State Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, operates a Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau simulator Wednesday that tests a driver's ability to safely manage roadway situations while distracted or wearing goggles that simulate conditions caused by alcohol impairment. Fellow Sens. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, and Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, look on at the close of Wednesday's Senate Transportation Committee meeting that focused on problems associated with distracted driving on Iowa roadways.


VIDEO GAMERS TAKE NOTE: Video game enthusiasts in Iowa would be able to compete in online or other tournaments that pay prizes or awards to participants under a bill offered in the Iowa House. Rep. Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, said he filed House 2072 on behalf of a constituent, but he was uncertain of its chances of winning support in the Legislature this session. Hagenow’s measure would amend current Iowa law to recognize a video machine tournament game as a bona fide contest and allow the payment of awards to operators who win a contest. Under current law, only video machine golf tournament games using a trackball assembly are considered bona fide contests. “It’s a very narrow clarification of the law,” he said. Hagenow said there are a number of online video game tournaments available for players to win prizes and awards, but the fine print lists states, including Iowa, where they are not allowed. “It does not allow for gambling or wagering or any of those kinds of things. We don’t want to go there at all,” he said. Hagenow said he is not a video-game player, but added, “The younger version of me spent all kinds of time in the local arcade.”

STRIP SEARCH CHANGE PROPOSED: Iowans arrested for scheduled violations, such traffic offenses, or simple misdemeanor crimes could be subject to strip searches by authorities if they are going to be admitted to a county jail or municipal holding facility under a bill that cleared an initial look in a House subcommittee Wednesday. Backers of House Study Bill 510 said it is in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision and would enhance safety by preventing weapons, drugs or other contraband from making their way into a jail’s general population. The search could be conducted only if authorities had probable cause to believe the person being arrested was in possession of contraband, which would include a cellphone. Lobbyists representing justice reform and civil libertarian groups expressed concerns about the change, which initially was proposed to lower the legal standard for conducting a search from probable cause to reasonable suspicion to think someone may be carrying a concealed weapon or contraband. Rep. Stan Gustafson, R-Indianola, chairman of a House subcommittee that forwarded the measure to the House Judiciary Committee by a 3-0 vote, said he thought keeping the probable cause standard balanced the need to protect jail personnel with constitutional protections for those arrested for minor offenses who are going to be placed in a jail or holding facility.

DEMOCRATS ADVANCE SCHOOL AID INCREASE: Democrats on the Iowa Senate Education Committee passed two bills Wednesday that would boost base budgets and categorical funding by 6 percent for K-12 school districts in fiscal 2016. GOP senators who opposed the 6 percent increase for the 2015-16 school year joined a unanimous vote for local property taxes to be replaced by state dollars in the unlikely event that the 6 percent increase in allowable growth is passed by the split-control Legislature and signed by Gov. Terry Branstad. Earlier this week, Branstad said the state cannot afford to increase supplemental aid to K-12 public schools by 6 percent, or $222.5 million, in fiscal 2016 as Senate Democrats have proposed. Democrats who hold a 26-24 Senate majority plan to debate the measure on the floor next week, but Republicans who control the Iowa House by 53-47 have indicated they do not intend to address fiscal 2016 funding for elementary and secondary public schools until the 2015 session. Democrats say they plan to abide by Iowa’s forward-funding law that requires the Legislature to establish a future financing level for elementary and secondary schools within 30 days after the governor submits his budget plan, something Branstad did on Jan. 14.

SENATOR HOSPITALIZED AFTER MILD STROKE: Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said Wednesday he is feeling better and getting ready to return to work after experiencing a mild stroke Saturday. A statement issued by the Senate GOP caucus Wednesday indicated that Bertrand was continuing to recover in a Sioux City hospital. “Physicians said Senator Bertrand is expected to make a full recovery, with no lasting effects,” according to the GOP statement. “I want to thank the wonderful hospital and staff for the high level of care I have received since being admitted Saturday,” Bertrand said.

CONTINUED PROPANE PRICE INCREASE: Propane costs continue to rise with a $1.17 increase this week, closing out at $3.78 per gallon. Officials with the state Department of Agriculture said despite the increase from last week, the price is a small decline from the high prices experienced at the beginning of the week. Home heating oil dropped 1 cent from the previous week, ending the week with a statewide average of $3.42. Natural gas prices rose 66 cents from last week, ending the week with $5.24/MMbtu. Motor fuel prices also saw small increases. Retail diesel fuel prices in the state remained steady with $3.77 as the statewide average, down 4 cents from $3.81 one year ago. The price of unleaded gasoline blend mixed with 10 percent ethanol closed at $3.12 per gallon, up 2 cents from last week's but down 11 cents from one year ago.

SIMON ESTES SINGS: Simon Estes, native Iowan and internationally recognized opera singer, sang "God Bless America" before both the House and Senate at the start of the legislative day in both chambers Wednesday. Estes, of Centerville, spent Wednesday talking to House and Senate leaders and spoke to education committees, advocating for fine arts to be included in the Iowa Core curriculum, a set of education standards for math, English and the language arts. The singer apologized to lawmakers for his "terrible, terrible cold" before performing, but he promised he would be back to sing at the Capitol again.

FINE ARTS AT THE EDUCATION CORE: A three-member Senate subcommittee on Wednesday approved a bill requiring that music, visual arts, drama and theater and other fine and applied arts be included in the Core curriculum and 21st-century learning skills now part of the state standards overseen by the state Department of Education. Leon Kuehner of the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education said the legislation was the product of more than two years' worth of work by his association members and would bring the Core requirements “full circle” with national standards. “This is a no-brainer for somebody from my area,” said Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville. However, Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, who did not sign the subcommittee report, said, “I was not impressed with the Core in the first place,” and he questioned whether it was appropriate to “be piling more mandates on our schools” with the arts requirement. The bill now moves to the full Senate Education Committee for consideration.

BUDGET PANEL DUST UP OVER LIHEAP: Wednesday's meeting of the split-control Legislature's administration & regulation budget subcommittee ended badly when members got into a parliamentary spat over a bill that would put money toward paying heating bills for needy Iowans. The disagreement arose when Democrats on the panel sought to take up a bill to commit $1 million in state taxpayers' money to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP. Republicans objected that the issue had not been assigned to their budget subcommittee and acting on it would violate normal legislative procedures. Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, called the issue that precipitated several closed-door caucuses and huddles with the Legislature's parliamentarians "nonsense." Democrats said Iowa is facing an emergency situation given the bitter cold winter and the state should kick in money for a LIHEAP program that is financed with federal money.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Kicking the can down the road isn't going to work any more because the last time we kicked it, it fell down a pot hole." — Dubuque County Supervisor Daryl Klein in testifying Wednesday before a House Transportation subcommittee considering legislation to increase the state's gas tax by 10 cents a gallon over three years.

— Times Bureau