Never let it be said that the 2016 Iowa legislature accomplished nothing

In four months of work this year, Iowa lawmakers made no progress on improving water quality or expanding conservation programs, funded K-12 schools and higher education below levels needed to keep up with inflation, failed to increase the minimum wage or address wage theft, let most criminal justice reform proposals die in committee, didn’t approve adequate oversight for the newly-privatized Medicaid program, opted against making medical cannabis more available to sick and suffering Iowans, and left unaddressed several other issues that affect thousands of constituents.

But let the record reflect that bipartisan majorities in the Iowa House and Senate acted decisively to solve a non-existent problem. At a bill-signing ceremony yesterday, Governor Terry Branstad and supporters celebrated preventing something that probably never would have happened.

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Iowa House Republicans try to evade accountability on medical cannabis

What do state lawmakers do when they don’t want to pass something the overwhelming majority of their constituents support?

A time-honored legislative strategy involves 1) keeping the popular proposal from coming up for a vote, and 2) giving your members a chance to go on record supporting a phony alternative.

Iowa House Republicans executed that statehouse two-step this week in order to block efforts to make medical cannabis more widely available to Iowans suffering from serious health problems.

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Another Iowa House Republican in a competitive district retires

First-term GOP State Representative Darrel Branhagen announced yesterday that he will retire this year rather than seek another term in Iowa House district 55.

He is the eighth of the 57 House Republicans to announce retirement plans since last summer. The others are Kraig Paulsen (House district 67), Linda Miller (House district 94), John Kooiker (House district 4), Ron Jorgensen (House district 6), Quentin Stanerson (House district 95), Brian Moore (House district 58), and Josh Byrnes (House district 51).

Kooiker’s district is the most solidly Republican in the state. Based on current voter registration numbers, Republicans will be favored to hold House districts 6, 67, and 94. On the other hand, the seats being vacated by Branhagen, Byrnes, Moore, and Stanerson will be strong pickup opportunities for Democrats. Bleeding Heartland previously discussed the political balance and recent voting history of districts 51, 58, and 95.

House district 55 covers most of Winneshiek County (including Decorah), part of Fayette County (including West Union), and a small area in Clayton County (including Elkader). A map is after the jump. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, the district contains 5,539 active registered Democrats, 6,568 Republicans, and 6,499 no-party voters.

President Barack Obama took 55.19 percent of the vote among House district 55 residents in the 2012 general election. Joni Ernst outpolled Bruce Braley here in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, but by 50.28 percent to 45.60 percent, substantially less than her statewide margin of victory.

House district 55 was open for the 2014 general election following the retirement of longtime Democratic State Representative Roger Thomas. Branhagen defeated Democrat Rick Edwards by just 27 votes, the closest Iowa legislative result of the cycle.

Two Democrats had already begun campaigning here before Branhagen made his retirement plans known. I enclose below a press release with background on Pat Ritter, an attorney from West Union who launched his campaign in December. Former Winneshiek County Supervisor Steve McCargar announced his candidacy last month. A press release noted McCargar “was a co-manager at Oneota Food Coop for 25 years, helped start Hometown Taxi in 1987 and is currently a pre-school teacher and farmers market manager in Decorah.” I have not yet heard of a Republican candidate in House district 55, but Decorahnews.com reported yesterday that an “announcement is expected soon.”

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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2016

The Iowa House opened its 2016 session today with 57 Republicans and 43 Democrats. The 100 state representatives include 27 women (21 Democrats and six Republicans) and 73 men. Five African-Americans (all Democrats) serve in the legislature’s lower chamber; the other 95 state representatives are white. No Latino has ever been elected to the Iowa House, and there has not been an Asian member since Swati Dandekar moved up to the Iowa Senate following the 2008 election.

After the jump I’ve posted details on the Iowa House majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing House committees. Where relevant, I’ve noted changes since last year. All are on the Republican side, mostly following from Kraig Paulsen’s decision to step down as speaker, Chuck Soderberg’s retirement, and the passing of Jack Drake.

Some non-political trivia: the Iowa House includes two Millers (one from each party), two Taylors (one from each party), and two Moores (both Republicans). As for first names, there are six Davids (four go by Dave), four Roberts (two Robs, one Bob, and a Bobby), four Marys (one goes by Mary Ann), four Johns, and three Brians. There are two Lindas, two Elizabeths (a Beth and a Liz), and two men each named Dan, Mark, Greg, Tom, Bruce, Todd, Chris, and Charles (one goes by Chuck).

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Veterans Day links, with thanks to the Iowans in public life who have served

November 11 first became a day to honor war veterans in 1919, one year after the First World War ended. Congress officially designated “Armistice Day” a national holiday in 1926 and changed its name to Veterans Day in 1954. Many Americans will make a special effort today to thank the veterans they know. In that spirit, Bleeding Heartland acknowledges some of the Iowans in public life who have served in the armed forces.

Iowa’s Congressional delegation includes only one person who has served in the military: Senator Joni Ernst. The number of veterans in Congress has declined dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1971, “when member military service was at its peak, veterans made up 72 percent of members in the House and 78 percent in the Senate.” But in the current Congress, just 81 U.S. House representatives and 13 U.S. senators have served in the military. I enclose below more statistics from Rachel Wellford’s report for NPR.

Governor Terry Branstad is the only veteran among Iowa’s current statewide elected officials.

Of the 50 Iowa Senate members, seven are veterans: Democrats Jeff Danielson, Tom Courtney, Dick Dearden, Bill Dotzler, and Wally Horn, and Republicans Bill Anderson and Jason Schultz.

Of the 100 Iowa House members, nineteen are veterans: Republicans John Kooiker, Stan Gustafson, John Landon, Dave Maxwell, Kraig Paulsen, Sandy Salmon, Quentin Stanerson, Guy Vander Linden, Matt Windschitl, Dave Heaton, Darrel Branhagen, Ken Rizer, Zach Nunn, John Wills, and Steve Holt, and Democrats Dennis Cohoon, Jerry Kearns, Todd Prichard, and Brian Meyer.

The population of veterans faces some special challenges, including higher rates of mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated 22 U.S. military veterans die by suicide every day, which means suicide “has caused more American casualties than wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The Military Suicide Research Consortium provides information on the problem and resources for those needing help, in addition to white papers summarizing current research on factors that contribute to suicides. For instance, sexual assault in adulthood or childhood sexual abuse both increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts. Also, veterans who know someone who died by suicide “reported more than twice the frequency of suicidal ideation.” I was surprised to read in this paper that major public holidays are not associated with higher rates of suicide. On the contrary, “holidays may act as more of a protective factor” against suicide, possibly because of greater “social integration during holiday periods.”

Last month the Iowa Department of Public Health released the Iowa Plan for Suicide Prevention 2015-2018, which “seeks to reduce the annual number of deaths by suicide in Iowa by 10 percent by the year 2018 – a reduction of 41 from the 406 three-year average from 2012-2014 – with an ultimate goal of zero deaths by suicide.” The full report (which does not focus on veterans) is available here (pdf). Iowans with suicidal thoughts or who are concerned a loved one may be considering suicide can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK or Your Life Iowa at (855)-581-8111. For online assistance: Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Your Life Iowa.

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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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