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Iowa Legislature Adjourns 2021 Session

Daily Digest

Friday, May 21

4:19 p.m. – DNA analyst testifies in Bahena Rivera trial

A DNA analyst testified Friday that blood found in Cristhian Bahena Rivera’s car matches Mollie Tibbetts’ DNA.

The farm worker is on trial for her killing and faces a first degree murder charge.

Crime scene technicians took samples from stains found in the trunk of Bahena Rivera’s car. Analyst Tara Scott of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation testified the DNA is consistent with Tibbetts’. “The screening test indicated the presence of blood on those swabs and the DNA profile that I developed matched the known DNA profile of Mollie Tibbetts.”

Prosecutors say the DNA evidence is one of the key factors in their case against Bahena Rivera. He has pleaded not guilty.

3 p.m. - Iowa’s April unemployment rate rises slightly

Iowa’s unemployment rose in April to 3.8 percent as the number of residents with jobs fell slightly, the Iowa Workforce Development agency reported Friday.

The rate for April increased from a March unemployment rate of 3.7 percent.

Iowa’s rate was the nation’s 10th lowest and compared to a national rate for April of 6.1 percent.

Data released by the state showed that the number of unemployed Iowans increased by 800 to 61,600 people. The total number employed was nearly 1.6 million.

Entry via the Associated Press

12:59 p.m. – New volunteer advocacy group for Iowa’s Latinos to start next month

A new advocacy group for Latinos in the state will begin sometime next month. It’s called the Iowa Latino Alliance, and it will be made up entirely of volunteers seeking to improve the lives of the state’s Latinos.

This formal, statewide entity has not been done before, according to the Office of Latino Affairs.

Caleb Knutson is the chair of the Commission of Latino Affairs. He says this new alliance is different from the commission -- it is not run through a government department, and members do not need to be approved by the governor.

“It boils down to representation again,” says Knuston. “And I think that that’s the drum that I will continue to beat day-in and day-out, is representation.”

The alliance started out as an idea that stemmed from the creation of the Linea de Ayuda, the Spanish helpline. The director of the Office of Latino Affairs, Sonia Reyes, says the helpline volunteers didn’t want to stop their work, so they decided to create a formal entity. “So it came out of the need for us to work together and to have a united effort.”

12:30 p.m. - Possible tornadoes touch down near Winterset, Woodward

A strong band of thunderstorms swept over central Iowa Thursday night and may have spun off a few small tornadoes.

The National Weather Service says two possible tornadoes were identified on radar during the severe weather, but there’s no confirmation from spotters of any twisters.

One of the possible tornadoes was near Woodward in Dallas County, the other was in the Winterset area in Madison County, where residents are finding scattered wind damage to trees.

Iowa is on track to have one of the quietest severe weather seasons on record. Only two tornadoes are confirmed statewide so far this year. We average more than a dozen already by this date.

Entry via Matt Kelley for Radio Iowa

11:33 a.m. - Lower vaccination rates could prolong the pandemic in rural areas

A new federal report says rural parts of the country trail urban areas when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination rates – 46 to 39 percent, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alan Morgan is the CEO of the National Rural Health Association. He says if this trend continues, it could take longer for rural America to recover from the pandemic.

“This really has the potential of the rest of America moving on from the pandemic, while we see rural America still struggling with this for the next year.”

He says rural Americans are still facing issues surrounding vaccine access.

Morgan also says messaging from the federal government needs to be geared more toward rural communities in order to get their vaccination rates up.

10 a.m. - Seven additional deaths, 176 new cases of COVID-19 reported Friday

Thursday, May 20

5:02 p.m. – Police officer testimony heard Thursday at Bahena Rivera trial

A police officer testified Thursday that Cristhian Bahena Rivera admitted to killing Mollie Tibbetts in 2018. Officer Pamela Romero was with the Iowa City Police Department at the time. She told the jury that the farm worker said he followed Tibbetts while she was running and that he remembers placing her body in a cornfield.

Romero said the man couldn’t recall how he killed her, but he led officers to the field where her body was found. “He showed me the cornfield, and he goes, ‘this is the cornfield where I came, took her out of the trunk, carried her on my shoulder, went inside the cornfield, dropped her on the ground, covered her with leaves, and I left right away’.”

The interview when Bahena Rivera made the admission lasted 11 hours. His defense team appears to be laying the groundwork to argue he was sleep deprived and coerced into making the statements.

3:27 p.m. – Expert says post-pandemic anxiety is expected and needing to ease into activities is normal

The CDC’s recent relaxation in its restrictions for those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 has left some anxious about the drastic change.

One expert says it’s ok for Iowans to ease precautions at their own pace. Douglas Gentile is a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. He says despite the drastic change in public health guidance, many people will need to ease slowly into returning to activities and outings. And that will look different for each person.

“Don't believe that your feelings should be the same as anyone else’s. We all handle stress differently. We've all come through this situation differently. We've all had very different experiences of it.”

Gentile says it’s normal if fully vaccinated people want to continue wearing masks, and if activities like eating at a restaurant don’t feel the same way they used to at first.

“If you go out and you find ‘Oh my God, I'm freaking out,’ then leave. There's nothing wrong with that, and try again another day. But don't, don't assume, ‘oh, you're, you're never going to be okay -- going out to dinner again.’”

10 a.m. - Five additional deaths, 233 new cases of COVID-19 reported Thursday

5:30 a.m. - Miller-Meeks among 35 Republicans voting for Jan. 6 commission

One of the three Iowa Republicans serving in the U.S. House voted for establishing a commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Second District Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa was one of 35 Republicans in the House who voted for creation of a bipartisan commission to examine the events of January 6. Miller-Meeks has not issued a statement about her vote.

Third District Congresswoman Cindy Axne of West Des Moines is the only Democrat in Iowa’s House delegation. Axne said she voted to establish the commission “to get to the truth of how the attack on the Capitol happened” and to ensure it cannot happen again.

First District Congresswoman Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Marion, says she opposes launching the commission because it could interfere with Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and FBI investigations. Congressman Randy Feenstra, a Republican from Hull who represents Iowa’s fourth district, also voted against the bipartisan investigation of the January 6 attack.

1:09 a.m. – Legislature adjourns 2021 session

Iowa’s 2021 legislative session ended late Wednesday night, three weeks after the target date for adjournment.

In the final days of the session, the legislature passed a major tax plan that speeds up income tax cuts, phases out backfill payments to local governments, and shifts mental health funding from counties to the state. Republican lawmakers also advanced a constitutional amendment to limit abortion rights, banned school mask mandates, and raised penalties for protest-related crimes.

House Republican Leader Matt Windschitl of Missouri Valley says this is the year of freedom for Iowans. “We’ve given parents more choice in education, we’ve given students more options. Just with the bill we passed tonight we’ve given them the opportunity to say whether they are or not going to wear a mask. That’s a freedom Iowans have been asking for throughout the state.”

Windschitl says tax cuts and a rollback of gun restrictions also advance freedom in the state.

Democrats criticized Republicans for not doing anything to respond to the pandemic and for pursuing what they say is a divisive and partisan agenda.

“This session lacked courage,” says House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City. “It was a session that ignored the historic challenges Iowans are facing in this moment today. We should have done more.”

Hear more

1:01 a.m. – Reynolds signs bill banning schools from requiring face masks

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law early Thursday morning that immediately bans schools from requiring masks. Republicans in the legislature introduced and passed the legislation Wednesday. The new law also prevents cities and counties from having mask mandates that affect private businesses.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, says parents should get to decide if their kids wear face coverings. “I listened to parents in my district frustrated that their kids had to go to school in masks all the time.”

Democrats opposed the bill, saying it’s overreach by the state that could prevent communities from responding to local health emergencies in the future.

Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, says it’s about public health. “People may not want to wear a mask. I didn’t like wearing a mask. I hated it. But don’t we have a responsibility to protect the health of the people around us?”

Read more

Wednesday, May 19

5 p.m. – Prosecutors say DNA evidence will be key in Bahena Rivera trial

In opening statements Wednesday, prosecutors said that DNA evidence will play a key role in connecting Cristhian Bahena Rivera to the killing of Mollie Tibbetts.

The farm worker faces a first degree murder charge in the death of the college student, who disappeared in 2018.

Prosecutor Bart Klaver said it was security camera footage that led officers to a car that appeared to follow Tibbetts while she was running and was driven by the defendant. Klaver told the jury that blood found in Bahena Rivera’s trunk matches Tibbetts’ DNA, and said that evidence will establish his guilt.

“Analysis was done of that blood, DNA analysis, and it was matched to the DNA taken from the body. It was Mollie’s blood in the defendant’s Chevy Malibu.”

Tibbetts’ boyfriend Dalton Jack also testified Wednesday, saying he was heartbroken and denying any involvement in her disappearance. The defense sought to paint him as an angry young man and an unreliable witness.

Read more

4:52 p.m. – Nonprofit Latino food delivery group expands outreach efforts to COVID-19 vaccinations

A central Iowa organization that started out by handing out food to Latino families has transitioned to a different good.

Knock and Drop Iowa first started delivering food to Latino families in need around central Iowa last year. Its volunteers still do that, but now they’ve added more to their list. They’re using their platform for vaccine outreach. Zuli García is the founding director. She says earning trust in the community has helped reach more people during an unsettling time. “And so for our community where they feel, you know, can I trust that person and the language barrier, it feels more safe when they come and see faces that they already see on a daily basis, helping them anyways. So for them coming here was like, not a big deal.”

So far, García’s organization, in partnership with Hy-Vee and Latinx Immigrants of Iowa, has helped administer more than 250 COVID-19 vaccines to Spanish-speakers.

1:36 p.m. - Reynolds signs state-funded charter school measure into law

This entry was updated Wednesday at 9:31 p.m.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a bill into law expanding the options to create state-funded charter schools in Iowa.

The new law allows groups not affiliated with local school districts to create a charter with approval from the State Board of Education.

At a signing ceremony held at a Des Moines youth program, Reynolds said she expects the new schools to better teach underserved students.

“Iowa needs schools as diverse as the needs of its students, and that’s exactly what this law aims to deliver.”

Critics of the charter program say the legislature should do more to support innovative programs at existing public schools, and that the charters lack oversight from local taxpayers.

Melissa Peterson is the government relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association. “We think rather than experiment, why not continue to invest in the proven innovation and quality education we already have in the state of Iowa?” she said.

The legislature has passed a separate proposal requiring charter governing boards to follow open meetings and open records laws.

Read more

1:11 p.m. – Defense Attorneys question Mollie Tibbetts’ boyfriend during Bahena Rivera Trial

Defense attorneys are working to cast doubt on the boyfriend of Mollie Tibbetts, the Iowa college student who went missing in 2018.

Farm worker Cristhian Bahena Rivera faces a first degree murder charge in her killing. But in questioning during his trial Wednesday, defense attorneys painted Tibbetts’ boyfriend Dalton Jack as a reluctant and unreliable witness.

“When I was asked if I wanted to be here voluntarily, I said absolutely not. So no.”
“So you did not want to be here voluntarily?”
“No, I didn’t want to be in the same room as your defendant there.”
“Oh. So you didn’t want to come give testimony to get justice for…the love of your life?”
“No.”
“You wouldn’t be here to fight for her?”
“No.”

Jack was questioned about how he cheated on Tibbetts and was considering ending the relationship in the month before her disappearance. Jack testified he was on a work trip when she went missing and has denied any connection to Bahena Rivera.

12:33 p.m. - Iowa Legislature approves abortion amendment language

Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate have taken the first major step toward amending the Iowa Constitution to say it doesn’t protect abortion rights.

The Senate approved language for the amendment Wednesday, and the House approved it Tuesday night.

Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, says it will correct what he thinks is “judicial overreach” by Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in 2018 that the state constitution strongly protects abortion rights.

“This amendment will allow the people, not unelected judges, and not us, to decide the issue of who’s going to make laws regarding abortion.”

Now that the House and Senate have approved identical language, it will have to be approved again in two or three years. After that, it can go on the ballot in 2024 for Iowa voters to decide.

Democrats say it’s wrong to put women’s basic rights on the ballot.

“It makes me feel as though my status as a human being is low enough, and that my decisions about pregnancy and my own body isn’t valid enough, that the public should vote about it on a ballot,” says Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha. “It feels like you’re making my uterus public property.”

If the constitutional amendment is adopted, courts will look to federal precedents when evaluating Iowa abortion laws. That could open the door to more abortion restrictions.

2:13 p.m. - Entry updated with additional quote

Read more

10 a.m. - Seven additional deaths, 284 new cases of COVID-19 reported Wednesday

6 a.m. – Iowa House Republicans vote to approve amendment that would say the state Constitution doesn’t protect abortion rights

Iowa House Republicans voted Tuesday night to approve amending the Iowa Constitution to say it doesn’t protect abortion rights.

Republican Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, says without this amendment, all abortion restrictions in Iowa are at risk of getting struck down.

“This is about responding to the Iowa Supreme Court decision of several years ago that placed a fundamental right to abortion subject to strict scrutiny in the Iowa Constitution.”

If the constitutional amendment is adopted, courts will look to federal precedents when evaluating Iowa abortion laws. That could open the door to more restrictions.

“You preach medical freedom because you don’t want a shot,” says Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo. “Yet you believe you should be able to control my body.”

The Iowa Senate is expected to approve the proposal Wednesday. Then it will need approval again in two years before going on the ballot for Iowa voters to decide.

6 a.m. - Iowa House passes bill raising penalties for protest-related offenses, increasing police protections

The Iowa House passed a bill Tuesday night that would raise penalties for protest-related offenses and put qualified immunity into state law, sending the bill to the governor’s desk for her signature.

Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, says the bill will protect law enforcement and give them tools to keep communities safe. “Peaceful protesting is a great and wonderful thing. So many positive results have happened in our country as a result of peaceful protesting. But violence cannot and will not be tolerated in the state of Iowa. This bill is making that abundantly clear.”

Last year, the legislature unanimously passed a police accountability bill in response to racial justice protests, and leaders from both parties promised to do more. Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, says that in passing this bill, lawmakers have abandoned that work. “Just because you’ve chosen to turn your back on the hard work doesn’t mean that I will. I’m naïve enough to keep pushing forward. I’m so afraid to become a Drew Edwards or George Floyd moment, that I cannot conceive stopping my pursuit to help us find a more perfect union.”

Two House Democrats joined most Republicans in voting for the bill, and two Republicans joined most Democrats to vote against it.

6 a.m. – Iowa Legislature sends wide-ranging tax bill to Reynolds’ desk

The Iowa Legislature sent a wide-ranging tax bill to the governor’s desk.

The House passed it Tuesday evening after the Senate passed it Monday.

The bill speeds up income tax cuts, shifts mental health funding from counties to the state, phases out payments to local governments and expands child care and workforce housing tax credits.

Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, says “What this bill does, is it allows taxpayers to keep more of their dollars. I think that’s a pretty good policy for the state of Iowa.”

Democrats say they’re concerned about ending backfill payments to cities and counties.

“You’re just playing a shell game,” says Rep. Sharon Steckman, D- Mason City. “Because eventually either the services in a city and county will be cut, or they’ll have to raise property taxes.”

Nine House Democrats joined Republicans in voting yes, and one Republican voted no with most Democrats.

Gov. Kim Reynolds called the bill a win for Iowans.

6 a.m. - Iowa lawmakers pass billion dollar education funding bill

The Iowa legislature passed a billion dollar education funding bill (HF 868) Tuesday night that keeps state funding flat for Iowa’s public universities -- at around $486 million of general funding. It also leaves out a tuition freeze that was part of earlier proposals. Democrats opposing the bill say a lack of new university funding will be a drag on the state’s economy.

The budget bill also lowers the bar to force a discussion item on a school board agenda. A petition would need signatures from only 500 people or 10 percent of the number of voters in the last school election, whichever is less.

Democrats opposing the idea say it would be disruptive and doesn’t belong in a spending bill. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, says there would be no limits for repeat petitioners. “Each time they received an answer they did not like, they could file a brand new petition and start the process all over again, and the school board would be bound to comply each and every time.”

Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-Le Claire, who managed the bill in the Senate, says the petition measure gives frustrated parents a stronger voice in school board decisions.

Additionally, the bill includes a $10 million increase for the Future Ready Iowa Last Dollar Scholarship program. Cournoyer says the scholarships will aid students in community college or in training for high demand jobs. “That is a huge investment for students wanting to pursue that postsecondary training and education, and get those family supporting jobs that we have plenty of that are open in the state.”

Tuesday, May 18

4:23 p.m. – Legislature advances funding increase for state’s prison system

The Iowa Legislature is advancing a more than $20 million increase for the state’s prison system. It’s the biggest funding increase in years, and it comes just about two months after two Anamosa prison staff were killed on the job, allegedly by inmates.

The bill includes a provision that allows families of corrections employees killed on site to keep their health insurance.

Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello, says he found out the families of slain workers Lorena Schulte and Robert McFarland were losing their health coverage. “I checked into it with the Department of Corrections and found out, yes that was true. But was informed that at that time the local community was taking up a collection to help support the families so they could purchase it through COBRA.”

House Democrats offered amendments to call for a federal investigation of the deaths, increase funding for prison communication systems and restore collective bargaining rights. Republicans voted down Democratic proposals or ruled them not relevant to the bill.

3:27 p.m. – Jury selected in Bahena Rivera trial

A jury has been selected in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera. He faces a first degree murder charge in the killing of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts, who went missing in 2018.

Twelve jurors and three alternates have been chosen to serve from a pool of some 175 people.

The jury will report to the Scott County Courthouse Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. for opening arguments. The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

2 p.m. - Dubuque to pay $1.8M to settle police discrimination lawsuit

The city of Dubuque will pay more than $1.8 million to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by a former police captain who accused the city and police chief of fostering a culture of sexism in the department.

The city does not admit any wrongdoing in approving the settlement, which goes to Abby Simon and her lawyers, the Telegraph Herald reported Tuesday.

Simon said in her lawsuit that she was passed over in 2016 and 2017 for promotion to captain, despite having received better test and interview scores than the men who were promoted. Simon was promoted to captain in 2018 after filing a complaint, but said she faced hostility from fellow officers and Chief Mark Dalsing. That included an email Dalsing sent to colleagues lamenting that the department was “forced” to create a new captain’s position for Simon after she complained of discrimination, the lawsuit said. Simon said City Manager Mike Van Milligen also asked her “whether she had thought about the long-term consequences if she sued the city.”

Simon was the highest-ranking woman in the department when she retired in January 2020, citing what she said was City Council members’ refusal to hold Dalsing and Van Milligen accountable.

In court filings, Dalsing and the city denied Simon’s claims. Dalsing did not immediately return phone and email messages left Tuesday morning by The Associated Press seeking comment. Van Milligen declined to comment.

Attorneys for the city, Mayor Roy Buol and other city officials declined to comment on the settlement to the Telegraph Herald.

Entry via the Associated Press

10 a.m. - 196 new cases of COVID-19 reported Tuesday

8:31 a.m. - Man suspected of killing Iowa trooper pleads not guilty

A man suspected of fatally shooting an Iowa State Patrol trooper during a violent standoff last month has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and other charges in the case.

Michael Lang, 41, of Grundy Center, was set to appear in court Monday on charges of first-degree murder, assault on a peace officer and attempted murder for the April 9 killing of Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Jim Smith during a standoff at Lang’s home. Instead, Lang’s attorney filed a written plea Sunday, the Des Moines Register reported. A trial date had not been set by Monday afternoon.

Prosecutors have said Lang opened fire on state troopers during the standoff, killing Smith, and was in turn shot three times by troopers returning fire. Lang has since been released from the hospital and is expected to recover.

Authorities have said Lang was initially pulled over by a deputy on suspicion of speeding and illegally driving without an ignition interlock device that tests whether someone has been drinking alcohol.

Lang is then accused of leading the deputy on a brief pursuit, assaulting him after stopping, fleeing to his home and barricading himself inside. Smith, 51, went in with a group of officers and a police dog an hour later, and police say he was shot by Lang as the lawman entered the home’s main floor. That led to an hours-long standoff that culminated in the shootout with troopers.

Entry via the Associated Press

7 a.m. – Iowa lawmakers pass $2 billion Health and Human Services budget

The Iowa Legislature sent a $2 billion Health And Human Services budget to the governor’s desk Monday night.

It includes Medicaid reimbursement increases for health care providers, more funding for nursing homes and DHS child welfare workers and an increase for child care providers.

“We’ve spent a lot of money and funded a lot of new initiatives, increased a lot of new rates within the context of this budget,” says Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola. “444 nursing homes in the state of Iowa will get an increase in funding. Folks have done tremendous work over the course of this last year in caring for some of our most vulnerable in the state.”

Democrats say there are a lot of good things in the budget, but they think the state has a big enough budget surplus to do more. In the House, the health budget passed on a mostly party-line vote, with some bipartisan support and opposition. All Senate Democrats but one voted with Republicans to approve the health budget.

6:30 a.m. – Iowa lawmakers pass wide-ranging tax bill that shifts mental health funding

Republican leaders in the Iowa Legislature have agreed to a wide-ranging tax bill that will shift mental health funding from counties to the state. The Senate passed the bill Monday night.

The bill also speeds up income tax cuts, phases out “backfill” payments to local governments, eliminates the inheritance tax, and expands child care and workforce housing tax credits.

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, chairs the committee in charge of tax policy. “This is big. It’s bold. And while other states limp out of this pandemic, Iowa is setting the example of accelerating out of this pandemic with policies that launch the state forward.”

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, says she’s worried that there’s no guarantee the state will keep funding mental health services in the future. “I am not convinced that provisions in this bill are going to do anything but create some chaos for our state in about 2.5 years.”

Two Democrats joined all Republicans present to support the bill, and the rest of the Democrats voted no.

6:30 a.m. – School districts review masking policies in light of new state guidelines

Iowa school districts are reviewing their policies on mask wearing after the Iowa Department of Public Health issued new guidance late last week saying face coverings should be optional. Many districts will still require them.

The Department of Public Health said masks should be optional and that kids exposed to COVID-19 should not have to stay home. That’s in conflict with the CDC, which states masking and quarantine should continue until more adults and children are vaccinated.

Districts — including Ankeny, Waukee, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Des Moines, and West Des Moines — are continuing mask requirements.

During a school board meeting Monday night, Ankeny Superintendent Al Azinger said many teachers are vaccinated, but not many students. “There are only 11 days left in the year. It seems prudent to follow the advice that we’re getting from the majority of the reputable medical community.”

But parent Megan Anthony asked the school board to follow the state guidelines. “Just as we layered on additional mitigation strategies as numbers rose, we must start to remove those layers as our numbers continuously drop,” Anthony said.

Ankeny will make masks optional during summer school. Johnston also plans to try optional masking this summer and is ending quarantine for students exposed to the coronavirus.

Monday, May 17

5:26 p.m. – Following train derailment, cleanup continues near Sibley

Union Pacific Railroad says it’s working to remove dozens of train cars that derailed in northwest Iowa and extinguish a fire that stemmed from it.

Sunday afternoon, 47 train cars derailed near the town of Sibley. Union Pacific’s Kristen South says the cars that derailed were carrying hydrochloric acid, asphalt and potassium hydroxide.

“There was a car involved in the derailment, it was empty. It had been carrying liquid ammonium nitrate, but again, it was empty. There was likely some residue in the car, but it was not full.”

Ammonium nitrate is a combustible chemical compound used in fertilizers.

South adds no one was hurt.

4:51 p.m. - Jury selection began Monday in the trial of Cristhian Bahena Rivera

Cristhian Bahena Rivera faces a first degree murder charge in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, a college student who went missing in 2018.

Some 175 prospective jurors filed into a convention center in Davenport for the socially distanced proceedings. There have been concerns of finding a fair and impartial jury, given the extensive media coverage of the case.

Jury selection will continue Tuesday. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

4:39 p.m. – Child care assistance bill goes to Gov. Reynolds for signature

The Iowa Senate has voted unanimously to address the child care assistance “cliff effect.”

Under current law, low-income Iowans who get state-funded help with child care costs can lose all of that assistance when they get a slight pay raise. This bill would gradually phase people out of assistance as their pay goes up. It doesn’t expand eligibility to start receiving assistance.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, says she supports the bill, but the legislature should do more. “It will not help enough Iowa families who struggle to provide safe quality child care for their children. This legislation will help some families who fall off the child care cliff but it will do nothing for so many more families who need help because they cannot even get into this child care assistance program.”

Business groups and House Republicans have pushed for child care solutions to help keep more Iowans in the workforce. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk for her signature.

4:09 p.m. – Iowa Senate Republicans pass policing bill

Iowa Senate Republicans have passed a bill that would increase protections for police, put qualified immunity for officers into state law and raise penalties for protest-related offenses.

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, says he thinks raising penalties will deter the kind of property damage that resulted from some of last summer’s racial justice protests. “We owe it to our constituents. We owe it to our law enforcement people. We owe it to people that have businesses that are in jeopardy of being damaged and looted. We owe it to the people of Iowa to do the very best we can to stop this activity.”

Democrats voted against the bill. Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, is a retired sheriff’s deputy. He says there are a lot of good law enforcement protections in the bill, but some parts will hurt Iowans.

“Charging someone for a felony when it should be a simple misdemeanor, but now they are charged with a felony where it’s going to possibly affect their housing, their schooling, their ability for [finding] jobs — to be strapped with this, is crazy. This doesn’t even make sense.”

They pointed to the nonpartisan analysis that shows raising penalties is likely to disproportionately impact Black Iowans. Democrats also called on Republicans to add more worker protections for police.

The bill goes back to the House of Representatives for a final vote.

5:33 p.m. - Updated with additional quote

10 a.m. - Six additional deaths, 86 new cases of COVID-19 reported Monday

7 a.m. – Mental health advocates support proposal to shift funding to state level

A proposal to shift Iowa’s mental health funding from counties to the state is one topic that’s been holding up the end of the legislative session. Mental health advocates support the change.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ plan—backed by Senate Republicans—would have the state’s 14 mental health regions work under performance-based contracts. And the state could withhold funding from them if they’re not providing mandatory mental health services.

Peggy Huppert is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness—Iowa, which has been pushing for state funding. She says Iowa is the only state that funds mental health services through property taxes.

“And that’s what resulted in is a lack of equity and a lack of sustainable and reliable services throughout the state.”

Huppert says Reynolds’ plan would help hold all regions accountable for coordinating mental health services required by law. House Speaker Pat Grassley says he’s not opposed to shifting mental health funding to the state, but he has technical questions and wants to get the details right.

6 a.m. – After all-time high, food insecurity rates begin to decline

The number of people going hungry skyrocketed during the pandemic, due to higher unemployment and the economic recession. But with the pandemic’s end in sight, rates of food insecurity are on the decline.

Nearly one in five families experienced hunger at the height of the pandemic. Now that unemployment is declining and the economy is getting back on track, that number is starting to fall.

Diane Schanzenbach directs the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and has been tracking these rates. She says while the decline is good news, we’re not out of the woods yet.

“Some of the worst, I think, is behind us, but there’s still going to be elevated need, I would expect, for quite some time, probably years, even though we’ll clearly be getting better, the economy will be healing.”

She says federal stimulus checks and increased funding for SNAP benefits have been especially helpful in decreasing food insecurity.

Entry via Harvest Public Media

6 a.m. - Fiery train derailment prompts evacuation of small Iowa town

Thick black smoke billowed into the air Sunday after a train derailed in northwest Iowa, prompting authorities to evacuate part of a small, nearby town.

The fiery derailment happened around 2 p.m. Sunday on the southwest edge of Sibley, town of about 3,000 people roughly 200 miles northwest of Des Moines. There were no immediate reports of injuries related to the derailment.

Photos and video of the derailment posted online Sunday show dozens of train cars piled up along the tracks with flames and a large plume of smoke coming from one end of the pile of cars. Local media reports say authorities evacuated an area within 5 miles of the derailment.

Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver said about 47 railcars came off the tracks during the derailment, but the train crew was not injured. She said the railroad is working with local authorities.

Tysver said the cause of the derailment is under investigation.

Sibley Fire Chief Ken Huls told KIWA radio the train was hauling fertilizer and ammonium nitrate.

Nate Minten of Sibley told the Des Moines Register that smoke was still visible around 4:30 p.m. Sunday from his mother’s home.

“I could see smoke filling up a couple hundred feet at least,” said Minten who posted aerial drone video of the derailment online, “We didn’t hear any bangs or anything.”

An emergency text message Minten received about the derailment said the western end of Sibley west of Second Avenue was being evacuated.

Entry via the Associated Press

Sunday, May 16

10 a.m. - 2 additional deaths, 136 new cases of COVID-19 reported Sunday; 6,000 deaths confirmed from COVID-19 since pandemic began