Iowa legislative recap: Constitutional amendments

Iowa lawmakers went home for the year on May 5. In the coming weeks, Bleeding Heartland will catch up on some of the legislature’s significant work that attracted relatively attention.

Two proposed state constitutional amendments passed both chambers and could appear on the 2020 general election ballot, if the House and Senate approve them in the same form during either 2019 or 2020.

Three other constitutional amendments cleared one chamber in 2017–in one case unanimously–then stalled in the other chamber as lawmakers completed this two-year session. Those ideas may resurface next year. But since changes to the state constitution must be passed by two consecutively elected legislatures before landing on the general election ballot (the last step in the process), Iowa voters would not be able to ratify those proposals until November 2022 at the earliest.

HALFWAY TO APPEARING ON A STATEWIDE BALLOT

The two constitutional amendments approved in both chambers this year related to firearms and the process for filling vacancies in the highest state offices.

Expansive pro-gun amendment

For years, the gun lobby has pushed for adding a right “to keep and bear arms” to the Iowa Constitution. When the legislature was under divided control, Democratic lawmakers repeatedly made clear they would agree to update the state constitution with language resembling the Second Amendment to the federal constitution. That compromise didn’t satisfy Republicans, who wanted to forbid virtually all gun regulations.

New Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix told Radio Iowa in January 2017 that adding firearms language to the constitution would be one of his party’s top four priorities. The same month, all 29 GOP senators introduced Senate Joint Resolution 2, borrowing wording from the amendment Iowa House Republicans had approved in 2012, over strenuous objections from Democrats.

The right of an individual to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms to defend life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes is fundamental and shall not be infringed upon or denied. Mandatory licensing, registration, or special taxation as a condition of the exercise of this right is prohibited, and any other restriction shall be subject to strict scrutiny.

For reasons that remain unclear, the Senate’s pro-gun amendment never even made it out of subcommittee during the 2017 session.

In the lower chamber, GOP State Representative Matt Windschitl introduced a new constitutional amendment on firearms last April, while a bill making it easier to own, carry, and use guns was moving through the legislature. Windschitl has led the charge for many of the gun lobby’s legislative priorities and works part-time at his family’s gun store.

Windschitl’s amendment didn’t advance in the House during the 2017 session. Republicans abandoned it this year in favor of the similar House Joint Resolution 2009, which would add the following passage to Iowa’s constitution:

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.

Windschitl has insisted repeatedly that House Republicans did not intend to overturn existing regulations, such as permits to carry concealed weapons or restrictions on gun ownership by convicted felons. That’s why they removed the sentence prohibiting “mandatory licensing, registration, or special taxation” associated with firearms.

But during the hours-long House debate on HJR 2009 in March, many lawmakers warned that subjecting “any and all” firearms restrictions to strict scrutiny would lead to courts striking down reasonable regulations. Dozens of House Democrats co-sponsored an amendment by State Representative Mary Wolfe with language mirroring the federal constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” House members rejected the proposal on a mostly party-line vote. State Representatives Dave Heaton and Andy McKean were the only Republicans to support it.

After Republicans rejected several other Democratic amendments, Windschitl’s constitutional amendment passed the House by the same 54 to 42 margin, with Heaton and McKean joining all Democrats present to vote no.

When the Iowa Senate took up the firearms proposal, Democrat Tony Bisignano attempted the same maneuver Wolfe had tried in the House: an amendment substituting wording from the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It failed with all 28 Republicans opposed and independent David Johnson joining the 20 Democrats in support.

Whereas no House Democrats supported the final version of HJR 2009, David Johnson and five Democratic senators (Chaz Allen, Tod Bowman, Wally Horn, Kevin Kinney, and Rich Taylor) crossed over to support final passage of the constitutional amendment in the upper chamber.

Allowing the governor to name a new lieutenant governor

Last year’s controversy over whether Governor Kim Reynolds had the authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor inspired Senate Joint Resolution 2006, a Republican attempt to clarify the process. Bleeding Heartland covered the initial version of that constitutional amendment here. The proposal to give a new governor explicit power to appoint a lieutenant governor, without Senate confirmation, passed the upper chamber with broad bipartisan support in March.

House Republicans substantially changed the wording of the gubernatorial succession amendment last month. Marty Ryan discussed the revised version in detail here. House Democrats opposed the proposal, largely because it did not require the legislature to confirm a governor’s selection of the person who would be next in line for the top job. During the floor debate, many lawmakers noted that the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution calls for Congress to confirm a president’s choice for a new vice president. SJR 2006 cleared the lower chamber on a party-line 57 to 40 vote.

The revised SJR 2006 found some bipartisan support in the upper chamber, passing by 35 votes to 11. The following eight Democrats joined all Republicans present in voting yes: Chaz Allen, Tony Bisignano, Amanda Ragan, Rita Hart, Jeff Danielson, Kevin Kinney, Jim Lykam, and Herman Quirmbach. Independent David Johnson and ten Democrats voted no: Joe Bolkcom, Nate Boulton, Tod Bowman, Bill Dotzler, Bob Dvorsky, Rog Hogg, Wally Horn, Pam Jochum, Liz Mathis, and Matt McCoy.

THROUGH ONE CHAMBER, STALLED IN THE OTHER

Two state constitutional amendments and a resolution calling for changes to the federal constitution cleared one legislative chamber in 2017 but never made it through the other chamber. The failures were surprising, since two of the proposals had broad support among Republicans and one had strong backing in both parties.

Limiting state government spending

Senate Majority Leader Dix had said his caucus’s top priority for 2017 would be an amendment preventing state government from spending more than 99 percent of estimated revenues. The gesture would accomplish little, since Iowa law already sets that limit, and appropriators abide by it. Our state’s repeated budget crunches have happened because revenues fell short of projections, which could happen just as easily if the constitution were changed.

In any event, all 29 Iowa Senate Republicans introduced Senate Joint Resolution 1 at the beginning of the 2017 session. Two months later, they introduced Senate Joint Resolution 9, with the same goal but slightly different wording. It quickly moved through the Appropriations Committee and passed the full Senate by 38 votes to 10. All the Republicans present supported the amendment, joined by independent David Johnson and the following Democrats: Allen, Bisignano, Boulton, Bowman, Hart, Kinney, Lykam, Mathis, Ragan, and Danielson.

SJR 9 died in the House Appropriations Committee without receiving a subcommittee assignment. I don’t recall seeing any public explanation from House Republican leaders or Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Grassley.

Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution

Egged on by the American Legislative Exchange Council and some other conservative groups, Republican lawmakers around the country have pushed for state legislatures to call for a national constitutional convention. The resolutions typically focus on adding a balanced budget amendment and other restrictions on federal government power to the U.S. Constitution. However, delegates would be able to make wholesale changes, just like the men chosen to amend the Articles of Confederation in 1787 ended up writing a new and very different constitution.

Forty-one House Republicans introduced a version of the constitutional convention proposal in February 2017 but withdrew it in favor of the similar House Joint Resolution 12, proposed by the Judiciary Committee. The wording noted that the convention would have the “specific and exclusive purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution of the United States limited to the purposes stated therein,” and that Iowa delegates to such a convention would be “expressly limited to consideration and support of amendments that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, and amendments that limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and no amendments on any other topic.”

House members approved HJR 12 along party lines in March 2017. Senate leaders attached it to the companion proposal Senate Joint Resolution 8 and assigned it to the State Government Committee. The resolution made no further progress last year.

The State Government Committee took up and recommended passing SJR 8 this February, but leaders never brought it to the floor. The following month, the same Senate committee recommended passing HJR 12, with three Democrats (Bisignano, Danielson, and Horn) joining Republicans to support the legislation.

Senate leaders placed the constitutional convention resolution on the “unfinished business” calendar in late March. Some statehouse watchers expected current Majority Leader Jack Whitver to call it up during the legislature’s busy final days in May. But HJR 12 never surfaced.

UPDATE: Multiple sources indicate the gun lobby opposed this measure, fearing a constitutional convention might lead to changes in the Second Amendment. The most prominent gun organizations did not formally take a position on HJR 12, but the Iowa Minuteman Civil Defense Corps registered against it. So did social conservative groups Phyllis Schlafly Eagles of Iowa and Concerned Women For America of Iowa. The latter organization’s lobbyist is Tamara Scott, who also represents our state on the Republican National Committee. She has repeatedly criticized the Convention of States project on her Facebook feed. On a related note, the Iowa GOP’s State Platform Committee voted on May 5 to remove any plank calling for an Article V convention, according to a Facebook post by Scott.

Protecting Iowans’ electronic communications and data

Republican State Representative Ken Rizer introduced House Joint Resolution 1 in January 2017. The amendment would add language to the state constitution protecting “electronic communications and data” against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” House members unanimously approved it in March 2017, and the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously recommended passage two weeks later. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and several advocacy groups lobbied for this amendment; no entity registered against it.

Instead of bringing the common-sense measure to the Senate Floor, then Majority Leader Dix referred the amendment back to the Judiciary Committee. Thus ended the proposal’s journey through the Iowa legislature.

Rizer is not running for re-election. Someone else should pick up this ball next year. The amendment would need to clear both chambers in either 2019 or 2020 and do so again in 2021 or 2022 before Iowa voters would have a chance to add this protection to the state constitution.

MADE IT THROUGH COMMITTEE BUT NOT A FULL CHAMBER

Two constitutional amendments advanced from at least one committee but did not come up for a vote on the House or Senate floor.

Crime victims’ rights

Thirty-four states have passed versions of “Marsy’s Law,” which guarantees certain protections for crime victims. Bleeding Heartland published commentaries by Democratic State Representative Marti Anderson and Tiffany Allison in favor of this proposal and the case against it by leaders of two victims advocacy organizations. Governor Reynolds and acting Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg highlighted their support for Marsy’s Law at a press conference in early February.

Anderson and GOP State Representative Ashley Hinson introduced House Joint Resolution 2003, which the House Judiciary Committee later replaced with the revised House Joint Resolution 2010. But Marsy’s Law was sent to unfinished business and never called up for a floor vote. Likewise, the companion Senate Joint Resolution 2010 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but languished on the unfinished business calendar.

To my knowledge, statehouse leaders never explained why they balked at passing Marsy’s Law. The most likely reason: non-partisan analysts estimated that implementing the amendment would cost the judicial branch an extra $4.8 million.

Allowing rank-and-file lawmakers to force House or Senate floor votes

Under current rules, Iowa House and Senate leaders control the debate calendar. Sometimes, they refuse to allow a floor vote on measures that would easily pass. That would change under Senate Joint Resolution 2008. Proposed by the Senate State Government Committee (chaired by Roby Smith), the amendment would allow a majority of members of either legislative chamber to force a vote on the House or Senate floor within fifteen days. It would also require leadership to message an approved bill to the other chamber within five days.

The State Government Committee recommended passing this amendment in February, with Bowman joining the Republicans to vote yes and the other Democrats on the committee voting “present.” The following month, Senate GOP leaders exercised their power to send this proposal back to committee.

FAILED TO ADVANCE FROM A HOUSE OR SENATE COMMITTEE

As is typical for the Iowa legislature, most constitutional amendments proposed in 2017 or 2018 did not gain approval from any committee.

Republican Representative Jake Highfill used his position as chair of the Local Government Committee to push House Joint Resolution 7. His amendment would have allowed the legislature to reorganize Iowa’s counties, an unpopular idea in many counties with smaller populations. Highfill got the idea through a subcommittee in February but never brought it up in full committee, probably because he didn’t have the votes.

The following proposals failed to advance from any subcommittee:

• Republican Senator Rick Bertrand introduced Senate Joint Resolution 2002, which would have required a two-thirds vote in the Iowa House or Senate to pass any “bill containing provisions enacting, amending, or repealing any provision relating to a public retirement system.”

• Republican Senator Mark Chelgren introduced Senate Joint Resolution 2004, which would allow women to serve in a state militia. He’s pushed the same idea unsuccessfully before.

• Three amendments would have introduced term limits for state lawmakers. Bertrand’s Senate Joint Resolution 7 would have limited House members to five terms and Senate members to three terms. GOP Senator Dan Dawson introduced Senate Joint Resolution 2005, which would set term limits of twelve years (six terms) for Iowa House members and twelve years (three terms) for Senate members. GOP State Representative Peter Cownie’s House Joint Resolution 2005 would limit elected officials to serving sixteen years in the legislature.

• The judiciary was a target of several failed amendments. GOP State Representative Skyler Wheeler introduced House Joint Resolution 2002, which would reduce terms for Iowa Supreme Court justice from eight years to four. GOP State Representative Greg Heartsill’s House Joint Resolution 2004 would allow the governor to appoint judges, subject to Iowa Senate confirmation. (The current system provides for Judicial Nominating Commissions to send three candidates for each vacancy to the governor, who must choose a name from that list.)

• Independent Senator Johnson offered Senate Joint Resolution 4, which protect Iowans’ right to “hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, including by the use of traditional methods, subject to reasonable laws […].”

• Democratic Senators Bolkcom and Kinney introduced Senate Joint Resolution 5, calling for an Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution “to allow Congress and the states to prohibit or otherwise regulate the expenditure of funds for political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity.”

• Establishing home rule for Iowa school districts was the theme of GOP State Senator Brad Zaun’s Senate Joint Resolution 6 and Highfill’s House Joint Resolution 3.

WAS NOT ASSIGNED TO A HOUSE OR SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE

Sometimes committee leaders don’t even assign a proposal to a subcommittee. Such was the fate of these proposed constitutional amendments in 2017 or 2018:

• Ten Republicans offered House Joint Resolution 4, establishing a right to hunt, fish, trap, and harvest wildlife.

• Democratic State Representative Chuck Isenhart proposed House Joint Resolution 5, which would have called for using a portion of existing revenues to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Iowa voters approved a constitutional amendment creating that fund in 2010, but it has never been financed, because lawmakers have not yet increased the state sales tax.

• Seven House Democrats offered House Joint Resolution 8, a call for an Article V convention with a view to regulating or prohibiting corporate political donations.

• GOP State Representative Sandy Salmon introduced House Joint Resolution 6, seeking to change the structure of the judiciary and disband the merit-based judicial nominating commissions. Instead, the governor could appoint judges, subject to Iowa Senate confirmation.

• Wheeler’s House Joint Resolution 2001 would abolish retention elections for Iowa Supreme Court justices.

• Heartsill and Wolfe offered the bipartisan House Joint Resolution 2007, which would remove from the constitution language stating that “a person convicted of any infamous crime” loses voting rights. Iowa has one of the harshest felon disenfranchisement systems in the country.

NOT PROPOSED IN THE HOUSE OR SENATE

Finally, a few words about two constitutional amendments that Iowa Republicans used to offer each legislative session but did not put forward these past two years, when their party controlled both chambers. No one proposed a state constitutional amendment in 2017 or 2018 to restrict marriage to one man and one woman. Support for marriage amendments had been steadily declining among Iowa Republican lawmakers, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that state bans violate the U.S. Constitution.

I was surprised no Republicans introduced a constitutional amendment to declare that life begins at conception. (In 2013 and 2015, a few GOP lawmakers had pushed for adding “personhood” language to the state constitution.) A draft bill adding personhood language to Iowa Code didn’t make it out of any House or Senate committee in 2017. Republicans wanting to ban all abortions accomplished the same goal this year by passing a blatantly unconstitutional bill to prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

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