Rest in peace, Jack Drake

State Representative Jack Drake passed away this weekend at the age of 81. He had been the longest-serving Iowa House Republican, representing parts of southwest Iowa since his first election in 1992. His current district (House district 21) covers all of Union and Adams Counties and parts of Cass and Pottawattamie Counties. Since the Republicans regained the Iowa House majority in the 2010 elections, Drake had chaired the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. Iowa House Speaker-Select Linda Upmeyer said in a statement today, “Iowa lost a dedicated public servant with the passing of Rep. Jack Drake. […] During his time in the Iowa House, Jack was a leader and trusted resource on agricultural issues which are so important to the State of Iowa. As the most senior member of the House Republican Caucus, his expertise and guidance will be sorely missed.”

I have never met Drake, but by all accounts he was a wonderful person to work with. The word “kind” came up again and again today in my conversations with people who interacted with him, either as fellow lawmakers or as advocates.

Former State Representative Frank Wood, who was the ranking Democrat on Drake’s appropriations subcommittee in 2013 and 2014, told me he was “shocked” by the news and said Drake would be “sorely missed.” Wood “thought very highly of him when I worked with him. He always kept me in the know of what was going on and what his limitations were” in terms of the budget targets. Democrats often requested additional funding for various programs, and according to Wood, Drake “understood and flat-out told me, if I had more money, I would definitely put it in those areas.” During the 2014 legislative session, when environmental advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers fought for extra funds for the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program, Drake was generally supportive. (The legislature approved record funding for REAP that year, but Governor Terry Branstad vetoed part of the money.) Wood also described Drake as “a gentle giant” and “a very non-partisan individual.” He toted the Republican line, but was “very pleasant to work with. I don’t think he had a mean bone in his body.”

State Representative Scott Ourth, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee during this year’s legislative session, told me, “What a sad day it is. Jack and I struck up a fast friendship right from the get go. He was very fair, an honest guy to work with, willing to compromise where his leadership would allow him to.” He “never stood in the way” of Ourth advocating for REAP funding or other Democratic priorities. Echoing Wood’s sentiments, Ourth described Drake as “a loving, kind, and generous man” and an elected official out of “the old school” with “no partisan divisiveness.” He was willing to work “with anyone and everyone” at the statehouse. Ourth summed up that he had “nothing but good things to say about that man” and would “miss him terribly.”  

Ourth also mentioned that since June, he has been working long hours in Drake’s district for a subcontractor on a large MidAmerican Energy wind farm project. (64 wind turbines are going up between Corning and Lennox in Adams County.) During these months, Ourth has talked with many of Drake’s constituents, who invariably said “what a great guy they thought he was” and how well he represented their district.

State Representative Chuck Isenhart, who also served on Drake’s subcommittee and is the ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Protection Committee, told me today, “Jack Drake was a kind and soft-spoken man.” He added that Drake “offered crucial, public bipartisan leadership to the establishment of Iowa’s local farms and food initiative in 2010, and has been a reliable supporter of the program ever since.”

With Drake’s passing, the most senior members of the Iowa House Republican caucus are Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Dave Heaton and Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Dan Huseman, both of whom were first elected in 1994.

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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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Iowa House Republicans accept marriage equality but can't admit it yet

Four years ago, Republicans rushed to pass a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman within weeks of regaining control of the Iowa House. Every member of the GOP caucus was on the same page.

Two years ago, the marriage amendment failed to come up for a vote in the Iowa House, but a majority of Republican lawmakers still co-sponsored the legislation.

Now, signs point to Iowa House Judiciary Committee Chair Chip Baltimore letting the marriage amendment die quietly, as he did in 2013. Fewer than a quarter of the 57 House Republicans signed on to the latest effort to turn back the clock on marriage rights. At the same time, only one GOP lawmaker is “loud and proud” about supporting the right of all Iowans to marry the person they love.

Follow me after the jump for a breakdown of where Iowa House Republicans stand on the “traditional marriage” amendment, and speculation on why so many of them aren’t trying to pass it anymore, even though they ostensibly don’t support LGBT marriage rights.  

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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2015

The Iowa House will begin its 2015 session on January 12 with 57 Republicans and 43 Democrats (assuming a Republican wins the January 6 special election in House district 4). Depending on who wins that special election, the 100 state representatives will include either 27 or 28 women, and either 72 or 73 men.

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 the previous legislative session.

Some non-political trivia: two of the three state representatives with the surname Olson retired this year, as did one of the two Iowa House members named Smith. There are still two Millers and two Taylors in the legislature’s lower chamber, one from each party. As for first names, the new cohort contains five six Davids (four go by Dave), four Roberts (two Robs, one Bob, and a Bobby), four Marys (one goes by Mary Ann), three four Johns, and three Brians. There are two Lindas, two Elizabeths (a Beth and a Liz), and two men each named Dan, Mark, Greg, Chuck, Bruce, Todd, and Chris.

2015 UPDATE: Added below information for John Kooiker, who won the House district 4 special election, and David Sieck, who won the House district 23 special election.  

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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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