Iowa Senate leader stripped two Republicans of committee chairmanships

In an unusual move between the first and second years of a legislative assembly, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix took committee chairmanships away from two members of his caucus this week. Senator Jake Chapman is the new leader of the Commerce Committee, replacing Bill Anderson. Senator Craig Johnson, who was just elected for the first time last November, now chairs the Transportation, Infrastructure, and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee, replacing Rick Bertrand.

Dix handed the more significant demotion to Bertrand, who no longer serves on any appropriations subcommittee. Anderson’s remaining committee assignments still include a spot on one appropriations subcommittee as well as a position on the powerful Ways and Means panel.

Senate Republicans didn’t publicize the changes, which took effect on May 24, on their website or social media feeds. The snubs to Bertrand and Anderson attracted little notice amid the transfer of power from Governor Terry Branstad to Kim Reynolds. Senate GOP communications staff, Johnson, Bertrand, and Anderson did not respond to my requests for comment. When I reached Chapman by phone on May 24, he confirmed his new committee chairmanship but declined to speculate about the reasons, saying, “I don’t make those decisions.”

My first thought was that Dix punished Bertrand for throwing a bit of a tantrum (starting at the 6:12:20 mark of this video) during the final debate on Senate File 471, the bill banning almost all abortions after 20 weeks. But when senators first considered the same bill in March, Chapman had tried to suspend the rules to force a floor vote on “personhood” language. Johnson was among sixteen Republicans to support that breach of Senate protocol. Anyway, my initial hunch wouldn’t explain what Dix did to Anderson, who has never called out his GOP colleagues during a Senate floor speech, to my knowledge.

My best guess is that Bertrand and Anderson paid a price for missing too many votes this year. Follow me after the jump for details.

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Near-total support for medical cannabis bill in Iowa Senate

What a difference two years makes: the Iowa Senate approved a comprehensive medical cannabis bill today by 45 votes to five. Almost two years ago to the day, a similar bill covering fewer medical conditions barely passed the Senate with just one Republican (Brad Zaun) joining 25 of the 26 Democrats. State Senator Tod Bowman was the lone Democrat not to support the 2015 cannabis legislation, and he was the only Democrat to vote against Senate File 506 today, joined by Republicans Mike Breitbach, Dan Dawson, Julian Garrett, and Mark Costello. (Garrett had voted for the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.)

Bleeding Heartland covered the important provisions of Senate File 506 here. Whereas the current law allows the use of cannabis oil to treat a few seizure conditions but doesn’t provide for in-state production, the new bill would cover thousands more Iowans, permit licensed users to obtain cannabis in more forms (but not smokeable marijuana), and create conditions for manufacturing and selling medical cannabis in Iowa.

Before final passage, senators adopted two amendments by voice vote. Language introduced by Republican Tom Greene added polyarteritis nodosa to the list of covered conditions and reduced the maximum number of licensed medical cannabis manufacturers in Iowa from twelve to four. Republican Mark Chelgren’s amendment removed a passage that would have allowed patients to register for a nonresident card in Minnesota and obtain medical cannabis from a manufacturer in that state.

Iowa House Republican leaders may not allow a vote on this bill without amendments to limit its scope. However, they will face pressure to do something before adjournment, because the current law expires on July 1. During today’s floor debate, several senators urged colleagues in the lower chamber to send the legislation to Governor Terry Branstad, Steffi Lee reported for CBS-2 in Cedar Rapids.

Advocacy groups representing Iowans affected by various diseases or medical conditions are lobbying in favor of Senate File 506, while some organizations representing law enforcement or medical professionals are registered against it, including the Iowa Pharmacy Association. Ironically, the only two pharmacists serving in the legislature are strong supporters of the bill. Greene floor-managed Senate File 506, and Democratic State Representative John Forbes has been one of the lower chamber’s leading advocates for medical cannabis reform for years.

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Iowa Democrats, talk less about ALEC and more about people's lives

Thousands of Iowans will suffer brutal consequences from the two major bills Republican senators approved Monday. House File 295 blocks local governments from raising the minimum wage. Once Governor Terry Branstad signs the bill, thousands of people working in Linn, Johnson, and Wapello counties will get an immediate pay cut. Some 25,000 people in Polk County will be stuck earning $7.25 an hour, instead of getting a raise to $8.75, beginning next week. House File 518 will make it harder for employees to file workers’ compensation claims and will vastly reduce benefits for those who do qualify, especially anyone with a shoulder injury.

Both bills passed on party-line 29-21 votes after Republicans had rejected every effort to mitigate the harm done to working people.

As each Democratic amendment went down during hours of debate on the Senate floor, feelings of sadness, disgust and anger came through in the speeches of some Democrats and independent State Senator David Johnson. Why are you doing this, several asked their GOP colleagues. You don’t have to follow your floor manager, some pleaded. You can reject the “shameful” attempt to target poor people or those affected by life-altering workplace accidents.

Another dismal day in the Iowa legislature provoked an outpouring on social media, where progressive activists have mobilized this year in response to the Republican agenda. A measurable wave of “greater grassroots activism on the political left” is one of the few bright spots in the national landscape. In Iowa too, ordinary people are contacting their state lawmakers in record numbers and showing up to challenge them at district forums.

Watching these discussions unfold, I’ve noticed a reflexive tendency to blame one destructive Iowa GOP bill after another on the Koch brothers or the American Legislative Exchange Council. The more Democrats make the conversation about Koch money or ALEC, the easier it is for Republicans to avoid talking about the real-world consequences of their actions.

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Peter Cownie won't say who suggested worst workers' comp proposals

The Iowa House has already approved and the Senate will consider today the most sweeping changes to our workers’ compensation system in decades. The legislation would disadvantage injured workers in many ways. Three points in the initial Republican proposal have drawn the most intense criticism from employee advocates who spoke to journalists, published commentaries, testified at a public hearing, or reached out directly to state lawmakers:

• Shifting the burden of proof by forcing employees filing a claim to show workplace activity was the “predominant” factor in an injury;

• Cutting off benefits for most injuries at age 67, which would discriminate against older workers; and

• Classifying shoulder injuries as “scheduled member” rather than “body as a whole” injuries, language seen as a gift to meatpacking companies because it would “drastically” reduce benefits.

Those provisions were so widely acknowledged to be unjust that Republicans amended them before passing House File 518. GOP State Senator Charles Schneider has said he and other colleagues favor changing the same three sections of the Senate version.

How did such cruel ideas come before the legislature to begin with? Hoping to find out, I turned to State Representative Peter Cownie, who introduced the workers’ compensation bill in his capacity as House Commerce Committee chair.

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House Republicans approve workers' comp bill with major unfunded changes

Iowa workers lost again at the statehouse on Thursday, as 55 House Republicans approved a bill that would tilt the workers’ compensation system markedly toward employers. All 37 Democrats present voted against House File 518, joined by just one Republican, State Representative Rob Taylor. UPDATE: GOP Representative Clel Baudler was absent on March 16 but filed an “explanation of vote” in the House Journal on March 20 clarifying that he would have voted “nay” on this bill.

Lawmakers had received an enormous number of constituent contacts since the “dramatic” and “far-reaching” legislation first saw the light of day a little more than two weeks ago. In a rush to get this unpleasantness behind them before the weekend, GOP legislators insisted on a final vote before staff could analyze the cost of a “new career vocational training and education program,” conjured up in an amendment filed the previous evening.

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