Government

Transparency on the rocks in Iowa Senate?

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

The 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature had a bumpy rollout last week thanks to some rules changes by Senate Republicans.

A week that in most legislative sessions is dominated by the session-opening leadership speeches became a little more intriguing when Senate Republicans changed the chamber’s rules in many of the committees to allow legislators to hold meetings without 24 hours’ notice and left out language requiring subcommittee meetings to be available to the public.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said the changes were made to give legislators more flexibility in scheduling committee meetings.

Whitver disagreed with the Democrats’ suggestion that Republicans made the rules changes to skirt transparency.

“I don’t believe that’s true at all,” Whitver told The Gazette. “I don’t know where they’re getting that.”

The rules changes still require Senate Republicans to provide notice of a committee meeting the day before; it just doesn’t have to be 24 hours. In other words, legislators can, at 4 p.m. Tuesday, announce a 9 a.m. committee meeting Wednesday.

Some committees also left out a rule that subcommittee meetings be open to the public.

But Senate Republicans said that rule was excluded only because it was superfluous. They said other Senate rules make clear that all subcommittee meetings must be made public.

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Subcommittee meetings were not always public; the rules being ditched by Senate Republicans in some committees were put on the books in the mid-2000s. But with the requirement that they be open to the public, subcommittee hearings have become the stage of the legislative process that features the most public participation.

When a bill is working its way through the Legislature, the subcommittee hearings are when any interest group, lobbyist or individual can attend and express their feelings to legislators. By the time a bill reaches the next step, the full committee hearing, the public cannot weigh in.

Eliminating that public subcommittee hearing would remove a crucial step in the legislative process. It would remove the ability for the public to offer support for or express concern over a bill, and it would hamper the ability of reporters to provide a complete picture of the debate around a piece of legislation.

Senate Republicans insisted that will not happen, because it’s not their intention and because the Senate rules still require public subcommittee hearings.

That would be the best for all involved, because less transparency in government is almost never a good thing.

AXNE ON AGRICULTURE COMMITTEE

For a brief time, Iowa did not have representation on the Agriculture Committee in the U.S. House.

That happened last week when Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa’s 4th District, was stripped of his committee assignments after his latest round of racially charged comments.

Iowa lacking a House member on the agriculture committee was considered unsettling for obvious reasons, but it didn’t last.

New Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat from Iowa’s 3rd District, was appointed to the committee last week. As a bonus for Iowa agriculture, Axne’s party is in the majority.

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“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve as a voice for Iowa farmers on the House agriculture committee,” Axne said in a statement.

KING POLL NUMBERS DIVING

King’s favorability rating in his district lags far behind other Republicans, and if the election were today, voters would choose J.D. Scholten or a generic Democrat over him, according to a poll released Friday.

The poll was published by a PAC created by Jim Mowrer, a Democrat who previously ran in the 4th District and for secretary of state.

The poll said 42 percent of 4th District voters have a favorable opinion of King, while 54 percent have an unfavorable opinion. That’s a far worse split than for fellow Republicans Kim Reynolds (61/31), Joni Ernst (59/30) and Donald Trump (57/42). It’s even worse than Democrat J.D. Scholten (35/18), who narrowly lost to King in 2018.

When asked whether voters would choose King or a generic Democratic candidate for Congress, King lost to the generic Democrat, 45 percent to 37 percent, with 18 percent saying they were unsure.

Poll respondents also chose Scholten over King, 44 percent to 39 percent.

The poll was conducted by 20-20 Insight, an Atlanta-based firm founded by Democrats. Insight polled 472 likely voters in the 4th District on Jan. 16 and Jan. 17. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

l Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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