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Iowa Politics Roundup: Ban on Texting While Driving Signed Into Law PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 02 April 2010 12:25

Iowa law-enforcement officials said the real goal of a new state law banning texting while driving is to change the behavior of Iowans. A yearlong campaign to educate drivers about the law will emphasize that when tempted to grab for that cell phone, "it can wait."

"Drive to your destination and then make your phone call or send your text message," said Public Safety Commissioner Gene Meyer. "The goal here is to prevent distracted driving, particularly by reading or typing or sending text messages while driving. We in law enforcement will certainly enforce this law, but the real goal is going to be to change the behavior of drivers."

Governor Chet Culver on Thursday signed the bill into law, hailing it as a significant public-safety measure. As of July 1, it will be illegal for Iowa drivers to read, write, or send a text message while driving. Teens with an instruction permit, restricted license, or intermediate license will be banned from all cell-phone usage, including talking and texting, while driving.

Meyer said what's key is the message that the law sends. "Most Iowans are law-abiding citizens," he said. "By passing this law, many Iowans will just obey it because it's the law. And when they do that, our roads and highways are going to be dramatically safer."

The law includes a one-year education period when violators will be given warnings. The $30 fines won't begin until July 1, 2011. In the meantime, the Department of Public Safety has already created marketing tools such as coffee mugs and lanyards that say, "Don't drive intexticated."

Under the new law, texting while driving will be a secondary offense, which means motorists can't be pulled over just for that reason. It would still be legal for adult drivers to use a global-positioning-system device, dial a phone number, turn a phone on or off, and read texts concerning emergency, traffic, or weather alerts.

Exceptions to the law are made for public-safety and health-care professionals performing their official duties and responding to emergencies, and for trucking and transit companies that use digital-dispatch systems.

Penalties for texting while driving increase to $500 and a 90-day license suspension if it results in a serious injury, and $1,000 and a 180-day license suspension if it results in death.

Legislature Adjourns for the Year

The 2010 Iowa legislature adjourned shortly after noon Tuesday on the 79th day of session, making it the shortest in nearly four decades. The mid-day adjournment was dramatically different from last year, when lawmakers pulled a weekend of all-nighters before adjourning in the early-morning hours on a Sunday.

"I can't think of a better time to adjourn than over the lunch hour when it's 72 degrees outside," said House Speaker Pat Murphy (D-Dubuque).

A traditional legislative session is 110 days in the first year and 100 days in the second year. The last time lawmakers went home so early was in 1972, when the session adjourned on March 24, the 75th calendar day of session. "We came into this session, as you all know, trying to be done in 80 days. We're going to accomplish it in 79," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs). "I think we probably exceeded people's expectations on that."

Democratic leaders ended the year touting that they had balanced the budget without raising taxes, reorganized and streamlined state government to save $250 million, increased spending for K-12 schools by $145 million (up to $2.5 billion), expanded efforts to bring health insurance to all children, and made it easier for rural residents to access health care.

They also said they took a fist step toward ensuring that tax credits are eliminated if they aren't creating jobs or accomplishing their goals, denied weapons to domestic abusers, expanded gun rights for law-abiding citizens, banned texting while driving, made Iowa the first in the nation to approve all 10 U.S. Department of Defense legislative priorities for military families, and approved a $5-million Save Our Small Business Fund.

But Republicans said the budget crafted by Democrats spends more money than the state can afford, will increase property taxes, and will result in 2,500 pink slips for teachers.

"The legislature convened with a $1.1-billion hole in the state budget. It looks like we're adjourning with a $1-billion hole for next year," said House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha). "Much to the dismay of House Republicans, it is a disappointing and frustrating result of this session. Balancing the budget is not good enough if it's on the backs of the property taxpayer, and that's what this body did."

Representative Scott Raecker (R-Urbandale), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the Fiscal Year 2011 budget will contain the second-largest amount of spending in state history. He said the budget approved by the legislature will spend $5.3 billion from the general fund but also uses $724 million of one-time resources for ongoing expenses and has $175 million of underfunding, for a total budget spending $6.2 billion.

"I believe our priorities are misplaced when we're passing a budget that will result in up to 2,500 Iowa teachers losing their jobs ... while at the same time supporting an amendment that will allow for funds to be spent to heat a sidewalk in West Union," Raecker said.

Raecker said property taxes will increase up to $175 million because of underfunding to K-12 education, and the state's cash reserves will be cut in half to $199 million. And he said while state-government reorganization saved $71 million from the state general fund, Democrats have added $72 million to the budget in the final days of the session, negating savings from reorganization.

But Gronstal said the state will have more than $380 million in its ending balance and reserves on July 1, 2011, the start of the Fiscal Year 2012.

"I think that's very responsible budgeting," Gronstal said. "We came in talking about keeping a focus on our priorities, having a balanced budget without raising taxes. We put together a state-government-reorganization bill that saved the state a quarter of a billion dollars. That put us in a position where we're going to have a budget that spends less than the expenditure limitation."