Iowa House Democrats strangely quiet on eminent domain bill

Protester’s sign against a pillar in the state capitol on February 27 (photo by Laura Belin)

What’s the opposite of “loud and proud”?

Iowa House Democrats unanimously voted for the chamber’s latest attempt to address the concerns of landowners along the path of Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed CO2 pipeline. But not a single Democrat spoke during the March 28 floor debate.

The unusual tactic allowed the bill’s Republican advocates to take full credit for defending property rights against powerful corporate interests—an extremely popular position.

It was a missed opportunity to share a Democratic vision for fair land use policies and acknowledge the progressive constituencies that oppose the pipeline for various reasons.


House File 2664 would allow affected landowners or companies to go to court early in the process to determine whether the project qualifies for eminent domain (has a public “use,” “benefit,” “purpose,” and is justified by a “public convenience or necessity”). Under current state law, landowners must wait until after the Iowa Utilities Board has decided whether to allow a private company to take land—a process that can take years. The pipeline might be built while lawsuits challenging the board’s decision are pending.

Republican State Representative Charley Thomson explained that the legislation was inspired by Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed pipeline, but “it will encompass more than just the Summit pipeline.”

He argued that until recently, “there was pretty good clarity on whether or not eminent domain was suitable” for matters coming before the Iowa Utilities Board. Now there’s “a real dispute on the constitutionality of the proposed taking.” (Thomson is among the Iowa House Republicans who have intervened in the board’s proceedings on the side of landowners fighting the pipeline.)

Because the process has stretched out for so long, “a procedural taking of all of the land along the Summit route” is occurring, Thomson said. Landowners don’t know whether their property can be used for the CO2 pipeline. Some may file lawsuits after the board makes its determination. In the meantime, they can’t sell their land at full value or make decisions on tiling or estate planning.

The bill would also make it easier for landowners to go to court by stating, “The party seeking judicial review” of an Iowa Utilities Board’s permit for a hazardous liquid pipeline “shall not be required to post a bond to stay action on the permit.” That provision, included in an amendment Thomson introduced during the floor debate, appears to reflect concerns Jess Mazour of the Sierra Club Iowa chapter raised when the House Ways and Means Committee considered the draft legislation. The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Tom Barton quoted Mazour in his report on the committee hearing:

“The only way to stop construction while you’re working your case to the court is to put up hundreds of millions of dollars in bond,” she said. “And the counties don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars. Landowners don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars. My organization doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to devote to stopping construction. … Can we strengthen it so that we have a fair shot in the courts during an appeal? Because we don’t want the pipeline to be built while we’re still waiting on a decision.”

During his closing remarks in support of the bill, Thomson speculated that those who created the Iowa Utilities Board never intended to set up “a process that in effect takes land from people without due process. I don’t think Iowans ever would have sanctioned such an idea.” The bill would address that problem, he said.

Thomson added, “Land is the original asset in Iowa. It’s in our souls. An unjust taking of land without remedy is not only irritating, it’s outrageous. Let’s give Iowans a remedy.”


Normally, after a bill’s floor manager makes the initial case on the Iowa House or Senate floor, a member of the minority caucus will express the party’s position. Even on bills that are far less consequential than House File 2664, a Democrat (typically the person who served on the subcommittee) will stand up to explain why they recommend that colleagues vote yes or no.

None of the Iowa House Democrats asked to speak during the debate on the latest eminent domain bill. So Speaker Pat Grassley recognized two other Republicans who have been vocal about private property rights—State Representatives Bobby Kaufmann and Steve Holt—before Thomson gave his closing statement.

The vote on final passage proceeded in a strange way as well (see the official video, beginning around 1:38:00). No Democrat pushed the yes or no button for about 30 seconds after the machines were open.

Once Republicans had provided 51 votes (enough to pass the bill on their own), a cascade of Democrats joined in. UPDATE: House Democrats dispute this point—see the update near the end of this post.

The final tally was 86 votes for the bill—34 Democrats and 52 Republicans—with seven Republicans against: Michael Bergan, Tom Determann, Chad Ingels, Brian Lohse, Norlin Mommsen, Matt Rinker, and David Sieck. GOP State Representative Megan Jones did not vote because some of her relatives own land along the Summit route.

It’s hard to understand how Democrats saw an advantage in this approach. At best, they left Republicans guessing for a few minutes about whether they would support the bill. But why would that matter?

In the unlikely scenario where Republicans could not reach a majority without help, Democrats could have swooped in to save the day. But who would hear about that, and who would care?

All the minority party accomplished was to ensure those watching the debate wouldn’t hear their perspective, and news reports about the bill’s passage wouldn’t quote a single Democratic legislator (Des Moines Register, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa Capital Dispatch, KCRG-TV, KGAN-TV, Iowa Public Radio).

This isn’t some fringe issue or a divisive one for Iowans. According to the March 2023 Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom, 78 percent of Iowa adults opposed “companies using the state-granted power to build carbon-capture pipelines across the state,” while only 15 percent supported the use of eminent domain in that situation. More than 70 percent opposed eminent domain for CO2 pipelines in every subgroup: men, women, Republicans, Democrats, independents, rural and urban residents, younger and older voters.

House Democrats did tout their support for private property rights in posts on Facebook and X/Twitter shortly after the debate.

If they were so proud to support private property rights, why didn’t anyone say that on the House floor, or even in a press release that could have been quoted in news articles?

During last year’s debate on House File 565, which sought to restrict eminent domain for pipelines in a different way, Democrats J.D. Scholten and Sharon Steckman spoke in favor of the bill, while their colleagues Ross Wilburn and Chuck Isenhart explained their reasons for voting no.

When the legislature considers any measure that Iowans are passionate about, expressing a position is usually better than keeping quiet.

All the more so since the debate over House File 2664 provided many openings for Democrats to expose the majority party’s selective concern about corporations exploiting Iowans.


Why does it matter whether anyone speaks on the House floor? The bill was going to pass either way.

News reports often include notable sound bites, and mainstream media will typically try to include “both sides” when possible. Here are a few examples of Democratic messages that might have resonated with Iowans.

The Republican firewall for the pipeline

Democrats could have pointed out that while the leading GOP advocates of House File 2664 are sincere in their efforts to stop eminent domain for CO2 pipelines, there is an element of kabuki theater to all of these proposals. Everyone knows the Iowa Senate will bury the new bill, as they did with House File 565 last year.

Even if by some miracle GOP senators had a change of heart, Governor Kim Reynolds would never put any obstacle in Summit Carbon’s path. The Carbon Sequestration Task Force she created in 2021 made it obvious that the fix would be in for Summit Carbon Solutions.

During the March 28 debate, Holt castigated the Iowa Utilities Board, saying it “frequently changes the rules, and does not appear to respect or appreciate the gravity of the situation for landowners” who don’t want the pipeline. Guess who appointed all three current board members?

The Office of Consumer Advocate, which is supposed to represent the public in Iowa Utilities Board proceedings, has hardly been a zealous advocate for the public interest during the hearing over Summit Carbon’s pipeline. How convenient that Republican legislators voted last year to give Attorney General Brenna Bird direct control over the consumer advocate’s work, as part of Reynolds’ state government reorganization plan.

Hypocrisy on government serving private corporations

Kaufmann began his remarks during the March 28 debate by saying he wanted to “deliver a message to any company that wishes to condemn private property.”

Government does not exist to make the confiscation of private property easier for you. Government does not exist to make the confiscation of private property more financially advantageous for you. […]

Government is not your court to protect you from “burdensome” [makes air quotes with fingers] landowner protections.

How many times have Kaufmann and his fellow Republicans carried water for companies seeking to reduce supposedly “burdensome” tax rates or regulations related to public health, safety, or the environment?

In his role as Ways and Means Committee chair, Kaufmann just introduced a bill that would block Iowans from suing pesticide manufacturers over exposure that may have harmed their health. House Republicans plan to amend the bill to conform to legislation advancing in the Iowa Senate.

Kaufmann ended his grandstanding on the eminent domain bill with a message for those “who would choose to attempt to use their money to influence this vote. Who would attempt to use their money to prevent this vote. My message is, ‘Take your money and shove it.'”

Addressing landowners, Holt pledged to “reinforce and place safeguards around the use of eminent domain. So that you will not spend years in frustration and limbo, pleading and spending your hard-earned money to protect your fundamental right of private property against companies with buckets of money that don’t give a tinker’s damn about what is right and just.”

Those are bold statements, given how many times House Republicans have helped entities with buckets of money by cutting workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits, and limiting liability for exposure to COVID-19, medical malpractice, or life-ruining truck crashes.

A Democrat could have agreed with Kaufmann and Holt that the government should not help corporations confiscate any property that rightly belongs to Iowans—then pointed out that in the fourteen years Republicans have controlled the state House, they’ve done nothing to stop companies from stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from hard-working Iowans every year through wage theft.

Failure to acknowledge allies

By not speaking during the debate, House Democrats passed up a chance to thank progressive constituencies that have mobilized opposition to the pipelines. Holt expressed his gratitude “to landowners who have refused to quit, representing the kind of character that I think built this nation.”

No one saluted progressive organizations that have devoted extensive resources to fighting for better land use policies. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Food & Water Watch, and the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter have been among the leading grassroots organizers against the CO2 pipelines. The Sierra Club has also submitted numerous filings in the Iowa Utilities Board’s docket on Summit’s application and spent many hours questioning witnesses at the board’s evidentiary hearing in Fort Dodge.

Final note: Bleeding Heartland has observed before that Iowa Democratic legislators are generally reluctant to challenge the ethanol industry in public. Ethanol companies and biofuels interests are among the leading proponents of CO2 pipelines and lobbied against House File 2664. Clearly their lobbying didn’t discourage Democrats from voting for this bill. But it could be one reason Democratic leadership hasn’t been “loud and proud” about trying to stop eminent domain for carbon capture projects. Another relevant factor: some labor unions see the pipeline as a way to bring good construction jobs to Iowa.

UPDATE: Steckman responded via Facebook,

I believe this is very disingenuous. First of all, I asked and asked to be part of the process. And they just kept telling me what they were doing without asking or caring for any Democratic input. Plus they are pretty sure the Senate will do nothing.

Secondly, they are in the super majority and do whatever they want! Caught many times gloating about it! Third, the article got it wrong. We were the deciding 51st vote, a couple of other Republicans voted yes, after we passed it.

This article is a missed opportunity. Why didn’t the author go after leadership? They have been stalling this from the get go (for 2 years)?????

And lastly, the week before this came out, I stood up and did a point of personal privilege…. Demanding that they quit doing stupid, silly bills and do something about eminent domain, and help the rural property owners that are crying out for help! Didn’t bother to cover that.🙄 Our votes were for Iowa landowners, not the press.

My impression was that 51 Republicans voted yes before Democrats pushed their buttons, but since the official video does not show names on the board, I cannot confirm using the replay when the 51st House Republican pressed the button. (It’s clear that Mike Sexton provided the 52nd GOP yes vote near the end of the roll call.)

Assuming Steckman is correct and Democrats put this bill over the top, how would Iowa landowners find out about that? And why would they give Democrats credit for it?

Why not stand up during the debate and say we support the bill, but Republicans should have welcomed our input, and here’s how we would have addressed landowner concerns if we were writing the bill? During the 2023 debate over the eminent domain bill, Scholten said, “I rise in support of this bill. However, I don’t think it’s a great bill.” He went on to explain his position.

Why not file an amendment to House File 2664, to show how Democrats would approach the issue? Democrats have done that during many other House debates, most recently on education and election-related bills. Of course, Republicans would vote down the amendment, but the process would put everyone on record.

Steckman’s point of personal privilege from March 19 is worth a listen. It’s on the official House video, starting around 3:10:20, or you can listen here. She made three arguments against Summit Carbon’s CO2 pipeline: “it’s dangerous” in the event of a rupture; it would require massive water usage while Iowa is already experiencing drought; and “there is no reason to use eminent domain for private gain.” Those would have been excellent points to raise during the March 28 debate, when many more people were paying attention.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • Good questions Laura

    In my comment to a recent Bleeding Heartland post I asked the rhetorical question, why do Iowans continue to vote for Republicans. Laura has part of the answer. Beyond that, though, Democrats just are not good at messaging. Republicans are either schooled in messaging or Republican candidates are picked because they are good at it.

  • A deafening silence

    This is great reporting. Keep it up Laura.

  • I would really appreciate an explanation that comes directly from a House Democrat...

    …and if a legislator doesn’t feel comfortable providing an explanation on the record, I’d appreciate getting an explanation anonymously. I’d bet that could be arranged through BLEEDING HEARTLAND. C’mon, House Democrats. Some of us who vote, donate, and volunteer for you would like to understand.

  • thanks for calling them out

    so depressing but so in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from them…

    An Economist Breaks Down The Costs of Carbon Pipelines In Iowa

  • they just keep digging

    ” Our votes were for Iowa landowners, not the press”