Iowa legislative recap: Senate confirmations

Continuing a series on news from the Iowa legislature’s 2018 session that attracted little attention before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

The Iowa Senate confirmed almost everyone Governor Kim Reynolds nominated for a state board or commission this year with unanimous or near-unanimous support. However, opposition from Democratic senators blocked three of the governor’s more than 200 appointees (full list here).

With only 20 of the 50 Senate seats, Democrats could rarely control the outcome in the upper chamber during this legislative session. But they had the ability to reject the governor’s nominees, who need a two-thirds vote to be confirmed. Since Governor Terry Branstad returned to office in 2011, Democrats have used that power sparingly, withholding support from only a handful of nominees each year.

CONFLICT OVER UNION RECERTIFICATION DOOMS EMPLOYMENT BOARD NOMINEE

The highest-profile nominee rejected was Mike Cormack, whom Reynolds named to another term as chair of the Public Employment Relations Board. That body’s mission is to “promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and its employees without disruption of public services.” Among other things, the board oversees union recertification elections, which will happen more frequently under the collective bargaining law Republicans enacted in 2017.

Few politicians could be elected to any state office under the conditions set by Republicans, in which non-voting employees are counted as votes against the union. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of bargaining units voted last year to keep their union representation for the next contract period.

This spring, the Public Employment Relations Board proposed making the next round of recertification votes even more difficult. Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register on April 8,

Union workers would need to register to vote before casting a ballot in their union elections. […]

If the new proposal is implemented, voters will have to provide additional information, and they’ll receive unique access codes they can use to log on and vote when the voting period begins.

“We think it’s not a terribly onerous process,” Cormack said.

Why should it matter whether employees in a bargaining unit are registered to vote, or even eligible to vote, in a political election? Nothing in Iowa law says only registered voters are entitled to have a say in their union representation. UPDATE/CORRECTION: Under Cormack’s proposal, workers would have been required to register for the union election, not with the Secretary of State’s office. It would still be an additional, unnecessary hurdle.

Cormack quickly backpedaled, saying in an April 10 statement, “We are changing course based upon the feedback we have received […] The prospect of a registration site has brought many comments to us that have suggested that is not acceptable.”

The damage was done. Cormack needed 33 votes to be confirmed when Republicans brought his nomination to the floor on April 12. (Normally, 34 votes would constitute a two-thirds majority, but one Senate seat was vacant due to Bill Dix’s resignation.) The 26 Republicans present and independent Senator David Johnson voted to confirm Cormack, but all 20 Democrats voted no (roll call).

Cormack sounded bitter after Democrats forced him out of a job with an annual salary of $90,300. (PERB is one of the few state boards whose members are paid for full-time work.) William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register,

Cormack said in an interview he intends to consider filing an ethics complaint against Boulton after he leaves the state board on May 1. He said Boulton’s law firm has represented the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in many labor cases and the law firm has repeatedly lost cases before the board. Boulton should have recused himself, he contends.

“This was payback,” Cormack said. “Every step of the way he should have recused himself … I could not get a fair hearing in this process.”

Boulton said he was disappointed to learn of Cormack’s remarks.

“As someone who has served in the Legislature, Mr. Cormack, I am sure, voted on a number of bills affecting education policy and education funding while he was serving as a substitute teacher and teacher,” he said.

Boulton was correct. Iowa lawmakers have never been barred from voting on bills that affect their profession.

BOARD OF MEDICINE NOMINEE REJECTED OVER ANTI-GAY SENTIMENTS

Only one other Reynolds nominee lost a Senate confirmation vote this year. Katherine Asjes was up for a seat on the Board of Medicine. Democrats discovered she had commented approvingly on a conservative Catholic blog post that argued the birth control movement in the early 20th century had led to wider acceptance of homosexuality, a path of “monumental destruction” for humanity. Asjes posted, “I completely agree with all you have said here, but need some sources for back up, as my 20-something son is skeptical…I could not find anything about the original definition of heterosexual [meaning “morbid passion” for non-procreative sex] in a pretty serious online search.”

Asjes fell three votes short of the 33 needed, with only independent Johnson and Democrats Wally Horn and Herman Quirmbach joining the 27 Republicans present to support her nomination. The other eighteen Democratic senators voted no (roll call). Petroski reported that no senator spoke against Asjes before the vote. They explained later,

“What I read was pretty off the wall,” [Senator Tony] Bisignano said. “In reading this, she states that she completely agrees with all that this person has said and this guy goes back into the Dark Ages talking about sexuality and getting into homosexuality.”

Bisignano said he wouldn’t have objections about her serving on other state boards or commissions, but doesn’t think someone with such beliefs should be on the Iowa Board of Medicine.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, agreed with Bisignano.

“Our caucus is interested in making sure that anyone appointed to the Board of Medicine will protect the health of all Iowans. And after doing some research there were some concerns, red flags, in moving that confirmation forward,” she said.

While GOP Senator Brad Zaun accused Democrats of violating Asjes’ free speech rights, Petersen countered, “We didn’t tell her she couldn’t say what she thought.” Rather, Democrats were concerned “she would put a personal bias on health issues related to all Iowans.”

It was the second year running that the governor’s nominees for this board fell short. Last year, Senate Democrats declined to confirm two Board of Medicine members for second terms because they had voted for an administrative rule banning telemedicine abortions, which the Iowa Supreme Court later struck down unanimously.

ILL-ADVISED EMAIL COMES BACK TO HAUNT POLK COUNTY SUPERVISOR

Did anyone ever warn you not to put anything in writing you wouldn’t want the whole world to read? The lesson was lost on longtime Polk County Supervisor Robert Brownell. Three years ago, he sent seven Republican lawmakers a message referring to Bisignano as “Senator Boozehound,” adding, “The odious personality that is Tony Bisignano should not have a hand in any bill which ends up in the code of Iowa.”

Brownell apologized when his email became public, but Senate Democrats weren’t ready to let bygones be bygones. Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register last month,

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds formally withdrew Brownell’s nomination to the Iowa Council on Human Services Thursday [April 12]. Brownell said in an interview Friday he requested the action because Senate Republicans told him Senate Democrats intended to block his confirmation.

“This had nothing to do with my qualifications. I am sure of that,” Brownell said. “So it is disappointing. It is a more of a personal matter. It had to do with a, very frankly, inappropriate email that I wrote three years ago. It was immature and I felt bad about it and apologized. But obviously, hard feelings were made.”

HEALTH FACILITIES COUNCIL POSITION STILL VACANT

One more person on the long list of Reynolds nominees from early March never made it through the confirmation process. The governor’s office withdrew David Barker’s nomination to serve on the Health Facilities Council the day after his appointment was announced. As Bleeding Heartland reported here, adding Barker would have put one too many Republicans on that five-member board. The governor’s spokesperson told me on March 2, “Due to an error, a mistake was made on this appointment. Mr. Barker’s name is being withdrawn, and the governor will appoint a new person for this vacant position in the future.”

For reasons that remain unclear, the governor did not submit another name in time for the Senate to consider the nomination this year. To keep the council in compliance with Iowa law on gender and political balance, the new appointee must be a man who is either a registered Democrat or a no-party voter. Records provided by the governor’s office in response to Bleeding Heartland’s request show that six men had applied to serve on the Health Facilities Council by mid-March. On their applications, three said they were Democrats and three said they had no party affiliation.

Now that lawmakers have adjourned for the year, Reynolds can name someone to fill the vacancy on an interim basis. That nominee will need to be confirmed sometime during the 2019 legislative session.

Final note: one more Reynolds nominee was in serious danger of being voted down on the Senate floor this year: Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven. He was eventually confirmed with four votes to spare; Bleeding Heartland covered that controversy in detail here.

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