Highlights from this year's Iowa Senate votes on Branstad nominees

During the 2014 legislative session, the Iowa Senate confirmed all but a handful of Governor Terry Branstad’s more than 200 nominees for state boards and commissions. It’s not unusual for senators to vote down one or two appointees, but this year the Senate confirmed everyone who came up for a vote on the floor.

The only close call was former Iowa House Republican Nick Wagner, confirmed to the Iowa Utilities Board last month with just one vote to spare. Branstad originally named Wagner to the three-member utilities board in 2013 but pulled his nomination when it became clear that senators would not confirm him. Branstad named Wagner to that board anyway, right after the Senate adjourned for the year in 2013. By the time his nomination came up for consideration this year, a couple of factors that worked against him were no longer relevant. Former State Senator Swati Dandekar had resigned from the board to run for Congress, so there would no longer be two of three members from Marion (a Cedar Rapids suburb). Furthermore, Branstad named attorney Sheila Tipton to replace Dandekar, so senators could no longer object to the lack of a lawyer on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Still, most of the Democratic caucus opposed Wagner’s nomination. State Senator Rob Hogg cited the nominee’s support for a bad nuclear power bill that the legislature considered a few years back. Meanwhile, State Senator Matt McCoy (who incidentally wanted to pass the nuclear bill) noted that as a key Iowa House Republican on budget matters, Wagner “was not willing to listen” and “took very difficult and very hard-line positions.” After the jump I’ve posted the roll call on the Wagner nomination; 11 Democrats joined all 24 Republicans to confirm him.

As in recent years, the governor withdrew a handful of nominees who were not likely to gain at least 34 votes (a two-thirds majority) in the upper chamber. A few nominees for low-profile boards had to go because of party imbalance issues. Chet Hollingshead, one of seven Branstad appointees to the Mental Health and Disability Services Commission, never came up for a vote, presumably because of a theft incident Bleeding Heartland user Iowa_native described here.

I am not sure why Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal informed Branstad that Jason Carlstrom was unlikely to be confirmed as chair of the Iowa Board of Parole. The governor first appointed Carlstrom to that position in the summer of 2012, to fill out the remainder of someone else’s term. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed him during the 2013 legislative session. When Branstad reappointed Carlstrom to the parole board this year, I didn’t expect him to run into any trouble. I will update this post if I learn more details.

The highest-profile nominee withdrawn by Branstad was former Iowa House Republican Jamie Van Fossen, whom the governor wanted to chair the Public Employment Relations Board. Cityview’s Civic Skinny described the backstory well; I’ve posted excerpts after the jump. Van Fossen still serves on that board, having been confirmed to a full term in 2012. But the new chair will be Mike Cormack, a Republican who served four terms in the Iowa House and later worked for the State Department of Education. Senators unanimously confirmed Cormack last month. The outgoing Public Employment Relations Board chair, Jim Riordan, has alleged that the board faced political pressure from Branstad staffers to hire an employer-friendly administrative law judge.

The Senate Journal for April 15 contained the roll call on Nick Wagner’s appointment as a member of the Iowa Utilities Board.

Usually, the senator who floor manages confirmation votes urges colleagues to support the nominee, but in this case, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Matt McCoy asked colleagues not to confirm Wagner.

These 35 senators voted in favor of Wagner:

Democrats:

Joe Bolkcom

Chris Brase

Jeff Danielson

Bob Dvorsky

Mike Gronstal

Rita Hart

Jack Hatch

Liz Mathis

Amanda Ragan

Brian Schoenjahn

Joe Seng

Republicans:

Bill Anderson

Jerry Behn

Rick Bertrand

Nancy Boettger

Mike Breitbach

Jake Chapman

Mark Chelgren

Bill Dix

Joni Ernst

Randy Feenstra

Julian Garrett

Sandy Greiner

Dennis Guth

Hubert Houser

David Johnson

Tim Kapucian

Ken Rozenboom

Charles Schneider

Mark Segebart

Amy Sinclair

Roby Smith

Jack Whitver

Brad Zaun

Dan Zumbach

These 15 Democrats voted against confirming Wagner:

Daryl Beall

Dennis Black

Tod Bowman

Tom Courtney

Dick Dearden

Bill Dotzler

Rob Hogg

Wally Horn

Pam Jochum

Matt McCoy

Janet Petersen

Herman Quirmbach

Steve Sodders

Rich Taylor

Mary Jo Wilhelm

Excerpt from Civic Skinny’s column in the April 2 edition of the Des Moines-based weekly Cityview:

The PER board, like all state boards, must be politically balanced, which means that no party can have more than two of the three members on the board. Two years ago, Branstad appointed former Republican legislator Jamie Van Fossen of Davenport to a four-year term, so he and Cormack, if confirmed, would be the two Republicans beginning May 1. The third member is Janelle Niebuhr of West Des Moines, who is in the middle of her first full term. She has not voted in primary elections and is a registered independent in Dallas County, though as a lawyer formerly with Matt Whitaker’s firm she has close ties to Republicans.

Past governors also have appointed independents to boards, but rarely if ever have they completely shut out the opposition party from membership.

With the PER board, there’s a complicating twist. By statute, the governor doesn’t name the chairman and the board members don’t elect one of their own; the chairmanship goes automatically to the successors of the very first chair appointed in the mid-1970s. Normally, then, Cormack would be the chair, since chairman Riordan is the board member who is leaving.

But the Branstad people want to make Van Fossen the chair. So even though Van Fossen is in the middle of a four-year term the Governor has nominated him to another four-year term – the one being vacated by Riordan, the one that is designated for the chairman. The press release on gubernatorial appointments didn’t mention any of this, but Cormack is being nominated for just a stub, two-year term – the two years that would be left on Van Fossen’s term.

This has some political risks. It means Van Fossen would have to be confirmed again by the Senate, and the Democrats in the Senate might think all this is too clever by half and reject Van Fossen, or Cormack, or both.

There’s still a lot of maneuvering to come. Whose name will be brought up first? What if it’s Van Fossen, and he is rejected? Does he still get to serve out the remaining two years of his current term or will he have resigned? And if Van Fossen is rejected, what happens to Cormack?

Or what if Cormack’s name comes up first and he is approved – and then Van Fossen is rejected? He can’t have his old term back, for it would have been filled. Is he back on the street in Davenport?

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