District Court lets stand Branstad veto of mental health institute funding

Polk County District Court Judge Douglas Staskal has dismissed a lawsuit challenging Governor Terry Branstad’s authority to veto funding intended to keep two in-patient mental health facilities open. Twenty Democratic state lawmakers and the president of Iowa’s largest public-employee union filed the lawsuit in July, arguing that the governor’s line-item vetoes violated Iowa Code provisions requiring that the state "shall operate" mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. But Judge Staskal found that "Existing statutes cannot limit the Governor’s item veto authority," which "is of constitutional magnitude. The only limitations that have been placed on that authority have been derived from the language of the constitution itself. […] And, there is no language in the item veto provision which suggests a statutory limitation on the power it creates. It is elementary that, to the extent there is conflict between a constitutional provision and a statute, the constitution prevails."

I enclose below longer excerpts from the court ruling, which can be read in full here. Mark Hedberg, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Bleeding Heartland they "are preparing an appeal" to the Iowa Supreme Court "and will ask that it be expedited."

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Judge denies motion to dismiss lawsuit over Branstad closing mental health facilities

Polk County District Court Judge Douglas Staskal ruled yesterday that a lawsuit challenging Governor Terry Branstad’s line-item vetoes of mental health facility funding can move forward.

A group of Democratic state legislators and AFSCME, Iowa’s largest public employee union, filed the lawsuit in July. Last month, attorneys for the state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit or force the plaintiffs to “recast” (revise and resubmit) their court filing.

But in a thirteen-page ruling, Judge Staskal rejected the state’s arguments that “the plaintiffs lack standing, have failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and that the case presents a nonjusticiable political question.” He found that AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan has standing because he represents the interests of state workers who were laid off when the state government closed in-patient mental health facilities in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. The judge also noted that state legislators “have standing to challenge the propriety of the Governor’s exercise of his veto authority.” Judge Staskal found plaintiffs had stated a claim: “a challenge to the Governor’s exercise of his line-item veto authority.” As for the political question, the ruling noted, “Whether to close Clarinda and Mount Pleasant is a policy matter for the other branches of government. Whether the Governor’s particular use of his line-item veto power is constitutional is a matter for the courts.”

Judge Staskal did find in favor of one argument advanced by state attorneys, releasing Iowa Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer as a co-defendant: “The Director [Palmer] plainly has no authority to veto legislation and there is no allegation that he did veto legislation. Therefore, there is no conceivable set of facts upon which relief could be granted on the claim that the Director exercised an improper veto.”    

The legislators who joined this lawsuit are State Senators Rich Taylor, Tom Courtney, Janet Petersen, Tony Bisignano, Herman Quirmbach, and Dick Dearden, and State Representatives Bruce Hunter, Curt Hanson, Jerry Kearns, Mark Smith, Art Staed, Ako Abdul-Samad, Jo Oldson, Ruth Ann Gaines, Sharon Steckman, Todd Taylor, Mary Gaskill, Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Timi Brown-Powers, and Dave Jacoby.

IA-01: "Middle Class Fighter" Pat Murphy is in

Former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy made his second Congressional campaign official this morning. In the shortest YouTube candidate announcement video I’ve ever seen (just fourteen seconds long), Murphy declared, "The truck’s up and running…and so am I." A press release announced, "Middle Class Fighter to Take on [GOP incumbent Rod] Blum," and a e-mail to supporters fleshed out Murphy’s case. Excerpt:

Teri and I discussed this race long and hard and the bottom line is that middle class Iowans deserve to have a voice in Congress, somebody who knows the struggles they face, and will fight for them.  I’ve done that my whole life, because that’s who I am.  And there’s no other candidate running – from either party – who has been on the right side of these fights from day one.

From raising the minimum wage and teacher pay, passing equal pay for women, to protecting women’s health care and all Iowan’s civil rights.  That’s my record.  Fighting for progressive Iowa values is in my blood, with your help, it’s exactly what I’ll do in Congress.

Murphy’s campaign is on the web at Pat Murphy for Congress, on Facebook here, and Twitter here. (His old campaign website is no longer functional.)

I enclose below the candidate’s full e-mail to supporters, as well as excerpts from the press release. It points to Murphy’s lead in a recent internal poll of Democrats in IA-01 and recalls his outright victory in the 2014 primary, despite being outspent by some of his four opponents. The press release also notes that in the general election, Murphy outperformed both U.S. Senate nominee Bruce Braley and the gubernatorial ticket of Jack Hatch and Monica Vernon. Vernon has been considered the front-runner for the 2016 primary in IA-01, on the strength of early fundraising and endorsements from Iowa-based and Washington Democrats. Gary Kroeger is also seeking the Democratic nomination.

Former U.S. Representative Dave Nagle is backing Murphy for Congress again, as is the Blue America PAC, which supports progressive candidates in Democratic primaries as well as against Republicans in general elections. Murphy dominated the labor union endorsements before the 2014 primary. I’ll be interested to see whether Vernon picks up more labor support this cycle. So far, she has the backing of Teamsters Local 238, the “largest Teamster Local headquartered in the state of Iowa,” and the  Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council, which supported her during the 2014 primary. UPDATE: Added below a Vernon campaign press release “welcoming” Murphy to the race and listing her key endorsers. They include several Iowa House Democrats who served in the legislature while Murphy was speaker from 2007 through 2010. SECOND UPDATE: Added Kroeger’s statement below.

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AFSCME, 20 Democratic legislators sue Branstad over mental health closures (updated)

Iowa’s largest public employee union and 20 Democratic state legislators filed a lawsuit today challenging the closure of mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. I enclose below a press release from AFSCME Council 61, which lists the six state senators and fourteen state representatives who joined the lawsuit naming Governor Terry Branstad and Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer.

The Branstad administration announced plans in January to close two of Iowa’s four in-patient mental health facilities. State legislators were neither consulted nor notified in advance. The Department of Human Services started winding down operations well before the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Democrats fought to include funding for the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant institutes in the budget for the current fiscal year, but Branstad item-vetoed the appropriation. The lawsuit contends that closing the facilities violates Iowa Code, which holds that the state “shall operate” mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. The governor’s communications director told KCCI that AFSCME’s leader in Iowa “is resistant to change” and that the closed “centers were not suited to offer modern mental health care.”

The Iowa legislature’s decision next year on whether to fund the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant facilities will be critically important. The Iowa Supreme Court recently dismissed the lawsuit challenging the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home in 2014, without considering the merits of that case, on the grounds that the legislature made the issue “moot” by no longer appropriating state money to operate that facility. By refusing to include funding for the two closed mental health institutes in the budget for fiscal year 2017, Iowa House Republicans could bolster the Branstad administration’s efforts to defeat the lawsuit filed today.

UPDATE: Added more speculation about this lawsuit’s prospects below.

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Iowa Senate, House approve gas tax increase

A bill that would raise Iowa’s gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon is on its way to Governor Terry Branstad’s desk after approval today by both chambers in the Iowa legislature. The Iowa Senate passed Senate File 257 this morning by 28 votes to 21. Sixteen Democrats and twelve Republicans voted for the bill, while ten Democrats and eleven Republicans opposed it. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal had reportedly insisted on at least half the GOP caucus supporting a gas tax increase as a condition for bringing the bill to the floor.

A few hours later, the Iowa House took up the Senate bill (rather than the bill that cleared two House committees last week). Thirty Republicans and 23 Democrats voted yes, while 26 Republicans and 20 Democrats voted no.

Only two state legislators missed today’s votes: Republican State Senator Mark Chelgren and Republican State Representative Chip Baltimore. Baltimore voted against the House version of this bill in committee last week, while Chelgren doesn’t serve on the committees that approved the bill in the Senate. Chelgren appears to have been absent for all of today’s votes, while Baltimore was at the Capitol but left the chamber when the gas tax bill came up. Speaking to reporters later, he tried to make a virtue out of his absence: “I refuse to legitimize either the bill or the process with a vote.” Weak sauce from a guy who is widely expected to seek higher office someday.

Conservative groups are urging Branstad to veto Senate File 257, but that seems unlikely, given the governor’s recent comments on road funding. Branstad’s spokesman said today that the governor will carefully review the final bill before deciding whether to sign it.  

After the jump I’ve enclosed the roll call votes in both chambers, as well as Senate Transportation Committee Chair Tod Bowman’s opening remarks this morning, which summarize key points in Senate File 257.

Final note: several of the “no” votes came from lawmakers who may face competitive re-election campaigns in 2016. Those include Democrats Chris Brase (Senate district 46), Steve Sodders (Senate district 36), and Mary Jo Wilhelm (Senate district 26), and Republicans Dennis Guth (Senate district 4) and Amy Sinclair (Senate district 14).

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IA-01: More than a dozen Democratic legislators endorse Monica Vernon

Some of the most prominent Democratic legislators living in Iowa’s first Congressional district have endorsed Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon, a day after she announced she will run for Congress again in 2016. The group includes lawmakers from the three largest metro areas in IA-01:

Cedar Rapids (State Senators Liz Mathis and Rob Hogg, State Representatives Art Staed, Kirsten Running-Marquardt and Liz Bennett)

Waterloo/Cedar Falls (State Senator Bill Dotzler and State Representative Timi Brown-Powers)

Dubuque (Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum)

Support from Mathis is particularly noteworthy, because many Iowa Democrats encouraged her to run for Congress in 2014. Mathis endorsed Vernon shortly before last year’s five-way primary.

Former State Senator Jack Hatch and several current lawmakers who live outside IA-01 also endorsed Vernon today: State Senators Joe Bolkcom, Bob Dvorsky, and Rich Taylor, and State Representatives Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, and Sally Stutsman. All besides Taylor represent parts of Johnson County, which is part of the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor.

The full press release from Vernon’s campaign is after the jump. It sends a strong signal to any other Democrats who may be considering this race, including former State Senator Swati Dandekar and Ravi Patel, the president of Hawkeye Hotels.

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