Republicans have already inflicted immeasurable harm on Iowans during the 2017 legislative session, taking rights away from more than 180,000 workers, slashing funding for higher education and human services, and approving the third-smallest K-12 school funding increase in four decades. The worst part is, they're nowhere near finished.
Iowa Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg has flagged twelve of the most destructive bills still alive in the GOP-controlled House and Senate. Any Iowan can attend public hearings scheduled for March 6 or 7 on four of those "dirty dozen" bills. Those who are unable to come to the Capitol in person can submit written comments on the legislation or contact Republican state representatives or senators directly by phone or e-mail.
Here's what you need to know about the four bills most urgently requiring attention.
House File 484 (formerly HF316), dismantling the Des Moines Water Works board
Public hearing: 10 am to 11 am on Monday, March 6 in room 103 (Supreme Court Chamber)
• Suburban customers of Des Moines Water Works didn't ask for this bill and don't want this bill (especially important if you are contacting Polk County Republicans).
• The bill would interfere with economic development projects in central Iowa.
• The bill takes away local control over independent utilities.
• The bill is a smokescreen designed to stop the Des Moines Water Works from advocating for less polluted waterways.
• Republican lawmakers have promised to support stronger water quality efforts statewide, but this bill would take Iowa backwards.
The Des Moines Water Works sued three northwest Iowa drainage districts in January 2015, seeking better enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act. Drake Law School Professor Neil Hamilton summarized the key legal issues in this presentation and a shorter op-ed column for the Des Moines Register. The lawsuit angered powerful agricultural interest groups and Republican politicians including Governor Terry Branstad and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.
Republican lawmakers retaliated by introducing companion bills this year (House File 316 and Senate Study Bill 1146) to replace the Des Moines Water Works board with a regional authority. For some reason, the House bill was renamed House File 484 on March 1.
Although the stated purpose of this legislation is to give residents of the Des Moines suburbs more say in Water Works management, its lead sponsors in the House and Senate don't live in central Iowa. GOP leaders referred the bills to the agriculture committees in both chambers, rather than to committees that would normally handle local government issues. The floor managers are Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Dan Zumbach and State Representative Jarad Klein; both are farmers with ties to agricultural interest groups.
Zumbach has ludicrously denied that House File 484 and Senate Study Bill 1146 were inspired by the Water Works lawsuit against the drainage districts. But everyone following the issue knows that Big Ag wants this bill in order to derail that litigation. That's why every major environmental group in Iowa is registered against the legislation.
House Republicans tried to dismantle the Water Works board last year. Speaking to the Des Moines Register at that time, Klein admitted that "smaller cities that buy water from Des Moines Water Works — including Urbandale, West Des Moines and Ankeny — did not request the change." The Iowa Senate (still under Democratic control) refused to go along with efforts to destroy the Water Works. But Republicans have enough seats in both chambers now to take revenge.
Just like in 2016, suburban governments didn't ask the legislature to reorganize the water utility. On the contrary: Kim Norvell reported for the Des Moines Register last month that the Water Works bill threatened a planned Microsoft data center in West Des Moines and "could put the brakes on suburban cities' efforts to move forward with their own water treatment plants." An amended version of the House bill "will allow contracts made before the new law is enacted to stand"--namely, the Microsoft project--but "would continue to prohibit planning, design or construction of new water production and treatment plants."
Strangely, lobbyists for the city of Des Moines are registered in favor of this bill. City Council Member Skip Moore has indicated officials view the current proposal as less harmful than last year's version. As Water Works board member Graham Gillette noted,
Klein has received support for and, possibly, help to draft this vindictive bill from a group of lobbyists/attorneys who represent both the Iowa drainage districts and the city of Des Moines. While it can be argued such a glaring conflict of interest would prevent a group of attorneys from representing entities serving people on opposite sides of a federal court case, the support Klein is receiving from the Des Moines City Council is even more dubious.
Des Moines City Council Member Christine Hensley has been a vocal critic of the DMWW lawsuit. Now, Hensley’s city council has made the decision to support HF 316 outside of the public meeting process. The public does not know which council members support dismantling DMWW, although Mayor Frank Cownie told me he would remain neutral, and council member Skip Moore has stated his opposition.
Why did the city of Des Moines hire lobbyists who also represent drainage districts? MacKenzie Elmer reported for the Des Moines Register last month,
Jim Carney, Doug Struyk and Shannon Henson of Des Moines-based Carney & Appleby Law were hired to represent the city's interests. They also work at the Iowa Capitol on behalf of the Iowa Drainage District Association. [...]
The Iowa Drainage District Association has provided legal and financial support for the drainage districts being sued.
Des Moines received bids from three lobbying firms interested in representing the city on a contract basis this legislative session. Carney & Appleby disclosed the firm's representation of the drainage districts in its bid, but Des Moines Councilman Skip Moore, who opposes the bill, said he was unaware of the ties when the lobbyists were hired in November.
Carter Howe published a good article about the Water Works bill in the Grinnell College student newspaper.
“We want to call it for what it is; it’s a power grab by Farm Bureau and its allies in the legislature to quiet our opposition to industrial agricultures pollution effect’s on our surface waters,” [Water Works CEO Bill] Stowe said. “If it were about regionalization, it wouldn’t be coming from a hog farmer in southeastern Iowa. It would be coming from a suburban or urban legislator here in central Iowa.” [...]
Stowe also said that suburban customers, whom the bill claims to be aiding, do not support it and that efforts have been made in the past at giving suburban communities more say in the governance of the utility but were unsuccessful because of the high cost of assuming a stake in the utility’s capital assets involved.
MacKenzie Elmer and Kim Norvell followed up for the Register after after Klein's bill passed the Iowa House Agriculture Committee.
Klein met with mayors from cities that receive their water from Des Moines Water Works last week. City officials raised concerns about who would hold the power on a regional water authority board and whether the bill would halt cities from making planned infrastructure improvements, among other issues. [...]
Sioux City's Rep. Chris Hall, the only Democrat on the three-person House Agriculture Subcommittee, questioned whether the bill is rushing a process that could be worked out among local officials.
"If the goal was to try and get local mayors and city councils engaged, goal accomplished," Hall said. "We do not need to intervene. Local control is working well."
Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said the willingness of the bill's sponsor to remove the mandate for a regional water authority shows the legislation was never about providing better service to suburban customers. [...]
Dale Acheson, general manager of the Urbandale Water Utility, said Iowa residents already have the power to force the creation of regional utilities if they want them. The legislation does nothing more than strip away local citizens' control over their independent utilities, he said.
House File 295, pre-empting local government authority
Public hearing: 5 pm to 6:30 pm on Monday, March 6 in room 103 (Supreme Court Chamber)
• Lowering the wages of 65,000 Iowa workers is unfair and will hurt the economy.
• There is no public interest in preventing local governments from setting wages or environmental regulations that are right for their areas. If voters don't like it, they can throw the bums out at the next election.
• For decades, Iowa Republicans have claimed to be the party of "local control." This bill suggests such principles mean nothing.
• The bill would let landlords discriminate against vulnerable Iowans, solely because they may be elderly or living with a disability or surviving primarily on alimony or child support. Lawmakers should not help landlords target people who have done nothing wrong.
• Veterans who were wounded while serving this country are among those who could lose their homes if this bill becomes law.
House File 295 has two main goals: nullifying the minimum wage increases that Johnson, Linn, Polk, and Wapello county governments approved in 2015 and 2016, and preventing city or county authorities from passing ordinances that offer greater protection than the Iowa Civil Rights Act. A third provision, which blocks local governments from regulating "containers used to transport consumer merchandise," is a reaction to the plastic bag ban being considered in Dubuque.
Senator Hogg has pointed out that House File 295 would lower wages for 65,000 Iowans who live in affected counties, which have higher costs of living than some other parts of the state. Less income for low-wage workers means fewer potential customers for local businesses selling goods and services.
Governor Branstad indicated last year that he would support a slightly higher statewide minimum wage in exchange for revoking local government authority in this area. But House File 295 would leave Iowa's minimum wage at $7.25, where it has been since a Democratic-controlled legislature approved the last increase in January 2007. Five of the six states bordering Iowa have higher minimum wages.
Corporate-funded groups backing this bill, like the Iowa Association of Business & Industry, argue "there needs to be a clear policy across the state, not a patchwork." Echoing business lobbyist talking points, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer has said employers need "uniformity" in wage rates: "Having a patchwork all over the state doesn’t work out very well and now we have also a patchwork within a county."
Show me one company with multiple employees that pays all its workers the same hourly wage or annual salary. Payroll departments know how to accommodate different wage levels, depending on the employee's experience, responsibilities, or length of time in the job.
The Iowa Civil Rights Act has banned discrimination based on sexual orientation since 2007, but some local governments have approved increased protections for LGBTQ citizens. Courtney Crowder and Kevin Hardy reported for the Des Moines Register on February 26,
After getting pushback, legislators proposed an amendment last week to strike the broader civil rights restrictions, zeroing in instead on the source-of-income protections Marion and Iowa City approved for renters.
[State Representative Jake] Highfill said the amendment is targeted at those using housing vouchers, such as participants in the federal Section 8 program that helps the poor. Republicans and business leaders argue landlords shouldn't be forced to do business with the government.
But advocates say that's just an excuse, that landlords really want to avoid renting to low-income people who receive disability payments, Social Security, child support or even alimony, advocates said.
Highfill chairs the Iowa House Local Government Committee, which proposed House File 295. GOP State Representative John Landon offered the amendment Crowder and Hardy referenced. I recommend clicking through to read their whole Des Moines Register article. The piece includes an interview with Joe Stutler, an Army veteran living with disabilities in Marion, a suburb of Cedar Rapids.
Stutler created this cartoon depicting House File 295 as tantamount to revising Iowa's motto to read, "Your liberties we despise and your rights we will restrain."
Stutler also gave me permission to share some of his recent correspondence with Hogg, which tells the backstory of the threatened Marion ordinance:
Marion's Civil Rights Ordinance (Chapter 31 of the city code) was adopted back in 2011, as the city's population had grown to a point where they were required by state statute to establish a Civil Rights Commission. When developing the ordinance, they used the assistance of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and patterned Chapter 31 on CR's ordinance (Chapter 69). At that time, an additional protected class - Lawful Source of Income - was being considered for Cedar Rapids. Marion's Chapter 31 ended up including LSoI, while lobbying from some landlords and realtors successfully blocked CR from adopting it.
LSoI is defined as:
Chapter 31.02 Definitions
14. “Lawful source of income” means any lawful, verifiable source of money paid directly or indirectly to or on behalf of a renter or buyer of housing, including income derived from:
A. Any lawful profession or occupation.
B. Any government or private assistance, subsidy, voucher, grant, or loan program.
C. Any gift, inheritance, pension, annuity, alimony, child support, or other consideration or benefit.
D. Any sale or pledge of property or interest in property.
Chapter 31 built in some protections for sellers/landlords at 31.21:
31.21 FAIR HOUSING – EXCEPTIONS FOR LAWFUL SOURCE OF INCOME.
The protection against lawful source of income discrimination shall not prohibit a person from:
1. Refusing to consider income derived from any criminal activity; or
2. Determining the ability of any potential buyer or renter to pay a purchase price or pay rent by:
A. Verifying, in a commercially reasonable manner, the source and amount of income of the potential buyer or renter, including any rental or purchase payments or portions of rental or purchase payments that will be made by other individuals, organizations or voucher and rental assistance payment programs on the same basis as payments to be made directly by the potential buyer or renter
B. Evaluating, in a commercially reasonable manner, the prospective stability, security and credit worthiness of the potential buyer or renter or any source of income of the potential buyer or renter, including any rental or purchase payments or portions of rental or purchase payments that will be made by other individuals, organizations or voucher and rental assistance payment programs.
It's not a "must rent/sell to anyone" ordinance as some would like to spin it. LSoI simply says that you can't exclude any income lawfully derived (as defined) from the rental/purchase evaluations.
Marion's ordinance protects some of our most vulnerable: low income, disabled, elderly, families, veterans...anyone who gets income from sources that the landlord/seller might not like.
Almost a year ago, on March 3, 2016, I heard the best example of why this ordinance is necessary. At the Marion City Council meeting that evening a landlord asked the council to remove LSoI from Chapter 31. Her reason was that she didn't want to have to rent to people who received a "benefit" and not a "wage". She really seems to dislike Section 8 recipients.
Rob, I'm a disabled war Veteran. My primary source of income is a "benefit" - VA Disability. When I was single and still living in your district, I qualified for Section 8. I have also qualified for "food stamps" at various times, and I currently qualify for medicaid. While that landlord is prohibited by state and federal statute from discriminating against me due to my disabilities, she can say she doesn't like where my money comes from - except in Marion, where Chapter 31 has LSoI.
HSB 92 wants to gut local control of Civil Rights. Apparently Republicans think folks should be able to discriminate against disabled war Vets, as long as they do it by saying "your money's no good here."
House File 516, enacting voter ID and other obstacles to voting
Public hearing: 7 pm to 8:30 pm on Monday, March 6 in room 103 (Supreme Court Chamber)
• This bill is an expensive solution in search of a problem. Only a handful of ballots were cast by ineligible voters in Iowa during the 2016 election--mostly by mistake.
• Neither Voter ID nor signature verification rules would have prevented a small number of ineligible voters to cast ballots last year.
• Iowa already has good procedures to verify voters' identity, when they register.
• Tens of thousands of Iowans will have more trouble exercising their fundamental constitutional rights if this bill becomes law. Although Pate has promised that valid identification will be provided at no charge to every Iowa voter who doesn't have a driver's license, the bill states that "providing voter registration cards is contingent upon adequate appropriations."
• Iowa's budget is already under strain. This bill will add new expenses without any measurable benefit, since voter impersonation fraud is non-existent.
• Closing polls an hour earlier on election day
and shortening the window to cast early ballots will make it harder for many Iowans to participate in the election. UPDATE: According to John Deeth, Republicans have abandoned efforts to shorten the early voting window.
• Iowa's same-day voter registration process works well. Forcing all election-day registrants to cast provisional ballots will create delays at the polls for no good reason. Long wait times could prevent or discourage some Iowans from voting.
House File 516 is the successor to House Study Bill 93, proposed by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. This bill would impose new voter ID and signature verification requirements. For details on how Pate's original proposal could disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters, read any or all of the following:
• Bleeding Heartland's original post on Pate's proposal, the day he announced some of its provisions;
• John Deeth's "deep dig" into Pate's proposal;
• My analysis of two documents Pate used to press his case before the text of his bill was published;
• This commentary by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa after the bill text finally appeared;
• A guest post by the ACLU of Iowa's policy counsel Daniel Zeno, focusing on how voter ID requirements would discriminate against African-Americans.
Pate and other Republicans have tried mightily to push this bill as a way to protect "election integrity" in Iowa. But as Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press on February 12, voter fraud is virtually non-existent in Iowa.
Iowa's top elections official, who is pushing for a voter identification requirement that could make it harder for some to vote, has only been informed of 10 votes that were potentially improper out of nearly 1.6 million counted statewide in the November election.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate's office learned of a handful of cases of alleged double votes and votes cast by ineligible felons on Election Day that were counted, according to a summary of "general election irregularities" obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law.
Further review by the AP showed that most of the instances were mistakes rather than fraud, and may not have been stopped by an identification requirement. They included a non-English speaking citizen who mistakenly voted when he registered and again on Election Day, a felon whose voting rights had been restored in Wisconsin but not Iowa, and a non-citizen who turned herself in after learning later she shouldn't have been eligible to vote. [...]
Asked which, if any, of the known irregularities the identification requirement would prevent, [Pate spokesperson Kevin] Hall was non-specific: "Secretary Pate's Election Integrity Act is a comprehensive, technology-driven proposal aimed at streamlining the system, reducing human error and protecting against fraud."
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert has been a leading critic of Pate's efforts. He released this statement on February 20:
Iowa’s election administrators are opposed to Secretary Of State Paul Pate’s Voter ID bill, which is an unnecessary solution to a nonexistent problem. The Iowa State Association of Auditors (ISACA) voted earlier this month to oppose the bill.
Iowa Voters Are Already Identified – At Registration
Every Iowan who registers to vote needs to provide a correct name and date of birth, a valid ID number (Iowa license or Social Security), and a current, valid address. If the auditor’s office can’t verify a voter’s name, birthdate, and ID number against the license or Social Security database, the voter is on Pending status. If mail to the voter’s address is undeliverable, the voter is placed on Inactive status. Inactive and Pending voters must resolve these issues before they are allowed to vote.
Voter “Fraud” Is Rare
Just last week, Secretary of State Pate’s Office acknowledged they have “only been informed of 10 votes that were potentially improper out of nearly 1.6 million counted statewide in the November election.” None of these cases were a voter impersonating another voter, the only type of fraud an ID law could potentially stop. http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/12/iowa-aware-only-handful-improper-votes/97821298/
Additional Voter Restrictions Are Being Considered
Multiple bills restricting voter rights are under consideration by the legislature, including shorter periods to request absentee ballots (in Pate’s bill), an end to election day registration (HF 150), and a stricter, narrower ID proposal (SF 47). These items could easily be amended into the “Voter Integrity” bill, or passed along with it.
Deeth, who has worked in the Johnson County Elections Office for nineteen years, took a close look at amendments unveiled last week.
The 11 page amendment by GOP Rep. Ken Rizer, chair of the State Government Committee, would among other things:
• Close the polls for primary and general elections an hour earlier at 8 PM
• Cut the early voting window from 40 days to 29
• Make auditors wait an extra week to mail ballots
• Make all election day registration voters in some precincts cast provisional ballots
• Eliminate the still very popular straight ticket voting option.
None of those provisions would promote the "integrity" of Iowa elections, but several of them could reduce the number of ballots cast. Deeth explained how Rizer's amendment would affect Johnson County, the most Democratic (by far) of Iowa's 99 counties. UPDATE: Deeth notes Republicans moved early voting window "back to the current 40 days."
The Iowa House Democratic staff prepared this analysis of House File 516 on March 3:
House File 518, which would decimate the workers' compensation system
Public hearing: 6 pm to 7:30 pm on Tuesday, March 7 in room 103 (Supreme Court Chamber)
• Iowa's workers' compensation system already works well and received an "A" grade from the Insurance Journal in 2015.
• The bill is one-sided, giving employers many new advantages while taking rights away from injured workers.
• Sweeping changes to a system affecting thousands of people should be thoroughly discussed, not rammed through the legislature in little more than a week.
• The bill is unfair to workers who become disabled for life on the job.
• The bill is especially unfair to older workers or those who are overweight.
• Although many shoulder injuries occur in meatpacking plants, this bill would make it almost impossible for injured workers to file successful workers' compensation claims.
• By creating grounds to deny many legitimate workplace injury claims, this bill would shift costs onto taxpayers, who ultimately pay for Medicaid and Social Security disability programs.
House File 518 is on the same fast track as the collective bargaining bill Republican lawmakers sent to the governor's desk last month, less than ten days after its contents were revealed. First published on the legislature's website on February 27, the workers' compensation legislation moved through Iowa House and Senate committees within days. Notably, GOP leaders referred the bill to each chamber's Commerce Committee, rather than the panel that would normally handle labor issues.
Side note: House Commerce Committee Chair Peter Cownie is rumored to be on the short list of candidates whom Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds might appoint as lieutenant governor after Branstad leaves the scene. Ramming through a wide-ranging bill to hurt Iowa workers may be his way of auditioning for the job. Eldon Roth, the CEO of the meat processing company Beef Products Inc., was also one of the largest donors to the Reynolds campaign committee in 2015 and 2016.
Speaking to the Des Moines Register's Kevin Hardy last week, Democratic State Senator and labor attorney Nate Boulton said the dramatic" and "far-reaching" workers' compensation bill resembled "a corporate and insurance company wish list, in terms of not aiming at a balanced system, but really fixing the system for one-sided outcomes."
Dennis McElwain warned in a guest column for today's Sioux City Journal, the "safety net that exists to protect you and your family is soon to be shredded."
This new law includes over a dozen changes that, taken together, gut your entitlement to fair compensation. (I only have space here to discuss a few of these changes.)
It raises the burden of proof, making it harder if not impossible for an employee with a pre-existing condition to prove her injury is a cause of disability. [...] Now, the vast majority of currently legitimate injury claims will be denied, shifting the burden of expense onto you, your group insurance, or Medicaid and Social Security disability programs.
Next, HF 518 targets those of you who are older workers. If a work injury leaves you totally disabled, weekly benefits end at age 67, even if you’re totally disabled for life. If you suffer an injury after you reach 67, you will not draw benefits for more than 150 weeks, even if you’re totally disabled for life. So, if a 66-1/2 year-old construction worker falls through a roof, and is now left quadriplegic for life, he will receive weekly benefits for six months, not a nickel more. If he’d waited and had the injury at age 67, he would receive weekly benefits for 150 weeks.
Next, HF 518 drastically shrinks benefits for shoulder injuries. Under current law, for example, a rotator cuff tear requiring surgery is compensated as industrial disability. You receive weekly benefits equal to your lost earning capacity (a percentage) multiplied times 500 weeks. The new law would compensate a shoulder injury as a scheduled member: the most you will ever receive is the doctor’s impairment rating (usually 5 to 10 percent) multiplied by the value of your arm (250 weeks). No more, even if your injury causes you to lose your job or ends your career. Even if you undergo shoulder replacement surgery, the usual functional impairment rating of 22 percent will pay out no more than one year in benefits, even if you are now disabled for life. Gutting benefits as such for shoulder injuries will be a windfall to heavy industry, like meatpacking, where workers are at high risk for shoulder injuries.
Hardy's story had more to say on that angle:
A provision of the bill specifically mentions shoulder injuries, which West Des Moines attorney Mark King said appears to be aimed at appeasing meatpacking companies. He previously represented defendants in workers' compensation cases, but now represents injured workers.
He said shoulder injuries are common in meatpacking plants.
"These meatpackers are going right at their workers, saying, 'OK, the shoulder is the biggest part of the body we have to pay for. Let's make those claims worth nothing,'" King said. "It’s a grand design."
That grand design is sure to bring a smile to Eldon Roth's face. Maybe the CEO of Beef Products, Inc. will write an even larger check to the Reynolds campaign for governor in 2017.
Nate Willems, a former Iowa lawmaker and labor attorney, e-mailed me to highlight another harmful aspect of the bill:
Look at Section 17 (end of page 10 into page 11). This goes to the heart of the question of "is it a workers' compensation claim?" The standard has always been "material contributing factor." This bill changes that to "the predominant factor."
So, you would now have the burden to show that most of the medical evidence shows that it was the work injury, standing alone, that was the predominant factor in causing a current disability.
In other words, an insurance company or employer may simply deny claims because they believe the worker was old or fat. It may be true that the 53-year old, 240 lb., construction worker heard a pop in his back when he lifted a pallet. However, the MRI shows some age-related degenerative change in his lumbar spine and he does have a body mass index of 37, so we can't say that the traumatic event was the predominant factor.
If it's not a workers' compensation injury, the worker is on their own insurance for medical care. If they cannot work or have any degree of permanent disability, they are on their own for income. If they cannot work at all, they are also ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Workers' compensation is complicated for the public and for legislators. This bill is also complicated. However, the worst part of the bill is incredibly easy for anybody to understand. This bill in Peter Cownie's committee allows insurance companies to deny an injured worker's claim for medical care and benefits simply because they are old or overweight.
Despite an enormous number of public comments urging lawmakers not to destroy collective bargaining rights, Republicans moved that bill rapidly through the Iowa House and Senate. Democrats don't have the votes to stop them from doing the same with the workers' compensation bill, but Republicans may hesitate if they hear from thousands of constituents this week.
UPDATE: This two-page analysis by the Iowa Association for Justice shows that "Average premium costs in Iowa’s workers’ compensation system are low, and are some of the steadiest rates in the nation."
Top image: Cartoon by Joe Stutler, used with permission.