Guest Columnist

Iowa Senate is 'the people's house' as well

The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The Iowa Senate must change course and explicitly adopt long-standing rules that enable public access to the legislative process. Last month, several Republican-controlled Senate Committees declined to amend the rules that have protected public access to subcommittee hearings for 15 years. The decision not to abide by those long standing norms means that 24-hour advance notice of hearings and guaranteed public input have been jettisoned in favor of backroom dealing.

The move by the Senate is a direct attack on rural Iowa and anyone living outside the Metro. Most Iowans can’t simply jump down off the tractor, close down their small businesses, or abandon their children at a moment’s notice to drive to the state Capitol and claw their way into the democratic process — a process in which they have every right to participate. They need ample notice of meetings, ample time to consider the legislation, ample time to contact their legislators. The people who put the senators in office are the very people who deserve notice and time to weigh in on decisions that affect their livelihood, families, homes, medical care, education, and protection of our precious natural resources.

Organizations like the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) and our members are also victims of the Senate’s move to squelch public discourse. Like many small nonprofits, IEC doesn’t unleash a vast team of lobbyists every day at the Statehouse to keep our fingers on the pulse of each committee or make large campaign contributions like some organizations. Lacking access to Senate hearings puts us on an uneven playing field with larger organizations who have deep pockets and a wealth of resources.

Groups like ours, which provide a voice for many Iowa voters, have every right to know in advance when hearings are taking place and must have the opportunity to advance our members’ positions. The value we bring to public discourse is giving a voice to business, families, and communities — regardless of the size of their megaphones or their checkbooks.

Advance notice of hearings and appropriate access are critical to media coverage as well. Civil discourse requires access by all Iowans, and Iowans rely on a vibrant media to notify, educate, and question. Excluding media from Senate hearings removes the media’s ability to shine the light on our democratic process and inform Iowans about the decisions being made on their behalf.

Kudos to Speaker of the Iowa House Linda Upmeyer, who declared that the House will continue to provide notice and welcome public input saying “We are the people’s house, and we will continue to be the people’s House.”

We believe the Senate is also “the people’s house,” and we urge Senate leadership to rethink this attempt to exclude Iowa citizens, whether intentionally or unintentionally, from the democratic process. Open the doors and give access to Iowans.

• Jennifer Terry is executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.

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