Paul Pate will never screw up another constitutional amendment

On the first day of the Iowa legislature’s 2019 session, Secretary of State Paul Pate formally notified lawmakers that a “procedural oversight” by his office had wiped away progress toward adopting two constitutional amendments.

On the session’s final day, lawmakers took steps to ensure that neither Pate nor any future secretary of state can repeat the error.

Amending Iowa’s constitution is a lengthy process, requiring approval in two successively elected legislatures and a statewide popular vote. Article X demands publication of constitutional amendments approved by one general assembly “for three months” prior to the next general election. Iowa Code 49A.1 directs the “state commissioner of elections” to publish the text “once each month, in two newspapers of general circulation in each congressional district,” during that three-month period.

Lawmakers approved two constitutional amendments during the 2018 session: one guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms, and one clarifying aspects of a governor’s succession. However, the Secretary of State’s office dropped the ball on publishing the text in newspapers last fall, sending the process “back to square one.”

In a January letter to the secretary of the Iowa Senate and the House chief clerk, Pate apologized for the “procedural oversight” and requested a review of “legislative safeguards” to prevent a recurrence. Lawmakers might consider “moving the duty of publication to the Legislative Services Agency and amending the definition of publication to include publication on an Internet website,” Pate wrote.

House File 764 would remove the secretary of state from the equation. The state legislature would be responsible for publishing the text of amendments for the requisite three months in two newspapers from each Congressional district as well as “on an internet site of the general assembly.”

During House debate on April 22 (beginning at 8:03:15 of this video), Republican State Representative Matt Windschitl said the concept was to remove a potential “pocket veto.” Under current law, a secretary of state, governor, or newspaper association might decline to publish a constitutional amendment for political reasons, subverting the will of the legislature. The bill also clarified that a “technical error or oversight” (such as forgetting to publish in one Congressional district) could not derail an amendment approved by both chambers.

Democratic State Representative Vicki Lensing argued against changing the process because of “one mistake” by Pate. (In fact, a similar lapse during Secretary of State Chet Culver’s tenure delayed adoption of a different constitutional amendment.) House members approved the bill along party lines, 54 Republicans in favor and 44 Democrats against.

The Iowa Senate took up House File 764 on April 27, hours before adjourning for the year. Floor manager and GOP State Senator Zach Whiting alluded to Pate’s mistake the debate (around 11:48:10 of this video), saying “That’s all in the past, and this bill is a way to address that problem moving forward.”

Democratic Senator Claire Celsi didn’t make a case against the bill. Instead, she highlighted the fact that the Government Oversight Committee, which had advanced it days earlier, met only twice during the 2019 session. That panel could have held hearings on numerous other pressing issues, Celsi noted.

House File 764 gained support from all 32 Republican senators and the following eight Democrats: Tony Bisignano, Nate Boulton, Claire Celsi, Pam Jochum, Kevin Kinney, Amanda Ragan, Rich Taylor, and Zach Wahls. Eight Democrats opposed the bill: Joe Bolkcom, Bill Dotzler, Eric Giddens, Rob Hogg, Liz Mathis, Janet Petersen, Herman Quirmbach, and Jackie Smith. Democrats Jim Lykam and Todd Taylor were absent.

Governor Kim Reynolds will surely sign this bill. She’s aligned with pro-gun activists who were incensed to see Pate’s error undo their hard work.

Incidentally, Senate Joint Resolution 18, spelling out a “right to keep and bear arms,” was the only constitutional amendment to get through both chambers this year. The House and Senate must approve an identically-worded joint resolution in 2021 or 2022 in order to put the measure on the 2022 general election ballot.

Final note: House File 764 is an example of how legislative leaders can bend the “funnel” rules for bills unrelated to taxes or the budget. House File 764 did not clear a House or Senate committee in time for the first deadline on March 8, nor was it approved by one chamber and a committee in the other chamber before the second deadline on April 5. Leaders can fast-track any priority late in the game, even if the bill did not go through one of the “funnel-proof” committees (Ways and Means or Appropriations). UPDATE/CORRECTION: The new thing I learned today is that the Government Oversight Committee’s work is also funnel-proof. That is why this bill ran through Government Oversight rather than State Government.

LATER UPDATE: Reynolds signed the bill on May 10.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin