20 Iowa House races to watch tonight

Thanks to Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process, we have an unusually large number of competitive state legislative districts. In any given general election, depending on candidate recruitment, between one dozen and two dozen of the 100 Iowa House districts could be up for grabs. Democrats and Republicans spend big money on a much smaller number of districts; this year, only seven Iowa House races involved a large amount of television advertising. But the parties and candidates invest in direct mail and/or radio commercials in many more places than that.

Republicans go into election day favored to hold their Iowa House majority, which now stands at 53 seats to 47. Carolyn Fiddler has pegged seven “districts to watch” at her Statehouse Action blog, and in September, the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble discussed five districts he viewed as “key to Iowa House chamber control.” I see the playing field as much larger.

Follow me after the jump to review 20 Iowa House seats that will determine control of the chamber for the next two years.

Caveat: most years, there’s at least one shocking result in an Iowa House district neither party had their eye on. I’m thinking about Tami Weincek defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent in Waterloo in 2006, Kent Sorenson defeating a Democratic incumbent in Warren County in 2008, three Democratic state representatives who had run unopposed in 2008 losing in 2010, and Democrat Daniel Lundby taking out the seemingly safe Republican Nick Wagner in the Linn County suburbs in 2012. Wagner had run unopposed in the previous election.

So, while I don’t expect any of the “favored” seats discussed below to change hands, I would not rule out a surprise or two. That would be excellent news for the stealth challenger’s party.

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Iowa House rejects broadband access bill

When bills come to the floor of the Iowa House or Senate, the outcome of the vote is typically a foregone conclusion. Leaders rarely call up bills that don’t have the votes to pass. But in “the most surprising vote of the day, if not this year’s session,” Iowa House members on Friday rejected House File 2472, a bill designed to expand broadband access in small-town and rural Iowa. The initiative was among Governor Terry Branstad’s legislative priorities this year. While the goal is uncontroversial, especially in communities where people are stuck with dialup internet, lawmakers disagreed on how to accomplish the task.

The House Journal for April 25 includes details from the floor debate, including roll calls on two Democratic amendments that failed to pass on party-line votes. One of them was a “strike” amendment replacing the entire content of House File 2472 with stronger incentives favored by House Democrats. After the routine business of rejecting minority party amendments, a vote was called on final passage. But only 42 Republicans voted yes, joined by just two Democrats. I’ve posted a list of yes and no votes after the jump. House Minority Leader Mark Smith said Democrats opposed the bill because it “does not go far enough in expanding broadband access to more homes and small businesses.” The Republicans who voted no may have been put off by the size of the tax breaks or the lack of accountability. State Representative Guy Vander Linden told Radio Iowa, “We don’t say they need to meet any requirements in terms of our capacity, speed – anything. All we say is: ‘If you will put broadband infrastructure in place in any unserved or underserved area…we’ll give you all these benefits.’ That, to me, sounds like a blank check that I’m not willing to sign up to.”

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer has already filed a motion to reconsider the vote on this bill, so leaders may believe they can find the votes they need through friendly persuasion or arm-twisting. (She was one of the “no” votes, presumably to preserve her ability to file the bill again after realizing it would not pass.) Two Republicans (Clel Baudler and Ron Jorgensen) were absent from Friday’s vote. Assuming they support the broadband bill and Upmeyer changes her vote, House leaders would need to persuade four more Republicans or Democrats.

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Q: When do Iowa Democrats talk like Steve King?

A. When doing so serves Big Ag’s interests.

Yesterday the Iowa House approved House Resolution 123, which requests “that all necessary and immediate action be taken by the State of California, the United States Congress, the United State Attorney General, state legislatures, state governors, and state attorneys general to effectuate the repeal of California legislation enacted as AB 1437 that unconstitutionally infringes upon the Commerce Clause of the Constitution of the United States to the detriment of this nation’s consumers and farmers.”

U.S. Representative Steve King has been on the warpath against the supposedly “unconstitutional” California law for some time. After he failed to get language overriding the egg regulations into the new Farm Bill, several state attorneys general filed suit in federal court. Last month Governor Terry Branstad joined that lawsuit, saying the California law “discriminates against Iowa’s egg producers.”

Thirteen Iowa House Democrats joined all 53 Republicans to co-sponsor House Resolution 123 (full text here). The Democrats were Bruce Bearinger, Nancy Dunkel, John Forbes, Bruce Hunter, Jerry Kearns, Dan Kelley, Helen Miller, Dan Muhlbauer, Joe Riding, Patti Ruff, Sally Stutsman, Roger Thomas, and Frank Wood. Reading from the resolution on the Iowa House floor yesterday, State Representative Helen Miller parroted the same talking points we’ve heard from King before. Supposedly Iowa egg farmers “can’t” sell their products in California anymore, which “unconstitutionally infringes upon the commerce clause of the Constitution of the United States.” Sorry, no. That law does not establish a higher bar for out-of-state producers than for in-state producers. Nor does it force any course of action on Iowa egg farmers. They will simply face the same choice any number of manufacturers face regarding any number of state laws: either comply with the relevant state’s requirements, or sell your products elsewhere.

Some of the House Democrats who co-sponsored this resolution represent rural or suburban districts that will be competitive this year. Others, including Miller, are unopposed or represent urban districts that Republicans have no prayer of winning. Before taking Steve King’s word for it on matters of constitutional law, they should have consulted Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. He didn’t sign on to the lawsuit Branstad joined, I suspect because he sensed the case is weak. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was not a fan of King’s efforts to overturn the California law either.  

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What could go wrong? Less training for manure spreaders edition

More than 800 manure spills have occurred on Iowa farms during the past two decades. At least 262 manure spills reached Iowa waterways between 2001 and 2011 alone, affecting the vast majority of counties.

More than half of rivers and streams in the region including Iowa are in “poor condition for aquatic life.” Manure spills are a major contributing factor to this problem, and they are happening more often. The number of recorded manure spills in Iowa grew from 46 in 2012 to 76 in 2013.

How should state government respond to this set of facts? Various policies might address the explosion in waterways officially recognized as “impaired.”  

But this is Iowa, where it’s a minor miracle to get state lawmakers to take any steps against water pollution, and agricultural interests have repeatedly moved to undermine regulations related to the handling of manure on large-scale farms.

Last week, two-thirds of Iowa House members saw fit to reduce continuing education requirements for people certified to spread liquid manure on farm fields.  

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What could go wrong? Iowa House legalizes silencers (updated)

Most gun-related bills failed to make it through in the Iowa legislature’s first “funnel” last week. The list of proposals that are dead for this year included efforts to restrict access to firearms (such as Senate File 2179 to close the gun show loophole) and several bills aimed at making guns more available: House File 384 to authorize possession of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns; House File 169/Senate File 251 to allow Iowans with permits to carry concealed weapons on school grounds; House File 172 to allow school employees to carry guns in school; and House File 2012 to allow children as young as 12 to possess handguns.

The trouble is, many incumbents don’t want to face the gun lobby’s wrath in an election year. Many lawmakers want to have something to brag about when pro-gun activists compile scorecards and endorsement lists. Such concerns prompted Iowa House and Senate leaders to revive and eventually pass a 2010 bill to make it easier for Iowans to carry concealed weapons.

I believe the same dynamic prompted Iowa House members to vote overwhelmingly yesterday to legalize firearm suppressors, better known as “silencers” popular for many decades among snipers and assassins.

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Iowa House votes to ban "telemedicine" abortions (updated)

Although Iowa House Republicans sought to restrict abortion rights after regaining the majority in the lower chamber in 2011, anti-choice bills were never a high priority for leadership. In fact, House leaders sometimes put the brakes on conservative efforts to bring anti-abortion legislation to the floor. During the 2013 legislative session, not a single bill restricting abortions even made it out of a committee in the Republican-controlled Iowa House.

House leaders must have gotten some flack from their caucus or outside advocacy groups, because even though restricting abortion isn’t a top agenda item for House Speaker Kraig Paulsen or Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, they made sure to move an anti-abortion bill quickly during this year’s session. Yesterday the Iowa House approved House File 2175, which would ban the use of telecommunications technology for the purpose of terminating a pregnancy. (A similar bill died in the funnel last year.)

Follow me after the jump for background and details on the roll call.

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