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Crews remove the old Ramada sign at 205 W. Fourth St., Waterloo, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Iowa voters will get absentee ballot request forms

DES MOINES — Citing COVID-19 concerns, legislative leaders on Friday said they will allow Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate to mail absentee voter request forms for the Nov. 3 general election to all of the state’s registered voters.

Friday’s unanimous vote was an about-face for majority Republicans who had opposed Pate’s decision to mail the forms to Iowans before the June primary, which saw record turnout.

“We want as many people as possible to vote,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said. “We want this election to be as accessible as possible, we need it to be predictable for campaigns, we need it to be uniform across the state so Iowans in every county are treated the same, and we need it to be as secure as possible. This proposal accomplishes all of those things.”

However, Democrats on the 24-member Legislative Council said that stance was a shift from last month’s session when majority Republicans voted to force Pate to seek the council’s approval if he planned a similar emergency statewide mailing in the future.

“I’m glad majority Republicans are no longer mad at Paul Pate,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who tried unsuccessfully to get council members to agree to extend the period for absentee balloting before the Nov. 3 general election from 29 days to 40 days.

Due to coronavirus pandemic concerns among Iowans who prefer a vote-from-home option rather than stand in line at a polling place, some county auditors had begun printing absentee ballot request forms — some with “pre-populated” information on the form filled in for the voter.

However, GOP council members, who met via teleconference Friday, agreed with Pate’s call for them to prevent county auditors from doing that along with sending information on how Iowans who lack a driver’s license can get a four-digit voter ID number. They want only blank request forms sent.

A new state law instructs county auditors on how they may confirm and correct information on the absentee request forms they receive but that change currently is being challenged in court.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to allow county auditors to proceed with their separate absentee ballot request mailings, but Whitver argued that Iowans need confidence that election laws will be uniform, secure and free from fraud across the state.

“You won’t have 18 counties sending out absentee requests and 81 not sending them out,” he said. “All Iowa voters will have access to an absentee ballot request, no matter the county they live in.”

Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said it is GOP legislators who have “muddied the process.”

Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, said Republicans have to “eager to meddle” with the election system in an effort to confuse voters with changes.

And Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, accused the Republican leaders of engaging in “scare tactics” aimed at misleading the public.

After lawmakers approved Pate’s request, representatives of his office said they planned to begin work on finalizing the blank absentee ballot request forms, hopefully by the end of the month, and launching an effort to promote the vote-from-home option for the Nov. 3 election.

“I want Iowa voters and poll workers to be safe during this pandemic while we conduct a clean, fair and secure election,” Pate said in a statement after the meeting.

“After consulting with all 99 county auditors, I believe the best way to accomplish that goal is by mailing an absentee ballot request form to every active registered voter in the state,” he said. “Voters will still have the option of casting their ballot in person, and we will provide resources to protect Iowans who choose that method.

“This process worked great in the June primary, and I believe it will work in the general election.”

AP breaking top story
UPDATE: Iowa governor overrides schools, requires in-person classes

VAN METER (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Friday that she would override local school districts and require students to spend at least half of their schooling in classrooms despite the threat to teachers, students and their families from the surge in coronavirus cases in the state.

Cedar Falls Schools eyes school reopening

CEDAR FALLS – The much-anticipated decision on how Cedar Falls Community Schools will begin this fall is still unclear, though the Board of Education is planning for a face-to-face environment while preparing for anything.

Reynolds’ proclamation drew immediate criticism from the state teachers union, which called it short-sighted for unnecessarily exposing students and school employees to a health risk. A leading Democratic state senator accused Reynolds of ignoring science and common sense.

Her order did make an exception for parents who want their children to shift completely to remote learning. It also said accommodations must also be made for any student to learn remotely if they, a caregiver, or a person they live with has a health condition that would increase their risk of COVID-19.

Reynolds’ decision will invalidate plans implemented by some districts, including the state’s largest, Des Moines, which planned to limit in-person classes to one day a week for most students, with online learning on other days. The governor’s actions, which were outlined in a proclamation signed Friday, were in line with the views of President Donald Trump’s, who has said he thinks it’s essential that students return to classrooms despite surges in parts of the country, including many states that aggressively lifted restrictions despite warnings from health officials about doing so too soon.

“One of the most important milestones in our recovery effort is getting Iowa students back to school,“ Reynolds said at a news conference. “And while we all know this school year will be different than ever before, it’s critical that we prioritize bringing Iowa’s children back to the classroom safely and responsibly.”

Reynolds said districts could seek waivers to the 50% requirement from the Iowa Department of Education, which would consider making exceptions if there are local surges in virus cases. There will be no change in the education department’s recommendation that districts not require that students and teachers wear masks in school, she said.

The Republican governor issued her order a little more than a month before the start of the school year and amid rising numbers of coronavirus cases. Iowa, which was among the few states that resisted a stay-at-home order during the pandemic, posted its highest daily total of confirmed COVID-19 cases on Friday, continuing the recent surge that began in late June in the state. State health officials on Friday reported 879 new confirmed cases and five more deaths. Rates of hospitalizations and intensive care stays from the disease have been increasing since early this month.

Reynolds said additional guidance will come from state education officials and her office by Aug. 1, including how schools will deal with outbreaks and other issues that may arise.

Iowa City’s school district board voted this week to begin the school year with online learning only after expressing fear that students and teachers could catch the virus and spread it.

“As a District, we were surprised by the abrupt timing of this announcement,” district officials said in a statement distributed to families and staff. “The governor specified additional rules and restrictions that were not released in the previous Department of Education guidance that we have been working under to develop our Return-to-Learn plans.”

The officials said they were working to get clarification about the new guidance.

Mike Beranek, the president of the Iowa State Education Association called Reynolds’ proclamation short-sighted.

“On the same day Iowa reports one of the highest one-day totals since the pandemic began, we are outraged that Governor Reynolds’ response to this spiraling community spread of COVID-19 is to make it harder for school districts to move quickly to protect the health and safety of students, school employees and communities at large,” Beranek said.

Democratic state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, the ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, said schools are being forced into difficult choices between in-person learning and the health and safety of students and staff.

“The governor is continuing to ignore science, common sense, and the health and safety of Iowans,” he said.

The proclamation, which takes effect July 25, also removes limitations on how often and how long substitute teachers can be in the classroom and expands who can serve as a substitute.

It allows a parent to voluntarily choose to keep a child at home for remote learning and said accommodations must also be made for any student to learn remotely if they, a caregiver, or a person they live with has a health condition that would increase their risk of COVID-19.

Dustin Honken, who killed Mason City family in 1993, dead by lethal injection

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. —More than 15 years after initially being convicted on murder charges, and more than 27 years after the crime occurred, Britt native Dustin Honken has died.

Honken, 52, was killed by lethal injection on Friday, July 17, 3:36 p.m, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Prosecutors in the case said that the Iowa chemistry student-turned-meth kingpin killed key witnesses to stop them from testifying in his drugs case.

As the Associated Press noted, the Britt native had been on death row since 2005 and was the first Iowan with a death sentence imposed by Iowa jurors to be executed since 1963. Though Iowa struck the death penalty from state statutes in 1965, Honken was eligible for the death penalty under U.S. law because he was tried in federal court.

Right up until the execution, Honken and his legal aid appealed the sentencing, but each and every request was ultimately denied. According to the Associated Press, over recent days, prison authorities permitted Honken to make his last calls to family and friends, including Sister Betty Donoghue, a Catholic nun whom he called Wednesday.

At his sentencing in 2005, Honken denied killing anybody, but Donoghue said she never heard him say he was innocent. Along with Donoghue, Honken visited with his mother, brother and college-aged daughter at the prison in the past few weeks and months. The Associated Press noted that Honken wrote in a 2006 journal that he felt a “great crushing weight of despair” for failing his two children, one of whom he had with Johnson.

“When those people finally get around to killing me they’ll realize only the shell of me remains, the heart of me died long ago,” he wrote. For his final words, Honken recited the poem “Heaven-Haven” by Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins which reads, in part, “And I have asked to be, where no storms come.”

Just after the execution, Honken’s attorney, Shawn Nolan, saying: “There was no reason for the government to kill him, in haste or at all. In any case, they failed. The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone. The man they killed today was a human being, who could have spent the rest of his days helping others and further redeeming himself.”

Honken is the third inmate to be executed by the federal government this week after Lee and Wesley Ira Purkey, who was convicted for raping and murdering 16-year-old Jennifer Long and killing 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales who suffered from polio.

breaking top story
Deere & Co. to lay off workers in Waterloo, Davenport

WATERLOO — Deere & Co. is laying off more Iowa workers in Waterloo and Davenport.

According to Iowa Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN, filings, Deere informed workers at John Deere Davenport Works and John Deere Waterloo Works of additional layoffs on June 29.

Those layoffs affect 35 workers in Waterloo, effective Aug. 3, and 82 workers in Davenport, effective Aug. 2. The Waterloo facility is an agriculture equipment manufacturing facility while Davenport workers manufacture construction and forestry equipment.

This is just the latest in a string of layoffs by Moline-based Deere in the last year as the COVID-19 pandemic, and its ripple effects in the economy, compounded financial hits from a trade war between the U.S. and China that has affected both Deere, directly as a company, and its customer base.

For its Iowa-based facilities, WARN data shows that Davenport Works has lost 252 jobs in the last year; 264 jobs at Dubuque Works; and 77 in Waterloo.

Deere had paused operations at Davenport Works and John Deere Dubuque Works, both construction and forestry manufacturing sites, from May 11 to May 26. That two-week suspension was due to supply chain disruptions and “weakened demand of construction and forestry equipment amidst the COVID-19 global health crisis,” Deere said in a statement back in May 2020.

Those moves at facilities comes as Deere has rolled out its second salaried employee buyout program, which was announced just days before the layoff notice for Davenport and Waterloo production workers, after completing one in January, while also having to weather the coronavirus-induced economic downturn. In a financial earnings call in late May 2020, Deere revealed it is projected $1 billion less in income for its current fiscal year.

Photos: John Deere 100th Anniversary Celebration