WATERLOO — Hailey Durant was gardening in the middle of winter inside the Phelps Youth Pavilion, digging in the faux “dirt” and planting faux flowers with a plastic shovel.
Her dad, Kyle Durant of Cedar Falls, watched the 2-year-old with a smile.
“It’s great, especially this time of year, to get out of the house to really let her explore and be a child,” Durant said. “It’s great for her to be able to interact with others beyond who she sees on a day-to-day basis.”
It’s a sentiment that’s true for most parents with small children. But it rings even truer for parents and kids who came to a private “Heart Friends Support Group” Valentine’s Day gathering at the Phelps Youth Pavilion in downtown Waterloo on Saturday afternoon.
It is a support group for families of children with congenital heart defects who have had surgery or been treated at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Most are from the Cedar Valley or Northeast Iowa and were referred to the Children’s Hospital by Dr. Samir Chandra, a pediatric cardiologist who works at Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo.
Chandra said he has been organizing the Valentine’s Day event for his Heart Friends for 10 years, with the financial backing of the Children’s Hospital, and personally invites a new batch of children each year. Still, he greeted each of the approximately 40 families that came out Saturday by name.
“I get to see families in an informal setting. You get a lot more hugs when you’re here,” Chandra said.
All of the children have either a heart condition or had heart surgery, and their conditions can range from mild to complex. The idea, Chandra said, is to show children there are others like them — and show parents they’re not alone.
“After heart surgery they’re very apprehensive,” he said. “But they can see a kid with a similar hole in his heart, and he’s now doing sports. ... They get to see the future of their kid.”
Phelps has been hosting the Valentine’s Day event for three years, said Phelps Youth Pavilion manager Amy Garretson. This year, they brought in a magician to put on a magic show, had face painting and an art-themed craft.
“Some of the families might see each other in the hospital, but to get together in a place where kids can be kids and not be known as Patient XYZ, it’s nice,” she said.
Chandra agreed events like Saturday’s are more important than they seem on the surface.
“They get the opportunity to meet other families. Otherwise, they feel like they’re the only ones with a kid with heart disease,” he said.
DES MOINES — Jobs related to solar energy are on the rise in Iowa, bucking a national trend.
But those job gains and the burgeoning solar industry in Iowa could be undone by proposals under consideration in the state and federal governments, solar advocates say.
There were more than 800 solar energy jobs in Iowa in 2017, a 45 percent increase over the previous year, according to the latest National Solar Jobs Census, published recently by the Solar Foundation, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for solar energy.
The growth of solar jobs in Iowa stands in contrast to the national picture: Solar jobs declined 3.8 percent nationally from 2016 to 2017, according to the report. The biggest drop came in California, which remained the country’s largest solar employer despite a 21 percent drop from 2016 to 2017.
“The solar industry is strong in Iowa; strong and growing,” said Tyler Olson, president of SiteGen Solar in Cedar Rapids and secretary of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association. “I think the outlook is very positive.”
Bolstered by new technology, decreasing prices and government incentives, the solar energy industry has made modest gains in Iowa. In addition to the job growth, Olson estimates a state solar tax credit has sparked roughly $166 million in capital investment across the state.
A 15,600-panel, 5-megawatt array, the largest in the state, was constructed in June in Dubuque in a partnership between Alliant Energy, the city of Dubuque and the city’s economic development organization.
But for all its growth, Iowa’s solar energy industry remains in its infancy with significant room for growth, especially compared to other states. Iowa is No. 42 in the country in solar jobs per capita, according to the Solar Foundation report.
Most of Iowa’s neighbors have more solar industry jobs: Minnesota, for example, has more than 4,000 jobs, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the report.
And solar energy accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s electric generation, according to the state’s utilities board.
Olson said he thinks solar energy use will continue to grow as long as policy makers hold the industry harmless, he said.
“If we could get some regulatory stability, I’m very bullish on solar in Iowa,” Olson said. “It’s just going to be whether or not policy makers side with the big utilities, the big monopolies and try to squash Iowans’ choice in how they choose to produce power.”
Olson and other solar energy advocates are concerned proposals in the Legislature would do irreparable harm to the industry.
State lawmakers are considering a couple of proposals that would make significant changes to programs designed to encourage customers to purchase energy efficient appliances and engage in energy efficient practices. One of the proposals would eliminate the requirement for energy efficiency practices altogether.
Contained in one of the proposals is a provision that would allow utility companies to make revenue-neutral changes to utility rates without approval from the state board that regulates utilities, and another that would eliminate a requirement utilities not apply rates that discriminate against any class of customer.
Solar energy advocates say they fear these proposals would allow utilities to increase the rates for solar customers and lead to fewer individuals and businesses purchasing solar energy equipment.
“There are just so many different pieces of (Iowa’s) clean energy leadership that are under attack in these bills,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which is headquartered Chicago and has seven offices across the Midwest, including Des Moines, and one in the nation’s capital. “That’s what makes it one of the worst pieces of legislation we’ve ever seen.”
Matt McCoy, a Democratic state senator from Des Moines, expressed similar reservations during a committee hearing on one of the proposals last week at the Capitol.
“We are rolling back energy efficiency programs that have been hard-fought and placed on the books by thoughtful legislatures prior to this bill coming to the floor, that have done so with the best interest of the consumers and the best interest of Iowa businesses, and creating Iowa as a place that cares about green energy and energy efficiency and cares about what role we have in taking care of our planet,” McCoy said. “I think this bill is taking our state in the wrong direction. ... I think you’ve made sausage that nobody is going to be able to swallow.”
Spokespeople for the state’s largest utility companies, Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy, said they support some of the provisions in the proposals and are monitoring the legislation. Both said their intent is to foster new programs and services for customers more quickly, not to raise rates on any customers, including those who use solar energy.
Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant, said he disagrees with solar advocates’ interpretation the proposals would allow utilities to charge some customers more than others.
“In the days now of Tesla, Apple and Google, customers want new technology, they want new offerings and ideas faster to market, and that’s really what we’re trying to push for,” Foss said. “A lot of these policies just have not been updated in a long time, and the competitive business has changed, and we’re trying to help move that forward.”
Tina Hoffman, a spokeswoman for MidAmerican, also said the company does not think the proposals eliminate any oversight by the state utilities board, and the proposals are created not to raise customer rates but to make rates fairer.
“While we currently utilize wind energy as our primary renewable source, we support all forms of renewable energy, including solar,” Hoffman said. “We rely on a diverse energy mix to ensure that electricity remains clean, and we continue to explore ways to diversify energy production and use while keeping prices affordable for our customers.”
Recent federal changes also could have an impact on the solar industry. President Donald Trump in January imposed steep tariffs on imported solar energy cells. The president said the move will protect U.S. manufacturers; some solar energy advocates worry it will drive up the cost of solar installations.
The new federal tariffs will put pressure on prices this year, but not enough to delay any solar projects, Olson said. He said despite the tariff, the payback and rate of return on solar projects will remain attractive for businesses and utilities.
DES MOINES — Legislation heading to the Senate floor for debate could make Iowa among the states with the strictest abortion restrictions.
It has the potential to challenge Roe v. Wade, the national precedent on a woman’s right to abortion services, and would endanger accreditation for the University of Iowa’s obstetrics and gynecology residency program.
Senate Study Bill 3143, which passed through last week’s “funnel” when the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced it with an 8-5 vote, would prohibit physicians from performing an abortion if a heartbeat is detected in the fetus.
“This kind of legislation essentially bans abortion at six weeks of pregnancy,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy and research organization. “That’s very early in pregnancy — many women are not even aware they are pregnant at that point, so they haven’t even addressed the issue whether they want to continue with the pregnancy.”
Kim Reynolds, a Republican seeking election this year to continue her role as governor, has not indicated if she would sign the legislation.
“The governor would wait to comment on the bill until she sees it in its final form” said Reynolds’ spokeswoman Brenna Smith wrote in an email to The Gazette Thursday. “However, she believes in protecting life and has said she will never stop working to protecting the unborn.”
In the bill, a physician who “intentionally” performs an abortion when there’s a fetal heartbeat detected could be charged with a Class D felony, punishable with up to five years in prison.
Exceptions would be made in the case of a medical emergency, or a situation in which the medical procedure is performed to preserve the life of the pregnant woman that includes “a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy” — but not including the woman’s age or any psychological, emotional or familial conditions.
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said this could mean young victims of sexual assault would be unable to obtain an abortion if the law is passed.
It also would mean the UI could lose accreditation for its residency program in obstetrics and gynecology — the only program in the state — according to a letter to the Judiciary Committee from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The national accreditation agency requires obstetrics and gynecology residency programs provide training or access to training in abortions.
“Currently, approximately a third of our University of Iowa (obstetrics and gynecology) residency graduates remain in Iowa to practice,” the letter reads. “Iowa already ranks next to last in the nation for OBG physicians per capita with two-thirds of Iowa’s counties not having an OGB physician.
“Losing our OBG residency would deal a devastating blow to women’s health care in our state.”
The Family Leader, a lobbying group that has been a strong advocate for abortion restrictions, supports the bill.
“We believe the heartbeat bill moves Iowa — and ultimately, hopefully, the United States — a long way in that direction, acknowledging that once there’s a beating heart, it’s obvious to all there’s a baby,” Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel of the Family Leader, said Wednesday.
Iowa is not alone in such a proposal. So far, six other states have put forth similar bills during their current legislative session, including Missouri, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
In 2013, North Dakota passed a six-week abortion ban, which later was struck down by the courts and didn’t go into effect. Arkansas legislators implemented an abortion ban in 2013 at 12-weeks of pregnancy if a heartbeat is detected, but it also was struck down.
Both laws were killed because they were determined unconstitutional under the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.
In recent years, Guttmacher’s Nash said, more states are putting forth these proposals because there is a sense Supreme Court justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade no longer may be on the court in the near future.
“There are states that are looking to be that state that then takes it up to the court to revisit Roe v. Wade,” she said. “There’s this sort of jockeying for position among the states where they want to be that case that tries to overturn Roe.”
Petersen agreed, saying pushing legislation that is unconstitutional “really means they are really after Roe v. Wade.”
Similar legislation banning abortion after a heartbeat is detected did not make it through last year’s session, but a 20-week abortion ban passed.
A portion of that bill — a 72-hour waiting period before a woman can obtain an abortion — is being challenged by Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa in the Iowa Supreme Court.
A Republican-backed “personhood” bill — which would declare life begins at conception — also failed to make it through last year’s legislative session.