Resolution of lawsuit removes political case for Des Moines Water Works bill

Opponents of the legislative effort to disband the Des Moines Water Works got a boost yesterday when the water utility’s Board of Trustees voted not to appeal last month’s federal court ruling dismissing their lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties. The Iowa Farm Bureau’s wrath over that case inspired a bill that would transfer authority over the Des Moines Water Works to three area city councils.

Agriculture committees in the Iowa House and Senate advanced versions of the Water Works bill, but neither chamber voted on the measure before a “funnel” deadline in late March. Several House and Senate Republicans representing districts with independently-managed water utilities spoke privately about opposing the bill.

Among Iowans who have been fighting this legislative overreach, one big fear has been that powerful Republicans would slip Water Works language into an appropriations bill during the final days of the session. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Charles Schneider has pledged not to do so, but his House counterpart Pat Grassley has made no such promise. The deadline for appealing the federal court ruling was coming up on April 17, and some Water Works supporters worried that pursuing the case might strengthen the Farm Bureau’s allies at the Capitol, who are still trying to get this language to Governor Terry Branstad.

Instead, the Water Works will waive its right to appeal in exchange for the defendants agreeing not to pursue legal fees. According to Laura Sarcone, communications specialist for the water utility, the next step will be defense counsel getting the boards of supervisors of Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties to sign off on the agreement. The U.S. Department of Justice would also have to approve the resolution.

I would guess that the county supervisors will happily agree not to pursue legal fees in exchange for finalizing an end to the lawsuit. After all, the cost of defending the case didn’t come out of their budgets. As Art Cullen discussed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of editorials for the Storm Lake Times, secret donors, supposedly unknown even to the county supervisors themselves, paid for the first $1 million or so of the defendants’ legal expenses. The Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers Association stepped in to cover the rest.

I enclose below a Water Works news release and the ruling from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Leonard Strand. In dismissing the case, he found that the Water Works “may well have suffered an injury” from pollutants entering waterways in the named counties, but the northwest Iowa drainage districts “lack the ability to redress that injury.” Almost certainly, the Water Works would not have prevailed on appeal to the Eighth Circuit. The lawsuit accomplished only one thing: making Iowa’s dirty water a more salient political issue. Even so, bills that would address the major source of the problem–agricultural runoff–have no more traction now than they ever did.

APRIL 19 UPDATE: No Water Works provisions are in the standings bill Schneider introduced this week.

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Weekend open thread: Stolen Supreme Court seat edition

Confession: I didn’t watch the confirmation hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch*. The outcome was foreordained, down to Republicans invoking the “nuclear option” of changing Senate rules to allow confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominees with a simple majority of votes. The late-breaking news of flagrant plagiarism by Gorsuch* was never going to change any Republican minds.

Democrats could make various political arguments for fighting this nomination through extraordinary means. Even though I knew the filibuster wouldn’t keep Gorsuch* off the high court, I supported the tactic for one reason alone: “business as usual” cannot go on after the theft of a Supreme Court seat.

No matter how qualified Gorsuch* is on paper, he should never have been able to receive this lifetime appointment. Denying the equally qualified Judge Merrick Garland a Judiciary Committee hearing was unprecedented and will be a permanent stain on Senator Chuck Grassley’s legacy. Republican excuses for refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee have no more merit now than they did a year ago. Gorsuch* will never be a legitimate Supreme Court justice in my eyes, and Bleeding Heartland will put an asterisk by his name in perpetuity.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Another tragic story caught my attention this past week: Rekha Basu’s feature for the Des Moines Register on former Mason City council member Alex Kuhn. Well-liked and seen by many as a rising star, Kuhn took his own life last summer. Basu told the story through the frame of the intensely negative feedback–by some accounts bullying–Kuhn received after opposing an incentives package for a huge Prestage pork processing plant. When John Skipper told the story of Kuhn’s final months in the Mason City Globe-Gazette last December, he focused on the young man’s battle with depression. According to Basu, Kuhn’s parents believe Skipper built “a narrative around depression, enabling those who had hurt Alex to turn his suffering back on him.”

The Globe-Gazette’s editor David Mayberry wasn’t a fan of the way Basu built her narrative, on grounds he laid out in this Twitter thread. He observed that “pinning a suicide to one cause is a well-documented no-no in journalism” and linked to this guide for reporters to support his case.

No one can precisely reconstruct why Kuhn’s suffering became too much to bear. Clearly the Prestage controversy profoundly affected him. I can’t imagine what a devastating blow his death was to his loved ones. It’s a huge loss for Iowa as well. Whatever you may think about local giveaways to profitable corporations, elected officials with Kuhn’s political courage are few and far between.

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Read the teachers union lawsuit against Iowa's collective bargaining law

The largest labor union representing Iowa teachers and its Davenport affiliate filed a lawsuit yesterday challenging the constitutionality of House File 291, which eliminated almost all collective bargaining rights for teachers.

I enclose below the full text of the initial Polk County District Court filing. Scroll down to read comments Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro delivered at a press conference, which you can watch here.

Like the lawsuit Iowa’s AFSCME chapter filed in February, the new lawsuit targets the unequal treatment of two classes of workers under the revised Chapter 20, which governed collective bargaining here for more than four decades. “Public safety” workers will be able to keep bargaining over a larger range of subjects, while other public employees can negotiate only about a handful of subjects, primarily base pay. ISEA maintains that this division violates Article I, Section 6 of the state constitution, which stipulates, “All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

In addition, the ISEA is challenging the law’s two biggest union-busting provisions: a ban on automatic payroll deduction for union membership and political contributions, and procedures that will make it harder for public unions to stay certified. ISEA holds that the payroll deduction ban also violates the uniformity clause of Article I, Section 6, because such deductions will be allowed for other professional associations or organizations. In addition, the lawsuit charges that by creating “an undemocratic election system” for unions representing public workers, which “counts votes based on population instead of number of votes cast,” the law violates the substantive due process guarantee of Article I, Section 9.

Attorney General Tom Miller is not defending the collective bargaining law, to “avoid any questions about a potential conflict.” The state retained the Belin McCormick law firm to handle legal challenges. At the end of this post, I enclose the motion filed to dismiss ASFCME’s lawsuit; the defense against ISEA’s suit will make the same arguments.

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Weekend open thread: Iowa legislative news roundup

The Iowa legislature’s second “funnel” deadline passed on March 31. In theory, aside from appropriations bills, any legislation that hasn’t yet cleared one chamber and at least one committee in the other chamber is no longer eligible for consideration for this year. However, leaders can resurrect “dead” bills late in the session or include their provisions in appropriations bills. The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel reviewed important bills that did or did not make it through the funnel. James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart published a longer list in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

This paragraph caught my eye from the Register’s story.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said everything that lawmakers are doing is a reflection of learning from states where prosperity is occurring as a result of business-friendly policies. That formula includes low-cost government, innovative public services, and easing regulatory burdens on businesses to spur job creation and to allow Iowa companies to compete in a global marketplace, he added.

Not so much: Republicans following a similar playbook drove Kansas and Louisiana into the ground. Wisconsin has performed poorly in employment growth, poverty reduction, household income, and wages compared to neighboring Minnesota, where corporate interests didn’t capture state government.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome. I enclose below links and clips about bills I haven’t had time to write about yet. Two are “business-friendly” policies that will hurt Iowans suffering because of exposure to asbestos or medical malpractice. One would make local governments and first responders less accountable by excluding all “audio, video and transcripts of 911 calls involving injured victims of crimes or accidents” from Iowa’s open records law.

Quick update on House File 484, the bill to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works: once seen as almost a sure thing due to covert support from the Iowa Farm Bureau, the bill was on the House debate calendar for many days in March but never brought to the floor. Majority Leader Chris Hagenow put House File 484 on the “unfinished business” calendar on March 30, after House Republicans voted down a Democratic motion to exclude it from that list.

Opponents of the Water Works bill have become more confident lately, as several GOP representatives and senators have said privately they oppose the legislation. In addition, a Harper Polling survey commissioned by the Water Works showed that 68 percent of respondents oppose disbanding independent water works boards in Des Moines, West Des Moines, and Urbandale in order to give city councils control over the water utility. The same poll indicated that by a 55 percent to 23 percent margin, respondents said an independent board of trustees rather than the city council is “best qualified to manage your local water utility.” By an 88 percent to 5 percent margin, respondents said “people who live in the community” and not the state legislature should have “the final say” on municipal utilities. No one should be complacent, because powerful forces are behind this legislation. Republican leaders could attach Water Works language to must-pass budget bills.

P.S.- The legislature is supposed to wrap up its business this month and adjourn for the year before the end of April. I suspect that even with unified Republican control, the session will go into overtime. Lawmakers haven’t finalized budget targets for the 2018 fiscal year yet. With less money to go around following the recent downgrade in revenue forecasts, and legislators of both parties calling for a review of increasingly expensive tax credits and exemptions, I expect several more weeks of behind the scenes negotiations before the House and Senate are ready to approve appropriations bills.

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Why my conservative values make me vote for Democrats

A guest commentary by a committed activist who served on the Iowa Democratic Party Platform and Rules Committees and currently serves on a county central committee. -promoted by desmoinesdem

I believe in obeying the Constitution. The 14th Amendment says that debts of the USA shall not be questioned. Steve King–and most Republicans–voted to not raise the debt ceiling which would have put the government in default. That vote led to the downgrading of the government’s credit rating. The 14th amendment also guarantees equal protection under the law. But Republicans don’t think the Constitution applies to same sex couples who wish to marry. George W. Bush violated the constitutional rights of Americans by spying on them without a warrant. Democrats objected; Republicans didn’t. President Barack Obama nominated a replacement for the late Justice Scalia. Republicans senators refuse to do their duty and vote to confirm—or not—that nominee.

I don’t believe judges should legislate from the bench, but I do believe they must strike down laws that violate the Constitution. Republicans applauded the U.S. Supreme Court for striking down the Washington D.C. handgun law, but went nuts when the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law banning gay marriage. Republicans agreed when activist justices on the U.S. Supreme Court created a new right for corporations to spend unlimited secret money to try to buy our elections with misleading TV ads; Democrats want that decision overturned.

Originalists, who claim that the Constitution must be interpreted as the Founding Fathers meant it, are contradicted by the Founding Fathers themselves.

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Read the first lawsuit over revoked University of Iowa scholarships

University of Iowa undergraduate Ben Muller filed a class action lawsuit today in Polk County District Court, charging that the university “revoked its scholarship offers to Plaintiff and the putative class without warning, without due process, and without just compensation.” Muller is among 3,015 undergraduates who learned last week that the University of Iowa was discontinuing five scholarship programs to help cover losses in state funding. Scroll down to read the full seven-page court filing, which alleges multiple violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In a news release also enclosed below, attorney Steve Wandro described the university’s action as “not only immoral, but illegal as well.” Jon Muller, the plaintiff’s father, said, “What has occurred here is insane. My son’s decision to attend the University of Iowa was partially based on his being awarded a scholarship.”

Attorneys have scheduled meetings in West Des Moines and Iowa City this Saturday for “students, parents of students, and interested alumni to discuss their concerns and legal options.” The press release includes details on meeting locations and times.

The plaintiff is asking for a jury trial. A Facebook page created to support a class-action filing has nearly 250 likes.

My hunch is that University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld and his advisers will come up with a face-saving way out of this mess before Muller and other members of his class have their day in court. A trial pitting the university against students, most of whom are children of alumni, would generate massive terrible publicity.

After Harreld figures out how to cover the $4,343,699 the university planned to save by canceling the current students’ scholarships, he needs to deal with an extra $1,237,500 reduction in state funding before June 30. The Branstad administration announced additional mid-year cuts to higher education last Friday.

UPDATE: Added below details on a second class-action lawsuit that undergraduate Jenna Pokorny filed in Johnson County District Court on February 27.

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