Pat Grassley will chair the Iowa House Appropriations Committee

Five-term State Representative Pat Grassley announced on Twitter this morning that he will chair the Iowa House Appropriations Committee. The previous chair, Chuck Soderberg, retired from the legislature last month. I don’t know who else lobbied Speaker-Select Linda Upmeyer for this prize committee assignment, but I will update this post if I learn more.

The grandson of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, Pat Grassley was first elected to the Iowa House in 2006. He chaired the House Economic Growth and Rebuild Iowa committee in 2011 and 2012 and has chaired the House Agriculture Committee since the 2013 legislative session. He represents a safe Republican district covering Grundy County and parts of Hardin and Butler counties. Grassley’s most competitive re-election bid was the 2012 Republican primary in House district 50, after redistricting pitted him against then-colleague, State Representative Annette Sweeney.

Many Iowa politics watchers expect Grassley to run for secretary of agriculture in 2018, assuming the current incumbent Bill Northey seeks the Republican nomination for governor.

OCTOBER UPDATE: Upmeyer selected three-term State Representative Lee Hein to chair the House Agriculture Committee for the 2016 legislative session. Hein had previously been one of four assistant majority leaders.  

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Iowa AG Miller to GOP lawmakers: No authority to investigate fetal tissue transfers

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has informed 56 Republican state legislators that his office has neither “jurisdiction over transfers of fetal tissue” nor the “authority to investigate or demand information about the transfer of fetal tissue.” In a letter dated today, Miller noted that “Iowa does not have any state laws governing the transfer of fetal tissue,” which means that only offices of U.S. Attorneys are able to enforce federal laws in this area.

Last month, the GOP lawmakers asked Miller’s office “to investigate current and planned abortion operations within Iowa to ensure compliance with the law.” Their letter set out ten detailed questions regarding the disposal, donation, or possible sale of body parts following abortions. Miller directed the legislators to contact U.S. attorneys’ offices in Iowa if they “have reliable information that federal laws relating to fetal tissue are being violated.”

I enclose below the August 24 letter from Iowa House and Senate Republicans, today’s written response from Miller, and a two-page letter Planned Parenthood of the Heartland provided to the Attorney General’s Office regarding the lawmakers’ query. Planned Parenthood’s response noted that the organization “does not now, and has not in the past, participated in” any fetal tissue donation programs but adheres to “rigorous standards of care” and “compliance with all applicable laws and regulations” in every area of its work, including abortion services.

Many Iowa Republicans will be furious, not only because Miller will not act on their unfounded suspicions, but also because the Attorney General’s Office responded to their query in what appears to be a textbook late-afternoon, pre-holiday-weekend news dump.

Also worth noting: Iowa House Speaker-select Linda Upmeyer and incoming House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow did not sign the August 24 letter to Miller, but House Speaker Pro-Tem Matt Windschitl, incoming Majority Whip Joel Fry, and Assistant Majority Leaders Zach Nunn, Jarad Klein, and Walt Rogers did. Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix did not sign the letter, but Minority Whip Jack Whitver and Assistant Minority Leaders Rick Bertrand, Randy Fenestra, Charles Schneider, and David Johnson did.

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Key Iowa Republican budget negotiators eager to leave Capitol

In the span of a few weeks, four Republicans who were heavily involved in shaping this year’s state budget have made sure they won’t be at the negotiating table during the Iowa legislature’s 2016 session. First, Matt Hinch quit as Governor Terry Branstad’s chief of staff. The weekly Business Record reported yesterday that Hinch “joined the Des Moines office of government affairs and lobbying group Cornerstone Government Affairs as a vice president.”

Days after the Branstad administration announced Hinch’s departure, Kraig Paulsen resigned as Iowa House speaker. He plans to be a back-bencher next year and will not seek re-election to the Iowa House in 2016. It’s not yet clear whether he will remain an attorney for the Cedar Rapids-based trucking firm CRST International, or whether he will seek a different private-sector job.

Last Friday, Branstad’s office announced that Jake Ketzner was leaving as the governor’s legislative liaison. I’ve enclosed the full statement on the staff changes after the jump. Yesterday, the marketing and lobbying firm LS2group revealed that Ketzner will be their newest vice president, specializing in “campaign management, government affairs, and public affairs.”

Finally, House Appropriations Committee Chair Chuck Soderberg told journalists yesterday that he will resign to take a leadership role in the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, a powerful interest group.

I can’t blame these Republicans for not wanting to spin their wheels at the Capitol during next year’s legislative session. Election years are not conducive to bipartisan deal-making in the best of times. Last month, possibly influenced by Hinch and Ketzner, Branstad poisoned the well with vetoes that erased most of the House GOP’s budget concessions to Senate Democrats. Although Paulsen insisted he had negotiated in good faith, he and his top lieutenant Linda Upmeyer (the incoming House speaker) didn’t lift a finger to override the governor’s vetoes.

Newly-elected House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow told a conservative audience in Urbandale today, “I’m not as skeptical about next year as maybe some are. I think there’s a lot of good things that we can get done [in the legislature],” Rod Boshart reported.

That makes one of us. Seeing Hinch, Paulsen, Ketzner, and Soderberg vote with their feet reinforces my belief that next year’s legislative session will mostly be a waste of many people’s time and energy.

P.S.- Some grade A political framing was on display in the governor’s press release enclosed below: “During the 2015 session, Ketzner worked across party lines to secure bipartisan support for historic infrastructure investment that an economic development study called a prerequisite for economic development in Iowa.” In other words, he helped persuade lawmakers to increase the gasoline tax. Ketzner’s official bio at LS2goup likewise speaks of his work “across party lines to secure bipartisan support for significant transportation and broadband infrastructure investments.”

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Chuck Soderberg's retirement creates opportunities for upwardly-mobile Republicans

Bret Hayworth reported for the Sioux City Journal today that State Representative Chuck Soderberg will soon resign in order to become general manager for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives in Des Moines. He has worked for the Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative in Le Mars for more than 35 years.

First elected to the statehouse in 2004, Soderberg chaired the House Commerce Committee for two years beginning in 2011 and has led the powerful Appropriations Committee since January 2013. No doubt quite a few members of the Iowa House GOP caucus would love to take on that role next year. Given the atmosphere of distrust that Governor Terry Branstad exacerbated by blowing apart this year’s spending compromises, I expect little constructive work to happen during the 2016 legislative session. But passing a budget is one thing lawmakers can’t leave town without doing, so the next person to do Soderberg’s job will exert considerable influence.

Surely Speaker Linda Upmeyer will give the Appropriations chair to someone with more experience than current vice chair Ken Rizer, who is in the middle of his first legislative term.

Soderberg’s retirement also opens up Iowa House district 5, covering all of Plymouth County and some rural areas of Woodbury County. I enclose a detailed map after the jump. This seat isn’t realistically within reach for Democrats; Mitt Romney carried 65.9 percent of the presidential vote here in 2012, and Joni Ernst won 71.2 percent of the 2014 votes for U.S. Senate. The latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office show that House district 5 contains 3,820 active registered Democrats, 8,988 Republicans, and 6,659 no-party voters.

A safe legislative seat will be tempting for many ambitious Republicans in Plymouth or Woodbury County. The GOP district nominating convention, likely to happen sometime in September, should be highly competitive.

This thread is for any speculation about Soderberg’s successor on the House Appropriations Committee or as the lawmaker representing House district 5.

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Iowa Senate approves bills on wage theft, minimum wage increase

While the gasoline tax increase grabbed most of the attention, the Iowa Senate approved two other significant bills on Tuesday. Senate File 270 would combat Iowa’s wage theft problem, estimated to cost workers about $600 million annually. After the jump I’ve enclosed State Senator Bill Dotzler’s opening remarks on the bill, which cover its key provisions. Victims of wage theft testified at an Iowa Senate hearing in late January, and when you hear their stories, it’s hard to understand why this remains a partisan issue.

It makes sense when you read the lobbyist declarations on the bill, showing various labor groups in favor and business groups opposed (including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Iowa Retail Federation, the Iowa Grocery Association, and the Iowa Propane Gas Association). During the Senate Labor and Business Committee’s hearing on wage theft, GOP Senator Rick Bertrand had criticized the idea of forcing more “paperwork” on all Iowa businesses because a minority are stealing wages from workers. Democrats later incorporated some amendments suggested by Bertrand. Nevertheless, the final vote on Senate File 270 was strictly partisan, with 26 Democrats in favor and 23 Republicans against. Senators approved a similar bill last year, also along party lines. It died in the Iowa House.

Senate File 269, which would raise Iowa’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.00 this year and to $8.75 next year, cleared the Iowa Senate on February 24 as well. This time Bertrand joined the 26 Democrats in voting for the bill; the other 22 Republicans who were present opposed it. For the last couple of years, many Democrats nationally and in Iowa have endorsed a minimum wage of $10.10.  I assume Senate File 269 set a lower goal in the hope of attracting bipartisan support, but I would have stuck with $10.10. Not only is that closer to a living wage, it’s closer to the purchasing power of Iowa’s minimum wage the last time it was raised in early 2007.

Incidentally, only three of the current Iowa Senate Republicans were in the legislature when Iowa last raised the minimum wage in 2007. Of those, David Johnson voted for raising the minimum wage to $7.25, while Brad Zaun and Jerry Behn voted against it.

Republican statehouse leaders have no interest in raising the minimum wage now, but when a minimum wage increase came to a vote in 2007, it passed with huge bipartisan majorities in both chambers. At that time, supporters included nine current Iowa House Republicans: Kraig Paulsen (now Iowa House Speaker), Linda Upmeyer (now Iowa House Majority Leader), Clel Baudler, Dave Deyoe, Cecil Dolecheck, Jack Drake, Dan Huseman, Linda Miller and Dawn Pettengill (she was a House Democrat at that time but switched to the Republican Party later in 2007). Seven of the current Iowa House Republicans voted against raising the minimum wage to $7.25 in 2007: Greg Forristall, Pat Grassley, Tom Sands, Chuck Soderberg, Ralph Watts, Matt Windschitl, and Gary Worthan.  

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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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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