Most conservative Iowa House Democrat retiring

State Representative Dolores Mertz announced yesterday that she will not seek a twelfth term in the Iowa House. First elected to House district 8 in 1988, she said she’s in good health but wants to spend more time with her large family. House district 8 includes all of Humboldt and Pocahontas counties, plus parts of Kossuth and Webster counties (map here).

Mertz has chaired the Iowa House Agriculture Committee since Democrats won a majority in the 2006 election. Rumors of her impending retirement circulated last year, but when I saw that she raised more than $20,000 for her campaign in 2009, I assumed she would be up for another term. No Democratic candidate has announced plans to run in House district 8 yet, but we should learn more before the March 19 filing deadline.

John Deeth sees this race as a likely Republican pickup, and given the partisan lean of the district, that should be the case. However, I would not be surprised to see Democrats hold this seat if Republican infighting resembles what happened last fall in New York’s 23rd Congressional district special election.

Steven Richards fell just 42 votes short of defeating Mertz in 2008 and is seeking the GOP nomination again. Richards is a mainstream Republican, but most of the local GOP officials are backing right-winger Tom Shaw. He had planned to run as an independent in House district 8 before returning to the Republican fold this year. Shaw and Richards aired their differences at a forum last month, and I get the impression that Shaw will run as a third-party candidate if Richards wins the nomination. If Shaw wins the nomination, which seems more probable, supporters of Richards may prefer the Democrat (assuming we nominate a moderate) or simply not vote in the House race. Shaw backs Bob Vander Plaats for governor, and he may follow Kent Sorenson’s lead and refuse to vote for Branstad for governor under any circumstances. That could alienate many Republican voters in the area. Richards supports Branstad for governor.

The financial disclosure forms Shaw and Richards filed in January indicate that Richards raised only $100 last year and had a little more than three dollars (!) cash on hand at the end of December. Shaw raised $1,753 last year and had just under $238 cash on hand. In other words, the winner of the Republican primary is unlikely to have an intimidating war chest.

Normally, I hate to see an incumbent Democrat retire in a marginal district, but Mertz is the exception that proves the rule. Even if Democrats end up losing House district 8, I can’t say I am sorry to see Mertz leave the legislature. She’s not only part of the “six-pack” that blocked labor bills, she has given Republicans cover on many other issues. For example, Mertz has co-sponsored constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and end access to abortion and some forms of birth control. She has also pushed a lot of bad bills through the House Agriculture Committee while blocking many attempts to reduce pollution from factory farms. During this year’s session, Mertz supported a bill that would undermine new rules on spreading manure over frozen ground and a bill to give owners of agricultural drainage wells until 2020 to comply with a 1997 law intended to reduce water pollution.

I understand that the new Democratic candidate in House district 8 won’t be a liberal, but I’m hoping for more of a team player than Mertz has been. At the very least a new Democrat from this district wouldn’t have the seniority to chair a House committee.

I hope Mertz will enjoy a happy retirement in the company of her seven children and eleven grandchildren. Until I read this piece in the Fort Dodge Messenger, I didn’t realize that her political career began with the untimely death of her husband.

She was the first woman to become a Kossuth County supervisor. She was appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 1983 to fill the vacancy created by the death of her husband, H.P. “Pete” Mertz. In 1984, she won a special election to complete the remaining two years of her husband’s term. In 1986, she was elected to a full four-year term without any opposition.

Similar tragedies have pushed many other women into elected offices. In fact, one-fifth of all the women who have served in Congress have been widows who “directly succeeded their husbands.”  

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Culver opposes dirty water bill

Governor Chet Culver will not sign a bill that would weaken Iowa’s current restrictions on spreading manure over frozen and snow-covered ground. Culver’s senior adviser Jim Larew confirmed the governor’s opposition during a February 22 meeting with members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Iowa CCI is among the environmental groups that have sounded the alarm about House File 2324 and a companion bill, Senate File 2229. The bills would exempt many large farms from the new manure application rules adopted last year. Earlier this month, the House Agriculture Committee approved HF 2324 with minimal debate.

Culver had previously promised to block the new proposal in private conversations. The bill’s lead sponsor in the Iowa House, Democratic State Representative Ray Zirkelbach, told IowaPolitics.com yesterday, “Basically I was told that the governor’s going to veto it no matter what … if it came to his desk […].” Zirkelbach contends that the bill is needed to help the struggling dairy industry. He denies that it would lead to more manure contaminating Iowa waters.

I am glad to see the governor take a stand against Zirkelbach’s proposal. Improving the manure application bill was a major victory during the closing days of last year’s legislative session. We should not have to keep fighting efforts to move us backwards on water quality.

The full text of yesterday’s press release from Iowa CCI is after the jump.

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One step forward, two steps back on Iowa water quality?

I seem to have jinxed things by praising Democratic state legislators who allowed the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ new clean water rules to go forward this week.

I learned yesterday from Iowa CCI, 1000 Friends of Iowa and the Iowa Environmental Council that a horrible bill, House File 2324, is being fast-tracked through the Iowa House. This bill was introduced to the House Agriculture Committee on Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday it was unanimously approved by a subcommittee and then the full House Agriculture Committee. An action alert from the Iowa Environmental Council explains the substance:

DNR has proposed rules that would require existing facilities need to have at least 100 days of storage, in order to qualify for an emergency exemption for winter application because of full storage structures.  But HF 2324 exempts confinement feeding operations constructed before July 1, 2009 from this rule.  Specifically the bill states:

“A confinement feeding operation constructed before July 1, 2009, and not expanded after that date is not required to construct or expand a manure storage structure to comply with this section.”  

Lack of adequate manure storage during winter months is a major cause of water pollution in Iowa.  Without adequate storage, farmers apply the manure to frozen or snow-covered farm fields, risking run-off into nearby streams at the first thaw or rain.

From a statement issued by Iowa CCI:

Iowa already suffers from some of the worst water quality in the nation. High levels of ammonia pollution all across Iowa were traced back to manure application on frozen and snow-covered ground. This bill would gut the state law that bans the spreading of manure on frozen and snow-covered ground by exempting more than 5,500 factory farms that were built before July 1, 2009 due to a lack of storage for their manure.

“Poor manure management is not an emergency,” [CCI Executive Director Hugh] Espey said.

The Environmental Protection Agency came down strongly in favor of a ban without exceptions last year.  Passage of this new legislation would be a clear violation of the Clean Water Act and would also undermine the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ authority to regulate factory farms.

Shame on the members of the House Agriculture Committee for fast-tracking this bill. Yet again, Iowa environmentalists have to fight efforts to circumvent DNR rules aimed at protecting the public interest. We should be making CAFOs pay for the harm they cause, not exempting them from reasonable manure storage requirements. But no, proponents want to rush through a gift for factory farms.

It’s a disgrace that a legislative committee unanimously recommended this bill, especially in a Democratic-controlled legislature. This kind of thing is one reason why I have stopped donating to the House and Senate Democratic leadership committees.

Last year many legislators tried to circumvent the DNR’s rule-making on the application of manure on frozen ground, prompting several Iowa non-profits to spend staff time and energy mobilizing against the bad bill. By a minor miracle, last-minute amendments greatly improved that bill before it passed in the closing days of the 2009 session.

The Iowa Environmental Council makes it easy for you to send an e-mail urging your state legislators to vote down HF 2324. But some lawmakers don’t read all their e-mail, so I recommend calling your representative as well. The House switchboard is 515-281-3221.  

UPDATE: Adam Mason of Iowa CCI informed me that another bad bill, House File 2365, was introduced in the House Agriculture Committee yesterday. It would change the definition of a “residence” in proximity to a CAFO, excluding homes that are “off the grid.” Iowa law restricts how close factory farms can be to residences, but this bill would make it harder for some homeowners to fight a factory farm permit. So far HF 2365 hasn’t received subcommittee or full committee approval, but it bears watching.

SECOND UPDATE: There is also an Iowa Senate version of the bill that would undermine regulations on winter spreading of manure: it’s Senate File 2229. It was referred to a subcommittee on February 9, but no further action has been taken as of February 14.  

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Paging Al Gore: Leonard Boswell needs to hear from you (updated)

Chris Bowers wondered yesterday at Open Left why advocates of legislation to address global warming (the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act) aren’t playing hardball with Democrats who are watering down and threatening to block this bill.

By way of example, Bowers mentioned Congressman Leonard Boswell, who along with other Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee won’t vote for Waxman-Markey unless the bill is amended to benefit conventional farmers. Brad Johnson of the Think Progress “Wonk Room” provides excellent background information on what the House Agriculture Committee members want to do to Waxman-Markey.

But back to Bowers’ post. He points out that during last year’s Democratic primary for the third Congressional district, Boswell relied heavily on Al Gore’s endorsement. Boswell featured Gore’s support in direct-mail campaign fliers and radio advertising. Gore also signed a fundraising appeal for Boswell’s campaign, which included this passage:

Whether the issue is global warming or increasing the minimum wage, making college more affordable or expanding health care to every American, Leonard Boswell is on the frontlines of these issues.

Truthfully, Boswell has never been out in front on global warming. He voted for George Bush’s awful energy bill in 2005, filled with subsidies for fossil-fuel polluters. He came late to support the Safe Climate Act in the last Congress, signing on as a co-sponsor only in December 2007, after learning that Ed Fallon was planning a primary challenge.

But that’s water under the bridge. The much more serious problem is Boswell’s threat to vote down Waxman-Markey, which for all its flaws is still the best climate change bill ever to have a chance of passing Congress.

Al Gore has said global warming is one of the great moral issues of our time. It’s time for him and other prominent environmental advocates to lean on the House Democrats who are undermining Waxman-Markey.

On a related note, Ed and Lynn Fallon’s organization I’M for Iowa sent a press release on June 16 criticizing Boswell for “failing Iowans” on climate change legislation. In a separate e-mail to supporters, the Fallons challenged Boswell to “do what Al Gore would do” and support the American Clean Energy and Security Act. I’ve posted both the press release and the e-mail message from I’M for Iowa after the jump.

Members of Congress also need to hear from ordinary citizens who support a strong American Clean Energy and Security Act. Iowa Interfaith Power and Light makes it easy for you to write to your representative by clicking here. Other non-profit organizations working on this issue include Iowa Global Warming, the Iowa Renewable Energy Association, the Sierra Club Iowa chapter, and the Iowa Environmental Council.

UPDATE: Boswell’s spokesman Mark Daley responded with a statement explaining several areas of concern with Waxman-Markey despite Boswell’s “ardent support for climate change legislation.” (Let me know if you’ve seen evidence of this “ardent support” during the past 14 years.) I’ve posted the statement after the jump.

I’m not buying it for several reasons. Many people who have thoroughly studied this issue do not agree with the alleged impact this bill would have on farmers. The idea behind giving the USDA jurisdiction over the agriculture offsets is that the USDA will give farmers more offsets than the EPA would. If this is about getting more money to farmers, then I agree with Bowers that we’d be better off just handing farmers cash instead of credits.

If we want to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from current levels, then utilities that currently rely on fossil fuels may need to do more. Boswell says this is a bias against consumers in the midwest and that the allowances for utilities should be based on “historical emissions”. I am sorry that midwestern utility companies have not been more farsighted about getting away from fossil fuels, but I don’t understand how Boswell’s approach gets us to the solution we need, which is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Speaking more generally, no one claims the Waxman-Markey bill is ideal. I could argue that a carbon tax approach would be better than cap-and-trade, but a carbon tax isn’t politically viable, so here we are. I could complain about two dozen compromises that have already been made to satisfy this or that corporate or regional interest. Ultimately, the threat global warming poses to the planet is too great to let any one group derail the whole Waxman-Markey project, as Boswell is apparently willing to do if he doesn’t get his way about USDA jurisdiction. Someone who continually bragged about Al Gore’s endorsement during last year’s primary should be able to see the bigger picture here.

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