Ernst holds 99th county meeting in Story County
By LAURA CARLSON
AMES – Cold winds and grey skies didn’t keep constituents from the last county town hall held by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst at the Ames City Hall on Nov. 9.
The meeting started a little later than expected, but Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, explained that there was a reason for it.
“I’m working on the E15 year-round availability rules, and when a call comes from Air Force One, you take it,” she said. “The president sends greetings to Ames.”
Ernst then took questions from audience members, including one from someone who had already received a reply from the senator’s office.
The constituent inquired about moving the USDA offices to Iowa.
Ernst replied she was “glad the constituent had received an answer to her letter” and then expanded upon the question of moving the EPA and USDA.
“I think this is a phenomenal idea,” she said. “I don’t see active farmers in Washington, D.C., and moving these offices to the Midwest, closer to the people these bureaucracies work with, provides economic benefit and cost efficiency to save taxpayers’ money. This is part of the Swamp Act that I wrote, to move bureaucracy from D.C. When you think of agriculture, you think of Iowa.”
Various audience members asked about efforts to protect Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the United States elections in 2016.
“It is important to finish the investigation,” said Ernst. “At some point it needs to end. I don’t think anything needs to be protected. He’s been investigating for two years and hasn’t found any collusion between the administration and Russia.”
However, Ernst did say we know that Russia did try to interfere with the 2016 elections. She suggested that more needs to be done at the local level to stop interference.
“A plan needs to be put in place to protect the ballot vote,” she said. “(Iowa Secretary of State) Paul Pate uses paper ballots in Iowa to prevent interference by outside groups. We need to focus energy and effort on prevention. No evidence has been presented to Congress of collusion.”
Ernst also said that she would not vote to impeach President Donald Trump at this time.
“Unless there is wrong doing proven, I would not vote for impeachment,” she said. “If there was proof of activities that were to move the (United States) House (of Representatives) towards impeachment, then I would look at that.”
She also shared her concerns about the farm bill.
“What I’d like to see is the farm bill get finished. That would be a better use of time,” Ernst said. “I have great angst for the farm bill to be done by end of the year. That is delay of millions of dollars. Government departments will begin shutting down if the House does not do their job and fund the programs.”
She also explained how government funding works regarding continuing resolutions and temporary budgets.
“Did you know that the federal government has only passed a budget four times under regular order in the past 44 years?” she asked. “That means we are funding antiquated programs because we can’t start new ones unless the budget is passed under regular order. So we are funding things we don’t want to keep because of the rules. Congress is not doing its job by passing budget and appropriation bills. Part of the national debt is from this problem.”
A former Iowa State University professor at the town hall asked about gun control.
“I have two grandchildren living in Los Angeles,” the professor asked. “On the heels of this Thousand Oaks tragedy, what are you going to do about that.”
“We must make sure that we are following the law as written. The public is allowed to buy firearms if laws are followed,” she said. “We are finding out laws are not being followed in many of these cases. When the most restrictive gun laws in the United States are not being followed, bad people are still going to get their hands on weapons.”
She said society needs to be more vigilant.
“We find out after these events that the FBI, teachers, neighbors reported questionable behaviors for people (who were) not treated for mental illness,” Ernst said. “We have to do better. If we want to do protect communities, follow the laws on the books.”
Ernst also said that she would not change Medicare and social security budgets.
“I wouldn’t touch those programs,” she said. “That is benefit people have paid into.”
When questioned about United States trade deals, Ernst reviewed trade agreements with South Korea, the European Union, Mexico and Canada.
“We (senators) are kept up to date,” Ernst said. “Dairy farmers can sell across the Canadian border, and turkey and egg commodities as well. We are starting the process of discussions with Japan mainly regarding pork. China is hanging out there.”
Ernst expanded upon the ongoing talks with China by saying it is a complicated discussion with China stealing intellectual property from America.
Trump is meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of the month.
“What I’ve heard from Iowa farmers is that China has been very bad to America for a long time,” Ernst said. “Why did it take so long for a president to change this? I supported TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Unfortunately, both (Hillary) Clinton and the president disagreed with TPP, so it was going to change either way.”
“Instead of a large agreement with 11 other countries, we have individual agreements with these countries,” she continued. “Get these done and keep working on other agreements. Asia and Africa are in the early stages of development for agreements and trade deals. Modernizing and protecting intellectual data with China remains a priority.”
Regarding net neutrality and availability of broadband internet service in the rural communities, Ernst said she hasn’t noticed a difference since net neutrality legislation passed, and agreed that rural internet was a problem for schools and businesses alike.
“The president’s infrastructure plan includes broadband, not just bridges and dams,” she said. “How do we get broadband innovations into rural areas? If you only have a couple customers for every mile, the cost is too high to Mediacom and other providers. We’ve told the administration that offering grants to areas is a better plan to bring opportunities into rural areas. I’ve been engaged in that discussion.”
Ernst responded to a health care question by saying it needs to be redefined to a question of the health care system, not the insurance availability that the Affordable Care Act addressed.
“We need to look at the cost of health care itself,” she said. “Pharmaceuticals are the largest dollars spent in health care. It is the cost of medication. Health care in Iowa is a system that is not working well for everyday citizens.”
Offering solutions, Ernst mentioned streamlining FDA approval for generic drugs, and that the president’s administration recently addressed the problem of the “gag rule” in pharmaceutical industry.
“If I wanted to pay cash at the pharmacy for my medication, the pharmacist could not tell the patient the difference in paying cash versus using insurance co-payment. It was illegal,” Ernst said. “The new law was just passed this past year, so the pharmacist can now tell me.”
Another example shared by the senator regarding health care costs regards patent ownership.
“One company had a patent on a drug that was soon to expire. They transferred patent rights to a Native American tribe,” Ernst said. “By doing that, no one could develop a generic choice to the medication. (U.S.) Sen. Tom Cotton (R, Arkansas) discovered the loophole and has written a bill to stop this.”
“Addressing insurance alone will not solve problems in health care system. We must focus on health care not insurance.”
The last question of the town hall asked for specific examples of improvements in running the government.
“I’d love to provide great examples to you. We haven’t seen great examples yet,” she said. “In rural Iowa, the cost per square foot is far less than D.C. for cost effectiveness. I’m hopeful (former EPA Director) Pruitt will continue with the idea of moving,” regarding the move of the EPA offices to the Midwest.
As an example, the senator said “the Department of Defense is undergoing their very first audit process. As areas of improvement are turned in, those suggestions are implemented so we don’t have to wait until the end of the process. The government is an enormous bureaucracy.”
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