A bill being considered by Iowa lawmakers would give drivers yet another reason to refrain from texting behind the wheel.
The measure would empower law enforcement officers to stop a driver who's texting even if they aren't doing anything else wrong, state Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, said Saturday morning during an Eggs and Issues legislative forum.
Also during the forum, Beall and state Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, reported that the chances of the Legislature raising the gasoline tax or the minimum wage appear to be fading.
The two legislators also discussed the impact of the federal health care reform law.
"When I'm out and about and I broach the topic I'm not hearing anyone with major problems with what's going on," Miller said of the health care reform.
About 45 people attended the forum at the East Campus of Iowa Central Community College. Eggs and Issues is sponsored by the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance and the college.
Texting while driving is banned by a 2010 law written by former state Rep. David Tjepkes, R-Gowrie. The law also bans anyone under the age of 18 from using an electronic device while driving. The penalty for violations is a $30 fine.
Beall said texting while driving is now a secondary offense, which means that a driver can't get a ticket for it unless they are stopped for some other reason such as speeding.
A bill passed by the state Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday makes texting a primary offense, giving law enforcement officers the ability to stop a driver and issue a ticket even if texting is the only violation.
"I think it's good public policy," Beall said. "I think it will save lives."
He said he believes officers will be able to spot texting drivers.
"It's pretty evident," he said. "At night you can see the glow of the cell phone on their face."
When Garret Weiland, a retired state trooper, asked why the Legislature doesn't ban all use of electronic devices behind the wheel, Beall replied that texting is the biggest problem.
Miller agreed with that theory.
"You start with the most offensive thing that is happening," she said.
Gas tax increase
Iowa's tax on a gallon of gasoline has remained at 22 cents since 1988. In recent years, highway advocates and some officials have lobbied for an increase in that tax to meet the growing cost of road construction and maintenance.
A subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee approved a 10-cent increase in the gas tax on Jan. 29.
Miller said that bill never reached the full House Transportation Committee, of which she is a member.
"Something happened on the way from the subcommittee to the full committee," she said. "No one's heard a whisper about it."
Beall said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, won't bring up a gas tax increase because not enough Republican senators will support it.
Beall and Miller both support a gas tax increase.
A proposal to raise the minimum wage in Iowa from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour also faces dim prospects, according to Beall.
"I don't think it has that critical mass to make it through both houses and be signed into law by the governor," he said.
Health care reform
Dr. Rich Jacobson, an optometrist, asked the lawmakers about the status of the Affordable Care Act in Iowa.
Miller replied that she's not hearing much from constituents about it.
Beall said that Iowa doesn't have its own insurance exchange under the law, and is part of the federal exchange.
He said the Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance companies in Iowa are not participating in the exchange and have accumulated a $1.4 billion surplus. He said he's concerned that the companies will eventually enter the exchange and then use the financial cushion provided by that big surplus to engage in "predatory pricing."
"I would not like to see that used to drive other insurance companies out of the market," he said.
He said state Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart has asked Blue Cross/Blue Shield to justify that surplus.
A bill pending in the Senate would enable the insurance commissioner to regulate pharmacy benefit managers, according to Beall. He said those managers are responsible for the closure of about 40 pharmacies across the state.