Why did Iowa Senate Republicans reject three Culver appointees?

The Republican caucus in the Iowa Senate is the smallest it’s ever been in this state’s history, but they let us know this week that they are not entirely irrelevant. On Tuesday all 18 Republican senators blocked Governor Chet Culver’s appointment of Shearon Elderkin to the Environmental Protection Commission. The 32 Senate Democrats supported Elderkin, but nominees need a two-thirds majority (34 votes) to be confirmed.

The following day, Senate Republicans unanimously blocked Gene Gessow’s appointment as head of the Department of Human Services. Also on April 15, two Senate Democrats joined with the whole Republican caucus to reject a second term for Carrie La Seur on the Iowa Power Fund board.

Senate Republican leader Paul McKinley released statements explaining each of these votes, but I doubt those statements tell the whole story, and I’ll tell you why after the jump.

As I wrote earlier this month, I have served on a non-profit board with Elderkin and know first-hand that she has the intellect and temperament to serve ably on the Environmental Protection Commission. The governor appointed her to that body last summer to fill the remainder of an unexpired term, and he asked the Iowa Senate to approve her service for a full term to begin in May.

Here’s Paul McKinley’s statement on why Republicans rejected Elderkin’s nomination:

“Though the governor is entitled to appoint who he wants to serve in his administration, members of the Iowa Senate have a serious and very distinct ‘advise and consent’ role to ensure that the taxpayers of Iowa are being well served by the appointments made by the governor. Senators were invited to meet with Mrs. Elderkin who took questions from the lawmakers. She misrepresented the position she has taken on the EPC and her failure to be forthright while misrepresenting her position in front of the senators raises many serious red flags. When asked about several issues before the commission, including her views on particulate matter, Mrs. Elderkin failed to provide a defensible reason or rationale to senators about her stances. This is an important commission that affects the economy and health of all Iowans and that is why Mrs. Elderkin’s nomination is not in the best interest of Iowa taxpayers.”

That’s what is commonly known as “weasel wording.” Which position did Elderkin allegedly misrepresent? Senate Republicans don’t say, so it’s impossible to check their claim. I contacted Elderkin for a comment on Wednesday, and she said she had no idea what McKinley was talking about. She said she was very clear in discussing particulate matter with the senators, including why fine particulate matter (or particulate matter 2.5) is more hazardous to human health than the larger particulate matter 10.

The Des Moines Register gave an additional reason for Republican opposition to Elderkin:

Republicans said they were concerned Elderkin would set rules that are more strict than federal law on anti-degradation, which relates to water quality and pollution levels of waters in the state.

Elderkin told me this is completely false and that she made clear the EPC could not enforce water quality rules that were stricter than federal laws. Either Republicans did not understand what she said, or they misconstrued her statements.

I asked Elderkin (a lifelong Republican, incidentally) why she thought Senate Republicans voted down her appointment. She said, “The whole thing is to send a message to the EPC that they are too activist.” Republicans would like the EPC to be a “rubber-stamp” instead, she asserted. (Elderkin is known for asking tough questions, which I consider a plus for a government commission, but if you’re looking for a rubber-stamp, she’s not your woman.)

Various people who follow environmental issues had a similar take in off-the-record comments to me this week. In their opinion, Elderkin cast some votes on the EPC that the Farm Bureau didn’t like.  End of story.

Next up: Carrie La Seur, who has nearly completed one term on the Iowa Power Fund. Here’s Senator McKinley’s statement on why Republicans rejected her:

“Though the governor is entitled to appoint who he wants to serve in his administration, members of the Iowa Senate have a serious and very distinct ‘advise and consent’ role to ensure Iowa taxpayers that the individuals selected are of the highest character and are capable of carrying out the important duties that are asked of them. During her tenure on the Iowa Power Fund Board, Ms. La Seur has been a driving force behind the Iowa Power Fund Board ignoring legislative intent regarding base load energy.

The Legislature’s intent through the creation of the Iowa Power Fund Board is to provide assistance and opportunities to grow Iowa’s energy economy and create jobs, yet Ms. La Seur has taken an active role in killing the Alliant Energy Marshalltown coal plant. As President of Plains Justice, a Cedar Rapids-based environmental law center, Ms. La Seur has raised money and brought forth litigation intended to stop the construction of that plant as well as others like it. She has ignored the guidelines and intent outlined by the governor and the Legislature for the Iowa Power Fund and instead pushed the power fund to become a policy making institution instead of its original intent to expand energy production in Iowa.”

More distortions and weasel wording. The Iowa Power Fund is supposed to work on energy independence for this state, with a particular focus on renewable energy. The Power Fund had no say on coal plant siting or other matters that prompted Alliant to drop plans to build a coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown. Increasing our electricity production from coal in no way furthers the goal of “energy independence,” because the coal burned at Iowa plants will all come from out of state.

I spoke with La Seur on Wednesday, and she noted that the senators’ objections had nothing to do with her work on the Power Fund board. It was all related to her day job with Plains Justice, namely her legal efforts to derail the coal plant project in Marshalltown.

La Seur also told me that during her time on the Power Fund board, no coal-related project ever came to the full board for approval. Either there were no applicants seeking funding for “clean coal” projects, or none of those applicants made it to the point where Power Fund directors would vote on the project.

Two Iowa Senate Democrats also voted against La Seur. Steve Sodders’ district includes Marshalltown, and Tom Rielly’s district is nearby. Apparently Sodders and Rielly think fewer than 100 permanent jobs are worth the price of fine particulate matter and heavy metal pollutants raining down on tens of thousands of their constituents. I think they should be grateful that Iowa wasn’t saddled with another coal plant, since coal is likely to become significantly more expensive to produce in the near future.

La Seur raised a few more salient points in a statement she posted to the Iowa Renewable Energy Association’s e-mail loop on Thursday (excerpt):

With this vote, a minority of senators removed the only Power Fund director under the age of 40 and the only representative of the flood devastated Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor.  Ironically, they also removed a member of the negotiating team for a grant to Consumers Energy of Marshalltown for a plug-in hybrid car demonstration project.  As part of that team I’ve been working to expand the scope of the grant to include training opportunities for Marshalltown Community College students.  I sincerely hope the expanded project goes forward in my absence.  My sole intent as a Power Fund Board member has been to expand Iowa’s clean energy economy in the most cost-effective way possible.

During two years on the Power Fund Board I chaired the Administrative Rules committee that put operating rules in place for the Power Fund Board within a matter of months, to meet targets set by the legislature. I’ve spoke frequently in Board meetings on behalf of flood-affected businesses (including my own, which was displaced for 2 months last summer), met with many local grant applicants to explain the workings of the Power Fund board, assisted staff in organizing a Board meeting and public forum in Mt. Vernon, and sought at every opportunity to expand clean energy economic development opportunities.  To my knowledge, nobody has criticized my performance on the Board, only my job-related activities outside it.  Several members of the Board, including Republicans, campaigned for my confirmation.  Governor Culver expressed his continued full support of my confirmation at a press conference yesterday.

McKinley’s claim that La Seur ignored legislative intent in her work on the Power Fund board is ridiculous.

Finally, the most contentious confirmation vote of the week was over Gene Gessow, acting head of the Department of Human Services. Here’s McKinley’s statement:

“Though the governor is entitled to appoint who he wants to serve in his administration, members of the Iowa Senate have a serious and very distinct ‘advise and consent’ role to ensure Iowa taxpayers that the individuals selected are of the highest character and are capable of carrying out the important duties that are asked of them. Senators have diligently and meticulously researched, questioned and interviewed Mr. Gessow on issues of policy and budgetary matters. Iowans expect government to be open and transparent and they expect their elected and appointed officials to be forthcoming and honest, however, Mr. Gessow has failed to be forthright about the Atalissa bunkhouse situation during important legislative oversight committee hearings. As a result, Senate Republicans have concluded Mr. Gessow’s appointment to head the state’s second largest agency, responsible for providing essential services to hundreds of thousands of Iowans, is not in the best interest of this state’s taxpayers.

The exploitation of mentally disabled workers living in that Atalissa bunkhouse was indeed horrific, and the Iowa Senate has unanimously approved a bill to prevent similar abuses, but Gessow has only been in charge of DHS for a few months. That abuse was going on for many years. McKinley’s statement would be more convincing if it specified how Gessow was not “forthright” on this matter during his hearing.

The Des Moines Register’s report on this story hinted that Senate Republicans used the Gessow confirmation vote to vent about feeling shut out at the statehouse this year. Senate Majority leader Mike Gronstal filed a motion to reconsider, keeping Gessow’s nomination alive, and Governor Culver issued a very strong statement urging Republicans to confirm Gessow. However, I would be shocked if two Republicans flip their votes on this. They have little power left beyond the power to block gubernatorial appointments. Culver is going to have to find a new head for the DHS sometime in May. I hope the disruption during the transition can be minimized, because more Iowans are needing social services during this severe recession.

I also hope that Culver’s upcoming appointments to the Power Fund Board and the EPC will be like La Seur and Elderkin: intelligent, committed and not easily intimidated.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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  • Timing?

    Does any of this boil down to a signal to Republican evangelical conservatives that they will work in lockstep on gay marriage in the future? I’m sure there are some things about these appointees they don’t like, but the timing is suspect.

    • I hadn't thought about that

      I think the writing was on the wall for Elderkin and La Seur months ago. A lot of people have a stake in the Environmental Protection Commission not doing more to protect the environment, and of course a lot of people wanted that coal plant in Marshalltown.

      I don’t know about Gessow.