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Competing bills on traffic cameras back again

DES MOINES — There’s an old — and frequently used — saying around the Capitol that no bill is truly dead until the Iowa Legislature adjourns sine die.

And even then, some legislation lives on.

A year ago, the news from the Legislature was that competing bills affecting the future of traffic cameras in Iowa were racing to the House floor.

But nothing happened.

This year, bills again are on their way to the House and Senate floors as lawmakers seek either to ban or to regulate the automated traffic enforcement devices used to catch speeders and red-light runners.

Cedar Rapids has four traffic camera locations on Interstate 380, which had been generating 90 percent of the tickets in the city’s traffic camera program but have been off since April 2017. Three in-town locations — which have speed and red-light enforcement — remain active, except the westbound-facing cameras at First Avenue and 10th Street E. The other locations are at Williams Boulevard and 16th Street S.W. and First Avenue and L Street.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman last year urged that the I-380 cameras be turned back on, saying revenues would be used to hire 10 new officers. City officials, however, pumped the brakes on a plan that was being readied for City Council approval and have not indicated when they will move forward.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, is taking another run this year at regulating traffic cameras to make sure they are being used to enhance safety, not just generate revenue.

Her plan, House Study Bill 36, would allow cities and counties to operate the cameras in school zones, construction zones and other high-risk areas.

Last year, the House rejected an outright ban, on a 43-55 vote. and approved her approach, 77-21. But the Senate didn’t take up the measure.

“I’m not interested in regulation,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said about Hinson’s approach.

His push for a ban on traffic cameras last year stalled, but he believes it will have more support this year as a result of the 2018 election.

“I’m confident we will have more votes based on the election and conversations I’ve had with members,” Zaun said. However, once again, “the House is where the challenge is.”

Although one of the chief opponents of traffic cameras, Rep. Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, was not re-elected, there’s still House support for a ban.

“We’ll start with a ban, but I think there’s room for a compromise,” Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, said about legislation he plans to run through the Public Safety Committee he chairs.

“We still need to address this and it’s better to have a broader conversation and see where it leads,” Klein said.

Banning traffic cameras “isn’t my No. 1 priority this year,” Zaun said, but he’s not interested in compromising, in “weakening the bill.”

However, he’s willing to make a small concession to cities by delaying the implementation of a ban “so it doesn’t hit cities after they certify their budgets” in March.

By putting it off a year, he said, cities could plan for the loss of camera-generated revenue.

Klein may take a different approach to make traffic cameras more palatable — not for Cedar Rapids and the other cities that want to use them, but for the people ticketed for speeding and running red lights.

“A big issue is that the people paying the fines don’t share in the benefits,” he said.

By benefits he doesn’t mean safer streets and highways, but the revenue generated by fines.

Before Cedar Rapids turned off its interstate speed cameras during a court case in 2017, the camera program had been generating more than $3 million annually for the city and $2 million for the Massachusetts firm that supplied the devices.

Sharing the proceeds might address what Klein said drivers see as the “gotcha” nature of the cameras.

Hinson doubts that will fly with the cities that have the cameras.

Cedar Rapids, she said, has indicated it will use revenue from the cameras when they are turned on again to hire the additional officers.

She believes public safety is an appropriate use of the camera revenue. Scooping up that money to share with the state or other communities would leave the city in the lurch, Hinson said.

In previous debates, some opponents raised personal liberty concerns, arguing the cameras deprive motorists of their due process rights.

Others argue the Iowa Constitution gives cities home-rule authority to decide how to enforce speed limits in their boundaries.

“I think the pulse is that people think a regulatory framework is needed,” Hinson said. “If that doesn’t work, then we can look at a ban.”

B.A. Morelli of The Gazette contributed to this report.


Was postpartum depression at play in Sterling Koehn's death?

LE MARS – The defense is scheduled to begin presenting its case Tuesday in the trial of an Alta Vista mother charged in the death of her infant son. Their case may center on whether the young mom neglected her son due to postpartum depression.

Cheyanne Harris, 21, is charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. If convicted as charged, she faces life behind bars. Prosecutors said she failed to provide food and care for 4-month-old Sterling Koehn, who was found dead in a maggot-infested diaper on Aug. 30, 2017.

Harris’s attorneys said postpartum depression played a role in the death. The defense has indicated it may call an Ames psychologist and an Iowa City expert on postpartum depression as witnesses.

Earlier in Harris’ trial — and in the 2018 trial for the child’s father, Zachary Koehn — evidence included testimony that Harris had been prescribed anti-depressants after the birth of the couple’s daughter, which was almost two years before Sterling’s death.

Harris told an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation that she took the medication following her daughter’s birth, but she quit after about a week because it made her nauseous, and she threw up. During Koehn’s trial, the medication was identified as Lexapro, which is used to treat anxiety.

She told the agent she wasn’t on medication around the time of Sterling’s death.

One of the experts tapped to testify for Harris’ defense is Michael O’Hara, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in postpartum depression.

Koehn’s defense team also used O’Hara during his 2018 trial, but at that time, he hadn’t examined Harris. O’Hara’s testimony in Koehn’s trial was based on a review of documents and other material surrounding the case, and he concluded that Harris likely suffered from depression. Since then, O’Hara has apparently had an opportunity to examine Harris.

Harris’ murder trial began last week at the Plymouth County Courthouse in Le Mars, where it was moved on a change of venue. A jury of 10 men and four women are hearing the case. Court TV is filming the trial to be used in a future broadcast.

On Friday, defense attorney Aaron Hawbaker notified the court that the defense wants to call Koehn, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder in the child’s death, as a witness.

Koehn has appealed his conviction and may invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, which would preclude his testimony.

Judge Richard Stochl issued an order to allow Koehn, who was recently assigned to the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison, to communicate with his appellate attorney to discuss his options.

During Koehn’s trial in the fall of 2018, his attorneys had subpoenaed Harris to testify for the defense, and Harris took the Fifth and didn’t testify.

During testimony last week, jurors heard that Harris had told investigators that she was Sterling’s primary caretaker, and that she said she changed and fed the baby on Aug. 29, 2017, the day before he was found dead.

They also heard from a medical examiner and a forensic pathologist who said the maggots were evidence that Sterling’s diaper hadn’t been changed in nine to 14 days and that he died of malnutrition, dehydration and infection from a diaper rash that ruptured his skin and spread halfway up his back and chest.

Trial was on break today because of other hearings scheduled in Plymouth County.

Jeff Reinitz / JEFF REINITZ / Courier Staff Writer 

Cheyanne Harris, center, with defense attorneys Aaron Hawbaker and Nichole Watt during trial on Thursday in Le Mars.


Iowa among most at-risk for job automation

CEDAR RAPIDS — Inside a warehouse down a dirt road in southwest Cedar Rapids, employees turn out custom-made hydraulic manifolds — sparkling metallic boxes crafted to regulate the flow of pressurized oil to devices like hydraulic motors or cylinders.

Some M & W Manufacturing employees manage product design, squatting behind computers using digital software. Others don protective eyewear at work benches, running production machines or pulling out finished products. Some do the work of two or three. Others manage with the help of robots, of sorts.

“It’s all we’ve been buying the last five years — is automation,” M & W Plant Manager Joe Chiaramonte said about his company’s increasing turn to technology.

“We don’t have a choice because we can’t get the help,” he said. “We have to buy faster equipment to make our parts. We have guys running two to three machines.”

Being part of a national surge in the use of automation for performing job tasks previously done by humans is “absolutely” a help to his company, Chiaramonte said — in that it both fills the job gaps and creates new, higher-skill work.

“We have 22 machines, and there is a lot of work after the machines,” he said. “The more stuff we can get off the machines, the more stuff we have for people to do after the machines.”

M & W Manufacturing presents one side of the response to a growing body of projections — including a new report from the Brookings Institution — that automation and artificial intelligence technologies are destined to alter the country’s worker landscape, across all races and genders, and in a wide swath of occupations.

“Automation will take place everywhere, but its inroads will be felt differently across places, varying with local industry, task and skill mix,” according to the Brookings report, published in January. “Overall, smaller, more rural communities seem significantly more exposed to the automation of current-take content than larger ones.”

That means the Heartland, according to the report. And that’s Iowa.

The Hawkeye state ranks fourth from the top on the Brookings list of “average automation potential” — meaning it has one of the nation’s highest rates of workplace roles susceptible to being overtaken by automation or artificial intelligence technology.

Nearly 28 percent of Iowa’s worker tasks are at high risk of being replaced by automation, the study found. The reason for Iowa’s risk has to do with the types of industry the state supports — like production, food service, transportation and agriculture.

But while the initial reaction to such premonitions for years has been fear of lost jobs, mass layoffs and swelling unemployment, the Brookings study reveals the implications can be mixed — or even good — depending on the response to the outlook.

“Educational attainment” the study found, ”will prove decisive in shaping how local labor markets may be affected by AI-age technological developments.”

‘We need to be lifelong learners’

Iowa in 2015 got a line of sight to the looming workforce changes when the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projected 68 percent of jobs in Iowa will require some degree of education or training beyond high school by 2025.

That precipitated a governor’s call to get 70 percent of the workforce the necessary education or training by that time — up from just 58 percent. And it produced the Future Ready Iowa initiative focused on mapping out a plan to meet the demand by closing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps; encouraging more traditional and adult learners to pursue postsecondary degrees; and aligning degrees and certificates with workforce needs.

Those initiatives mesh with recommendations made in the new Brookings study, which advocates a “constant learning mind-set.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, while last week touring M & W Manufacturing, said her administration is doing just that.

The Republican governor has asked the Iowa Legislature this session to approve $20 million in the upcoming fiscal year and $12 million the following year for Future Ready Iowa initiatives.

“We need to be lifelong learners and we need to be adaptable because, with technology and innovation, we’re going to continue to see our workforce change,” Reynolds told The Gazette. “I think that’s really important — that our young kids know that as they’re going through school. Be prepared to have a good foundation and learn the basics, but be able to adapt to a changing environment.”

If Iowans can respond to the challenge, Reynolds said, the shift toward artificial intelligence and task automation can benefit employers and employees.

“Automation is allowing them to do more things with the same amount of people,” she said. “And they are able then to work with their existing employees and help them skill up and move them into more technical and higher paying jobs.”

‘They don’t have the personal capital’

The Brookings report concludes that routine and predictable physical and cognitive tasks “will be the most vulnerable to automation.”

The most threatened jobs — those with more than 70 percent of their tasks potentially automatable with current technology — include office administration, production, transportation and food preparation.

Although some positions labeled as more secure include low-paying work in personal care or domestic service, the average automation potential of occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree is just 24 percent — well below the 55 percent exposure to jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.

“Given this, better-educated, higher-paid earners for the most part will continue to face lower automation threats,” according to the report.

Changes in job skills and requirements could affect Iowa’s workers differently, as not everyone finds it easy to go back to school — or go to school in the first place.

David Swenson, an Iowa State University economics scientist, said automation often affects jobs held by lower-educated men or minorities “who might have difficulty tapping into better-educated jobs or moving into education systems or training systems that take them to the next step in life.”

The need to do so now represents a shift from years past, when Midwesterners were able to earn decent money with a high-school degree.

“Twenty years down the road, they don’t have the personal capital that allows them to take the risk and enter into an educational system,” he said.

At the same time, Swenson said he thinks the impact of automation on Iowa might be overstated in recent predictions — especially in the agriculture sector, where Iowa already is ahead of the technology curve.

“To say that Iowa agriculture is at risk of automation is almost funny because we are the epitome of automated ag,” Swenson said. “Our ag sector isn’t really as at-risk of automation as might be the national average.”

‘More of everybody’

Whether Iowa jobs are at risk from the growth of automation and use of artificial intelligence is less urgent than the need to get the work done, according to ISU economics professor Peter Orazem.

“If you look at the labor force, Iowa’s unemployment rate is 2 percent,” Orazem said. “It’s clear we don’t have enough workers.”

Iowa’s abundance of unfilled jobs could be propelling automation — or even accelerating it.

“You have to come up with ways of increasing productivity of the workforce you have, and one of the most common ways it to marry labor with capital,” Orazem said. “That’s human capital in the worker and knowledge of how to use these information technologies effectively.”

He said Iowa right now needs more of everybody — both workers with the skills to handle new technologies, and those without them.

“If you can’t find more of everybody, the people you are going to decide will go away first are going to be ones you can replace with some other input — some automatable action,” Orazem said.

Swenson similarly downplayed concern over Iowa jobs being lost to robots and dialed down worries over the need for more education to accommodate technological advances.

Iowa, he said, is actually great at educating its residents — noting it boasts the highest high school graduation rate in the country and is in the top tier for college graduation within six years.

“We are really, really good at educating Iowans,” Swenson said. “We are not an uneducated state.”

The problem, he said, is Iowa can’t employ all the talent it produces.

“It has to go somewhere else,” Swenson said. “But it’s not that we’ve made some mistake and forgotten to educate our young people. It’s just that our economy can’t absorb them all.”

Thus the more automation helps Iowa’s economy develop jobs that require more skills, the better the state will be positioned to keep some of those Iowa-educated workers and attract others, he said.

“We’ll be more competitive and able to attract more people to our state,” Swenson said.

After touring several manufacturing companies last week in Eastern Iowa, Reynolds reached a similar conclusion — that businesses need workers who have the right mix of skills.

“Right now, the biggest barrier to our economic growth is people,” she said. “I’ve been in three business visits today already and at every stop business is growing. They’ve seen great growth over the past five years. And they project extended growth. But they need people.”