Rest in peace, Joe Seng

Democratic State Senator Joe Seng has died after a two-year battle with brain cancer, Iowa Senate leaders confirmed today. I enclose below comments released by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Senate President Pam Jochum.

With the upper chamber split 26-24 and many important votes falling along party lines, Democratic leaders needed Seng’s presence often during the last two legislative sessions. He had phenomenal dedication and kept showing up for work while fighting a monstrous disease and undergoing regular chemotherapy. The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski posted a video of Seng singing and playing the accordion for his colleagues in April 2015.

Seng served as Davenport’s alderman-at-large and mayor pro-tem before representing parts of Iowa’s third-largest city for two years in the state House and fourteen in the Senate. A veterinarian by training, he chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee in recent years and served on the Commerce, Ethics, Labor and Business Relations, Natural Resources and Environment, and Ways & Means committees.

After Iowa’s new map of political boundaries put Scott County in the second Congressional district, Seng challenged U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack and won about 18 percent of the vote in the 2012 Democratic primary. In his final re-election campaign two years ago, Seng easily defeated a primary challenger and did not face a general election opponent.

Seng’s passing will force a special election later this year in Senate district 45 (map enclosed below). Because the district contains more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, the only real competition to replace Seng will be for the Democratic nomination, to be decided at a district convention. Democrats Jim Lykam and Cindy Winckler have represented the two halves of Seng’s Senate district in the Iowa House since 2003.

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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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Iowa Democrats trying to add autism insurance coverage to budget bill

Earlier this month, Claire Celsi informed Bleeding Heartland readers about the demise of an autism insurance bill after State Representative Peter Cownie refused to bring the measure up for a vote in the Iowa House Commerce Committee, which he chairs.

As both Autism Awareness Month and the 2016 legislative session wind down, Democrats in the Iowa House and Senate have been working to add the same requirements to a must-pass budget bill. Follow me after the jump for background and where things stand in this fight.

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Medicaid oversight bill passes Iowa Senate with bipartisan support

Since Terry Branstad returned to the governor’s office, the overwhelming majority of Iowa Senate votes on contentious political issues have fallen along strict party lines: 26 Democrats one way and 24 Republicans the opposite. However, the Branstad administration’s rush to privatize Medicaid has created space for bipartisanship, as a growing number of Republicans acknowledge the dangers of shifting to managed care for a program through which one in six Iowans access health services.

Last month, three GOP senators joined their Democratic colleagues to vote for a bill that would have halted Iowa’s Medicaid privatization. That legislation is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled state House, and federal officials recently approved waivers to allow the Iowa Department of Human Services to implement the managed care policy as of April 1.

Yesterday a quarter of the GOP state senators voted with all 26 Democrats for a Medicaid oversight bill that had cleared the Senate Human Resources Committee unanimously. In her remarks to open floor debate on Senate File 2213, Human Resources Committee Chair Amanda Ragan said the bill was designed “to safeguard the interests of Medicaid members, encourage the participation of Medicaid providers, and protect Iowa taxpayers.” She told colleagues, “we must require DHS and the managed care companies to protect consumers, preserve provider networks, address the unique needs of children and assure accountability.”

I enclose below highlights from the debate on SF 2213, the roll call on final passage, and Ragan’s full remarks, along with a Democratic staff analysis summarizing the bill’s key points.

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Who's who in the Iowa Senate for 2016

The Iowa legislature’s 2016 session began on Monday. For the sixth year in a row, the 50 state senators include 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans. Just seven senators are women (six Democrats and a Republican), down from a high of ten women serving in the chamber during 2013 and 2014. All current senators are white. To my knowledge, the only African-American ever to serve in the Iowa Senate was Tom Mann, elected to two terms during the 1980s. No Latino has ever served in the Iowa House or Senate; Nathan Blake fell 18 votes short of becoming the first in 2014. No Asian-American has served in the state Senate since Swati Dandekar resigned in 2011.

I enclose below details on the Iowa Senate majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing Senate committees. Little has changed since last year, in contrast to the Iowa House, which saw some big changes in the majority Republican caucus since the legislature adjourned in June.

Term limits are a terrible idea generally but would be especially awful if applied to the Iowa Senate, as the longest-serving current senator bizarrely advocated last year. The experience gap between Democrats and Republicans is striking. As detailed below, only four of the 24 Senate Republicans have ten or more years of experience in the Iowa legislature, compared to seventeen of the 26 Democrats. No current Iowa Senate Republican has more than 20 years legislative experience, whereas six Democrats do.

Some non-political trivia: the 50 Iowa Senate members include three Marks, three Bills, three Richards (who go by Rich, Rick, and Dick), two Mikes, two Toms, two Joes, and two men named Charles (one goes by Chaz).

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