Iowa Politics Today: Malpractice caps, alcohol distilleries rules go to governor

Both measures clear hurdles late in the legislative session

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

A roundup of legislative and Capitol news items of interest for Monday, April 17, 2017:

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE: The Senate voted 37-12 to accept a “soft cap” on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases before sending the bill to Gov. Terry Branstad desk.

Senators accepted a House change to Senate File 465 that removed a hard cap on non-economic damages to allow juries to make awards of more than $250,000 in cases of “substantial or permanent loss or impairment of bodily functions and substantial disfigurement.” Initially, the bill would have capped non-economic damages — damages awarded for pain, suffering, physical impairment, inconvenience and mental anguish among others — at $250,000.

In addition to capping non-economic damages except in the most extreme cases, SF 465 creates a certificate of merit, requiring plaintiffs’ lawyers to submit proof of medical malpractice at the beginning of the case.

“There is no rationale for this bill, whatsoever,” according to a statement from the Iowa Association for Justice. “Rates of medical malpractice lawsuits in Iowa have fallen by over 50 percent in the past 15 years, and Iowa doctors pay some of the lowest medical liability premiums in the country. Capping how far a jury can go to hold bad actors accountable is arbitrary government overreach, and it’s just plain wrong.”

ALCOHOL REGULATION UPDATE: The Senate on passed Monday and sent Gov. Terry Branstad legislation that provides several updates to Iowa’s alcohol regulations, including a measure that would allow small distilleries to sell their products on-site, similar to what is permitted for craft breweries and wineries.

House File 607, which passed 50-0, results from years of work and a compromise among beer, wine and spirits producers and beer wholesalers who previously opposed similar changes, supporters said.

After sailing through the House, the bill had stalled in the Senate because of an issue over the three-tier system — the separation of alcohol producers, distributors and retailers — but that hurdle was removed and the bill won approval.


“We will see economic growth from this bill but we also will not hurt existing jobs,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo.

HISTORY AWARDS ANNOUNCED: A book about Iowans in the Civil War rose to the top of this year’s Shambaugh Shortlist to claim one of the state’s highest history awards Monday.

Gov. Branstad presented the 2017 Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award to author Thomas R. Baker for “The Sacred Cause of Union: Iowa in the Civil War,” which focuses on Iowans and their service in battle and at home.

Written for a broad audience, the 293-page book includes details about Iowans in all major theaters of war, a chronology and stories of sacrifices by six Iowans.

RIGHT TO TRY: Terminally ill patients would have a “right to try” by gaining more access to experimental drugs under Senate File 404, which was approved Monday 49-0 by the Senate and sent to Branstad.

The legislation would permit manufacturers of investigative drugs, biological products or devices to make them available to eligible patients with terminal illnesses for use as a treatment, as long as they provide written consent. Senators Monday accepted a House amendment to make clear the legislation “shall not be construed to allow a patient’s treating physician to assist the patient in committing or attempting to commit suicide” as prohibited by law.

PRISON CONTRABAND: The Iowa State Penitentiary has identified the presence of contraband drugs within the institution and is taking steps to address it, a statement issued Monday said.

Although the matter is under investigation, prison officials announced immediate changes in procedures on mail and visitation. Staff also were give information on the identification of prohibited substances, including synthetic marijuana.


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AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said Friday that 12 inmates had been tied to an infiltration of synthetic marijuana, sometimes going by the name K2.

He criticized the Corrections Department for not locking down the prison in response to the substance, which he said is a safety concern for inmates and officers.

“Offenders have been found incoherent in their cells with head injuries from falling,” he said.

RAIN SLOWS PLANTING: Planting progress remains slow due to wet field conditions, according to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

As a result, only 2 percent of the corn has been planted, Northey said in comments on the Iowa Crop Progress and Condition report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistical Service.

They’ve planted 42 percent of oats, but progress on it and corn remain behind the five-year average.

“It looks like wet weather could return this week, which would further delay significant planting progress,” Northey said.

WORKFORCE BOARD CHANGES: Legislation signed into law by Branstad will change the makeup of the Iowa Workforce Development Board to bring it into compliance with requirements of the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which is the federal reform of the public workforce system in 15 years.


Under House File 572, the board’s voting membership will include 17 business members, four labor members, two representatives of community organizations, one representative of a registered apprenticeship program, representatives from Iowa Workforce Development, Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Iowa Department for the Blind and Iowa Department of Education, the governor, a state senator, a state representative and two local elected officials. The board also includes 13 non-voting members.

TWO-YEAR BUDGETING, NOT: Branstad champions biennial budgeting, but will end his time as governor without seeing legislative action that meets the threshold.

Branstad, who is awaiting U.S. Senate confirmation to be the next ambassador to China, is working with the GOP-run Legislature to finalize a $7.245 billion spending plan for fiscal 2018.

He also proposed a fiscal 2019 budget, but GOP legislators are passing a plan that funds only 50 percent of the following fiscal year and do not plan to set the growth rate for K-12 school funding in fiscal 2019 before they adjourn.

“I would prefer that we do a two-year budget, but I do understand the apprehension that they have and the fact that they don’t want to have to go through what they had to do this year and do a de-appropriation at the beginning of next session,” Branstad told his weekly news conference.

Branstad and lawmakers had to cut millions and dip into reserves for the current year after state revenue growth was downgraded three times since last October.


“As we put this budget together, we’ve had to prioritize our priorities within state government.” — House Appropriations Chairman Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, opening a public hearing on the fiscal 2018 budget.

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