Some bad laws for Iowa's environment take effect today

Continuing Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of the Iowa legislature’s work during the 2019 session.

Iowa’s environmental community had something to celebrate when state lawmakers adjourned for the year without passing legislation that would crush small-scale solar development. An unusual coalition including solar installers, environmental groups, and livestock farmers helped keep the bill bottled up in the Iowa House despite intense lobbying by MidAmerican Energy and its allies, along with massive spending by undisclosed donors.

Unfortunately, lawmakers approved and Governor Kim Reynolds signed several other measures that will be detrimental for Iowa’s natural resources and take our state’s energy policy in the wrong direction. The new laws take effect today, as the 2020 fiscal year begins.

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Plaintiffs challenging Iowa judicial changes face uphill climb (updated)

A Linn County attorney and eight Iowa House Democrats are challenging the new law that altered the composition of the State Judicial Nominating Commission and the term of the Iowa Supreme Court chief justice.

Republican lawmakers approved the changes as an amendment to the “standings” budget bill on the final day of the 2019 legislative session. Governor Kim Reynolds signed the bill on May 8, giving herself and future governors nearly unchecked power to choose judges for Iowa’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The plaintiffs are not claiming the legislature lacked the power to change the commission’s membership through a statute. Although most of Iowa’s judicial selection system is spelled out in the state constitution, which takes years to amend, a loophole in Article V, Section 16 specified the manner of forming judicial nominating commissions only “Until July 4, 1973, and thereafter unless otherwise provided by law.”

Rather, the lawsuit filed in Polk County District Court on May 14 cites two constitutional violations related to the process by which the law passed and one violation related to the separation of powers.

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"This is political": House Republicans vote to limit Iowa AG's powers

North Carolina Republican lawmakers started the trend after losing the governor’s race in 2016. GOP legislative majorities in Michigan and Wisconsin followed suit late last year, seeking to hamstring newly-elected governors and the Michigan attorney general. Kansas Republicans are now trying to limit the appointment power of that state’s Democratic governor.

Iowa House Republicans took their own step toward “banana-republic style governance” on April 23, voting for unprecedented restrictions on Attorney General Tom Miller’s ability to make legal decisions.

The bill’s floor manager, State Representative Gary Worthan, admitted his proposal stemmed from political disagreements with Miller, whom Iowans elected to a tenth term last November.

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Iowa lawmakers pass another unconstitutional "Ag Gag" bill

Iowa legislators just can’t quit violating the constitution in the service of livestock farmers and their lobby groups.

Two months after a federal judge comprehensively dismantled Iowa’s 2012 law prohibiting “agricultural production facility fraud,” the state House and Senate approved a bill creating the crime of “agricultural production facility trespass.” Governor Kim Reynolds has indicated she will sign the legislation. (UPDATE: She signed it on March 14.)

Although the drafters modeled the new bill after portions of an Idaho statute that survived a legal challenge, federal courts could and should strike down this law. Like the previous “ag gag” legislation, its primary purpose is to suppress speech reflecting certain viewpoints.

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Three things I learned watching Iowa House Republicans subvert democracy

The first Iowa House floor votes of 2019 are in the books, and they played out exactly as you’d expect. On two straight party-line votes, 53 Republicans rejected a Democratic effort to allow legally cast absentee ballots to be counted, then dismissed Kayla Koether’s contest of the House district 55 election result.

The chamber’s January 28 debate was enlightening. If you have a few hours to spare, I recommend watching the videos of the afternoon and evening sessions on the legislative website.

My takeaways:

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Iowa House Republicans are making a mistake

Every Iowa House Republican will likely vote on January 28 to dismiss Democrat Kayla Koether’s contest of the House district 55 election. She trails State Representative Michael Bergan by nine votes according to certified results, but 29 absentee ballots that voters in Winneshiek County mailed on time remain uncounted.

Although Republicans on a special House election contest committee insist “there exists no legal authority to open and count the twenty-nine ballots in question,” they are wrong about the law. Dismissing the contest without allowing Koether to call witnesses, take depositions, or have the ballots opened will open the door to judicial review.

It’s also terrible politics.

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