the Month, will take the lead this month in Death of a Salesman.
Credit Jessica Wheeler

It was a busy week at the state capitol in Des Moines. Four hearings were held on issues including minimum wage and worker’s compensation, as well as a voter ID bill and a plan to do away with a local water authority in Des Moines.  Hundreds of constituents showed up the hearings, mostly to voice their opposition.

House File 516 would require Iowa voters to present ID’s at the polls. It would also change some of the voter registration requirements.

More than 240 people signed up to give testimony last night at a statehouse hearing on a bill House File 516 brought out large numbers supporters and opponents. Secretary of State Paul Pate is the author of the measure and he spoke first. He said the bill should make it easy to vote and hard to cheat. Pate said that no one would be denied the right to vote if the bill becomes law:

“And I’m adamant about that fact and I’m going to fight to ensure voters are not disenfranchised. If you do not already have an ID we will give you one for free, automatically.”

However, Daniel Zeno of the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said that African Americans, the elderly and people who have no permanent home could have a hard time getting an ID. But Zeno said there are also situations where the bill would hurt people who usually have no problems voting:

“The everyday Iowan who’s walking down the street and realizes, 'Oh, today’s election day, and I forgot my license and I ran to the elementary school to vote.' That Iowan wouldn’t be able to vote anymore. Unless they ran home and hopefully got back to the poll in time.”

Emma Aquina Nemacheck supported the bill. She is a US citizen who came to Iowa from the Philippines years ago. She now lives in Linn County. She says citizens have to show their ID for just about everything, from cashing a check to applying for social security: 

“It is not too much to ask voters to do this to prove their identity, I do not feel discriminated when obliged to show my ID. Secretary Pate’s plan will ensure every Iowan who does not already have an ID will get one for free. No eligible voter will be turned away.”

Daniel Hoffmans testified on behalf of the LGBTQ community. He is the director of the program, One Iowa, which advocates for that community. Hoffmans says more than 40 percent of transgender persons do not have an ID that correctly reflects their gender identity:

This bill also includes language that voters can be challenged at the polls if they don’t resemble their ID. Many transgender persons on a national discrimination survey reported that they had been harassed, 41% reported being harassed for showing a photo ID that did not match their gender identity.”

The public hearing on the voter ID bill was one of three held at the state capitol yesterday. The other two were on the minimum wage bill and the measure that would dissolve the Des Moines Water Works.

More than 150 people signed up to speak about House Bill 295 last night at a public hearing. The measure would allow the state to set a minimum wage and preempt counties that have higher wages. Four Iowa counties have already decided to raise the minimum wage.

The legislation would freeze the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Jessica Dunker was one of two people who spoke on favor of the measure. Dunker is with the Iowa Restaurant Association. She said the state should set the minimum wage and not the counties: 

“To continue to be a vibrant and growing part of our state’s economy, we need statewide wage and employment solutions, not county-by-county mandates.”

Kelly Savage disagreed. She is the state director for the non-profit “Every Child Matters.” Savage said a lot of people think that minimum wage only applies to teenagers, but that’s not the case:

“Only 1-in-6 minimum wage workers are high school students, 31% of minimum wage workers are 30 or older. 30% of minimum wage workers are parents, so this affects our children too.”

One of the people who spoke at the hearing was Josh Miate. He is a Student organizer for Iowa State University. Miate said he knows what it’s like to grow up in a low wage earing family:

“My parents were separated when I was six years old. My mother worked multiple jobs just to make sure we could keep a roof over our heads. My father works long, strenuous hours to support our family, myself and my younger sister. My family was very politically apathetic. My parents blamed themselves for the situation that we were in.”

Charles Bushman of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL CIO testified that he was disturbed by many of the actions of the Republican part in Iowa this legislative session, with the minimum wage issue being one of the most damaging bills:

“Taken as a whole, HB 295 is a mean spirited law with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

The majority party conspiring with dark money groups is absolutely the lowest, most despicable thing that has ever happened in this beautiful building.”

Hundreds of people filled a Capitol hearing room yesterday morning to oppose a controversial bill that would dismantle Des Moines Water Works.

The Des Moines Register reports that overflow crowds gathered in the statehouse rotunda with neon signs that read "This Is a Farm Bureau Power Grab" and "Clean Water Not Corporate Water."

The Iowa House bill, and a similar bill introduced in the Senate, would make water utilities in Des Moines, Urbandale and West des Moines into city departments subject to the control of their local city councils. Water boards would become advisory boards. City managers would be responsible for hiring managers to run the departments, and decisions on spending and policy would be subject to city council approval.

Several people called the legislation a "revenge bill" to punish Des Moines Water Works for a federal lawsuit it filed against three northwest Iowa counties over high levels of nitrates in the Raccoon River.

EJ Giovenetti of the Central Iowa Regional Drinking Water Commission is from Polk County. Giovenetti is against the bill because he said it brings politics into the running of the water systems:

“Utilities, particularly water, sewer, solid waste, have been insulated from politics by appointed boards. If this goes to city councils, then, suddenly you are injecting back into the system, that was never intended to be political, political influence.”

Leslie Gearhardt of the Des Moines Water Works compared the adversarial situation between the county, the water works and the state, to what happened with a recent water disaster in another Midwestern state.

“Taking assets of a public utility is the exact kind of state government meddling that created the public health water crisis in Flint, Michigan. This flies in the face of the respected history of home rule we have in this state.”

However, several of the speakers supported to idea of moving control of the water system to the Des Moines City Council. One of them was Peter Sand of Polk County:

“I do support this because I do believe it hits that sweet spot. It’s not a direct command from state government, pressing down on the localities that it’s going to be a certain way. It empowers the local governments to craft the most efficient structure possible for delivering the water to the people of this area.”

The final public hearing this week involved two bills that would rein in worker’s compensation to claims in Iowa. Speakers were split in their opinions about the changes.

Labor groups say the cuts will diminish benefits to vulnerable, injured workers.

Kelly Harrison of the United Auto Workers said that repetitive trauma injuries are hard to prove and it is hard to get insurance companies to cover their treatment.

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Ron Stanhope told the committee that the new measures would help prevent issues when companies end up paying for treatment for existing conditions that were not caused by the workers’ job.

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Four public hearings in one week at the Iowa State legislature is unusual during any session, but this session has been unusually active and controversial. Steve Warnstadt knows from experience. The Western Iowa Tech Community College Government Relations Coordinator served as the Democratic State Senator from the 1st District, from 2003 until 2011. Warnstadt says he’s been surprised by number and intensity of this year’s public hearings.

Steve Warnstadt is the Government Relations Coordinator at Western Iowa Tech Community College. He served as a Democrat from Iowa’s first district in the state senate from 2003 to 2011.

You are listening to the Exchange, on Siouxland Public Media, I’m Mary Hartnett. There are also many contentious bills up for debate in the South Dakota legislature this session. On the heels of President Donald Trump’s efforts to check immigration from seven largely Muslim countries, Republicans created a group of bills that would have called for more oversight for the work done by the state’s lone social service agency that resettles immigrants. Those bills were defeated in committee. And Tuesday, a call to commend President Donald Trump for his work in combating Islamic state group terrorism was quickly shelved.

The resolution that initially condemned the system in place for vetting and resettling refugees in the state and tried to block refugees whose beliefs could be "diametrically opposed to freedom" was tabled in the Senate on a 20-15 vote.

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Representatives from Lutheran Social Services, the Sioux Falls Muslim community and refugees urged lawmakers not to support the proposal as they viewed it as unnecessary and discriminatory.

Betty Oldenkamp, President and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota says she is relieved that the senate resolution was roundly defeated. Oldencamp says the organization has worked with refugees from the countries on the Seven country ban.

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This week we introduce We Are Not A Monolith, and new production of Siouxland Public Media that will highlight the issues facing the African American community in Siouxland. For its first outing, hosts Shelby Pierce and Ike Rayford discuss the film Get Out. They describe how writer/director Jordan Peele uses the horror genre to raise issues of race that films like Hidden Figures cannot. 

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Also, we present our Aritst of the Month, Russ Wooley. He and his wife (and fellow actor, singer, author) Diana created Lamb Arts Regional Theatre, a cornerstone of culture in Siouxland. We talked with him as he prepared for his role as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.