Iowa motorists will face new restrictions aimed at cutting down on distractions and they also will face a bigger pinch in the pocketbook if they run afoul of the law beginning July 1.
While lawmakers have the freedom to decide when new laws take effect, most go into effect Thursday, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
One of the highest-profile measures debated by lawmakers this year was motorists who send and read text messages while driving and the Legislature decided to crack down.
“It is one of the most serious distractions that drivers face on the highway,” said Rep. David Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, a retired Highway Patrol trooper.
Lawmakers struck a balance on the issue. Adults are banned from reading, writing or sending text messages while driving, while drivers under 18 are banned from using any type of electronic communication device while driving, including talking on a cell phone.
Violators will face a $30 fine, with that amount increasing if police decide using a cell phone contributed to an accident that caused injuries. Lawmakers decided to give motorists a chance to adjust to the new restrictions, so police will only issue warnings for the first year.
In a legislative session dominated by extraordinary budget pressures, lawmakers also went looking for money. With Gov. Chet Culver ruling out an increase in taxes, motorists came under the gun and lawmakers approved increased fines for virtually all traffic offenses, including speeding and not wearing a seatbelt.
In their focus on traffic safety, lawmakers also decided that back-seat passengers under the age of 18 must wear seat belts. That is up from the current age of 11 and an exemption was granted for vehicles that don’t have back-seat belts.
Lawmakers also approved a measure banning motorists from coming “unreasonably close” to a bicyclist or tossing anything toward them. Violators could be fined $250.
One of the biggest tragedies lawmakers were asked to address was the shooting death of popular Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas, who was shot to death by former student Mark Becker.
Becker had a run-in with police, and was hospitalized in a mental health unit. He was released a couple of days before the shooting, and police weren’t notified.
The measure approved by lawmakers requires hospital officials to notify police when they release a mental patient wanted by authorities, a measure some supporters said could have saved Thomas’ life.
Lawmakers also reacted to emerging scandals in the state, including one involving the Iowa Association of School Boards, a group being investigated for charges they wasted millions of tax dollars on bloated salaries and trips to exotic places like Bora Bora.
Though it’s funded mainly with tax dollars, the school board group is a private entity, not covered by the state’s Sunshine laws. Lawmakers voted to make the group come under the state’s open meetings and open records law, and issue regular spending reports.
Lawmakers also decided to close a loophole in the state’s indecent exposure law, slamming shut the “artistic and theatrical” exemption in the law, after reports of a strip club in Hamburg using that exemption to allow a minor to dance in the nude.
The Legislature also decided to wade into the issue of mixed martial arts shows, giving the state’s Labor Commissioner the right to regulate those events.
The measure requires physical examinations of participants, and says participants must be at least 18 years old. The measure came after reports of serious injuries suffered by some competitors.
A series of measures designed to help military families also goes into effect July 1, including what was called the “trailing spouse” measure that boosts jobless benefits for spouses of deployed veterans. Typically, when a worker voluntarily leaves a job, they are not eligible for jobless benefits.
Backers of the measure say the spouse left behind when a service member is deployed often is forced to move back home for help with the family and should be eligible for the benefits.