Branstad seeks to protect farmers from electrical inspections (updated)

Governor Terry Branstad struck a blow against what he considers overly burdensome business regulations today. He moved to help farmers regain an exemption from having electrical work inspected.

UPDATE: Added language from Iowa Code below. I don’t see how it supports Branstad’s argument.

When Democrat Chet Culver was governor, the Iowa Electrical Examining Board adopted a rule to require state inspections for electrical work on farm buildings. The legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee reviewed that rule and let it go into effect. Branstad told reporters this morning that he heard “a lot of horror stories” about these inspections when he talked to farmers during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. It’s too late for Branstad to veto the rule, but he filed a formal objection to it today:

“You’ve got a board that is circumventing the law,” Branstad says, “and that is what we find egregious and inappropriate.”

By filing the objection this morning, Branstad shifts the burden of proof if a group of farmers file a lawsuit on the matter and the governor says that means the state board will have to prove it had the authority to act despite the way the law was written.

This portion of the Iowa Code lists exemptions from electrical inspection requirements. I am not an attorney, but I don’t see language that explicitly says lawmakers did not intend for electrical work on farms to be inspected. I see language indicating that legislators wanted to exempt farm employees from having to hold electrical contractor licenses, and language that allows property owners to perform electrical work on farm buildings. Perhaps some Bleeding Heartland reader can point to the clear legislative intent to protect farmers from electrical inspections.

Branstad and one of the farmers who attended today’s press conference said the state inspections cost $500, on top of whatever the farmer had to spend on the electrical work. One member of the Iowa Electrical Examining Board told the Des Moines Register that “the inspections are on a sliding scale and that many cost far less than the $500 fee.”

Cattle and grain farmer Colin Johnson of Wapello County told reporters that the inspections are “very unnecessary and financially burdensome.”

But Johnson and the governor admit a farmer could perform the electrical work on his own, without electrical training and without a follow-up inspection, if a lawsuit challenging the rule is successful.

“Agriculture and our farming operations are very different than a very public, commercial retail business and I think the law specified that very clearly that is was (to apply) to commercial (operations),” Johnson says. “How many times is my farming operation open to the public: my barns, my grain bins, my facilities?”

Lots of commercial buildings aren’t routinely open to the public. Why should Johnson’s employees or family members be less protected against faulty wiring? The purpose of the electrical inspections process “is to improve public safety by ensuring that buildings in which people live and work have electrical systems which meet or exceed the National Electrical Code.”

Democratic State Senator Tom Courtney was on my wavelength when he told the Des Moines Register today,

“I don’t want our inspectors to be too intrusive, either, but they ought to have the same inspections that I have living within the city limits of Burlington,” Courtney said. “Nobody wants inspections but the first time a farm house that’s rented out to a family with kids burns up, people will be stumbling all over themselves to figure out why that happened.”

Some statehouse Republicans will appreciate the governor’s action today. Iowa Senate Minority Leader Jerry Behn appeared alongside the farmers at Branstad’s press conference. Last year a group of mostly rural Iowa House Republicans sponsored a bill to repeal statewide licensure requirements for electricians and electrical contractors. That bill died in subcommittee and was eventually withdrawn.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: When I asked which language in Iowa Code demonstrates clear legislative intent to exempt farmers from electrical inspections, Branstad’s communications director Tim Albrecht responded, “Section 103.22 (2) exempts farms.” That’s the part I was looking at yesterday. Here’s the whole paragraph:

103.22 Chapter inapplicability.

The provisions of this chapter shall not:

[…]

2. Require employees of municipal utilities, electric membership or cooperative associations, investor-owned utilities, rural water associations or districts, railroads, telecommunications companies, franchised cable television operators, farms, or commercial or industrial companies performing manufacturing, installation, and repair work for such employer to hold licenses while acting within the scope of their employment. An employee of a farm does not include a person who is employed for the primary purpose of installing a new electrical installation.

I read that to mean that farmers and their employees do not need to hold an electrical contractor’s license while doing their normal jobs. The final sentence indicates that a person hired specifically to do electrical work on a farm does NOT qualify as “an employee of a farm,” which I assume was put there to make clear that electrical contractors hired primarily by farmers DO need to be licensed.

I see nothing in this paragraph to indicate that Iowa lawmakers intended to exempt farmers from electrical inspections. If that’s what they meant, it’s not in the code. That’s probably why the state legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee let this Iowa Electrical Examining Board rule stand during the Culver administration.

To me this looks like a classic case of a politician counting on the media not to fact-check his assertions.

SECOND UPDATE: Albrecht responds on behalf of the governor:

Iowa Code section 102.22(2) expressly allows farms to perforum manufacturing, installation and repair work and does not require them to hold licenses for electrical work. The Electrical Board expanded the scope of the permit and inspection process in violation of section 103.22(2) and w/o the express grant of legislative authority in Iowa Code 103.23.

A judge will decide this matter, if and when a group of farmers sue to overturn this rule in court. I am not convinced the board overstepped its authority. Lots of businesses that don’t have to hold electrical contractor licenses still have to comply with state inspections.

THIRD UPDATE: After reading Lynn Campbell’s solid report at IowaPolitics.com, I am even less convinced a judge would agree with Branstad’s interpretation of Iowa Code:

But Barb Mentzer, chairwoman of the Iowa Elecrical Examining Board, said the board was advised by the state attorney general’s office that agriculture is covered by the requirement for state inspections for electrical work.

“All of the rules are written per the statute. There is no exemption in the code for farms specifically,” Mentzer said. “As a board, we see our responsibility as being the protection of everyone in the state.”

Mentzer said the board reaffirmed its rule last week, after three farmers in Carroll County asked for a full exemption from the rule. She said electrical work can be dangerous if not installed properly. Since inspections started under the rule in March 2009, the state has seen a 35 percent reduction in electrical fires, she said.

Monday marked the first time an Iowa governor has used this little-known authority to file a written objection to a state administrative rule that has been reviewed by a state board and lawmakers, Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht told IowaPolitics.com.

The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that Branstad mentioned hearing “horror stories” from farmers about this excessive regulation. People burning up in an electrical fire is a “horror story.” Having to pay for a safety inspection is an inconvenient business expense.

  • nobody is saying that it's clear

    Perhaps some Bleeding Heartland reader can point to the clear legislative intent to protect farmers from electrical inspections.

    It’s 103.23 (-5), ELECTRICAL INSTALLATIONS — SUBJECT TO

         INSPECTION

    The argument is that 1) farms were omitted because the legislative intent was to exempt them from inspections, unlike “commercial and industrial.” 2) that “commercial and industrial” are distinct from agriculture in the way they are also treated separately for property tax purposes.

    The reason Tim Albrecht cited 103.22(2) is probably because farms are specifically listed separately from “commercial and industrial,” thus supporting Branstad’s intepretation of omission in 103.23(1-5) = intention of exemption. This is my speculation.

    The language is sloppy.

    I would argue for the inspection, but for twi very specific reasons.

    (1) Buildings on farms tend to be older, with a higher % built before the Depression as compared to residential/commercial. Take Polk County, for example:

    built 1930 or earlier (agriculture) 42.3%

    built 1930 or earlier (commercial)  14.6%

    Residential is similar in that DSM had a boomlet 1880-Depression, but the post-war and post-farm crisis development periods dwarf it. Agriculture is the exact opposite — boom building was before mechanization of farming. And with the delay in rural electrification, this means that probably about 1/2 of buildings associated w/ farms were wired after they were built.

    Possible reason #2. Note that Courtney mentions a rented farm house. So apparently living dwellings (not mentioned by the farmer above) would be exempted as well? Here is something interesting. The agricultural building heyday was approx 1880-1930, as mentioned above. But agricultural construction spiked in 2011, reminiscent of “golden years,” at least in Polk County, matching (woo-hoo) 1919 levels. Almost all the buildings are described as ranches. This return to the Gilded Age has be a bit suspicious so …

    Here’s one of the “ranches”

    Oh, look, it’s the infamous Deer Creek Estates developed by Geri Huser’s father. The plot thickens. So, this “ranch” is zoned as residential but the assessment is agricultural.

    I’ve sent an email to Sen Courtney asking for clarification on his quote. What a gas if all of this is because MacMansion developers associated with Geri Huser want to save a few bucks.

    • supporting info


      Minutes maintained by the Legislative Services Agency show testimony at the time that some people thought farmers should be excused, but no formal action was taken to remove them.

      Department of Public Safety officials maintained that farmers were subject to the inspections.

      “Department representatives stated that farm installations fell within the commercial and industrial category, and inspections were required for farm installations.

      Opponents of this rule contended that the commercial and industrial language demonstrated a legislative intent to exclude farm operations,” the minutes read. “Opponents cited property tax law where commercial and industrial property are treated differently than agricultural land. Opponents also noted that amendments in the enabling legislation establish other exceptions for farm installations, showing a legislative intent that farm operations are to be treated differently from commercial or industrial property.”

      Branstad said the formal objection “basically shifts the burden of proof from the farmer objecting to making the board responsible for proving that it had the authority.”

      link

      My only question is that if opponents are talking about how agricultural properties are classified separately, then what does that mean for the “ranch,” which is classified as agricultural for property tax purposes? Is this one of Branstad’s hard-working farmers? Or will living dwellings not be exempt?

    • that is classic

      Reminds me of how suburbanites get a break on vehicle fees for their four-door pickups because farmers got an exception written into state law many years ago for their working trucks. It would not surprise me in the least if MacMansion developers were pushing for this exemption, with farmers showing up at the press conference for public consumption.

      I agree with your speculation, but I am far from convinced a judge would read the code that way. The paragraph in question clearly refers to electrical contractor licensing. I see good reason to exempt people in certain occupations from being licensed electrical contractors. That’s very different from saying their rewiring of an old building shouldn’t be inspected.

      Branstad’s argument at yesterday’s press conference was that most farmers hire electrical contractors anyway for this kind of work. But what about the people who decide to take on more than they know how to handle? If it went to court, the evidence you cite about a higher proportion of farm buildings being pre-1930s would be very relevant.

      • i would imagine

        that any sane judge would say: get real, but then again, I’m not accustomed to a state where agriculture gets such special treatment. Most other states have struck down fence laws, for example, when challenged in court.

        • according to the chair

          of the Iowa Electrical Examining Board, the state AG’s office advised them that electrical inspection requirements cover agricultural buildings. I don’t see a lawsuit getting very far, although there may be Iowa district court judges who are particularly sympathetic to farming interests.

      • it may be worse than you think ...

        suburbanites get a break

        I continue to be impressed by your recent optimism 😉

        This looks like a developer-only break. I am looking at a planning/land use doc for east of Ankeny from a few years agao. It is clearly classsified (on a map) for agriculture, an interesting category called “agriculture transition,” lo/hi residential densities, commercial, etc.

        So, around the intersection of Four Mile and Deer Creek, there is a large block described as “agricultural.” Just north of it, is low-density residential.

        Lo and behold, the entire “ag” block from yesteryear is now houses and assessed as residential. And just north of this block is where these new houses are coming in, now (or perhaps, for now) assessed as agricultural.

        This fluidity probably only benefits the developer. You see, there’s a bunch of these houses of recent vintage that are still (for now?) assessed as ag, but their neighbors (really) are residential, of 200x vintage.

        There’s a host of issues in the area beyond what is mentioned at the site I linked to — flooding problems (4 Mile); a promised greenway has been cancelled. The “hook” on Deer Creek is conservation to reduce/redirect run-off …

        The RE market in Ankeny and this zip has been flat to slight decline, so fighting for a few hundred bucks makes some sense.

        I would speculate that variations on the above are happening all over IA in “country living” type areas that are suburbs of “metro” areas.

      • both would benefit

        or actually, all three.

        1. Corp ag — according to state publications in 2009, some of the bigger jobs would run over $1K in fees.

        2. Small farms — prior to 2009, rural Iowa was completely unregulated when it came to electrical work. Handled locally for urbanized areas.

        3. Development classified as agricultural property. I note that the bill in 2010 that would have accomplished what Branstad now wants was co-sponsored by Hagenow and Helland (as well as four rural Dems and two more GOP). At least Helland grew up on a family farm in the district, but it’s his district from which Ankeny annexes this type of development. More generally, I would expect this in rural areas developed around urban areas.

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