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Federal Judge In Des Moines Hears Argument From ACLU In Lawsuit Aimed At Blocking Mask Mandate Ban

Daily Digest

Saturday, September 11

7 a.m. - 8.9% 14-day positivity rate reported Friday in Iowa

Friday, September 10

5:14 p.m. – Vaccination rates among incarcerated Iowans continue to outpace those of staff

Vaccination rates among incarcerated Iowans continue to outpace those of prison employees and the general public. The Iowa Department of Corrections is not requiring inmates, staff or visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite multiple deadly outbreaks behind bars.

DOC Director Beth Skinner told the Board of Corrections Friday that 74 percent of incarcerated individuals are vaccinated, compared to 57 percent of staff.

“We continue to offer vaccinations to individuals incarcerated and staff, if they want those. We offer them upon intake as well. So we continue to see those numbers kind of stay in that range since we had vaccinations. So we continue to educate staff and I.I.s in terms of vaccination.”

According to state data, as of Friday, 64 percent of Iowans over the age of 18 were fully vaccinated. The COVID vaccines are crucial tools to reduce hospitalizations and save lives.

3 p.m. - Iowa redistricting plan to be released next Thursday

The Legislative Services Agency has announced that the first proposed plan for reconfiguring legislative and congressional districts will be delivered to lawmakers at 10 a.m. next Thursday.

The boundaries for congressional districts and for Iowa House and Senate districts are being redrawn to account for population shifts that are shown in the 2020 Census data. Three public hearings are scheduled after the maps are released, to give Iowans a chance to weigh in on the plans, then the bipartisan Temporary Redistricting Commission must submit its report on the maps to the legislature.

After all that, a Special Legislative Session will convene — probably in early October — so the Iowa House and Senate can approve or reject the proposed maps.

Entry via Radio Iowa

1:15 p.m. - Iowa DOC pauses policy that would have required inmates’ mail to be photocopied

The Iowa Department of Corrections has pressed pause on a new policy that required legal mail sent to inmates to first be photocopied.

The policy was enacted due to concerns that the original documents could be infused with drugs, and the paper then smoked or ingested.

Some lawyers and advocates raised concerns about the rule, which they said could threaten inmates’ constitutional right to confidential correspondence with their attorneys.

A DOC spokesperson announced the policy was being “paused for further review” shortly after IPR published a story highlighting the constitutional concerns.

12:24 p.m. - Federal judge in Des Moines hears argument from ACLU in lawsuit aimed at blocking mask mandate ban

A federal judge in Des Moines heard arguments Friday in a lawsuit aimed at blocking Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates.

The hearing was part of a case brought by parents who say the law discriminates against their children with disabilities who could become severely ill if they caught the coronavirus. Their attorney asked the court to block enforcement of the law so school districts can choose to follow CDC guidelines for universal masking.

An attorney from the state responded by arguing that the law does not ban all mandates. He said a district may be able to issue a partial mask mandate to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

The judge did not immediately decide whether to grant an injunction in the case.

This is the second lawsuit aimed at blocking the state mandate ban. A similar lawsuit from a Council Bluffs parent went before a Polk County judge Thursday.

8 a.m. - Iowa uses federal virus relief funds for $3.7m ad campaign

Iowa will use federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for a $3.7 million national ad campaign that promotes the state as a destination for visitors and workers, an agency spokeswoman said Thursday.

The 30-second ad is part of a larger “This Is Iowa” promotional campaign and will air on cable television, online on social media sites and through streaming services, said Staci Hupp Ballard, spokeswoman for Iowa Economic Development Authority. Funding for the campaign will come from federal American Rescue Plan funding, she said.

The ad campaign supports state efforts to attract new residents and train existing workers to fill a growing number of high-demand job openings, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday in a news release about the promotional effort.

The American Rescue Plan was designed to help states recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S Department of Treasury oversees the use of the money and has said recipients have broad flexibility to decide how best to use the money in five broad categories: supporting public health; addressing negative economic impact to workers, households, small businesses and industry; replacing lost public sector revenue; providing premium pay for essential workers; and investing in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

Hupp Ballard said agency officials believe the ad campaign expenditure is an allowable expense based on interim final rules from the Treasury Department.

The state had to return $21 million in federal COVID-19 relief from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act last year after Reynolds improperly allocated the money for a new state accounting system.

Treasury Department officials determined that the software is not an allowable use of the money.

Entry via the Associated Press

Thursday, Sepetember 9

5:10 p.m. – Council Bluffs parent asks Polk County judge to block Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates

A Council Bluffs parent was in court Thursday asking a Polk County judge to block the state from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools.

Fran Parr filed the lawsuit last month, arguing that schools have a duty to protect students from the coronavirus. Her attorney, Daniel McGinn, says it is unreasonable for state lawmakers to forbid local school boards from requiring masks as the CDC recommends.

“Because it serves no educational, medical or scientific goal,” Parr says. “It’s just enacted for political reasons to appeal to a certain segment of Iowa’ population who are unhappy about masks. They don’t like the inconvenience.”

An attorney for the state argued the courts cannot second guess the legislature for deciding that the governor should have authority over school mask mandates instead of school boards.

There was no immediate decision on a request to suspend the law.

A separate lawsuit challenging the mandate ban will go before federal judge in Des Moines Friday at 10 a.m. In that case, a group of parents of children with disabilities claim the ban violates anti-discrimination laws.

4:59 p.m. - USDA to invest more than $400 million in renewable energy projects in rural America

Renewable energy in the Midwest is getting a big financial boost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The department said Thursday it’s investing more than $400 million in solar, wind and other renewable energy projects across rural America. Nearly half of that will go to projects in the Midwest.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says this investment will help rural economies grow. “I think there’s a recognition and appreciation that climate-smart infrastructure can lower energy costs for rural small businesses and farming operations. It can also spur economic development.”

Two of the largest loans will go to a solar farm in Illinois and an electric line enhancement project in Oklahoma.

Entry via Dana Cronin for Harvest Public Media

4:48 p.m. – Reynolds criticizes Biden’s new COVID-19 vaccine requirements

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is criticizing Democratic President Joe Biden’s announcement of new COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

Biden announced Thursday that businesses with 100 or more employees will have to ensure every worker is fully vaccinated or getting tested weekly for the coronavirus. Federal workers and contractors, as well as federally funded health care and educational workers, will be required to get vaccinated.

Biden says unvaccinated Americans are causing a lot of damage as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been spiking.

Reynolds in a statement called this “dangerous and unprecedented.” She called on Biden to trust people to make health decisions for themselves and their families. Reynolds says, “Biden’s plan will only worsen our workforce shortage and further limit our economic recovery.” She’s encouraged Iowans to get the COVID-19 vaccine but says she opposes mandates.

2:06 p.m. – Iowa DOC will require all mail sent to inmates be photocopied, raising concerns from attorneys

The Iowa Department of Corrections is now requiring all legal mail sent to inmates to first be photocopied, due to concerns the original documents could be infused with drugs. Some attorneys fear the policy may violate inmates’ constitutional right to legal counsel.

Gregory Sisk is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and has written about prisoners’ rights to legal mail. Sisk says he has never encountered a policy like Iowa’s. “In general, the states’ correctional systems have been very protective of legal mail and recognize that the right to confidentiality in correspondence between a prisoner and a prisoner’s lawyer is to be protected. The Ninth Circuit has described this right as nearly sacrosanct.”

An attorney within the State Public Defender’s Office has called on the DOC to rescind the policy, which the lawyer argues prevents them from adequately representing their clients.

12:30 p.m. - Biden Administration officials accuse meatpackers of ‘pandemic profiteering’

Biden Administration officials say the nation’s four major meatpackers are engaging in “pandemic profiteering” and generating record or near-record profits this year. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said it’s time to hold meatpackers responsible for unfair practices.

“Farmers are losing money on cattle, on hogs and poultry that they are selling at a time when consumers are seeing higher prices at the grocery store,” he said during a briefing at the White House Thursday.

Vilsack and other members of the administration’s competitiveness council meet Friday to discuss ways to address consolidation in the industry.

“I remember talking to a producer the other day in Council Bluffs and he said: ‘I don’t get this, Mr. Secretary. I just sold my cattle and I lost $150 a head, but the processor made $1,800 a head,’” Vilsack said. “How can that be?”

Legislation introduced in congress would require more disclosure of the prices meatpackers are paying private contractors. That may give independent livestock producers a better sense of what meatpackers are willing to pay for cattle, hogs and poultry.

According to the National Meat Institute, consumers are paying higher prices for beef, pork, chicken and eggs because of a “persistent and widespread shortage” of workers in meatpacking plants.

Entry via O. Kay Henderson for Radio Iowa

8:30 a.m. - Reynolds: $100M in virus relief funds to go to housing

Gov. Kim Reynolds has announced that $100 million of the more than $1.48 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds allocated to the state will go to build new homes.

Reynolds announced the plan Wednesday during a stop in Cedar Rapids, the Des Moines Register reported. The federal funds plus $230 million in tax credits allocated by the Iowa Legislature over five years will help developers build 36,450 new housing units to help address a growing shortage of housing in Iowa, she said.

The $100 million will go to several existing programs, including $10 million for the Homes for Iowa. The vast majority — $65 million — will fund housing tax credit programs to help cover the increased costs of building materials. Another $20 million will be used for downtown housing in communities under 30,000 people, and $5 million will go to pilot programs to promote home repair and home ownership among minority groups.

Entry via the Associated Press

7 a.m. – Iowa’s members of Congress continue to face questions of voter fraud, despite no evidence that 2020 results were compromised

Despite numerous court rulings and intelligence assessments upholding President Joe Biden’s win last November, Iowa’s members of Congress continue to face questions about false allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election. The issue came up Wednesday at a Cedar Rapids town hall hosted by Republican Congresswoman Ashley Hinson.

Hinson was asked if she believes there is “massive voter fraud” in American elections. Election experts have said there is no evidence to substantiate such claims. Hinson didn’t directly answer the question, but did take the opportunity to criticize efforts to expand voting rights as a Congressional “power grab.”

Polls show a majority of Republicans believe the false voter claims, and lawmakers are using them to justify election law changes.

The town hall was boisterous at times, including when Hinson accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, without evidence, of trying to “steal” the seat in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, where the race was decided by just six votes.

Experts maintain the country’s elections are reliable, and have called the 2020 cycle “the most secure in American history.”

Wednesday, September 8

2:35 p.m. - Special election ahead for another Iowa House seat

A state representative from Newton is resigning from the Iowa House after starting a job at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy this summer.

State Representative Wes Breckenridge, a Democrat and retired Newton policeman, was first elected to the Iowa House in 2016. He won reelection in 2018 by a 17.5 percent margin, but in 2020, Breckenridge finished just 3 percent ahead of his GOP opponent.

His resignation takes effect this Friday. It means the governor will soon set a date for a special election in the district, which covers Newton and other parts of Jasper County. A special election is being held next week for an open House seat in Ankeny.

Breckenridge was a police officer in Prairie City and Monroe and worked in the Jasper County Sheriff’s office before his 24-year career in Newton’s Police Department. Breckenridge retired in 2017 and has been teaching at DMACC for the past six years.

Breckenridge is now the assistant director of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. It’s a state-run institution, located at Camp Dodge in Johnston, and it trains law enforcement personnel, including police, sheriff’s deputies, 911 operators and jailers.

Entry via Radio Iowa

2:20 p.m. - 30 additional deaths, 8,404 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Iowa since Sept. 1

1:51 p.m. - State’s top health official says department is working on providing more rapid test options

As the rate of new COVID-19 infections remains high in Iowa, demand for testing has skyrocketed, and the state’s top health official says they are working on more rapid testing options.

“It's not that there's supply chain issues. But there do seem to be some kinks in the pipeline in terms of folks being able to access testing quickly when ill and that is most important.”

Interim state Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia says the test kits are widely available, but the mail-in option creates a longer turnaround time for results for Iowans experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. “So the lab processing is not the constraint at the moment. But the mailing time is and so we're working to solve for that.”

Since mid-July, the state’s Test Iowa program has offered mail-in testing kits that can be requested online or picked up at certain locations.

Iowans who need a rapid test are encouraged to check options at local pharmacies or urgent care facilities. But they should avoid seeking tests at hospital emergency rooms.

12 p.m. - Marshalltown public schools to buy Orpheum Theater for $1

Marshalltown Community Schools will become the new owners of the city’s historic Orpheum Theater for the basement-bargain price of $1.

The district’s school board Tuesday unanimously approved a letter of intent to buy the theater on Main Street, the Times-Republican reported. The school district will pay the current owners, Iowa Valley Community College District, $1 for the building at closing. The closing date has been set for June 16 or sooner.

The school board also approved a $20,000 purchase of a parking lot immediately east of the theater.

The Orpheum closed last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowa Valley Community College District Chancellor Kristie Fisher said her school views the sale as more of a transfer of property from one school to another, and she’s proud the theater will remain an educational facility.

“We knew it was a great community asset and so important to the greater Marshall County community that we wanted to make sure we were maximizing it,” Fisher said.

Fisher said that while the $1 sale doesn’t appear to be a money-maker for the community college district, it will save the institution the costs of operating the theater, which will free up funds for other priorities.

Built in 1948, the Orpheum Theater has been a part of Marshalltown’s downtown area for more than 125 years.

Entry via the Associated Press

8 a.m. - Funeral plans announced for marine killed in Kabul who grew up in Red Oak and Omaha

A funeral is scheduled for Friday, September 17 in Omaha for the Iowa local who is among the 13 U.S. soldiers killed last month in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.

Marine Corporal Daegan Page grew up in Red Oak and Omaha. The flight carrying him to Eppley Airfield in Omaha is scheduled to land Friday afternoon, according to the tribute page Page’s family established on Facebook. U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is from Red Oak and knows the family well. She has talked with Page’s grandmother.

“His family just wanted me to share with everyone just what an exceptional young man he was. His grandma kept saying over and over again: ‘He was an amazing young man,’ and he truly was,” Ernst says. “She emphasized that he went into the Marines. He wanted to serve, so he was a tough Marine, but on the interior, he was just someone who wanted to help. He was very soft-hearted.”

The funeral will be held at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Omaha. The time and location for visitation will be announced later.

“We just want people to remember that behind every soul that we’ve lost in Afghanistan is a human being that is now gone and a family that is left hurting,” Ernst says.

Ernst says Montgomery County has a long record of military service and sacrifice. Red Oak lost more soldiers in World War II, per capita, than any other city in America.

Entry via Radio Iowa

Tuesday, September 7

3:14 p.m. - Iowa Board of Regents signs off on $395 million plan to build new hospital in North Liberty

The Iowa Board of Regents has signed off on a plan for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to build a new hospital in North Liberty.

A state council approved the certificate of need for the facility last week, over the objections of other area hospitals. The 469,000 square foot facility will provide inpatient and outpatient services, as well as space for faculty offices and research.

University of Iowa president Barbara Wilson told the Regents Tuesday that patients across the state will benefit. “We are turning away too many transfer patients right now. We’ve got much, much work to be done to help ensure the health and safety of our…of our populace across the state and this will allow us to do that. To extend our very high-level care for very sick patients.”

University officials assured the Regents that the $395 million project would not be plagued by the same construction delays and cost overruns as the UIHC children’s hospital.

2 p.m. - Senator Grassley praises presidential executive order on 911 information

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is praising President Joe Biden for signing an executive order based on a bill Grassley co-sponsored to boost the transparency of government records about the 9/11 attacks.

Grassley says the move is designed to help people who want to sue Saudi Arabia for whatever role that nation may have played in the attacks 20 years ago this week. “The reason they can’t move forward with the lawsuit is these documents are still classified,” Grassley says. “Under the president’s executive order or under our legislation, these documents would be made public.”

Biden’s order is based on the bipartisan September 11 Transparency Act, which requires federal agencies to conduct a declassification review of records related to the attacks. Grassley says it’s time for all of those documents to be opened.
“After 20 years, they ought to be, not just for the sake of the lawsuit moving forward,” Grassley says. “A lawsuit is a lawsuit. They may have all the information they need and they still may not be able to make a case but they ought to be able to try to make a case. But also, for the principle of transparency in government.”

Grassley says the public has long waited for a full picture of everything that led up to the attacks, “including everyone involved in funding, planning and perpetrating these horrific acts of terrorism.” “What’s wrong, after 20 years of secrecy about this, making that public? Nothing,” Grassley says.

He says he’s “grateful” for the executive order as it will begin to “pull back the curtain on the 9/11 records so that victims’ families, survivors, and all Americans can expeditiously get the answers and justice they deserve.”

Entry via Matt Kelley for Radio Iowa

8 a.m. – Under new law, at least 100 eligible voters must sign a petition to request additional early voting sites

During this fall’s city and school board elections, county election officials won’t get to choose where to set up early voting sites. It’s one of many election changes made by the Iowa Legislature this year.

County auditors are required to have early voting available in their office ahead of Election Day. In the past, they could choose to set up other sites, too, at places like libraries and college campuses.

Under a new law, these additional voting locations can only be set up if at least 100 eligible voters sign a petition to establish a particular site.

Travis Weipert is the Johnson County auditor. “You go through the data and say, ‘okay we had a satellite at this location four times now…and we only had 50 voters at most every time we’ve been there. Is it worth the cost to continue going there? Should we try somewhere else?’”

Weipert says he wants voters to petition for extra voting sites. But he’s encouraging Iowans to call their county auditor first because they might be able to suggest a location that would attract more voters.

October 4 is the deadline to submit a petition for an early voting site for this fall’s city and school board elections. Officials can reject petitions for a number of reasons listed in the new law.

8 a.m. – Polk County judge will hear arguments over state mask mandate ban this week

A Polk County judge will hear arguments later this week on whether to suspend a state law banning school mask mandates while a lawsuit works through the courts.

Fran Parr of Council Bluffs filed the court challenge against Gov. Kim Reynolds and state officials arguing the law passed in May prevents schools from fully protecting students against the coronavirus.

Parr says the lawsuit is an attempt to allow school districts to decide for themselves whether to require masks as recommended by the CDC. Reynolds says that choice should be up to parents.

Last week the ACLU and disability rights groups announced a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking the law.

The U.S. Education Department is also investigating Iowa’s mandate ban to determine whether it discriminates against students with disabilities.

8 a.m. - Iowa DNR continues to test drinking water for manganese

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is making progress on testing every public water supply system in the state for a metal that can contaminate drinking water.

Over the last two years, the DNR has required nearly 30 public water supply systems to tell their communities to not use their water because of manganese. It found concentrations of manganese above health advisory standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Corey McCoid is a water supply operations supervisor with the DNR. He says the DNR has also worked with communities on their next steps.

“We don't have the authority to require them to install treatment, but we can require them to let the public know that there is an issue and what some of those options are, whether they’re bottled water, or what would be some of the treatment options.”

McCoid says the DNR is about two-thirds of the way through sampling all of Iowa’s public water supply systems.

The EPA has recommendations for manganese, but no legally enforceable standards.

Monday, September 6

11 a.m. – Iowa prison inmate dies of COVID-19 complications

An Iowa prison inmate serving a life sentence for murder died Saturday from complications related to COVID-19 and multiple preexisting medical conditions, authorities said.

Phillip Benito Cuevas, 81, was in hospice care at the Iowa State Penitentiary, the Iowa Department of Corrections said in a news release.

Cuevas had been serving a life sentence for first-degree murder from Polk County. His sentence began in 1977.

Entry via the Associated Press

8:31 a.m. – Iowans file ethics complaints against Senate Republicans over school mask mandate ban

Five Iowans have filed ethics complaints against Republican state senators who voted to ban mask mandates in schools.

The complaints allege senators violated their own ethics standards that say senators should not discriminate based on disability. They say GOP senators ignored the risk that COVID-19 poses to disabled and medically vulnerable students when schools are banned from requiring masks.

The complaints also accuse senators of ignoring the guidance of health experts and stripping unvaccinated children of their right to safety. Three of the complaints have nearly identical language, and two of the complainants include details about their own kids and fear for their safety.

Senate Republican Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, filed a response on behalf of the senators who voted to ban mask mandates in schools. The group is asking the Senate Ethics Committee to dismiss the complaints because they say the ethics code applies to personnel matters and harassment prevention, and it’s not a violation to vote for a bill.

The committee has not yet announced a meeting to discuss the complaints.

Sunday, September 5

5:39 p.m. - Iowa Labor Day celebrations cancelled for the second year in a row

Labor Day celebrations across the state have been canceled for the second year in a row due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labor Day picnics and parades from Cedar Rapids to Des Moines to Sioux City have been called off, once again, due to the increasing rate of new COVID-19 infections across the state. More than 500 Iowans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Lance Coles is the director of community communications for the Iowa Federation of Labor. He says organizers felt conditions were too dangerous for mass gatherings. That’s due to the state’s low vaccination rates and lack of mitigation strategies.

“We did not feel it was right to encourage people to gather in a parade or a picnic, especially since the cases of COVID with the delta [variant] and others are increasing daily and getting worse.”
Coles says even without public celebrations, people should still take time this holiday weekend to think about and celebrate working Iowans.

“Think about the people out there that are, that are working, you know, 10-12 hours a day or the ones that are working for minimum wage that are barely making it."

12 p.m. – Behavioral health center marks suicide prevention week with QPR trainings

This is national suicide prevention week, and the Seasons Center for Behavioral Health is hosting a series of suicide prevention workshops.
Taylor Prather is the prevention and education coordinator for Seasons Center for Behavioral Health in Spencer. She says it’s basic, introductory instruction called question, persuade, refer or QPR.
“It's kind of a play on CPR. So it runs on the same logic. You know, you go you get trained in the basic skills to keep someone stable and get them to the professional help they need."

She says many people can benefit from the trainings. “The more people in our communities that we have trained in this, the more likely we're able to save lives. So really, anyone who is interested or wants to learn more about what they can do to prevent suicide.”
The two-hour trainings will be offered in Sioux City, Sibley, Spencer and Emmetsburg. The registration information can be found on the Seasons Center for Behavioral Health Facebook page.

Suicides in Iowa have climbed steadily in recent years – from 400 in 2014 to 536 last year.

Prather says during the pandemic, more Americans have sought substance-use and mental health services and reported experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.