Staff Columnist

Stacking decks and opting out at the Statehouse

The Iowa State Capitol building is reflected in the windows of the Wallace State Office building in Des Moines on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Iowa State Capitol building is reflected in the windows of the Wallace State Office building in Des Moines on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about a Senate bill that would require an Iowa Supreme Court supermajority to declare a law unconstitutional, some Statehouse types assured me the remarkably misguided bill was going nowhere.

This week, Senate File 2282 cleared the Iowa Senate, 26-24. It’s still possible the House will turn away from this attempt to stack the legal deck, proving my sources right. But who can say in a legislative session that’s been routinely unpredictable and misguided?

The bill would require five justices on the seven-member Supreme Court to concur on a decision overturning a statute as unconstitutional. Today, we have a court that can decide such a case 4-3. If Senate Republicans have their way, rulings could be thwarted by a three-justice minority. On the current court, it likely would be three justices appointed by former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad in 2010. Funny how that works.

It’s brought to you by the same folks who have been throwing political tantrums for years because the court doesn’t always rule their way. They campaigned in 2010 and 2012 to toss justices from the bench because the court unanimously struck down Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2009.

All the dire warnings of fire and brimstone they made after that ruling turned out to be a big righteous cloud of hot air. So we know how seriously to take the arguments they’re now making in favor of this bill. The real goal is to cripple the court at a time when Republicans control the Statehouse and have turned the legislative process into a right-veering steamroller.

Maybe it’s going nowhere. And maybe it’s headed to the governor, who has provided us with no evidence she would stand up to such legislative excess. In any event, it fits one of the two prevailing themes we’re seeing a under a GOP-run Golden Dome of Wisdom.

This legislation is among Republicans’ thumb-on-the-scale, deck-stacking bills, designed to slant the political playing field in their general direction. One famous example is the gutting of Iowa’s 40-year-old collective bargaining system for public employees to crush unions that support Democrats.

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Another is the voter ID bill approved last year. Although it’s better than similar laws passed in other states, it seems likely to cause the most issues for low-income voters, minorities and others who tend to vote for Democrats.

It already caused trouble for multiple voters during this past week’s Polk County sales tax referendum. Democratic blogger Laura Belin at her website Bleeding Heartland compiled several stories from voters who didn’t produce ID and were wrongly told they had to cast provisional ballots by poll workers confused by the new rules.

The same Iowa Senate that wants to make it harder to declare a law unconstitutional recently passed the “fetal heartbeat bill,” which likely amounts to an unconstitutional restriction on legal abortion. GOP lawmakers want to add a gun rights amendment to the state constitution requiring courts to apply “strict scrutiny” to all subsequent firearms regulations.

The Senate also approved a bill this week taking control of the order candidates are placed on the ballot, giving top placement for every partisan office to the party that won the last gubernatorial election in a given county. You might recall Democrats won only Johnson County in the 2014 race for governor.

During debate, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said the GOP has become “drunken with power,” according to the Des Moines Register.

Lawmakers also are worried we’re buying too many cage-free eggs, so they put a thumb on the free market scale by approving a bill requiring stores to also sell “conventional” eggs from corporate farms.

So many scales, so many thumbs. But if you can’t alter the landscape to your liking, you simply allow Iowans to opt out.

There’s the “religious freedom” bill, which allows Iowans to opt out of respecting their fellow Iowans’ legally protected civil rights so long as they’re doing so out of religious convictions. Republicans have delayed but not certainly not abandoned their desire to allow Iowans to opt out of supporting public education, handing them tax-supported vouchers instead.

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Doctors who opt out of telling pregnant women about fetal abnormalities, for fear they might have an abortion, couldn’t be sued under a House bill.

Just this past week, the Senate voted for a massive rewrite of utility regulations that would allow Iowans to opt out of paying for energy-efficiency programs that save $2 for every $1 spent. Reminder, these are fiscal conservatives.

So Republicans want a state where our political structure, the legal system and other important public institutions are altered for their benefit. Or, they seek to carve out safe spaces where inconveniences such as the civil rights code don’t apply to them. What a state we’ll have.

This is what passes as “freedom,” without fairness or respect for the common good. And if you don’t like it, you can’t even have a chair in the room, as Iowans found out this week when they tried to attend a House committee meeting on a so-called “sanctuary cities” bill.

That’s OK, because we probably shouldn’t take this stuff sitting down. But do take this as another friendly reminder that this fall’s Statehouse races won’t be about flower pots, baseball parking lots and heated sidewalks.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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