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Ref: Iowa lawmakers consider emergency plans for government continuity

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If catastrophe strikes the Capitol
State should update plans for keeping government running, panel says


December 24, 2006
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Iowa lawmakers are considering emergency plans for reassembling the Legislature should a terrorist attack or natural disaster make it impossible to meet at the Capitol.

The governor already has the authority to convene the Legislature at a location outside Des Moines, designated the seat of government by the Iowa Constitution, "in times of pestilence or public danger." But there are no detailed plans for setting up the Legislature in, say, Ames or Iowa City.

There are also some sobering "what if" questions that need answers. What if some legislators are killed or incapacitated? Would there be enough lawmakers to satisfy voting requirements? Do those requirements need to be changed?

What if there's a statewide epidemic that prevents legislators from coming together? Should steps be taken now, before disaster strikes, to allow lawmakers to conduct the state's business electronically from their home communities?

Those issues are likely to be addressed during the 2007 legislative session, which starts Jan. 8. A committee exploring measures to ensure that the Legislature can quickly bounce back from a disaster has recommended that House and Senate leaders look deeper into the security matter.

"We need to be prepared," said Senate President Jack Kibbie, an Emmetsburg Democrat serving on the Legislature's Continuity of Government planning committee. "One never knows when a catastrophe happens at the Capitol," said Sen. Larry McKibben, a Marshalltown Republican on the House-Senate panel.

Every state has "succession" laws that dictate which official would be in charge if the governor - and designated successors - die or can't perform their duties. Many states also have identified a temporary location from which to operate the legislature. But few states have elaborate plans and equipment in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California, a state rattled periodically by earthquakes, is a leader in disaster preparedness. But solutions don't necessarily have to be high-tech, said Tony Beard Jr., the chief sergeant-at-arms of the state Senate.

"I need the right people. I need a legal quorum. I need some pencils and some paper. That's where it started 150 years ago. We could do it that way if we had to," Beard said.

"Computers would be nice, but that may not be an option if there's a flood," he said.

The California Statehouse in Sacramento sits in a flood plain. Were a major river levy downtown to break in an earthquake or enemy attack, the Capitol would be awash in water 8 feet deep.

In a security review conducted before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the threats of fire, flood and earthquake ranked ahead of terrorism, Beard said. Even now, those types of natural disasters are considered more likely than a terrorist assault on the state capital.

California has contingency plans for relocating its operations, depending on the type of emergency. The governor is empowered to appoint legislators if at least 20 percent of the 80-member State Assembly or 40-member Senate "are wiped out," Beard said.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, in an executive order issued in March 2005, directed all state agencies to develop plans for ensuring the survival of state government and the continuation of critical services. The largely secret plans spell out who will take over important government posts and functions if officials from the governor on down are not capable of performing their duties.

Evacuation of the Capitol could be triggered by an explosion, release of a hazardous chemical or biological agent, workplace violence, storms, fires and utilities failure. Essential functions of state government would be re-established at undisclosed sites.

The Legislature and courts were asked to assemble emergency plans as well.

During the 2007 session, legislators are expected to update a state law that sets the procedures for determining whether the governor is temporarily incapable of performing his duties because of a disability.

That determination is made by a three-member panel: the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, the dean of medicine at the University of Iowa and the state director of mental health - a job limited to psychiatrists that no longer exists.

Reporter Jonathan Roos can be reached at (515) 284-8443 or

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