Rep. Patti Ruff holds legislative forum in Lansing

Representative Patti Ruff of Iowa House District 56 met with just over a dozen area residents at the Meehan Memorial Public Library in Lansing Saturday morning, February 13. Among the issues discussed were education, a bottle bill, eminent domain, medical marijuana use and broadband internet for rural areas. Photo by B.J. Tomlinson.

by B.J. Tomlinson

Roughly 15 area residents met at Lansing’s Meehan Memorial Public Library Saturday morning, February 13 to discuss their concerns with Democratic State Representative Patti Ruff of Iowa House District 56. Among the several topics discussed were education, a bottle bill, eminent domain, medical marijuana use and broadband internet for rural areas.
Ruff reported on several bills currently in committee in Des Moines. One such bill is a proposal to require high school seniors, prior to graduation, to pass the same test given to immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship. Ruff said other states have passed similar bills, but these states do not require government courses for graduation like Iowa does. Since Iowa’s government courses do include civics, Ruff does not believe civics tests are necessary here.
Ruff was asked about the broadband internet access initiative which was passed last year. She said it was basically an unfunded mandate and nothing has been said or done about it this year.

Also in committee are bills dealing with eminent domain, specifically related to the gas pipeline proposed for construction in Iowa. There have been several public hearings and the Utilities Board met Friday. Ruff has not heard the outcome, but her position is that we should not let corporations utilize eminent domain. She is not sure of future ramifications and will wait for further information before she decides.
"We have many pipelines through Iowa now, but all have been okayed by landowners," she said. One constituent commented, "Better to have a pipeline than oil being transported by trains along the Mississippi River." Ruff agreed, stating that she understands the damage derailments can cause.


Ruff does not sit on the Health and Human Services Committee, but said that last week the State Senate worked to repeal the privatization of Medicaid. She is opposed to privatization, mainly because the plan was happening way too fast, was not organized well and that the infrastructure that was working was being done away with.
“We weren’t ready to roll this out…people who are providing services aren’t getting paid…it's chaos," Ruff said. She says she feels bad because “…our most vulnerable citizens in rural areas" are negatively affected.

The group discussed school funding and whether more consolidation of school districts is planned. Ruff said there were only a few districts left with potential for consolidation, and that Eastern Allamakee was one of those, but there are no consolidation plans being considered at this point in time. However, further consolidation of any school districts would require hour-and-a-half bus routes in some districts, and according to statute, if bus rides are longer than an hour, a break must be taken. When asked about funding for transportation, Ruff said there were seven bills introduced for school districts last year, and that this year there were two.
One deals with SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education), which pertains to the use of local option sales tax dollars. Each county voted on a six-cent sales tax, which is funded back to the school districts for infrastructure costs and distributed according to population. Using these funds for repairs and new construction saves general fund dollars, which are used for other expenses such as books and supplies. One proposal is to allow SAVE dollars to be used for other purposes - such as transportation costs - if they aren’t needed for infrastructure needs. Ruff said she has been working for four years to offset transportation inequalities, sponsoring two bills last year, and is hoping something can be done next year.
Ruff was asked how much money flows into the education budget from casinos. She answered that only a small portion of lottery funds are used. Most of the lottery funds were supposed to go to education, but are now used for technology. Ruff said this switch occurred before she was in office and she isn’t sure how or why that shift transpired, but said the funds were not constitutionally protected at the time. She does know that $20 million in lottery funds is appropriated for veterans.
Another question related to education was the use of computers rather than textbooks in classrooms. Ruff stated that some schools are paperless, but the decision on how to use technology is left up to local districts. Ruff said she had recently heard a statistic regarding testing which concluded that kids performed better on paper tests than computer tests. She said there was a bill introduced last year to evaluate the effectiveness of technology in schools, but it did not move out of committee.

Ruff addressed issues within the criminal justice system which she said are being discussed in the Legislature. The discussion centers around the disparity between the numbers of black and Caucasian prisoners, as well as problems integrating offenders back into society after rehabilitation. She said offenders are "marked for life" and have difficulty finding housing and jobs. Without wrap-around services to correct this, prisoners are more likely to reoffend. Both the Governor's office and Chief Justice Mark Cady are looking into this issue in depth. Ruff reported that the Luster Heights facility in Allamakee County seems to be status quo and remains a viable part of Iowa’s criminal justice system at this time.

Several participants voiced their support of a bottle bill that would include all containers, including water bottles, and would raise the refund from five to ten cents so that redemption centers can make a profit. If empties are donated, monies can be used for many local projects.
Participants also seemed to be in favor of the medical use of marijuana but are concerned about illegal use of heroin and prescription drugs. Ruff said, "A couple of House Republicans have introduced a bill to allow certain facilities to dispense marijuana oil. This legislation is for the oil only, and will not be completely legalized like in California, Oregon and Colorado. This is something we look at every year; this bill is in the very early stages. One hiccup is the Federal Government.” Marijuana is a schedule one drug and is illegal, but the Federal Government is not prosecuting in those states, according to Ruff.
Participants discussed property taxes and how much power the assessor has in determining taxes. Some properties are assessed according to replacement value, others market value or according to proximity to the Mississippi River. It was also suggested that counties could save money by consolidating county seats and services, especially since many services are provided online now.  Ruff said this topic has been discussed in the Legislature, but that travel distances for residents are the big concern.
On another note,  Ruff said she has not yet endorsed any particular presidential candidate, stating she will wait until after the primary to make a decision.