Five cases against Iowa's phony "water quality" bill

Iowa House Republicans capitulated on January 23, sending the Senate’s version of a bill to fund water programs to Governor Kim Reynolds’ desk. During the floor debate on Senate File 512, several Democrats and Republican State Representative Chip Baltimore argued for the water quality language House members had approved last year with strong bipartisan support. Whereas agricultural lobby groups were the primary supporters of Senate File 512, a large number of stakeholders were involved in crafting the House amendment. Insisting on the House version would have sent the legislation to a conference committee for further negotiations. All 41 House Democrats and five Republicans (Baltimore, Mary Ann Hanusa, Jake Highfill, Guy Vander Linden, and Ralph Watts) opposed “receding” from the House version, but the other 54 Republicans approved the motion to abandon that language (roll call).

The subsequent 59 to 41 vote to approve final passage of the Senate bill mostly followed party lines, but four Democrats who represent smaller towns and rural areas voted yes: Bruce Bearinger, Helen Miller, Scott Ourth, and Todd Prichard. Miller has taken a particular interest in farm-related issues over the years; she is the Agriculture Committee Chair for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators as well as a member of State Agricultural and Rural Leaders.

Four Republicans joined the rest of the House Democrats to oppose Senate File 512: Baltimore, Hanusa, Highfill, and Vander Linden. As floor manager of this legislation in 2017, Baltimore led a group of GOP House members who opposed the Senate’s approach. More recently, he was sidelined as the Iowa Farm Bureau and allies pressured the “Baltimore 16” to accept the Senate bill without amendments. Appearing on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” broadcast on January 22, Baltimore sounded discouraged, saying there was a “snowball’s chance in hell” of a water quality compromise. His final words on that program called for “reasonable minds” to get something “comprehensive and collaborative done, rather than shoving one bill down another chamber’s throat and promising to work on it later.”

New floor manager John Wills promised passage of Senate File 512 would be “just the beginning, not the end” of legislative discussions on water quality. No one I know in the environmental community believes Republicans will approve any further funding increases for water programs, much less a bill that would measure progress so the public could find out what methods work best to reduce water pollution.

I enclose below some of the best takes I’ve seen on the worse-than-doing-nothing bill Reynolds will soon sign.

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Five takeaways from the Iowa legislature's opening day in 2018

The Iowa House and Senate convened Monday with the usual big promises and platitudes about working together to build a better future for Iowans.

Behind the optimistic rhetoric, all signs point to another contentious legislative session. The opening day speeches by Republican and Democratic leaders, enclosed in full below, revealed almost no common ground about the focus of lawmakers’ work and no indication that the most important bills will incorporate Democratic ideas. My takeaways:

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2018

The Iowa Senate begins work today with 29 Republicans, 20 Democrats, and one independent, former Republican David Johnson.

I enclose below details on the majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Iowa Senate committees. Where relevant, I’ve noted changes since last year’s legislative session.

Just six senators are women (five Democrats and a Republican), down from ten women serving in the chamber in 2013 and 2014 and seven during 2015 and 2016. All current senators are white. To my knowledge, the only African-American ever to serve in the Iowa Senate was Tom Mann, elected to two terms during the 1980s. No Latino has ever served in the Iowa legislature; in 2014, Nathan Blake fell 18 votes short of becoming the first to join the Senate. No Asian-American has served in the state Senate since Swati Dandekar resigned in 2011.

Some non-political trivia: the 50 Iowa senators include two with the surname Johnson, four Marks, and two men each named Bill, Richard (Rich and Rick), Robert (a Rob and a Bob), Dan, Jim, Tim, Tom, Jeff, and Charles (one goes by Chaz).

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Zach Wahls, Janice Weiner running in Iowa Senate district 37

Zach Wahls announced his candidacy today in Iowa Senate district 37, where Democratic State Senator Bob Dvorsky plans to retire at the end of 2018. Janice Weiner launched her campaign for the same seat earlier this week, but Wahls will be heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination.

Follow me after the jump for background on both candidates and the political landscape in this must-hold district for Democrats.

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IA-Gov: Boulton, Hubbell lead in early legislative endorsements

State Senator Nate Boulton and Fred Hubbell have locked up more support among state lawmakers than the five other Democrats running for governor combined.

Whether legislative endorsements will matter in the 2018 gubernatorial race is an open question. The overwhelming majority of state lawmakers backed Mike Blouin before the 2006 gubernatorial primary, which Chet Culver won. Last year, former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge won the nomination for U.S. Senate, even though about 60 current and 30 former Democratic lawmakers had endorsed State Senator Rob Hogg.

Nevertheless, prominent supporters can provide a clue to activists or journalists about which primary contenders are well-positioned. Where things stand:

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Only four senators voted to hold Geri Huser accountable

Disappointing but not surprising: the Iowa Senate on April 10 confirmed Geri Huser as chair of the Iowa Utilities Board by 44 votes to four. Senators delayed consideration of Huser’s nomination in late March, after Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that she “has maintained a busy and profitable private legal practice” during her first two years as board chair.

Iowa Code 474.8 stipulates that each utilities board member “shall devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office.” For decades, every other attorney appointed to that board halted his or her legal practice during the term of service. For some reason, Huser decided those standards need not apply to her. She has also given out conflicting information about her work for the Skinner Law Office. Although she has claimed not to receive any income from that firm, she appears to work out of their office, as Bleeding Heartland discussed near the end of this post.

Only four senators–Democrats Tony Bisignano, Kevin Kinney, Bob Dvorsky, and Herman Quirmbach–found Huser’s outside legal work concerning enough to oppose giving her two more years of greater administrative responsibility and higher pay as the board chair. Most Iowa Senate confirmations are unanimous, so four votes against Huser indicates unusually strong discomfort with her conduct.

On the other hand, the 44 senators who supported Huser on Monday sent a clear message to Iowans. If state law on devoting one’s “full time” to public service gets in the way of a earning a side income, sometimes during regular business hours, powerful and well-connected officials don’t need to follow that rule.

Huser’s ongoing legal practice isn’t her only unprecedented behavior as Iowa Utilities Board chair. Less than six months into her term, she withheld funding for energy centers affiliated with state universities. That inappropriate exercise of her authority was disruptive to the centers and possibly illegal. At the time, a former lawmaker who helped create the energy centers described Huser’s interference as “way out of line.”

Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom works at the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, which got caught up in Huser’s power play, even though the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University was her primary target. I am seeking comment from Bolkcom on his vote to confirm Huser and will update this post as needed.

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