Government

Democrats warn Iowa GOP Senate rule changes will shut out public

Republicans say modification provides flexibility

The Senate chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Senate chamber at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Iowa Senate leadership says nothing will change despite committees adopting rules changes that eliminate requirements for a 24-hour notice of subcommittee meetings and that those meetings be public.

“The action today by Senate Republicans demonstrates that they don’t want to listen to Iowans anymore,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said Tuesday.

According to her, Republican leaders have signaled that most Senate committees will eliminate the requirement that subcommittee meetings be open to the public.

“These changes are a shameful, deliberate attempt by Senate Republicans to cut more backroom deals and to keep taxpayers in the dark about what they are doing,” she said.

However, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, denied the rules changes would remove the requirement for public subcommittee meetings, which are the public’s opportunity to voice their opinions on proposed legislation.

“I don’t believe that’s true at all,” Whitver said when told about Democratic complaints. “I don’t know where they’re getting that.”

Senate rules guide most activity by committees but allow each committee to add rules as the members — or the majority party — chooses.

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The requirements for 24-hour notice and public subcommittee meetings were added in 2004 when the Senate was tied — 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans.

Regardless of the rule change, Whitver said the practice won’t change. The change, he said, allows committee chairmen more flexibility in scheduling meetings.

“If you get a bill assigned at 5 p.m. and you want to have a subcommittee at 4 p.m. the next day, do we really have to wait 24 hours?” he said.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the danger in eliminating the 24-hour notice is that “you no longer have that norm written in rules.”

Lawmakers use that 24 hours to notify people of subcommittee meetings, he said.

“In 2017, when a death penalty bill showed up, that gave us a little bit of time to alert people who we knew were concerned about the issue so they could participate,” Hogg said.

“The danger there is you shut people out, and when you start to shut people out, that undermines people’s confidence in our form of government and our democracy,” Hogg said. “That’s really bad. Especially right now when people are feeling there are lots of attacks on our democratic norms.”

The Iowa House requires a day’s notice for subcommittee meetings, as long as midnight comes between the notice and the meeting. That will not change, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said.

“We’ve got a job to do, and we try to do it as effectively and transparently as we can,” she said. “If people want to show for the subcommittee meetings, certainly they can. We do public hearings.

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“We are the people’s house, and we will continue to be the people’s House,” Upmeyer said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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