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PAT KINNEY, Courier News Editor 

Local veterans are seeking donations to help build wheelchair ramps to keep disabled veterans in their homes. Pictured from left are veterans Dan Bowser, Dennis Schuster, Varrel Wilcox, Bob Livingston, Larry Walters, Frank Maassen, county Veteran Affairs director Kevin Dill and Dan Redding.

Selma re-enactment march in Waterloo on Palm Sunday

WATERLOO — A re-enactment of an historic civil rights march will occur in downtown Waterloo on March 25, on the observance of the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s hoped several hundred people will participate in the march, which is tentatively slated to begin at 2 p.m. that day. The march will proceed downtown along East and West Fourth streets across the Fourth Street Bridge and west on Commercial Street to the Waterloo Center for the Arts, where there will be a program of speakers and presenters.

The march will commemorate the 1965 marches led by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups and activists from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to promote voting rights, contributing to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act that year.

The Rev. Abraham Funchess, pastor of Jubilee United Methodist Church and executive director of the Waterloo Human Rights Commission, is part of a committee organizing a number of activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. He’s inviting people of all colors, faiths, ethnicities, genders and orientations to participate.

Funchess said March 25, which is Palm Sunday, was chosen because it is close to the last of the three Selma marches, held March 21, 1965. After violence surrounding previous marches, President Lyndon Johnson ordered 1,900 Alabama National Guard troops to escort the marchers to Montgomery.

“We hope it will pull a lot of people together,” Funchess said, in a “civil and human rights march” that will involve “not just minorities, immigrants, but everybody.

“We know what we want. We’re hoping for 500” marchers, Funchess said.

Larry Stumme, a Denver attorney and pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, participated in one of the 1965 Selma marches.

“I think by re-enacting this, we revive the spirit of Martin Luther King in the fight against injustice and hate, and in favor of love, and in favor of the vulnerable and the needy,” Stumme said. “He was a key warrior of that and I think this march demonstrates that.”

Stumme was in Selma at age 25, with a group attending the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission in Chicago, a multi-denominational Christian social action program.

He was with the thousands of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9, 1965. It was two days after law officers attacked hundreds of protestors in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Thousands participated in the March 9 march. At the middle of the bridge, facing a wall of police and angry local whites lining the street, King knelt in prayer. The marchers followed suit, and King rose and turned the marchers around to avoid violence. King told the marchers they were there for change, not to be martyred.

Stumme returned home. King subsequently led a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, under escort by Alabama National Guard troops federalized by President Johnson. It created momentum for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law that August.

Anticipated program speakers at the Center for the Arts following the Waterloo Palm Sunday march include poet Cherie Kabba; Thomas Kessler, coordinator of the Peace and Justice Center of the Cedar Valley, a ministry of the Cedar Falls Mennonite Church; and Michael Blackwell, retired director of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Multicultural Education.

Funchess hopes the March 25 event in Waterloo will draw attention to and participation in a number of other activities this year marking the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

Plans still in the works include a local performance of the play “The Mountaintop” on April 3 at the Waterloo Center for the Arts, marking the anniversary of Rev. King’s famous “Mountaintop” speech given the night before his death.

On April 4, the actual anniversary date of King’s death, an awards program is planned at the Center for the Arts and a bus tour of historic locations in Waterloo’s civil rights history, including “Smokey Row” where many blacks were forced to settle during the Great Migration, and radio station KBBG.

At Jubilee UMC Resource Center, the movie “King: from Montgomery to Memphis” is being shown in parts at 5:30 p.m. on successive Thursdays through March, including food and a panel discussion. Book readings also are planned at Jubilee UMC beginning April 17 with a reading of a King biography authored by King scholar Claiborne Carson of Stanford University.

Congress and guns: Ideas, but no consensus

WASHINGTON — After a 10-day break, members of Congress are returning to work under hefty pressure to respond to the outcry over gun violence. But no plan appears ready to take off despite a long list of proposals, including many from President Donald Trump.

Republican leaders have kept quiet for days as Trump tossed out ideas, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault-style weapons and arming teachers, though on Saturday the president tweeted that the latter was “up to states.”

Their silence has left little indication whether they are ready to rally their ranks behind any one of the president’s ideas, dust off another proposal or do nothing. The most likely legislative option is bolstering the federal background check system for gun purchases, but it’s bogged down after being linked with a less popular measure to expand gun rights.

The halting start reflects firm GOP opposition to any bill that would curb access to guns and risk antagonizing gun advocates in their party. Before the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, Republicans had no intention of reviving the polarizing and politically risky gun debate during an already difficult election year that could endanger their congressional majority.

“There’s no magic bill that’s going to stop the next thing from happening when so many laws are already on the books that weren’t being enforced, that were broken,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the third-ranking House GOP leader, when asked about solutions. “The breakdowns that happen, this is what drives people nuts,” said Scalise, who suffered life-threatening injuries when a gunman opened fire on lawmakers’ baseball team practice last year.

Under tough public questioning from shooting survivors, Trump has set high expectations for action.

“I think we’re going to have a great bill put forward very soon having to do with background checks, having to do with getting rid of certain things and keeping other things, and perhaps we’ll do something on age,” Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview Saturday night. He added: “We are drawing up strong legislation right now having to do with background checks, mental illness. I think you will have tremendous support. It’s time. It’s time.”

Trump’s early ideas were met with mixed reactions from his party. His talk of allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms was rejected by at least one Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both spoke to Trump on Friday. Their offices declined comment on the conversations or legislative strategy.

Some Republicans backed up Trump’s apparent endorsement of raising the age minimum for buying some weapons.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would support raising the age limit to buy a semi-automatic weapon like the one used in Florida. Rubio also supports lifting the age for rifle purchases. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a longtime NRA member, wrote in The New York Times that he now supports an assault-weapons ban.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he expects to talk soon with Trump, who has said he wants tougher background checks, as Toomey revives the bill he proposed earlier with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand presale checks for firearms purchases online and at gun shows.

First introduced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Connecticut, the measure has twice been rejected by the Senate. Some Democrats in GOP-leaning states joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. Toomey’s office said he is seeking to build bipartisan support after the latest shooting.

“Our president can play a huge and, in fact, probably decisive role in this. So I intend to give this another shot,” Toomey said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Senate more likely will turn to a bipartisan bill from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen FBI background checks — a response to a shooting last November in which a gunman killed more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

That bill would penalize federal agencies that don’t properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. It was drafted after the Air Force acknowledged that it failed to report the Texas gunman’s domestic violence conviction to the National Criminal Information Center database.

The House passed it last year, but only after GOP leaders added an unrelated measure pushed by the National Rifle Association. That measure expands gun rights by making it easier for gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

The package also included a provision directing the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review “bump-stock” devices like the one used during the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

Senate Democrats say any attempt to combine the background checks and concealed-carry measures is doomed to fail.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was skeptical Trump would follow through on proposals such as comprehensive background checks that the NRA opposes.

“The real test of President Trump and the Republican Congress is not words and empathy, but action,” Schumer said in a statement.

“Will President Trump and the Republicans finally buck the NRA and get something done?” Schumer asked. “I hope this time will be different.”

Farm group proposes health plan for farmers

DES MOINES — Iowa’s statewide farm organization thinks it has a plan to help farmers who are struggling to find affordable health insurance.

Supporters say the plan, which is under consideration by state lawmakers, is a creative and innovative solution for individuals who cannot afford health insurance plans but make too much to qualify for financial assistance.

The concerns, raised by some state lawmakers and an insurance company not involved in the proposal, are the legislation clears the plan of any state or federal regulation and could add stress to the already unstable federal health insurance marketplace.

Under the proposal, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield — the state’s largest health insurer — would create health benefit plans for Iowa Farm Bureau members. The benefit plans — they cannot be called insurance because they would not be regulated — would be designed to be affordable for lower-income farmers; the legislation makes this possible by stating the plans would not be subject to state or federal insurance regulations.

So the plans could be tailored to an individual farmer’s needs and not have the base coverage requirements for an insurance plan to be legal under the federal health care law known as the Affordable Care Act. Without the requirement that the plans meet those benchmarks, the plans could be cheaper than ACA-compliant plans.

Tens of thousands of Farm Bureau members could be eligible for the health benefit plans, bureau president Craig Hill said.

The Farm Bureau thinks the proposal will help members in the federal health insurance marketplace’s no-man’s land — individuals who make too much income to qualify for federal financial assistance but who do not make enough to manage the cost of health insurance.

“Many producers, many farmers, either the husband or the spouse are looking for off-farm employment (in order to obtain affordable health insurance). It takes them off the farm,” Hill said. “So yeah, we are quite motivated.”

“We have a lot of people to worry about and we’ve tried to find a solution, as we have in the past,” he added, “and I think we found one in a small few paragraphs of legislation that will give opportunity to a lot of people.”

Most of the lobbying groups registered on the legislative proposal say they are undecided; the only groups registered in support are the Farm Bureau and Wellmark.

The state insurance oversight department is registered neutral on the proposal, but a spokesman credited Farm Bureau and Wellmark for devising a plan to help Iowans struggling to afford health insurance.

“The plan put forth by Farm Bureau can provide relief and serve a need for Farm Bureau members being forced to deal with astonishingly high premiums,” Chance McElhaney, a spokesman for the Iowa Insurance Division, said in an emailed statement.

“Farm Bureau has been providing benefits of many sorts to its membership to support Iowa’s agriculture industry for 100 years now and we appreciate it working to help its members at a time when the ACA has left them without any real options to protect themselves, their families or their livelihoods,” he said.

McElhaney also noted the benefits plans would not be considered insurance and fall outside state regulation, and said the insurance division also continues to implore federal lawmakers to create a permanent solution to the issues with the federal health insurance marketplace.

That lack of regulation concerns Geoff Bartsh, the vice president and general manager of individual and family business for Medica, a Minnesota-based health insurance company that sells plans in Iowa, including on the federal marketplace.

Medica is the only company offering health insurance plans on the federal market until next year, when Wellmark plans to also sell marketplace plans.

Bartsh said the proposal could allow Farm Bureau and Wellmark to cherry-pick healthier customers, pushing sicker individuals — and thus people more expensive for people to cover — into the marketplace where only Medica resides.

“I certainly understand why Farm Bureau is trying to find a solution for their members who don’t receive subsidy and are struggling to afford insurance in the individual market. I think there is a big issue in terms of the affordability of insurance, and I certainly understand why they’re trying to find different ways to provide an affordable option for their members,” Bartsh said. “That said, we have some fundamental issues with exempting them from any and all insurance regulations as a policy and what that might mean for the market.”

Bartsh also said Medica finds it unfair that the legislation singles out Wellmark as the company to create the benefit plans for Farm Bureau.

Medica is one of three lobbying organization registered as opposing the proposed legislation; the others are the Child and Family Policy Center and the American Cancer Society.

Officials from Wellmark and the Farm Bureau said they developed the partnership because they have worked together for decades on other benefits plans.

And Hill said the lack of regulation does not worry him because, he said, Wellmark is a reputable institution.

“I’ll tell you we have a reputation that we value, and we value the benefits and services that we provide our members. Wellmark does as well. I think the reputation of these two entities combined says a lot,” Hill said. “We wouldn’t do anything to blemish our brand or our reputation, so hopefully that will be meaningful to lawmakers.”

The proposal is on the Iowa House’s debate schedule for Monday, meaning state lawmakers in the House may debate and vote on the bill then. Before becoming law it also would have to be approved by the Senate and governor.