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New Iowa laws now in effect

The new laws in effect starting Thursday could keep the public safer — or make them feel like the government is babying them.

“Do I think it’s a good idea for them to be [driving] and writing text messages? Absolutely not,” said state Sen. Paul McKinley, R-Chariton.

But neither is it his — or the state’s business — to crawl into every corner of people’s private lives, he said.

The new texting ban says drivers under 18 cannot use an electronic device to send or read messages or to talk on the cell phone-type device while driving.

Motorists over 18 cannot use a device to text but can make a phone call.

“They’re not allowing us too much leverage,” said Lt. Mark Hagist with the Ottumwa Police Department. “It’s a secondary violation, and it’s just warnings the first year.”

A secondary violation is an offense for which a ticket can be issued only if the driver is stopped for some other reason.

The penalty for all ages is a $30 fine, with harsher penalties if in an accident with serious injury or death. Warnings start today, fines begin on July 1, 2011.

“There was a lot of support for the texting bill,” said state Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa. “You see things around my district, that shouldn’t be happening, and the drivers are distracted. I hate to pick on kids, but they are the least experienced drivers.”

So does telling people they don’t have an option in some things create a “nanny state?”

“I believe, as legislators, we have the responsibility to set the tone,” Gaskill said. “I had a bill that was even tougher, but it was worthwhile to pass what we did pass. I had numerous citizens approach me about the texting bill, so there was a lot of support there.”

The laws have to be in place, she said, otherwise, when there is something dangerous happening, and a citizen sees and reports that incident, police would not be able to legally intervene.

“This was less about public safety and more for political purposes,” McKinley said. “The worse thing you can do is pass a bunch of laws that aren’t going to be observed.”

For example, are teens really going to stop texting, he said, or are they going to text out of sight, with the device down near their knee -- requiring them to look down in an even more distracting way?

The new seat belt law requires “all persons under the age of 18 years to use either a safety seat or seat belt” unless all seat belts are already being used. If a person age 14 years or older is not using a seat belt, they will get the ticket, not the driver.

“We had it up to age of 11, and we’ve expanded it,” Gaskill said. “We’re concerned about teenage kids as well as younger kids.”

“Now the [law states] under 18, no matter where they are, they need to wear a seat belt,” said Hagist. “The ticket would be violation of child restraint. And that means no more riding in the back of pickups -- if they’re under 18.”

He said ticket fines are going up today, too. A seat-belt violation is going from $25 to $50, and the fine for parking in a handicapped spot has doubled, as has illegally passing a school bus.

He said it looks like Iowa’s county sheriffs will be handling the law stemming from Senate File 2357, which states a person convicted of domestic abuse or who is subject to a permanent protective order can not own guns.

“The sheriffs are one who issue gun permits,” he said.

“When I look at our domestic abuse [rates], and some of the things that have occurred around the state and in our district, I really believe it is a very important law,” said Gaskill. “We all know if someone is really intent on doing harm, they’ll find a way. But this will make it more difficult. If we make it more difficult, it may give law enforcement more time to catch them before they cause harm.”

The Mental Health Hospitalization Notification (AKA The Ed Thomas Bill, Senate File 2352) assures that law enforcement is notified when individuals hospitalized for a serious mental impairment are released from care — if there are warrants or criminal charges against them.

Hagist said there’s typically good communication between hospitals and police, though the new law may make it easier to respect medical privacy laws and still pick up a wanted subject.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve between law enforcement and the facilities,” he said.

“It’s certainly important,” said Gaskill. “That’s the protection for the general public.”

McKinley, the chief Senate Republican, agreed.

“I think that’s just good common sense. The others, the common theme is it’s intrusive into people’s lives, but this, it makes sense to let people know.”

McKinley added, though, that Democrats dropped the ball when it came to focussing on priorities.

“Wearing seat belts? We should have been talking about jobs. About spending. About ... rising property taxes. We have the highest unemployment in decades. It’s very clear why people are leaving.”

Other laws going into effect include:

• Senate File 2215 bans genetic testing without written permission from the individual, bars release of information without consent and says that insurance companies cannot discriminate based on the results.

• Senate File 393 expands the definition of child abuse for a parent forcing a child to view obscene materials. If the child is likely to suffer harmful effects, they can be adjudicated “child in need of assistance.”

• House File 2075 concerns health insurance and cancer trials. Insurers say they pay for routine care for cancer patients in clinical trials, but patients may be reluctant to participate fearing they will lose their insurance. This bill creates a process to quickly verify if the patients will still be covered.

• Military Spouse Benefits under House File 2110 allows unemployment benefits for an individual who left employment because of the relocation of a spouse due to military assignment.

• House File 2459 is called Flood Prevention and Watershed Planning: This bill authorizes the creation of watershed management authorities to craft agreements between political subdivisions — cities, counties, and soil and water conservation districts. Authorities can assess the flood risks, the water quality and options to reduce flood risk and improve water quality.

• House File 2512 is for farmers, and it allows certain commercial vehicles on non-interstate highways to haul up to 90,000 lbs. on six axles and 96,000 lbs. on seven axles.

• Instead of large companies, Senate File 2380 focuses state job creation efforts on small Iowa businesses by increasing the Research Activities Credit available.

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