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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House Democrats may not have the votes for "fair share"

John Deeth attended the League of Women Voters’ forum in Coralville on Saturday, and he buried an interesting nugget toward the end of his liveblog:

Chris Bonfig asks about HF 2420; Mascher, Dvorsky, Schmitz, Lensing, Bolkcom yes; Jacoby, Marek no. Jacby: “The first part of the bill is marvelous, the [second] part needs some work.”

House file 2420, formerly known as House Study Bill 702, is the reworked “fair share” legislation. The idea behind “fair share” is that employees who don’t belong to a union would have to reimburse the union for services provided, such as collective bargaining and handling grievances. A “fair share” bill passed the Iowa Senate in 2007 but stalled in the Iowa House, where the Democratic majority was 53-47 at the time. The current Democratic majority is 56-44, but none of organized labor’s legislative priorities passed during the 2009 legislative session because of opposition from a “six-pack” of House Democrats.

This year’s “fair share” proposal has been scaled back and would apply only to state employees. (Many labor advocates agree with Iowa AFL-CIO president emeritus Mark Smith, who has argued that the measure should apply to all private sector and public sector unions.) Iowa Republicans and business groups are fiercely opposing “fair share,” even though it would not apply to private businesses.

State Representative Dave Jacoby represents a relatively safe district in Johnson County. If he just announced at a public forum that he’s not backing HF 2420, I don’t see much chance of the “six-pack” members supporting the bill. That would leave House Democrats short of the 51 votes needed for passage.

When Jacoby praised the first part of the bill but not the second part, he appeared to be supporting reimbursement for grievance services but not for bargaining services, which are more costly for the union to provide. Click here for the full text of HF 2420. It states that “reasonable reimbursement” for bargaining services “shall not exceed sixty-five percent of the regular membership dues that the nonmember would have to pay if the nonmember were a member” of the union. The bill caps reimbursement for grievance services at ten percent of the union’s regular membership dues.

In February, Iowa House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested that a new “prevailing wage” bill is more likely to pass this session than “fair share.” In 2009 the “six-pack” sank a prevailing wage bill, but this year House Labor Committee Chairman Rick Olson prepared a compromise version that would require payment of prevailing wage on a smaller number of projects. Olson told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that the “softer” version of the prevailing wage bill addresses the objections raised last year by conservative House Democrats.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 1)

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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Democrats, please get payday lending reform right

Key Democratic lawmakers will push for new limits on payday lending during the Iowa legislature’s upcoming session, which starts on January 12. State Senator Joe Bolkcom, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, called for restricting the “loan shark rates” the industry typically charges. The Iowa Catholic Conference also supports limiting the interest rate for payday loans to 36 percent. That’s welcome news. Although 36 percent interest is still quite high, it’s a lot better than the 300 to 400 percent interest rates payday lenders are in effect currently charging customers.

In 2007, the Iowa legislature had smaller Democratic majorities yet managed to pass a bill capping interest rates on car-title loans at 21 percent. (Former Governor Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Tom Miller had advocated that reform for a long time, but Republican leaders refused to allow a vote in the Iowa House when they controlled the chamber.)

In theory, it shouldn’t be hard for House Democrats to find 51 votes out of their 56-member caucus to pass payday lending reform. However, at yesterday’s press conference with Senator Bolkcom, State Representative Janet Petersen expressed doubt that an interest rate cap could pass the House Commerce Committee, which she chairs.

I hope we’re not in for another round of a few Iowa House Democrats blocking legislation that would serve the public interest. More thoughts on this issue are after the jump.

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