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NEWS 1.21.21: IA Lawmakers Look to Require In-Person Learning, Vaccine Update, Scam Artists & More

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A bill introduced in the Iowa Senate would require schools to provide an option for full-time in-person learning during the pandemic, a proposal that Governor Kim Reynolds highlighted in her Condition of the State speech.

The president of the Iowa State Education Association says forcing more students into classrooms could make it easier for the coronavirus to spread.

Governor Reynolds announced today teachers are now in the first tier of the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations. But she says, if the bill passes quickly, vaccines may not be available to all teachers before it takes effect.

State officials say Iowans age 65 and older will now be eligible to get the vaccine starting in early February.

Also included in phase 1B are groups of frontline essential workers, which the state has broken into five tiers. The first tier includes school staff, child care workers, law enforcement officers and first responders.

But Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state currently ranks 46th for the number of doses allocated with more than 160,000 first doses.

Reynolds said she's working with members of Iowa's congressional delegation to figure out why.

Iowa's Attorney General says scam artists took advantage of more people due the COVID-19 pandemic and the wind storm that hit the state in August.

Complaints in 2020 rose by more than 24% for a total of more than 4,000.

Hundreds of complaints centered around price gouging of health care projects, including toilet paper and masks. Plus, disaster repair services.

(See more in news release below.)

A new monthly survey of bankers suggests growing improvement in the economy in rural parts of 10 Plains and Western states, including all three Siouxland states. But Creighton University economist Ernie Goss says bank CEOs' biggest fears for 2021 are excessive inflation and higher long-term interest rates. The overall index of January's Rural Mainstreet Survey improved to 52.0 from December's 51.6 — the highest reading since before the onset last year of the coronavirus pandemic. Any score above 50 suggests a growing economy, while a score below 50 suggests a shrinking economy.

Local health officials across Nebraska could gain more authority to impose restrictions related to the coronavirus under a bill in the legislature. The bill would allow local public health departments across the state to impose restrictions related to the virus or other infectious diseases, without seeking state approval. Under the current rules, Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration prevented local health officials from requiring people to wear masks when COVID-19 started spreading widely across the state last year. Later, many cities across the state took action to require masks once it became clear they had the legal authority to do so.

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska state employees have a new contract that includes pay raises for those who receive a satisfactory rating in their performance reviews. Gov. Pete Ricketts says the contract reflects the culmination of six years of culture changes in state government to become a more performance-based organization. He says the contract will allow state administrators to recognize workers for excellence in work. Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, says the contract represents progress for state employees who worked through "a very hard year" that highlighted the importance of what they do. The contract was signed Jan. 15.

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa is asking the U.S. House to dismiss an election contest filed by her Democratic challenger that argues the six-vote race was wrongly decided. Miller-Meeks argues in a legal motion that the Democratic-controlled chamber should not consider Rita Hart's appeal because Hart did not contest the outcome under Iowa law. An attorney for Miller-Meeks says that Hart "should have raised her claims before a neutral panel of Iowa judges rather than before a political process controlled by her own party." Hart claims that she has identified 22 votes that were wrongly excluded and would change the outcome if counted.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Wednesday defended Donald Trump's legacy while refusing to say whether he held any responsibility in goading the mob that attacked the Capitol. Noem says Trump's policies were "overwhelmingly" good and signaled she wanted to skip over holding anyone responsible for the attack on Congress.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and the state's all-GOP congressional delegation want President Joe Biden to reconsider his revocation of the permit for the long-disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline. Burgum says in a statement that "revoking the permit is wrong for the country and has a chilling effect on private-sector investment in much-needed infrastructure projects." Sen. Kevin Cramer urged Biden to reconsider the pipeline decision, calling it an "early mistake by the president and a nod to far-left environmental extremists." The pipeline was planned to carry about 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. 

News release from Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller:

Scammers took advantage of a confusing and chaotic 2020, as complaints to the Iowa Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division soared amid the pandemic. 

Overall complaints totaled 4,011, a 24.4% increase over the 3,225 reports in 2019. 

Complaints related to COVID-19 and the derecho that hit Iowa on Aug. 10 played a big role in the increase. The division received more than 600 complaints about price gouging of health care products such as toilet paper, disinfectant, and masks; personal goods, including food; and disaster repair services, such as tree-trimming and electrical services. Complaints over travel, such as canceled trips and accommodations, also soared. 

The disasters didn't consume all of the office's attention, however. Even though sectors of the economy closed for portions of 2020, typical consumer complaints remained high. For the third year in a row, auto-related problems topped all categories of complaints reported to the office. 

"Consumers still came to us with concerns about imposter scams, robocalls, car repairs, housing problems, and other run-of-the-mill complaints," Attorney General Tom Miller said. "Bad actors hope they can hide while our attention is focused on other areas. They're wrong." 

Miller noted that the attorneys, investigators, and other staffers of the Consumer Protection Division responded quickly to the influx of complaints — all while primarily working remotely. The division streamlined its processes and shifted resources to react quickly, and sought to prevent complaints by warning Iowans about the potential for storm chasers and COVID scammers. Investigators reached out to online retailers and individual sellers to stop predatory pricing, and staffers created a new price-gouging complaint form to help investigators get all the unique information relevant  to those types of complaints. 

Overall, the number of complaints are down from a decade ago, as the division has improved efforts to assist consumers before they file a formal written complaint. The complaint numbers do not include the more than 20,000 calls and nearly 16,000 e-mails to the Consumer Protection Division's operators. 

"We have a strong intake team, and if we cannot help consumers through the Consumer Fraud Act or other laws, we'll guide them to other resources or educate them on how to avoid further problems," Miller said.    

"I'm proud of our great Consumer Protection Division, and their tireless efforts to help Iowans," Miller said. "We use the law to help make consumers' lives better." 

To see the top 15 categories of consumer complaints, go to the press release at IowaAttorneyGeneral.gov.

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