Where things stand with Republican bills targeting Iowa workers

Republican attacks on working Iowans have received less attention this year than in 2017, when new laws shredded public employee collective bargaining rights, blocked local governments from raising the minimum wage, and reduced workers’ compensation benefits, especially for those who hurt their shoulder on the job.

But below the radar, GOP lawmakers have moved several bills lately that would make life harder for working people, including some facing the difficult circumstances of unemployment or workplace injury.

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MidAmerican's bid to crush small solar creates strange lobbying bedfellows

MidAmerican Energy’s effort to crush small-scale solar generation made it through the Iowa legislature’s first “funnel” and will be eligible for floor debate in both chambers. The House Commerce Committee on March 4 approved House Study Bill 185 (now renamed House File 669) without amendment on a party-line 12 to 10 vote. The Senate Commerce Committee amended the companion Senate Study Bill 1201 before advancing it on March 7.

The bill will likely pass the upper chamber, where Republicans have a 32 to 17 majority. Although Republicans outnumber Democrats by 54 to 46 in the House, and MidAmerican’s political action committee donated to dozens of incumbents’ campaigns last year, getting the solar bill through the lower chamber will be no easy task. A utility-backed bill to undercut energy efficiency programs was one of the heaviest lifts during the 2018 session. Only after several concessions did supporters cobble together 52 Republican votes in the House. The GOP held 59 seats at that time.

More than three dozen corporations, industry groups, or advocacy organizations have lobbyists registered for or against MidAmerican’s solar bill. While it’s not unusual for a high-profile bill to draw that kind of attention, the two camps seeking to persuade legislators on this issue reflect alliances rarely seen at the statehouse.

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A rare victory for Iowa water quality

Following a public outcry, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has abandoned an effort to weaken the state’s E. coli water quality standards.

Officials had designed the change with the explicit goal of reducing the number of Iowa waterways deemed impaired. Environmental advocates had warned public health would suffer if the DNR assessed waterways based on average readings of E. coli levels, rather than the highest single measurement of the bacteria.

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Peter Cownie won't say who suggested worst workers' comp proposals

The Iowa House has already approved and the Senate will consider today the most sweeping changes to our workers’ compensation system in decades. The legislation would disadvantage injured workers in many ways. Three points in the initial Republican proposal have drawn the most intense criticism from employee advocates who spoke to journalists, published commentaries, testified at a public hearing, or reached out directly to state lawmakers:

• Shifting the burden of proof by forcing employees filing a claim to show workplace activity was the “predominant” factor in an injury;

• Cutting off benefits for most injuries at age 67, which would discriminate against older workers; and

• Classifying shoulder injuries as “scheduled member” rather than “body as a whole” injuries, language seen as a gift to meatpacking companies because it would “drastically” reduce benefits.

Those provisions were so widely acknowledged to be unjust that Republicans amended them before passing House File 518. GOP State Senator Charles Schneider has said he and other colleagues favor changing the same three sections of the Senate version.

How did such cruel ideas come before the legislature to begin with? Hoping to find out, I turned to State Representative Peter Cownie, who introduced the workers’ compensation bill in his capacity as House Commerce Committee chair.

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Key Iowa Senate Republican: "Loser pays" bill going nowhere

A Republican bill that would have made Iowa courts far less accessible to ordinary people will die in an Iowa Senate subcommittee, GOP State Senator Charles Schneider told Bleeding Heartland on February 25. Bill Brauch, former director of the Consumer Protection Division in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, explained here how the so-called “loser pays” bill “would in effect kill Iowa’s private consumer fraud law, and just about eliminate any other type of legal action by an individual against a defendant with money.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Zaun introduced Senate Study Bill 1008 during the first week of the legislative session, then assigned it to a subcommittee chaired by Schneider. Following a February 25 public forum in Clive, I asked Schneider about that bill’s status. He replied, “I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I haven’t held a subcommittee meeting for it, and I’m not planning to.”

I mentioned that Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix had named “loser pays” as one of his top four priorities in an interview with Radio Iowa. Schneider responded, “I’m not planning to hold a subcommittee meeting on it. I don’t think any other tort reform bills include a ‘loser pays’ section in them.”

Under Iowa legislative rules, most non-appropriations bills will be dead for the year if they have not cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the first “funnel,” coming up on Friday, March 3. The leaders of subcommittees and committees have discretion on what bills to bring up for a vote.

I’m pleasantly surprised to learn Senate Study Bill 1008 will go down without a fight. Only a month and a half ago, Dix cited a “measure that ensures losers in those court cases pay for the cost associated with the case” as one of “four bills that I believe define us and give Iowans a clear indication of where we plan to go with policies for our state.” The Iowa Association of Business and Industry, a lobby group with substantial influence among statehouse Republicans, registered in favor of this bill almost immediately. Perhaps Schneider, who practices law as a day job, was able to convince non-attorneys Dix and Zaun that “loser pays” is unnecessary and unfair. Or perhaps Zaun miscalculated by putting Schneider in charge of this subcommittee.

Whatever caused this bill’s demise, any bit of good news from this dreadful legislative session is worth celebrating.

UPDATE: Reader Marian Kuper noticed that Senate Study Bill 1144 contains a “loser pays” clause for nuisance lawsuits against large livestock farms. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Dan Zumbach proposed that bill, which contains several provisions designed to shield confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from lawsuits. It has passed a subcommittee and appears likely to survive the funnel, with support from several Big Ag lobby groups.

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Never let it be said that the 2016 Iowa legislature accomplished nothing

In four months of work this year, Iowa lawmakers made no progress on improving water quality or expanding conservation programs, funded K-12 schools and higher education below levels needed to keep up with inflation, failed to increase the minimum wage or address wage theft, let most criminal justice reform proposals die in committee, didn’t approve adequate oversight for the newly-privatized Medicaid program, opted against making medical cannabis more available to sick and suffering Iowans, and left unaddressed several other issues that affect thousands of constituents.

But let the record reflect that bipartisan majorities in the Iowa House and Senate acted decisively to solve a non-existent problem. At a bill-signing ceremony yesterday, Governor Terry Branstad and supporters celebrated preventing something that probably never would have happened.

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