Court told Branstad overstepped authority shutting down mental health institutions

Justices consider legality of mental health institute closures

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DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court is considering whether Gov. Terry Branstad crossed a constitutional line when he vetoed funding last year for two state-run mental health institutions.

Justices heard oral arguments Wednesday.

In 2015, Branstad used the governor’s line-item veto to eliminate funding for the mental health institutions in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda.

A top labor union leader and two dozen Democratic state legislators filed a lawsuit asserting Branstad’s veto was improper and unconstitutional because Iowa law states that four mental health institutions should be in operation.

Branstad “has altered statute, not simply reduced the funding,” said Mark Hedberg, an attorney for the group that filed suit. “He’s altered the statute by taking out two specific institutions that we believe are obligated to exist.”

Iowa Solicitor General Jeffery Thompson, representing Branstad, disagreed with that assessment and said the governor acted within his authority.

Branstad announced at the outset of the 2015 legislative session that he planned to end treatment at the state institutions in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. When lawmakers approved a health care budget that included funding for them anyway, Branstad vetoed the money.

Iowa’s governor may veto entire policy bills and is granted the authority in budget bills to veto individual items.

“This is a constitutional power,” Thompson said.

Branstad has said he thinks most individuals in need of mental health care are better served in community-based treatment settings and not state-run institutions.

State-run mental health institutions, however, remain open in Independence and Cherokee.

Justice David Wiggins suggested to Hedberg that the state still is providing care through the two institutions that remain open.

“But not at these facilities, which is what they are required to do,” Hedberg said.

The court will consider the case before making a ruling. In the past two calendar years, the court has taken anywhere from less than a month to more than nine months to deliver a ruling. The current judicial term ends June 30, 2017.

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