The Des Moines Register. Sept. 28, 2014.
Rights should not be up to a popular vote
At a press conference last week, Gov. Terry Branstad reiterated his long-held belief that Iowans should be allowed to vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.
"It has been blocked in the Senate by the Senate leader," the governor observed. "It's up to the people to decide who they want to send to the Legislature, and if they want (leaders) who are going to give the people of Iowa a chance to vote on this issue. ... I think the people of Iowa should have a chance to vote on this."
At first blush, the governor's stance seems reasonable. After all, what's the harm in letting people decide an issue for themselves?
But consider the implications of his suggestion. If Branstad were to have his way, a majority of Iowans could simply go the polls and, with the stroke of their pen, deny certain constitutional rights now afforded a specific class of citizens.
That is a fundamentally un-American concept. If that flag on Branstad's lapel stands for anything, it stands for the freedom and rights that are guaranteed to all Americans — gays and lesbians included — and not just to the Americans we happen to like.
In this country, we don't put the rights of the individual up to a popular vote. The majority doesn't get to decide whether the couple down the street should be allowed to marry, or own property, or vote, or observe a particular religion.
At least, that's not the way things are supposed to work.
At one time or another, however, women, Native Americans, black Americans and Japanese-Americans were all denied their basic rights, simply because the majority of people then in power weren't too concerned with the rights of others. Today, those episodes are viewed as some of the darkest chapters in American history — for good reason.
Branstad, however, has always been staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage, saying he wants to give voters the chance to "restore the one-man, one-woman law that we had." Of course, he's also a politician and knows that a growing plurality of Iowans now support gay marriage. So perhaps he figures the safest way to address the issue, at least in the midst of the 2014 campaign, is to play the role of disinterested bystander who simply wants to let voters vote.
But make no mistake: Although Candidate Branstad appears to be rather blasé about gay marriage, Governor Branstad has been an active opponent.
In 1998, he signed the state's so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which the Iowa Supreme Court struck down in 2009. In 2010, he publicly stated that he would "work to break the legislative roadblock that prevents Iowans from having an opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman."
And in 2012, shortly after two legally married Iowa women went to court to force Branstad's Department of Public Health to list their names on the death certificate of their stillborn child, Branstad again said he was actively working to put the issue before voters.
A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage would first need to be approved by both the House and the Senate in two consecutive general assemblies. Once that happens, the issue can be put on the ballot for a public vote.
As Branstad has repeatedly pointed out, the only obstacle to this process has been the Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate. If that majority evaporates, and Branstad remains governor, it's a near certainty that some lawmakers will renew their attempts to ban marriages such as the one between 91-year-old Vivian Boyack and 90-year-old Nonie Dubes.
Earlier this month, after 72 years together, the Davenport women held hands and exchanged vows in a wedding ceremony that never would have been possible if the governor's one-man, one-woman view of marriage was still the law of the land.
That's something Iowans should be mindful of when they go to the polls on Nov. 4.
Fort Dodge Messenger. Sept. 28, 2014.
Soybeans are big business in Iowa
Nobody knows exactly how long humans have cultivated the soybean, but agricultural historians are quite certain its domestication as a crop in China dates back three millennia. There are actually Chinese records documenting soybean growth as far back as the 11th century. There is some disagreement about who first introduced soybeans into North America, but researchers seem to agree that by the 1760s soybean seed had reached Georgia.
Whatever the origin, few would dispute that in the 21st century soybean cultivation is important to the world as a food source and a great deal more. Food, health products, biodiesel and printer ink are among the more important uses of this versatile bean. As just one example, The Messenger uses color soy ink to print every issue.
Iowa leads the nation in soybean production. The Iowa Soybean Association estimates that soybean farmers contribute about $9 billion to the Hawkeye State's economy each year.
The sale of soybeans grown in Iowa to foreign clients is a major positive contribution by our state to the U.S. trade picture. In that regard, Iowa's commercial relationship with China is a huge asset. China imports more Iowa soybeans than all other countries combined. Nearly one out of every five people who inhabit this planet lives in China. The long-term importance of selling soybeans to that market is enormous.
Iowa's renewable fuels industry has great potential. Soybean farmers are of vital importance to the biodiesel sector of that evolving economic sector. According to the Iowa Biodiesel Board, with current technology, the production of 1.4 gallons of biodiesel requires one bushel of soybeans. Iowa's status as a leader in soybean growth has positioned it to be at the very heart of biodiesel production. According to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, Iowa manufactures about 12 percent of the nation's biodiesel and is poised to become an even more significant factor in that industry.
Soybeans and the farmers who grow them are key components of Iowa's economic game plan for 21st-century prosperity.
Iowa City Press-Citizen. Sept. 27, 2014.
State backfill is helpful for cities, but not enough
Local governments throughout the state are still steeling themselves for the full fallout from last year's property tax reform legislation.
That reform package — passed in the final hours of the 2013 session — is estimated to save Iowa taxpayers more than $4 billion over the next decade. But in nearly all the legislative compromises included in that package, city and county governments found themselves on the short end of the deal — especially in terms of:
— Changing the tax structure for rental property so that it is taxed at lower residential, rather than commercial, rates.
— Creating a new formula that will greatly reduce the tax rate paid by commercial property owners.
Lawmakers did promise to backfill some of the revenue that cities are going to lose under the new system. And Gov. Terry Branstad recently issued a news release announcing that Iowa Department of Revenue information shows Johnson County will receive more than $4.75 million in state backfill funding. (Information provided by the Johnson County Auditor's Office further shows that, all told, Johnson County and its cities and townships will receive about $10.5 million in tax relief in credits and backfill funds.)
Now that may sound like a lot of money, but for local governments — especially for Iowa City with its large rental market — it's not going to come close to offsetting the additional millions in revenue losses they will experience when all the parts of the reform go into effect.
That's largely why the Iowa City Council has called for a local option sales tax this election cycle. The city already has attempted to tighten its municipal belt, but with so many millions at stake, there is no way for the city to cut its way down — without cutting some essential city services in the process.
We're not thrilled with the prospect of approving a local option sales tax, but we do think that Iowa City has made a valid argument. And if a majority of voters in the five contiguous cities (Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Tiffin and University Heights) say "yes" on Nov. 4, we think the whole region could benefit from his tax.
All the other metropolitan areas in the state, except for Des Moines, already have such a tax, so that additional cent per dollar won't place our region at a competitive disadvantage. And, as local officials often point out, much of the tax would be paid by out-of-county people coming here for tourism or to shop for goods or services.
Plus, it's the non-continuous cities and the unincorporated area of the county that stand to benefit most from voting "yes" on this tax. Because the tax money would be distributed primarily based on population, those areas stand to receive much more revenue than the amount of taxes that would be collected within their jurisdictions.
So, although we hope Branstad and state lawmakers live up to their promises and continue backfill some of those losses, the local option sales tax is still going to be necessary to cover the rest.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Sept. 25, 2014.
Local inventor and his son show how Iowans can change the world
About five years ago, Jay Norton began investigating ways to potentially help subsistence farmers tending fields in Kenya and Uganda.
Properties are typically small, on average 2 to 3 acres. Farmers in remote areas can neither get to nor afford fertilizer, and they till their land with oxen or donkeys. Yields of white maize — in a good year — are half or less of what an Iowa farmer might consider normal.
Another problem is the condition of the soil. The farmers Norton works with rely on moldboard plows, the kind inventor John Deere perfected. Those are rarely used these days in Iowa for a variety of reasons, an important one being erosion.
Norton, a soil science professor at the University of Wyoming, turned to his father, James, a retired engineer living near New Hartford. James Norton went to work on designs for tillage equipment.
James Norton tapped his own skills and enlisted others with expertise across a wide spectrum. Among those making contributions were metal smiths who cut parts with lasers and a member of the Amish community who helped with assembly and field tests behind his horses.
Together, they came up with what James Norton calls the multifunction farm implement. The device resembles an antique walk-behind plow, except all the parts are steel and it rolls on two wheels. Norton updated the design with an old concept, steel wheels, because flat tires represent more than an inconvenience in remote African locations.
James Norton started with a subsoiler to break hardpan but later added attachments to cultivate and chisel plow. He is working on a planter, too.
Recently, Jay Norton brought a small group of Kenyans and Ugandans to the United States. The party included Shadrach Tumwei, a farmer.
The agricultural tour featured visits to Rick DeGroote's farm near New Hartford and to Amish country near Hazleton.
The conversations that day, and really every initiative since the Nortons' project began, represent an invaluable exchange of ideas and technology that may produce lasting change in Africa. As Emmanuel Omondi, one of Jay Norton's colleagues at Wyoming, noted, issues confronting farmers are essentially equivalent.
"The size of the operation is the only thing that is different. The principles are the same," Omondi said.
DeGroote and Tumwei are both trying to increase production while employing responsible, cost-effective techniques. DeGroote uses some of the largest John Deere equipment available. Tumwei can turn to a multifunction farm implement conceived on a drawing board in James Norton's basement.
The Nortons are shopping for a company in Africa. The hope is to produce their simple tillage equipment and provide some sustainable development in a region of the world that sorely needs help.
"Then if we can get it manufactured over there, that's a key thing — and I think we're going to get it done," James Norton said.