Committee maneuvering delivers a painful lesson

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Unfortunately, townhouse owners like me who live in homeowner associations learned a painful lesson this session in how the Iowa Legislature works sometimes.

HF 158, which had been approved by a House Judiciary Subcommittee, was killed by House Judiciary Committee chairman state Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, much to the surprise of the bill’s proponents and Judiciary Committee member state Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion.

Hinson chaired the subcommittee that sent the measure on to the full Judiciary Committee. She was working to fine tune the legislation right up to the time she was told by Baltimore that the bill was dead for this session.

The bill protected the property rights of townhouse owners in homeowner associations and provided much greater transparency in the operation of the boards that oversee the associations. Thirty-eight states already have laws similar to the legislation that was killed three days before the first funnel date in the Legislature.

DECISION RAISES QUESTIONS

The first question I have is: Why should a committee chairman have the power to unilaterally kill a piece of legislation that cleared the committee’s subcommittee? Second: Shouldn’t the entire committee have the right to vote on the matter?

In this case, it’s a real slap in the face to Hinson, whom I have come to respect over the past six weeks. Oddly enough, she and Baltimore are Republicans in the Republican-controlled Legislature. If they belonged to different parties, I suppose you could say Baltimore acted as he did because he didn’t want to support another legislator from the opposition (though minority) party.

What’s worse, HF 158, which was introduced by state Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, had seven co-sponsors in addition to Hinson. They were state Reps. Kevin Koester, R-Ankeny; Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines; Jake Highfill, R-Johnston; Terry Baxter, R-Garner; Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant; John Landon, R-Ankeny; and Charles Isenhart, D-Dubuque.

So why would Baltimore go against the wishes of six other Republican legislators? Clearly, Baltimore has a lot of explaining to do. Reportedly, he had problems with the bill’s constitutionality. If that’s the case, then a lot of homeowner associations’ covenants and bylaws may be unconstitutional, too. Not only that, but Hinson was working up to the last minute to address concerns raised by the Iowa Bar Association.

The timing of Baltimore’s move also is curious. After the subcommittee gave thumbs up to the bill on Feb. 14, the bill spent the next 14 days in purgatory, so to speak. If Baltimore had problems with the bill, why didn’t he go to Hinson sooner to share his concerns?

Instead, he waited three days before the first funnel deadline, making it all but certain the Iowa Legislature will not act on the bill this session. Immediately after hearing the bad news from Hinson in the committee meeting room, HOA lobbyist Bruce Beeson headed over to the Senate, which had only Thursday and Friday to approve its version of the legislation.

Clearly, Baltimore’s move to kill the bill, which surprised Hinson and at least one other member of the Judiciary Committee, wasn’t one of the finest moments in the history of the Iowa Legislature. In talking to other legislators including state Rep. Jerry Kearns, D-Keokuk, committee chairman and party leaders have enormous power and can file bills away without explanation. If that’s the case, why bother with committees and subcommittees? Why not just let committee chairmen and the House and Senate leaders in each party conduct all the business, thus saving money for the state’s taxpayers?

After seeing what transpired with HF 158, I wonder if legislators are in Des Moines now for their own gain and ego or to do the greatest good for the most people. Do they really represent us, the common, ordinary citizens, or developers and other special interest groups?

TIRELESS EFFORTS NOTED

Nevertheless, kudos to the bill’s sponsor, Salmon, and Hinson for her tireless work on behalf of the thousands of Iowans who own townhouses in homeowner associations. The same goes for the bill’s other co-sponsors, state Reps. Koester, Meyer, Highfill, Baxter, Nunn, Landon and Isenhart.

As I told Hinson, I look forward to working with her on a new bill for 2018. Fortunately, she even agreed to meet some of us in Des Moines later this summer or this fall to get a head start on new legislation.

I also encouraged her to run for the Judiciary Committee chairmanship. She pointed out that she is not a lawyer. Well, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley isn’t either. In his campaign ads, he takes great pride in pointing out he’s a farmer. That hasn’t stopped Iowans from re-electing him time after time to the U.S. Senate. He even chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, for goodness sakes!

Granted, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But I was expecting a lot more from House Judiciary Committee chairman Chip Baltimore.

• Steve Dunn is a retired newspaper reporter and editor who has lived in a homeowners’ association in Des Moines since moving to the city in the summer of 2014. He has worked with other citizens on legislation to protect the property rights of townhouse owners in homeowner associations since December 2016.

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