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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Iowa Democrats, talk less about ALEC and more about people's lives

Thousands of Iowans will suffer brutal consequences from the two major bills Republican senators approved Monday. House File 295 blocks local governments from raising the minimum wage. Once Governor Terry Branstad signs the bill, thousands of people working in Linn, Johnson, and Wapello counties will get an immediate pay cut. Some 25,000 people in Polk County will be stuck earning $7.25 an hour, instead of getting a raise to $8.75, beginning next week. House File 518 will make it harder for employees to file workers’ compensation claims and will vastly reduce benefits for those who do qualify, especially anyone with a shoulder injury.

Both bills passed on party-line 29-21 votes after Republicans had rejected every effort to mitigate the harm done to working people.

As each Democratic amendment went down during hours of debate on the Senate floor, feelings of sadness, disgust and anger came through in the speeches of some Democrats and independent State Senator David Johnson. Why are you doing this, several asked their GOP colleagues. You don’t have to follow your floor manager, some pleaded. You can reject the “shameful” attempt to target poor people or those affected by life-altering workplace accidents.

Another dismal day in the Iowa legislature provoked an outpouring on social media, where progressive activists have mobilized this year in response to the Republican agenda. A measurable wave of “greater grassroots activism on the political left” is one of the few bright spots in the national landscape. In Iowa too, ordinary people are contacting their state lawmakers in record numbers and showing up to challenge them at district forums.

Watching these discussions unfold, I’ve noticed a reflexive tendency to blame one destructive Iowa GOP bill after another on the Koch brothers or the American Legislative Exchange Council. The more Democrats make the conversation about Koch money or ALEC, the easier it is for Republicans to avoid talking about the real-world consequences of their actions.

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Three questions about how Iowa got into this budget mess

Iowa’s Revenue Estimating Conference delivered bad news yesterday. Revenues are lagging so far behind projections that even after enacting huge spending cuts in February, the state is on track to have a shortfall of $131 million at the end of the current fiscal year. Next year’s revenues are being revised downward by $191 million as well.

Governor Terry Branstad, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, and House Speaker Linda Upmeyer quickly announced plans to use the state’s cash reserves to cover the gap. Dix’s written statement explained, “We must not cripple our schools, public safety and many other essential services with further cuts this year. Our savings account exists for moments such as this.”

Two months ago, many Democratic lawmakers advocated dipping into “rainy day” funds as an alternative to the last round of painful reductions to higher education, human services, and public safety. At that time, Republican leaders portrayed such calls as irresponsible. A spokesperson said Branstad “doesn’t believe in using the one-time money for ongoing expenses.” Now, the governor assures the public, “Iowa is prepared,” thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in the state’s cash reserves, and Dix boasts about the supposedly strong GOP leadership that filled those reserve funds.

Republican hypocrisy on state budget practices is irritating and all too predictable. But that’s not my focus today.

While transferring funds from cash reserves will solve the immediate problem, it won’t answer some important questions about how we got into this mess.

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"Personhood" in trouble as Iowa legislative deadline approaches

One of the anti-abortion community’s top legislative priorities, a bill declaring that life begins at conception, appears likely to perish in this week’s “funnel.” Social conservatives introduced companion “personhood” bills in the Iowa House and Senate two weeks ago. Under legislative rules, all non-appropriations bills must pass at least one committee in one chamber by March 3 in order to remain eligible for consideration this year.

However, House File 297 has not even been assigned to a House Human Resources subcommittee, and Senate File 253 appears not to have the votes to get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Iowa House Majority leader commits to preserving non-partisan redistricting

Iowa House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow is committed to preserving Iowa’s “great system” of having a non-partisan commission draw new political maps following each ten-year census, he told Bleeding Heartland on February 25. Iowa’s redistricting process has been a model for the country since the 1970s. I’ve been concerned that during the next few years, Republicans might use their political power to enact a new redistricting law. Following the 2010 census, gerrymandering gave the GOP airtight state legislative majorities in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and several other states.

Since the majority leader controls which legislation reaches the Iowa House floor, I asked Hagenow after a February 25 public forum in Clive whether he would ever consider supporting a bill to change Iowa’s redistricting process. “No, we’re not doing that,” he said emphatically. Would he consider such legislation in 2019 and 2020, if Republicans still control both chambers? “No, I don’t want that. We have a great system.”

I noted that everywhere Republicans have had the trifecta during the last decade, they have gerrymandered. Hagenow responded, “We have not had that conversation. I think we’ve got a great system. I think that we should continue with that system.”

Even if Republicans retain the governorship and Iowa House and Senate majorities in 2018? “Yes. We’ve got a great system.”

A few minutes later, I put the same question to Republican Senator Charles Schneider, who serves as Iowa Senate majority whip. “I will never support that,” he said without hesitation. You will never support gerrymandering? “Nope, never.” Even if Republicans control the legislative and executive branches after 2018? “Never. What we have right now is fair.”

I will follow up with House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, to see if they also will unequivocally promise to protect non-partisan redistricting in Iowa. The more Republican elected officials we can get on the record now, the better. In November, staff for Governor Terry Branstad did not respond to my e-mails seeking comment on whether the governor would rule out signing a bill that replaced the current system with rules allowing the political party in control of the legislature to draw new legislative and Congressional districts.

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Key Iowa Senate Republican: "Loser pays" bill going nowhere

A Republican bill that would have made Iowa courts far less accessible to ordinary people will die in an Iowa Senate subcommittee, GOP State Senator Charles Schneider told Bleeding Heartland on February 25. Bill Brauch, former director of the Consumer Protection Division in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, explained here how the so-called “loser pays” bill “would in effect kill Iowa’s private consumer fraud law, and just about eliminate any other type of legal action by an individual against a defendant with money.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Zaun introduced Senate Study Bill 1008 during the first week of the legislative session, then assigned it to a subcommittee chaired by Schneider. Following a February 25 public forum in Clive, I asked Schneider about that bill’s status. He replied, “I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I haven’t held a subcommittee meeting for it, and I’m not planning to.”

I mentioned that Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix had named “loser pays” as one of his top four priorities in an interview with Radio Iowa. Schneider responded, “I’m not planning to hold a subcommittee meeting on it. I don’t think any other tort reform bills include a ‘loser pays’ section in them.”

Under Iowa legislative rules, most non-appropriations bills will be dead for the year if they have not cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the first “funnel,” coming up on Friday, March 3. The leaders of subcommittees and committees have discretion on what bills to bring up for a vote.

I’m pleasantly surprised to learn Senate Study Bill 1008 will go down without a fight. Only a month and a half ago, Dix cited a “measure that ensures losers in those court cases pay for the cost associated with the case” as one of “four bills that I believe define us and give Iowans a clear indication of where we plan to go with policies for our state.” The Iowa Association of Business and Industry, a lobby group with substantial influence among statehouse Republicans, registered in favor of this bill almost immediately. Perhaps Schneider, who practices law as a day job, was able to convince non-attorneys Dix and Zaun that “loser pays” is unnecessary and unfair. Or perhaps Zaun miscalculated by putting Schneider in charge of this subcommittee.

Whatever caused this bill’s demise, any bit of good news from this dreadful legislative session is worth celebrating.

UPDATE: Reader Marian Kuper noticed that Senate Study Bill 1144 contains a “loser pays” clause for nuisance lawsuits against large livestock farms. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Dan Zumbach proposed that bill, which contains several provisions designed to shield confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from lawsuits. It has passed a subcommittee and appears likely to survive the funnel, with support from several Big Ag lobby groups.

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