Judge declares fetal heartbeat law unconstitutional

DES MOINES (AP) — A state judge on Tuesday struck down Iowa’s restrictive “fetal heartbeat” abortion law, which would have been the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the nation.
Judge Michael Huppert found the law unconstitutional, concluding that the Iowa Supreme Court’s earlier decisions that affirm a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion would include the new law passed last year
He also cited several cases in federal court, including decisions in 2015 and 2016 in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that indicated such abortion laws were unconstitutional.
Huppert said prohibiting abortions at the detection of a fetal heartbeat violates “both the due process and equal protection provisions of the Iowa Constitution as not being narrowly tailored to serve the compelling state interest of promoting potential life.”
The law would ban an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. That can happen as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
The legal challenge by abortion providers Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the Emma Goldman Clinic had halted it from taking effect last July.
“I am incredibly disappointed in today’s court ruling, because I believe that if death is determined when a heart stops beating, then a beating heart indicates life,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement.
She signed the bill into law in May 2018.
Supporters of the law are likely to ask the Iowa Supreme Court to hear an appeal of Huppert’s ruling.
Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen said the decision sends a strong message to Iowa women that their constitutional rights are important and their health care decisions should be made by them, not politicians.
“The extreme law should have been overturned because it restricted the freedom of Iowa women and girls to care for their bodies and it forced motherhood on them,” she said.
The providers argued in court in December that the law is “blatantly unconstitutional under clear Iowa law.”
Planned Parenthood attorney Alice Clapman said courts in several states that recognize abortion as a fundamental right — North Dakota, Arkansas and Mississippi included — have dismissed similar abortion bans before trial.
The Iowa Supreme Court in June struck down an earlier law that required a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion, ruling that the restriction was unconstitutional and that “autonomy and dominion over one’s body go to the very heart of what it means to be free.”
Attorney Martin Cannon argued for the state that the bill is extremely narrow in focus by saying a beating heart signifies life in a fetus and that human life must be protected once an abdominal ultrasound identifies a beating heart. He didn’t immediately reply to a message seeking comment.
Cannon said the bill does not prevent an abortion. He said it just pushes women to do it sooner in the pregnancy. He argued there are too many disputed issues to be heard at trial and the judge should not end the lawsuit.

In divorce filings, Sen. Ernst says she experienced domestic violence

IOWA CITY (AP) — Sen. Joni Ernst says she turned down President Donald Trump after interviewing to be his running mate, according to a court filing that describes an “extremely painful journey” that led to her divorce from a man she alleges was abusive.
Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, wrote in an affidavit for her divorce proceeding that after Trump interviewed her in 2016 to be his vice president, “I turned Candidate Trump down, knowing it wasn’t the right thing for me or my family.” The filing doesn’t explicitly say whether Trump asked her to join the ticket.
Trump interviewed Ernst at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, in July 2016 as he was considering potential running mates. Ernst told reporters later that she made clear she was interested in continuing to serve Iowa in the Senate, to which she was elected in 2014 after serving as a state senator and county official. Trump eventually chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who is now vice president.
Ernst’s office, the White House and the Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ernst called her withdrawal from consideration a sacrifice for the good of the relationship with her husband Gail, a retired Army Airborne Ranger who she said wasn’t supportive of her fast-rising political career.
“I continued to make sacrifices and not soar higher out of concern for Gail and our family,” Ernst wrote in the affidavit in October. “Meanwhile, he hated any successes I had, and would belittle me and get angary any time I achieved a goal.”
The filing and several others were made public earlier this month, in accordance with court rules for Iowa family law cases, after Joni and Gail Ernst settled their previously contentious divorce. The couple had been married 26 years and have one adult daughter together.
A lawyer for Joni Ernst filed an emergency motion Monday seeking to seal some of the files after their existence was first reported by Cityview, a Des Moines alternative newspaper. A judge granted the request on Tuesday, which means the public can no longer access the affidavit.
Ernst filed the affidavit in asking the court to reject Gail Ernst’s request that she be required to make monthly alimony payments. She said that she had supported Gail Ernst during his military career, in which they moved several times before settling in Ernst’s hometown of Red Oak, Iowa, but that he hadn’t returned the favor when she entered politics.
“Although Gail seems to think he can live off my salary for the rest of his life, he is doing everything he can to destroy me and ruin my chances for re-election, which would end the gravy train he apparently plans to ride,” she wrote.
Ernst, 48, recently indicated that she will run for a second six-year Senate term in 2020. She alleged that her husband promised to divorce her if she did so — an allegation he denied.
Gail Ernst, 65, filed for divorce in August. In requesting alimony, he noted that he was retired and partially disabled from his military service, saying that his “standard of living” shouldn’t suffer from the split. Joni Ernst’s $174,000 salary as a senator was the couple’s primary income.
The settlement, signed in December and accepted by a judge earlier this month, doesn’t require either side to pay alimony. It granted Joni Ernst the couple’s condominium in Washington, D.C., and Gail Ernst their home in Red Oak.
Before the agreement, both parties made explosive allegations against each other.
Joni Ernst alleged that Gail Ernst had physically abused her following an argument while she was serving as Montgomery County auditor in the 2000s. She wrote that she told the county’s victim advocate, who suggested she seek medical treatment for her throat and head. But she said she was embarrassed and humiliated and kept the abuse quiet, even during marriage counseling sessions.
Ernst said that she was devastated after discovering email messages between her husband and another woman last summer.
“I started a downward spiral of not sleeping and eating and I rapidly lost 17 pounds about 13 percent of my body weight. My staff had to cancel two days of my appointments because I couldn’t function,” she wrote.
Gail Ernst said that he never had an affair and alleges in one filing that she was the one who was unfaithful. He accused Joni Ernst of exhibiting “very bizarre behavior” after he requested divorce, including accessing his email account and sending messages under his name.
A phone number for Gail Ernst was disconnected. His lawyer, Ivan Miller, declined an interview request through an aide.

House rebukes Iowa’s King over racist remarks

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Democratic measure rebuking Republican Rep. Steve King for his comments about white supremacy won easy approval Tuesday in the House.
In a twist, the nine-term Iowa congressman was among those supporting the measure of disapproval, which was adopted, 424-1.
King said he agreed with Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, the resolution’s sponsor, that white supremacy is an evil that cannot be ignored. King’s racist comments have been widely condemned by members of both parties in recent days.
The ideology of white supremacy “never shows up in my head,” King said in a speech from the House floor. “I do not know how it could possibly come out of my mouth.”
Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois was the sole lawmaker to oppose the measure, saying the House should take the more serious step of censuring King for his “repugnant and racist behavior.”
Any measure short of censure is “shallow,” Rush said. ”Steve King has made a career of making racist statements. That is the only thing he is known for and this pattern of rabid racism must be confronted head on by the House of Representatives.”
The vote came as Republicans dialed up the pressure on King, with one GOP leader suggesting Tuesday that the veteran lawmaker leave Congress.
“I’d like to see him find another line of work,” Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-highest Republican in the House, told reporters.
It was the most explicit call from a senior Republican for King to leave and the latest GOP effort to inspire him to quit over an article in The New York Times last week, where he was quoted saying: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
Republicans looking to avoid worsening the party’s relationship with blacks and minorities quickly condemned King’s remarks as racist. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., wrote an op-ed saying that any GOP silence in the face of King’s remarks would be a blemish on the party and the nation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky condemned King. And tellingly, Republicans refused to say whether they support King’s re-election effort.
On Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced that King would not be given any committee assignments, the prized seats at the policy table where lawmakers represent their constituents. King served on the Agriculture, Small Business and Judiciary committees in the last Congress, and he chaired Judiciary’s subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
King vowed to “continue to point out the truth and work with all the vigor that I have to represent 4th District Iowans for at least the next two years.”
House Democrats moved to formally punish King. Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, introduced a formal resolution of disapproval late Monday.
Addressing what he called “a tale of two Kings,” Clyburn said the Iowa lawmaker’s remarks were offensive because they embraced evil concepts.
Invoking the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — whose 90th birthday is Tuesday — Clyburn called on colleagues from both parties “to join me in breaking the deafening silence and letting our resounding condemnation be heard.”
But other Democrats were pushing for a stronger punishment, censure.
“As with any animal that is rabid, Steve King should be set aside and isolated,” Rush said Monday as he introduced a censure resolution.
A third Democrat, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, introduced a separate censure resolution against King.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, we all have a responsibility to call out Rep. King’s hateful and racist comments,” Ryan said, noting that the white supremacy comments were not the first time King has made headlines for inappropriate language.
They all returned to a long string of King’s remarks that have drawn rebukes.
The text of Rush’s censure resolution lists more than a dozen examples of King’s remarks, beginning with comments in 2006 in which he compared immigrants to livestock,
McConnell, in his statement, said he has “no tolerance” for the positions offered by King, and said “those who espouse these views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. Rep. King’s statements are unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position. If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”
One Republican did not join the chorus of criticism. Asked about King’s remarks Monday, President Donald Trump said, “I haven’t been following it.”
King said Tuesday he’s been misunderstood. He said of his colleagues, “I thought you knew me well.”
The Republican said he was advocating for Western civilization, not racism, in the Times interview. He said he rejects the ideology of white supremacy, adding that he comes from a family of abolitionists who “paid a price with their lives to make sure that all men and now all women are created equal.”

Reynolds seeks felon voting rights constitutional amendment

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa would no longer bar former felons from voting after they complete their sentences and would ensure that crime victims be told of major status changes involving prisoners who wronged them under constitutional amendments proposed Tuesday by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Reynolds used her first Condition of the State speech since being elected to a full term to outline some major policy goals, including several that would affect current and former prisoners.
Iowa and Kentucky are the only two states that bar former felons from voting unless the governor grants their requests to restore their rights. Florida voters removed a similar ban in November.
Reynolds said she has restored the voting rights of 88 felons since taking office in May 2017, when Republican Terry Branstad left office to be ambassador to China, and that she wants to lift the state constitution’s automatic ban on ex-felons voting.
“I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” she said. “I believe Iowans recognize the power of redemption; let’s put this issue in their hands.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Steven Holt said his committee is willing to consider the proposal.
“I actually respect the governor for wanting to do this right,” he said. “It’s one of the governor’s priorities, so obviously we’ll take a really good hard look at it when it gets to us.”
Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack restored voting rights automatically through an executive order in 2005, but Branstad reversed that order with his own in 2011. Holt said those orders wrongly circumvented the state constitution.
Reynolds, who will work with a Republican-led Legislature, also proposed a new program in which inmates at the Newton Correctional Facility will build homes that can be moved to rural Iowa communities that need them. The inmates will receive training they can use to get jobs after they’re freed, she said.
“There are few things as powerful as the joy of someone who got a second chance and found their purpose,” she said.
Reynolds also called for a constitutional amendment that would protect crime victims’ rights, including ensuring they be notified if a prisoner who victimized them escapes or is due for release.
“Like 36 other states have done, let’s send victims a loud and clear message: We will protect you,” she said.
To amend the Iowa Constitution, the Legislature must pass a bill in consecutive two-year sessions before voters back it in a referendum.
Reynolds’ budget request includes $93 million more in funding for education, $20 million for her Future Ready Iowa job-training program and $20 million over two years for faster rural broadband internet service.
She also called for the creation of a Center for Rural Revitalization within the Iowa Economic Development Authority that would focus on renovating buildings and improving infrastructure in small towns’ business districts.
Reynolds is asking for more money from lawmakers for home- and community-based children’s mental health services and plans to introduce a bill that would create a children’s mental health care system that will work in tandem with the adult system.
She also proposed funding for four additional psychiatric residencies for doctors committed to practicing in rural Iowa.
Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen said she agrees with Reynolds that it’s time for the governor and others to deliver on their promises to fully fund mental health, rural revitalization and job training programs.
“When we can work with Republicans, we will. Our goal this session is to keep focused on improving the lives of everyday Iowans,” she said.

Steve King loses committee posts over racial remarks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Veteran Republican Rep. Steve King will be blocked from committee assignments for the next two years after lamenting that white supremacy and white nationalism have become offensive terms.
King, in his ninth term representing Iowa, will not be given committee assignments in the Congress that began this month, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Monday night. King served on the Agriculture, Small Business and Judiciary committees in the last Congress, and he chaired Judiciary’s subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
McCarthy, R-Calif., called King’s remarks “beneath the dignity of the Party of Lincoln and the United States of America.”
King’s comments “call into question whether he will treat all Americans equally, without regard for race and ethnicity,” McCarthy said, adding: “House Republicans are clear: We are all in this together, as fellow citizens equal before God and the law.”
The action by the GOP steering committee came after King and McCarthy met Monday to discuss the remarks on white supremacy, the latest in a years-long pattern of racially insensitive remarks by King.
King called McCarthy’s decision to remove him from committees “a political decision that ignores the truth.” He vowed to “continue to point out the truth and work with all the vigor that I have to represent 4th District Iowans for at least the next two years.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced King earlier Monday, saying, “There is no place in the Republican Party, the Congress or the country for an ideology of racial supremacy of any kind.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats moved to formally punish King. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-ranking House Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, introduced a formal resolution of disapproval late Monday.
Addressing what he called “a tale of two kings,” Clyburn said the Iowa lawmaker’s remarks were offensive because they embraced evil concepts.
Invoking the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — whose 90th birthday will be celebrated on Tuesday — Clyburn called on colleagues from both parties “to join me in breaking the deafening silence and letting our resounding condemnation be heard.”
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said he will introduce a censure resolution, a more serious action by the House, that Rush said would announce to the world that Congress has no home for “repugnant and racist behavior.”
“As with any animal that is rabid, Steve King should be set aside and isolated,” Rush said Monday in a statement that also called on Republicans to strip King of his committee memberships until he apologizes.
A third Democrat, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, introduced a separate censure resolution against King.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, we all have a responsibility to call out Rep. King’s hateful and racist comments,” Ryan said, noting that the white supremacy comments were not the first time King has made headlines for inappropriate language.
The text of Rush’s censure resolution lists more than a dozen examples of King’s remarks, beginning with comments in 2006 in which he compared immigrants to livestock and ending with his lamentation in the New York Times last week that white supremacy and white nationalism have become offensive terms.
McConnell, in his statement, said he has “no tolerance” for the positions offered by King, and said “those who espouse these views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. Rep. King’s statements are unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position. If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”
One Republican did not join the chorus of criticism. Asked about King’s remarks Monday, President Donald Trump said, “I haven’t been following it.”
King on Friday suggested he’s been misunderstood. He said on the House floor that the interview with the Times was in part a “discussion of other terms that have been used, almost always unjustly labeling otherwise innocent people. The word racist, the word Nazi, the word fascist, the phrase white nationalists, the phrase white supremacists.”
King said he was only wondering aloud: “How did that offensive language get injected into our political dialogue? Who does that, how does it get done, how do they get by with laying labels like this on people?”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who is the only black Republican in the Senate, cast King’s remarks and those like them as a blemish on the country and the Republican Party.
“When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” Scott wrote in an op-ed last week in The Washington Post.
“Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism — it is because of our silence when things like this are said,” Scott wrote.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also condemned King, telling CNN Monday that King “doesn’t have a place in our party” or in Congress and should resign.
King’s position in the GOP had been imperiled even before his remarks about white supremacy.
Shortly before the 2018 midterm elections, in which King was running, Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, then the head of the GOP campaign committee, issued an extraordinary public denunciation of him.
King has already drawn a primary challenger for the 2020 election: Randy Feenstra, a GOP state senator. Feenstra said Monday, “Sadly, today, the voters and conservative values of our district have lost their seat at the table because of Congressman King’s caustic behavior.”

GOP lawmakers eager to push ahead on conservative goals

By DAVID PITT
Associated Press
DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa Republicans have succeeded in enacting a wish list of conservative goals since winning a legislative majority in 2016, and as lawmakers return to the state Capitol for a new session Monday, the question is whether they will take a similar approach or back measures with a broader appeal.
In the last two sessions, Republicans used their sizable majorities in both chambers to approve bills prohibiting abortions when a fetal heartbeat could be detected, cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public workers, cutting taxes and banning local governments from raising the hourly minimum wage higher than the state-backed level.
This session, Republicans will consider a wide range of issues, from limiting property taxes to changing the judge-selection process, and it appears GOP leaders are eager to continue reshaping state government. Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she’s willing to at least consider many of the ideas.
“If there’s one word that I could use to describe the last two years it would be reform,” said Senate Republican leader Jack Whitver. “That’s really in general what we want to continue to do is change the way things are done in government, to look holistically at some of the ways we do business in the state of Iowa and try to find a better way.”
Democratic leaders said they were willing to work with Republicans but would fight back when they felt proposals would be harmful.
“I certainly hope it’s not as contentious as it has been over the past two years. I’d like to see more bipartisan atmosphere at the statehouse and civility,” said Senate Democratic leader Janet Petersen.
Here are some of the priorities leaders are discussing as the session begins:
PROPERTY TAXES
Whitver says it’s a top priority to determine whether to retain all services paid for through property taxes. Local governments, including cities, counties, school districts and community colleges, rely on property taxes for revenue.
“We are a high property tax state and we haven’t taken a comprehensive look in a long time,” he said.
In 2016, Iowa ranked 13th in property taxes paid as a percentage of a homeowner’s home value. Iowans paid 1.44 percent, according to the Washington-based Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy nonprofit that used U.S. Census data to calculate the rankings.
Petersen said her biggest fear is that state money promised to local governments when commercial property taxes were cut in 2013 will be reversed by Republicans. Some Republicans have said that promise wasn’t intended to be forever and have proposed ending the so-called backfill payments.
Rep. Todd Prichard, the House Democratic leader, said the state shouldn’t micromanage cities, counties and schools. “We need to make sure local governments have resources,” he said.
Reynolds said she’s willing to consider changes.
WORKFORCE
Whitver said the state’s biggest challenge is finding enough workers for Iowa businesses. Solutions include recruiting more people to move to Iowa and retraining existing residents for jobs that need workers. A more controversial idea Whitver proposed was to move people “off the welfare safety net program into the workforce.”
Petersen said Democrats support workforce training initiatives, including Reynolds’ Future Ready Iowa policy approved last year with little funding. “We’re hoping the governor will match her interest in the policy by putting dollars behind it to give Iowans an opportunity to skill up and improve their ability to get high paying jobs,” Petersen said.
MEDICAID PRIVATIZATION
The state continues to pour money into the $5 billion health care program for disabled and poor Iowans. When Gov. Terry Branstad in 2016 placed the program under the control of for-profit companies, he argued the state would save millions of dollars, but it’s unclear if those promises have panned out. Lawmakers will consider putting another $140 million for the current fiscal year into the program. Besides the issue of state savings, critics have said hospitals and other health care providers aren’t getting paid and patients have complained of inadequate care.
“My goal as the governor is to make sure we have a sustainable system moving forward today, tomorrow and into the future and that we’re really getting the outcomes that I believe we can,” Reynolds said.
Prichard said one of his party’s priorities is to fix the Medicaid system which “left lot of chaos.”
PICKING JUDGES
Whitver said Republicans are interested in changing Iowa’s judge-selection process, which would likely include reducing the clout lawyers currently have in the nominating process.
Currently, eight members of the judicial nominating commission are chosen by the governor and eight are chosen by lawyers. Over the decades, Whitver said the courts have become “more and more activist,” prompting a need for “having more public input into the nomination than only attorneys.”
Whitver rejects assertions that it’s a politically motivated effort by conservatives to get a more favorable judiciary. Petersen said: “Iowa should not take a step backward in our process.”
Upmeyer said the House is willing to consider changes but Prichard said Iowa’s system is viewed as a model of a nonpartisan selection system. “The worst thing you can do is politicize our judiciary,” he said.
Reynolds said it makes sense to look at the issue.
Other top topics will likely include further limits on abortion, expansion of gun rights, water quality funding and mental health programs for children.
The session begins Monday at 10 a.m. Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State on Tuesday and Chief Justice Mark Cady delivers his Condition of the Judiciary on Wednesday.
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Follow David Pitt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davepitt

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press.

Iowa firefighter dies while battling fire

CLINTON (AP) — One firefighter died and another was critically hurt while fighting a fire at a grain storage facility in eastern Iowa.
The Quad-City Times reports Clinton City Administrator Matt Brooke says 33-year-old Lt. Eric Hosette died in Saturday’s fire at the ADM grain facility in Clinton, Iowa, and 23-year-old Adam Cain was injured.
Clinton Fire Chief Mike Brown says firefighters were called to the ADM facility before 6 a.m. Saturday. While firefighters were battling the blaze inside a silo, there was an explosion.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Investors, farmers guessing as shutdown delays crop reports

DES MOINES (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it must delay the release of key crop reports due to the partial government shutdown, leaving investors and farmers without vital information during an already tumultuous time for agricultural markets.
The USDA had planned to release the closely watched reports Jan. 11 but said that even if the shutdown ended immediately , the agency’s staff wouldn’t have time to release the reports as scheduled. Congressional leaders met with President Donald Trump on Friday but there were no indications the shutdown would end soon.
“The longer it goes on, the more distorted our reference points get,” said grain market analyst Todd Hultman, of Omaha, Nebraska-based agriculture market data provider DTN. “It’s a lot of guesswork.”
The reports detail the size of the 2018 harvests of corn, soybean, wheat and other crops and give an early estimate for what farmers will plant in the upcoming season. Depending on the estimates, the price of the commodities can rise or fall as they show the current supply and forecast how many acres will be devoted to different crops in the coming months.
The government shutdown has now forced the delay of such reports for two weeks, and uncertainty about the commodity supply will only grow as more time elapses, Hultman said. USDA reports provide the foundation for understanding the U.S. agricultural industry, and because they also estimate farm production in other countries, they are essential for understanding global crop markets.
Although the government is still releasing some information, such as the Labor Department’s monthly jobs report , the USDA hasn’t released key reports since Dec. 22. This includes the closely watched World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report and information about specific crops, such as winter wheat and canola seedings.
The lack of information comes amid the uncertainty of trade with China, where tariffs led to an abrupt drop in U.S. agricultural exports to the country. There were indications that China was beginning to resume at least limited purchases of U.S. crops, but because of the government shutdown it’s unclear what’s happening.
“We certainly don’t want to be in the dark and miss any big changes like that,” Hultman said.
University of Illinois professor Todd Hubbs, who studies agricultural commodity markets, said he finds the report delays especially frustrating because he thinks they could confirm a belief that the U.S. soybean crop was smaller than earlier forecast. If true, that information would mean a smaller supply and could raise soybean prices, helping farmers who have struggled with low prices worsened by the trade dispute with China.
Until the USDA releases its information, investors and farmers can’t be certain about where they stand, he said.
“Those kinds of numbers are fundamental,” Hubbs said. “When the USDA produces the numbers, they are the numbers. They move markets.”

Instead of ticket, Iowa woman gets Christmas shopping spree

DES MOINES (AP) — Instead of giving her a ticket, two Iowa sheriff’s deputies treated a woman to a Christmas shopping spree after pulling her over.
Jasper County Sheriff’s Reserve Deputies Rod Eilander and Nathan Popenhagen pulled the woman over for not having license plates on her truck, Des Moines television station KCCI reported Monday.
When they asked if she was ready for Christmas, she said “no.” Eilander told the station that the woman had no money, was out of gas and was on her way to borrow $10 from a friend to buy dinner for her kids.
Eilander said he and Popenhagen decided to buy her children gifts. They picked up a football, a bucket of slime, earrings and a new backpack at a Walmart.
Then other people at the store started taking part in the act of kindness.
“Out of nowhere, an angel walked up to us and handed her a $50 Walmart gift card,” Eilander said.
A different customer gave the woman $20, someone in the parking lot pitched in another $20, and the deputies gave her $20 for dinner.
The deputies then wrapped the presents at the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office while the woman went through donated clothing at the jail.
“My heart is full tonight being with the ones I love and to spread the holiday cheer to others less fortunate than me,” Eilander said.

School bus driver shortage creates headaches

By GRANT SCHULTE
Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — School districts throughout the U.S. are struggling to find school bus drivers, a challenge that has worsened with low unemployment and a strong economy.
The problem has become so severe that some districts are offering sign-up bonuses for new drivers, while others rely on mechanics, custodians and other school employees to fill the gap. For parents and students, the shortage can mean longer waits for a ride to school and more crowded buses.
The shortage stems from a variety of factors, including limited work hours and high barriers to entry. Drivers generally need a commercial driver’s license, which requires training, sometimes without pay, said Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association of Pupil Transportation.
“Unless you have something to fill in the gaps (between drives), you can’t make the money you need to support your family,” Martin said. “These days, most people are looking for some kind of regular, full-time hours.”
In Iowa’s Southeast Polk Community School District, transportation director Daniel Schultz said the persistent shortage has grown worse in the suburban Des Moines district because there aren’t as many retired farmers, a group that commonly took the job for extra income. Now, the district relies on 51 drivers — mostly retirees and stay-at-home parents — to transport roughly 3,400 students to and from school each day.
Even with administrators and bus mechanics filling in, the shortage has also resulted in fewer routes, more children waiting at each stop, and crowded buses. The district needs to hire six to eight more drivers, Schultz said.
“We have to do double duty,” Schultz said. “Right now, I’m driving and doing my regular job. The mechanics are driving and doing their regular jobs — so, instead of having eight hours a day, I only get them for four. It’s like pulling a teacher out of the classroom for half a day and still expecting the same job to get done.”
Pay starts at $19.10 an hour, followed by a $2-an-hour raise after six months, Schultz said, but the district struggles to fill open jobs. Schultz said he’s now considering a “monthly rodeo” where potential drivers could test-drive a bus in a school parking lot.
“We’re just trying anything we can right now,” he said.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, some students are arriving late to school because fill-in drivers aren’t familiar with the normal routes. A school district in Ypsilanti, Michigan, had to cancel a day of school in February because there weren’t enough substitute drivers to cover for sick drivers.
And in Hawaii last year, a driver shortage in Maui forced state officials suspend bus rides for some students and limit rides for some others. The district offered free monthly bus passes on local public transportation.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, some positions remain unfilled even after the local school district offered $1,000 signing bonuses for new hires and a guaranteed six-hour day for all drivers. Officials also recruited an Omaha-based contractor to provide extra drivers when needed to help transport roughly 4,000 students a day. The district faced a shortage of 32 drivers this year but has reduced it to eight, transportation director Ryan Robley said.
Kristi Meyers, a Lincoln Public Schools bus driver for six years, said she loves her job and knows every student by name, but wouldn’t have been able to stay without the guaranteed hours and retirement benefits offered to senior drivers. Meyers drives routes throughout the day for elementary-age children and older youths who are in a job-skills training program. In the summer, she drives a bus carrying farm workers to make ends meet.
“It’s a good job, and these are great kids,” she said.
But Meyers said the job is considered part-time work, which prevents drivers from collecting unemployment benefits if they get laid off or getting paid holidays.
Martin, of the National Association of Pupil Transportation, said many districts require split morning and afternoon shifts for their drivers, which some consider a hassle. Keeping an eye on noisy children while facing away from them can be difficult as well, he said.
“It really takes a special type of personality” to deal with the issues, Martin said. “Many people just don’t have a burning desire to face those aspects of the job.”