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.