Highlights from this year's Iowa Senate votes on Branstad nominees

During the 2014 legislative session, the Iowa Senate confirmed all but a handful of Governor Terry Branstad’s more than 200 nominees for state boards and commissions. It’s not unusual for senators to vote down one or two appointees, but this year the Senate confirmed everyone who came up for a vote on the floor.

The only close call was former Iowa House Republican Nick Wagner, confirmed to the Iowa Utilities Board last month with just one vote to spare. Branstad originally named Wagner to the three-member utilities board in 2013 but pulled his nomination when it became clear that senators would not confirm him. Branstad named Wagner to that board anyway, right after the Senate adjourned for the year in 2013. By the time his nomination came up for consideration this year, a couple of factors that worked against him were no longer relevant. Former State Senator Swati Dandekar had resigned from the board to run for Congress, so there would no longer be two of three members from Marion (a Cedar Rapids suburb). Furthermore, Branstad named attorney Sheila Tipton to replace Dandekar, so senators could no longer object to the lack of a lawyer on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Still, most of the Democratic caucus opposed Wagner’s nomination. State Senator Rob Hogg cited the nominee’s support for a bad nuclear power bill that the legislature considered a few years back. Meanwhile, State Senator Matt McCoy (who incidentally wanted to pass the nuclear bill) noted that as a key Iowa House Republican on budget matters, Wagner “was not willing to listen” and “took very difficult and very hard-line positions.” After the jump I’ve posted the roll call on the Wagner nomination; 11 Democrats joined all 24 Republicans to confirm him.

As in recent years, the governor withdrew a handful of nominees who were not likely to gain at least 34 votes (a two-thirds majority) in the upper chamber. A few nominees for low-profile boards had to go because of party imbalance issues. Chet Hollingshead, one of seven Branstad appointees to the Mental Health and Disability Services Commission, never came up for a vote, presumably because of a theft incident Bleeding Heartland user Iowa_native described here.

I am not sure why Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal informed Branstad that Jason Carlstrom was unlikely to be confirmed as chair of the Iowa Board of Parole. The governor first appointed Carlstrom to that position in the summer of 2012, to fill out the remainder of someone else’s term. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed him during the 2013 legislative session. When Branstad reappointed Carlstrom to the parole board this year, I didn’t expect him to run into any trouble. I will update this post if I learn more details.

The highest-profile nominee withdrawn by Branstad was former Iowa House Republican Jamie Van Fossen, whom the governor wanted to chair the Public Employment Relations Board. Cityview’s Civic Skinny described the backstory well; I’ve posted excerpts after the jump. Van Fossen still serves on that board, having been confirmed to a full term in 2012. But the new chair will be Mike Cormack, a Republican who served four terms in the Iowa House and later worked for the State Department of Education. Senators unanimously confirmed Cormack last month. The outgoing Public Employment Relations Board chair, Jim Riordan, has alleged that the board faced political pressure from Branstad staffers to hire an employer-friendly administrative law judge.

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Iowa Senate approves cannabis oil bill

Yesterday the Iowa Senate approved by 36 votes to 12 a bill to legalize the use of medical cannabis oil for treating certain seizure conditions. You can read the full text of Senate File 2360 here. After the jump I’ve posted State Senator Joe Bolkcom’s floor statements in support of the bill, which summarize its key points and limited scope. An Iowa Senate Democratic research staffer provided a more detailed analysis of the bill here (pdf).

The roll call in the Senate Journal shows that all 26 Iowa Senate Democrats voted for the cannabis oil bill, joined by the following ten Republicans: Mike Breitbach, Mark Chelgren, Minority Leader Bill Dix, Joni Ernst, Hubert Houser, David Johnson, Tim Kapucian, Charles Schneider, Amy Sinclair, and Brad Zaun. The twelve Republicans who voted no were Bill Anderson, Jerry Behn, Rick Bertrand, Nancy Boettger, Jake Chapman, Randy Feenstra, Julian Garrett, Sandy Greiner, Dennis Guth, Ken Rozenboom, Roby Smith, and Jack Whitver. Republicans Mark Segebart and Dan Zumbach were absent.

During the floor debate, several Republicans warned that passing the bill would send the wrong message to teenagers, leading to more recreational use of marijuana. That’s hard to fathom, since the bill does not legalize smoking marijuana, even for terminally or chronically ill Iowans who could benefit from medical cannabis in that form.

Key Iowa House Republicans and Governor Terry Branstad have made clear that for now, they would consider only a bill to allow access to medical cannabis oil. I hope a study committee on broader use of medical marijuana will go forward. Senate File 2360 is a step in the right direction and will give families like this one options other than moving to Colorado. However, the bill leaves out too many suffering people.

P.S.- A sign of how far the political ground has shifted in the medical marijuana debate: Joni Ernst and Brad Zaun are in fiercely competitive GOP primaries (for U.S. Senate and IA-03, respectively). Both of them voted for this bill.

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Do minority party state legislators need to show up for work?

The Des Moines Register ran a front-page feature today on retiring Republican State Senator Hubert Houser. Having served for ten years in the Iowa House and twelve in the Iowa Senate, Houser stopped showing up for work at the statehouse in early March. He plans to return only for “a day or two” at the end of the session. He has taken on more responsibilities at his family farm and contends that he doesn’t need to be at the capitol, since Republicans are the minority party. They can’t bring their own bills to the Iowa Senate floor and don’t need Houser’s vote.

On the one hand, I can imagine minority lawmakers must get tired of spending days at the Capitol, not accomplishing much while thinking about all the work that needs to be done at home. On the other hand, the Iowa legislature is only in session a few months of the year. Houser’s constituents elected him to do a job. He’s collecting a salary for work he isn’t doing.

Asked to comment on Houser’s prolonged absence today, Governor Terry Branstad said, “I respect individual legislators’ right to make the decisions that they make with regards to their vote and things like that,” adding that Houser has been a “great representative for the people of southwest Iowa.”

Missed Iowa Senate votes may become a salient issue in the U.S. Senate race. In early March, Rod Boshart was the first to start tallying GOP State Senator Joni Ernst’s many excused absences during this year’s legislative session. Only a few of the missed days could be chalked up to National Guard duty; others were related to campaigning or fundraising for her U.S. Senate bid. Ernst’s short political career doesn’t open up many lines for attack, but this will be a big one for Democratic candidate Bruce Braley if he faces Ernst in the general election. Republican blogger Craig Robinson, who is supporting Mark Jacobs in the IA-Sen GOP primary, has repeatedly called attention to Ernst missing Iowa Senate votes this year. I would not be surprised to see Jacobs’ campaign, or some dark money entity supporting him, make this case against Ernst before the June primary. Nick Ryan (best known to Bleeding Heartland readers as the head of the American Future Fund) is handling direct mail for the Jacobs campaign.

UPDATE: Speaking to the Des Moines Register, Secretary of the Senate Michael Marshall said Houser is still taking both his legislator’s salary ($25,000 annually) and per diem expense reimbursement payments. Marshall said Ernst “has sometimes asked not to be provided legislative per diem payments for certain days.”

Speaking to WHO-TV, Ernst said she has missed five days in the Iowa Senate this year for campaign-related activities.

SECOND UPDATE: Sounds like Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix leaned on Houser, who is now planning to show up for work and indicated that he will return per diem expense payments for days he’s missed.

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Iowa Republican lawmakers who voted for the last minimum wage increase

Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum and House Minority Leader Mark Smith both called for raising Iowa’s minimum wage in their opening remarks to fellow legislators yesterday. Increasing the minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 would raise earnings for roughly 332,000 Iowa workers, according to a 2012 estimate. It would acknowledge the reality that “the minimum wage does not keep a full-time worker out of poverty.”  

Governor Terry Branstad said last week that a minimum wage hike is “not part of my agenda,” suggesting that job training and efforts to attract high-skilled jobs would be sufficient. Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen indicated that he sees a minimum wage increase as “[m]aking it harder to be an employer in the state of Iowa.”

However, appearing on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal pointed out that Branstad signed a minimum wage increase during the 1980s and that Paulsen had voted for the January 2007 bill that raised the wage. On the same program, Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer acknowledged that there may be support for a minimum wage increase in her caucus, since at least half of current House Republicans who were in the legislature in 2007 had voted for that minimum wage hike. Like Paulsen, Upmeyer was a yes vote. At the time, he was House minority whip and she was one of four assistant minority leaders.

Iowa’s last minimum wage hike was the first bill Governor Chet Culver signed into law. House File 1 sailed through, passing by 79 votes to 19 in the Iowa House and 40 votes to 8 in the Iowa Senate. All of the Democrats supported the bill. After the jump I’ve listed how all of the current Republican lawmakers voted on the minimum wage increase. Twelve supported the bill, thirteen opposed it, and one was absent for the 2007 vote.

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Analysis of the Obama-Romney vote in the Iowa Senate districts

The Daily Kos Elections team has been compiling 2012 presidential election results by state legislative district as well as by Congressional district. Yesterday the Iowa numbers were added to the database. You can view Google documents with raw vote totals and percentages for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney by Iowa Congressional district here, by Iowa Senate district here, and by Iowa House district here.

Looking closely at the presidential vote in the legislative districts provides some insight about where the competitive Iowa statehouse races might be next year. After the jump I’ve highlighted some key data points related to the Iowa Senate races. Later I will post a separate diary with first thoughts about the Iowa House districts.

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Last-minute Iowa legislative scramble is nothing to brag about

The Iowa Senate wrapped up its work for the year shortly after midnight on May 23, and Iowa House members adjourned about 11 hours later. Lawmakers in both parties have been congratulating themselves for compromising on some big issues that ended in stalemate the previous two years. Rod Boshart compiled an excellent list of what the legislature did and didn’t approve during 2013.

We all can appreciate the desire to finish a big project before a holiday weekend, and since legislators stopped receiving per diem payments weeks ago, they understandably wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible. However, I found it disturbing that votes were held before most lawmakers, let alone members of the public, had time to digest final conference committee deals on education reform, an alternative to Medicaid expansion, property taxes, and the health and human services budget. Transparency isn’t just a buzzword. Had journalists and advocacy groups been able to look over the last-minute compromises, people might have discovered problematic language or even simple drafting errors, which could produce unintended consequences after Governor Terry Branstad signs these bills into law.

I have a lot of questions about the final education reform bill and the plan to provide health insurance to low-income Iowans, particularly those earning between 101 percent and 138 percent of the poverty level. I also need more time to sort through the budget numbers and final changes to the standings bill. After the holiday weekend Bleeding Heartland will examine the important results of the legislative session in more detail. For now, I’ve posted after the jump details on who voted for and against the major bills approved this week.

UPDATE: In the May 24 edition of the On Iowa Politics podcast, statehouse reporters Mike Wiser and James Lynch discussed how the big issues came together “behind closed doors,” with no public scrutiny or oversight. Lynch commented that to his knowledge, the conference committee named to resolve the impasse over Medicaid expansion never formally met, except perhaps for one organizational meeting. Lynch recounted one occasion when Iowa House Republican Dave Heaton was briefing journalists about the health care talks, and the journalists asked when that happened, since there hadn’t been any public notices of conference committee meetings. According to Lynch, Heaton replied, “We’re not having meetings, but we’re meeting.” Senate President Pam Jochum said that negotiations between Democratic State Senator Amanda Ragan and House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer produced the “key to Iowa’s health care compromise.” Notably, Upmeyer didn’t have a prominent role in passing the House health insurance plan, nor was she named to the conference committee assigned to merge the House and Senate proposals.

Speaking to journalists on May 22, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Jochum weren’t able to answer a specific question about compromise wording reached regarding Medicaid coverage of abortions. That was no minor issue–it was the last sticking point holding up approval of the health and human services budget. In effect, Gronstal told journalists, you can see the wording after the final bill is published.

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