Weekend open thread: Short-sighted elected officials edition

Who knew that when you tell a state agency leader to save another $1.3 million somehow, he might cut some important programs and services? Not State Representative Dave Heaton, the Republican chair of the Iowa legislature’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee.

Who knew that when you impeach a mayor using a kangaroo court proceeding, a judge might order the mayor reinstated while her appeal is pending? Not Muscatine City Council members.

Follow me after the jump for more on those stories. This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

I’m also interested to know what readers think about Iowa Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen’s request to waive certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act in order to bring Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield back to Iowa’s individual insurance market for 2018. Elements of the “stopgap” measure violate federal law; health care law expert Timothy Jost told the Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys that some parts of Ommen’s proposal are “extremely problematic” and not likely “doable.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Anna Wilde Mathews and Louise Radnofsky saw the Iowa developments as “a key test of the ability to modify the [Affordable Care Act] through executive authority.” Slate’s Jordan Weissmann agreed.

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Two more Democrats support gun bill in final Iowa House vote

This afternoon the Iowa House approved the amended omnibus gun bill state senators approved earlier this week. House File 517 passed by 57 votes to 35, mostly along party lines. Four Democrats (Bruce Bearinger, Scott Ourth, John Forbes, and Tim Kacena) voted for the bill. Bearinger and Ourth also supported the legislation the first time it came before the House. They explained their reasoning in comments I published here. I have asked Forbes and Kacena why they changed their minds and will update this post as needed.

Only two Republicans voted against the gun bill today. Dave Heaton and Michael Bergan also opposed last month’s version. Heaton could not abide the provisions making it more difficult for local governments to keep guns out of public buildings. His district includes Mount Pleasant, where a fatal shooting occurred during a city council meeting three decades ago. I have not seen public comments from Bergan about this issue, but will update this post if he responds to my inquiry.

Before the final vote, House members debated the Senate amendment to House File 517. Bleeding Heartland discussed the changes to various provisions here. Democratic State Representative Mary Wolfe offered an amendment to the amendment, which would have delayed until July 1, 2018 the implementation of the section allowing Iowans to carry concealed weapons on the state Capitol grounds. Her thinking: while it’s “fine” to let law-abiding Iowans carrying handguns in Capitol, the legislature has a “responsibility to visitors to ensure all permits to carry [are] valid.” The bill calls for the Department of Public Safety to create a statewide verifiable uniform permit to carry, but that process will take much longer than three months. Wolfe pointed to the risk that Iowans without permits might take advantage of the current non-uniformity of carry permits issued by county sheriffs (some with no photo). The state legislature will be held liable “if innocent people are killed by a person who is allowed to carry” a gun in the Capitol building.

Wolfe’s amendment was ruled not germane, and her motion to suspend the rules to force a vote on it failed along party lines. After that, House members approved the Senate amendment by voice vote, leading to closing speeches and the 57-35 vote on final passage mentioned above.

Matt Windschitl, who floor managed House File 517, used part of his closing remarks to go on a riff about Iowans “being lied to.” I expected a diatribe against people like me, who have raised concerns about Stand Your Ground and local pre-emption language facilitating more homicides. But in a plot twist, Windschitl’s target was Aaron Dorr, the none-too-ethical leader of Iowa Gun Owners. That group claims to be “Iowa’s only No Compromise gun rights organization.” On the House floor (beginning around the 4:42:15 mark here), Windschitl hammered Iowa Gun Owners for taking credit for a bill they did nothing to advance. “You need and you deserve the truth. Aaron Dorr is a scam artist, a liar, and he is doing Iowans no services and no favors. I feel better now,” Windschitl said, just before moving for a final vote on his bill.

UPDATE: Forbes commented via e-mail on April 7, “There were several changes made in the Senate that improved the bill and led to my support. While it is still not perfect, the Senate changes give the Governor more flexibility to restrict weapons in emergency situations, adds more safeguards for kids, and adds new protections to keep people who have committed a firearms-related crime behind bars.”

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Cash-strapped Iowa DHS agrees to pay private Medicaid managers more

No matter how strained Iowa’s fiscal condition may be, count on Governor Terry Branstad to lend a sympathetic ear to corporations asking for more handouts. Tony Leys brought the latest example to light in a late Friday scoop for the Des Moines Register. The Iowa Department of Human Services will “help private Medicaid management companies shoulder huge losses they’ve suffered in covering more than 500,000 poor or disabled Iowans.” DHS officials estimate the deal struck in February will cost the state about $10 million, “which would be paid more than a year from now.”

The Branstad administration agreed last fall to transfer an extra $33.2 million to the three private firms picked to manage the state’s Medicaid program. It wasn’t enough to satisfy Amerigroup, UnitedHealthcare and AmeriHealth Caritas. They soon asked for much higher payments from the state, saying they were losing money under their contracts. Documents indicate each company lost at least $100 million during the first year of managing care for Iowans on Medicaid, Chelsea Keenan reported earlier this month for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

One salient fact from Keenan’s story: administrative costs for the insurers totaled 6.8 percent, 11.6 percent, and 11.9 percent of expenditures. Before Branstad unwisely rushed to privatize Medicaid, our state-run program was only spending about 4 percent on administrative costs.

DHS Director Chuck Palmer told reporters in January that the state would not offer the Medicaid managed-care providers more money for the 15-month period running through the 2017 fiscal year. Only weeks later, officials amended the current-year contracts with “risk-corridor agreements” calling for the DHS “to shoulder the management companies’ financial losses if they grow beyond a certain point.”

Federal officials “have signed off on the contract amendments,” but no one informed key legislators about the development. Republican State Representative Dave Heaton, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, found out from Leys.

Speaking of appropriations, where will Iowa find extra money to pay the Medicaid managers? Around the time DHS leaders signed the contract amendments last month, the department was forced to absorb $25.5 million in spending cuts before June 30.

State lawmakers have not yet set fiscal year 2018 budget targets, but money will surely be tight following a recent downward revision to revenue projections. Mid-year budget cuts can’t be ruled out for next year either.

Meanwhile, Medicaid recipients are getting less care than before privatization or having to fight insurance companies over denied claims. Managed-care companies have slashed in-home services for Iowans with disabilities. About a quarter of the Iowans on Medicaid cannot access a program providing transportation to and from medical appointments. AmeriHealth Caritas is cutting payments to agencies that serve people with disabilities, leaving some caseworkers out of a job. Reimbursement problems drove some providers out of business last year.

Given Branstad’s track record of doing whatever big business asks of him, it wasn’t hard to predict that the DHS would end up shoveling more money to the Medicaid managers. The governor’s imminent departure creates an opportunity for Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to learn from her predecessor’s mistakes. Here’s hoping she will demonstrate her capacity for independent thinking by pulling the plug on Iowa’s failed Medicaid privatization.

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What you need to know about the bill that will get more Iowans killed

Voting mostly along party lines, the Iowa House approved on March 7 a bill containing many items on the gun lobby’s wish list. House File 517 would make it easier for Iowans to acquire, carry, and use firearms, relaxing permitting rules, expanding where people can bring concealed weapons, and enacting “Stand Your Ground” language. The bill is certain to pass the Republican-controlled state Senate, due to the heavy involvement of pro-gun groups in defeating several Democratic incumbents last year. Governor Terry Branstad has never seen a gun bill he didn’t like, so will surely sign House File 517 when it reaches his desk.

The most important likely result will be more shootings of unarmed people by Iowans newly entitled to use deadly force, without having to demonstrate that any person was in danger, or that the shooter had valid reason to feel threatened. Other states that adopted “Stand Your Ground” legislation have experienced a documented increase in homicides, with no evidence of deterrence effects. After Florida enacted a law similar to what the Iowa House just passed, “there was an abrupt and sustained increase in the monthly homicide rate of 24.4% […] and in the rate of homicide by firearm of 31.6% […].”

As State Representative Ras Smith underscored by putting on a hoodie during the Iowa House debate, African-Americans will be at particular risk, since research indicates “Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings.”

More tragedies may also occur in Iowa municipal offices, thanks to provisions making it harder for cities and counties to ban weapons from government buildings.

I enclose below some highlights from yesterday’s debate and details on House File 517. Because gun advocates continue to spread misinformation in order to build a case for “Stand Your Ground,” I also included relevant language from current state law and an Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

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Everything you want to know about Iowa's horrible new collective bargaining law

Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate voted today to dramatically reduce collective bargaining rights for some 180,000 public employees, following approximately 27 hours of debate in the Iowa Senate and fourteen and a half hours of debate in the Iowa House. GOP leaders moved House File 291 and Senate File 213 simultaneously through both chambers in order to speed up the process.

Democrats had offered dozens of amendments to the bills, which were published for the first time on February 7. Instead of allowing full discussion of every amendment, GOP leaders moved to cut off debate at a “time certain” today. That maneuver had never been used in the Iowa Senate and has been invoked only rarely in the Iowa House–including to end debate on the collective bargaining bill Republicans passed in March 2011. Debate ended in the Iowa House at noon, after which the majority quickly voted down all the remaining amendments with no discussion. Six Republicans joined all 41 Democrats to vote against the bill on final passage. Two of them, Tom Moore and Dave Heaton, are former teachers. Clel Baudler is a retired state trooper. Andy McKean and Shannon Lundgren were just elected from eastern Iowa swing districts, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. McKean is also very familiar with Chapter 20 as a former county supervisor and longtime state lawmaker. I don’t know why Mary Ann Hanusa opposed the bill. UPDATE: Hanusa did not respond to my request for comment, but I learned from another source that she is also a former teacher who works in education administration.

Senators debated all night long Wednesday into Thursday morning, with Republicans voting down every Democratic amendment. Independent State Senator David Johnson voted with Democrats on all the amendments and joined them in giving several passionate speeches. Few Republicans in either chamber chose to speak in favor of the bills, aside from Senate Labor Committee Chair Jason Schultz, House Labor Committee Chair Dave Deyoe, and State Representative Steven Holt, who floor-managed the bill and distinguished himself as the legislature’s least convincing liar. The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski summarized some of the important Democratic amendments. I didn’t stay up to watch the whole debate, so would welcome examples of some of the most absurd Republican comments, like State Senator Mark Chelgren accusing Democrats of “stalling” while his party had shown an “incredible amount of patience.” Nothing says “patient” like making sweeping changes to a 43-year-old law, affecting 180,000 Iowans, after only nine days in the legislature.

Senate leaders ended debate at 2 pm Thursday, after which Republicans voted down the remaining Democratic amendments, then substituted the text of the House bill for the Senate bill, to get the legislation to Governor Terry Branstad more quickly. Branstad’s chief of staff, Michael Bousselot, spent the final hours of debate in the Senate chamber. House File 291 eventually passed on a 29-21 Senate vote.

Iowa’s largest public-sector union, AFSCME Iowa Council 61, plans to file a lawsuit claiming the new law is unconstitutional, presumably because of the way it grants more bargaining rights to “public safety” workers than to others, many of whom do dangerous jobs. Video from a February 16 press conference by labor leaders is available here.

I enclose below statements about the bill by legislative leaders from both parties, as well as documents prepared by Iowa House Democratic and Republican staff, which discuss in more detail how House File 291 will affect collective bargaining rights for different types of public employees. Regarding substantive impacts, I also recommend the recent guest posts here by state employee Ruth Thompson, University of Northern Iowa Professor Chris Martin, and attorney James Larew, who predicted that today’s action “will be remembered as the most destructive blow to our ability to govern ourselves fairly and efficiently in nearly half a century.”

GOP spin notwithstanding, collective bargaining “reform” in Iowa was designed primarily with political goals in mind, like similar measures in other states. Republicans know that crippling public sector unions will make it harder for Democrats to win elections.

Although Republicans repeatedly claimed during the House and Senate debates that their bill would help local governments, Chapter 20 has worked so well that more than 140 school districts rushed to sign new contracts with the teachers union before the legislature acted. Boards of supervisors in several large counties passed resolutions condemning the proposal. Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson’s case against the bill is convincing.

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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2017

The Iowa House opens its 2017 session today with 59 Republicans, 40 Democrats, and one vacancy, since Jim Lykam resigned after winning the recent special election in Iowa Senate district 45. The 99 state representatives include 27 women (18 Democrats and nine Republicans) and 72 men. Five African-Americans (all Democrats) serve in the legislature’s lower chamber; the other 95 lawmakers are white. No Latino has ever been elected to the Iowa House, and there has not been an Asian-American 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.

Under the Ethics Committee subheading, you’ll see a remarkable example of Republican hypocrisy.

Some non-political trivia: the Iowa House includes two Taylors (one from each party) and two Smiths (both Democrats). 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), and three men each named Gary, John, and Charles (two Chucks and a Charlie). There are also two Elizabeths (a Beth and a Liz) and two men each named Brian, Bruce, Chris, Greg, Michael, and Todd.

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