Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

The (Burlington) Hawk Eye. Nov. 3, 2013

Distracted flying: FAA rule change will please travelers.

This month’s upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is traditionally the busiest travel season of the year. By car and by air.

Its approach gives relevance to a positive development in air travel American-style.

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta has no doubt thrilled tens of millions of passengers, especially frequent fliers, by announcing the safety agency is dropping its ban on the use of personal electronic devices during taxiing, takeoffs and landings.

The new rules will go into effect gradually over the next year. Airlines first have to certify to the FAA that their various aircraft types are not affected by any radio signals those devices may emit. That should not prove difficult, according to experts.

The change means even moderately tech-savvy passengers (who isn’t today?) will be allowed to use their iPods, laptops, tablets, game boys and video players from the moment they sit down.

Making calls on cellphones will, however, continue to be banned at all times as a safety precaution.

In a wise concession tasked to the modern cellphone’s capabilities, passengers can play games, listen to music and perform other data functions on their cellphones if they are switched to “airplane mode.”

But no calls on the sneak. Or else.

Logically, air crews will still be allowed to order passengers to switch off their devices during safety briefings and those rare times when landing during poor visibility. That’s a common sense, just-in-case option to prevent any potential interference with the pilots’ navigation system.

The current rule, written 50 years ago, bars passengers from using all electronic devices when aircraft are below 10,000 feet. Technology has undergone a sea change since then. Aircraft systems are better insulated from stray signals and critics insist today’s personal electronics do not cause the interference older technology was prone to.

The ban is being lifted on the recommendation of a panel of experts the FAA assembled earlier this year to examine the risks. Obviously, it found none.

Passengers will still have to muddle through this holiday travel season by controlling their urge to play with their devices until their airplane is safely airborne. But by this time next year the rules should be implemented and fliers can distract themselves on a flight from beginning to end.

Bureaucracies are maddeningly slow to change direction. But in this case, the FAA deserves credit for finally listening to consumers’ complaints and changing its mind.


Sioux City Journal. Nov. 1, 2013.

Out-of-state drivers should share the burden

We will keep an open mind on whatever package of road funding ideas the administration of Gov. Terry Branstad introduces during the next session of the Legislature.

But …

One idea discussed in a (backslash) story from the Journal’s Des Moines bureau raised concerns for us. Under this proposal, farmers would lose the tax exemption on so-called red-dye fuel they use to operate equipment. Instead, the money would go into a new Modern Agriculture Infrastructure Fund for repair of rural roads and bridges.

The idea was included in a two-page memo about possibilities for road-and-bridge funding the Branstad administration shared with a select number of state lawmakers and lobbyists in advance of the 2014 legislative session.

Understandably, the proposal about red-dye fuel isn’t getting love from the Iowa Farm Bureau.

“The red dye, by definition, is used in vehicles that aren’t used on the roads,” Don Petersen, IFB’s director of government affairs, said in the story. “That’s not something that we could support. It goes against the idea of user fees, which is what we support.”

Our initial reaction was similarly negative. Here’s why:

Our hope is whatever, if any new ideas the Legislature embraces for providing additional transportation infrastructure money include more than just loss of tax exemptions and increased fees for Iowans.

In our minds, one of the biggest selling points to raising the gas tax (something we support) is the fact out-of-state users of roads and bridges in Iowa share the burden of generating more dollars for upkeep and new construction.

The transportation infrastructure challenges we face in Iowa are large and growing. According to the Department of Transportation, the annual deficit between road-and-bridge needs and the revenue available to meet them is almost $1.5 billion; for critical needs, more than $250 million.

An investment of more money for transportation infrastructure is essential to our state’s future. To this end, we welcome discussion – including creative, out-of-the-box thinking – of transportation needs.

In the end, however, we hope Iowans aren’t the only users of the state’s roads and bridges who will be asked for more. Out-of-state drivers should contribute, too.


The Des Moines Register. Nov. 1, 2013.

Past problems in health insurance got us to today

If he’d known in 2009 what he knows now, President Barack Obama certainly would have done things differently on the health reform law. He might have stuck to his guns in pushing for a single-payer health care system, an idea he advocated that helped get him elected. He would not have made so many concessions to please Republicans in Congress if he’d known not a single one of them was going to vote for the final legislation. He would have insisted on a “public option” to offer government-run plans in new insurance exchanges.

And Obama would not have repeatedly told Americans an untruth that is now coming back to haunt him: If you like your existing health insurance, you can keep it. Nothing in the law supported that idea and such a guarantee has long been impossible for most Americans.

Anyone who buys health insurance through an employer has long been aware of the fact that plans change every year. Businesses cut benefits or replace comprehensive coverage with health savings accounts to reduce their expenses. Changing jobs, losing jobs or getting married almost always results in changes. Anyone buying insurance on his own knew insurers could cancel a plan whenever they wanted, and frequently did. Though this has long been the reality in the United States, now people blame Obamacare for any change or cancellation in coverage.

Telling Americans they could keep their current coverage was not only a mistake, it was hardly a welcome message to many Americans who struggled for years with what were, quite charitably, poor quality insurance plans. These include Iowans interviewed by the Register’s editorial board.

The last thing Janice and Gary Clausen of Audubon wanted when we talked to them in 2008 was to keep their existing health insurance. They purchased a plan endorsed by AARP. Then Gary got sick. What they thought was the flu ended up being colon cancer. The many bills not covered by the insurer started piling up. After making payments, negotiating with insurers and even getting help from a town fundraiser, the couple still owed $123,000 — more than twice the value of the Clausens’ home.

And Obama’s promise likely wouldn’t have helped Dale Schultz of Iowa City rest any easier when we interviewed him in 2010. The substitute teacher was buying his own coverage through Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. He was paying $4,000 per year and facing a 22 percent increase in premiums for a plan that excluded coverage for “anything related to my spine,” he said. Twenty years earlier he had hurt his back.

When we talked to the father of William Breshears of Ames about a decade ago, he told us his son had undergone open-heart surgery as an infant and suffered brain damage. At the age of 3, the boy’s speech was slurred and he needed therapy. The family’s insurance covered 60 visits each year. William needed 190. The family was looking to government-run Medicaid to secure a brain-injury waiver for help covering the cost of therapy.

Even Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has repeatedly criticized Obamacare, knew exactly how bad some people’s health policies were, something people don’t realize until they get sick. Iowa’s senator launched an investigation into a group of health plans after reading about Lisa Kelly. The cancer patient from Texas was forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars before she could get her initial chemotherapy treatment. She was told to bring a cashier’s check to the doctor for $45,000 because the doctor wouldn’t honor her health policy.

That’s not the kind of coverage anyone wants to keep. Thanks to the health reform law, it is not the kind of coverage they will have going forward.

Obama made lot of statements in working to sell reform to the public. Most of them were accurate. Anyone without affordable insurance through an employer can now buy it on the exchange. If you’re low income, you’ll get help paying for it. Your health insurer won’t leave you with huge medical bills when you have a heart attack or cancel you when you’re diagnosed with cancer. The plans will actually cover treatment when something goes wrong. For the first time in the history of this country, everyone is guaranteed insurance.

But it won’t necessarily be the insurance you had before. Quite frankly, that is good news for many Americans.


Iowa City Press-Citizen. Nov. 2, 2013.

Justices should get over their camera shyness

Back in March — when huge crowds were gathering around the U.S. Supreme Court building for the court’s discussion of same-sex marriage — we lamented how the only people who were going to be able to see the court in action were those who could fit within the court’s viewing chamber. (The line for those precious few available tickets began days before the hearing.)

If ever there was a time for the court to finally enter the 21st century — or even enter the latter half of the 20th century — it was when millions of people were interested in watching the debate over the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Last month, a panel convened by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press renewed the call for the justices on the nation’s high court to join their counterparts on the state level and finally allow video of their proceedings to be recorded. Held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the 90-minute discussion — titled, “Today’s Supreme Court: Tradition v. Technology and Transparency” — included judges, attorneys, educators and journalists.

“Without cameras, the United States Supreme Court is missing out on a huge opportunity to foster greater public understanding of our judicial branch. Let’s help the public understand instead of keep them in the dark about the operation of the highest appellate court in the jurisdiction,” Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said.

Unlike the justices in Ohio, Iowa and other states, the Supreme Court justices still seem worried that people will attempt to read even more into their questions — especially their devil’s-advocate questions — than intended. They like to see themselves as nonpolitical arbiters of the law who shun the political attention they get regarding controversial decisions. And they fear that having cameras in their courtroom will encourage attorneys — maybe even themselves — to start playing to the camera rather than focusing on the people before them in the courtroom.

And the panelists did their best to undermine those arguments.

“If we care, as I think everyone does in America and each of the justices do, about civic education in the United States, the costs are modest to none and the benefits are a legion and powerful, so it is time for that venerable tradition to come to an end,” said Ken Starr, a former solicitor general, judge and current president of Baylor University.

But it’s not only the high-profile cases that the justices should open up for further public scrutiny; it’s every case that stands to set a new precedent for all other courts in the nation to follow.

That why we continue to join media organizations and other groups across the country to continue to call on the the U.S. Supreme Court to show the lower courts that they have nothing to fear from video coverage. (After all, it’s hard to imagine court watchers being able to read anything more into the justices’ questions than they already do.)

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