Iowa Senate GOP answers state supreme court’s call for transparency by. . . hiding from questions

Iowa Capital Dispatch
April 24, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court sent a strong message to the Iowa Legislature. The Statehouse majority party heard it and came up with the most idiotic and harmful response imaginable.

This should surprise no one.

Last Monday, during what turned out to be an all-nighter in the Iowa Senate, Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, shocked and angered Senate Democrats by refusing to address a reasonable question about the child labor bill. When Waterloo Democrat Bill Dotzler asked Dickey to “yield” to a question, which is legislative protocol when lawmakers speak to each other on the floor, Dickey simply said, “No.”

Dotzler forced a halt to debate and Democrats retreated to caucus. When they came back and Dotzler asked again, Dickey’s answer was still “no.” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said the same. There was some yelling, and then Democrats went back to caucus for another few hours.

The night went on like that, until Senate Republicans finally approved the bill shortly before 5 a.m. Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, revealed toward the end of the debate that Senate Republicans had been instructed not to answer questions about the bill because it might hurt them if the law is later challenged in court.

Wahls said the Republicans’ refusal to answer questions was “unprecedented” in the Senate.

“Senate Democrats condemn in the strongest possible terms the Senate majority’s political decision not to answer basic questions about high-profile legislation,” Wahls said. “If you’re worried about the Iowa Supreme Court’s understanding of what is said on the Senate floor, the answer is not to stop answering questions. The answer is to tell the truth and admit when you don’t know the answer.”

Whitver later confirmed in a statement that this was a new policy prompted by a Supreme Court ruling.

“In LS Power Mid Continent and Southwest Transmission v. State of Iowa, the Iowa Supreme Court indicated it wanted to use floor debate to determine the ambiguous definition of legislative intent,” Whitver said in a statement published by the Des Moines Register. “I believe legislative intent is the content of the law passed by a majority of the Iowa Legislature.”

“In light of that decision, Senate Republicans do not expect to engage in spontaneous and speculative discussions of legislative intent during floor debate until that question is resolved,” Whitver added.

The ruling in question overturned a 2020 law giving Iowa companies a competitive advantage over outside firms that want to bid on electrical transmission projects. As I wrote earlier this month, the Supreme Court blasted the Senate’s legislative process as unconstitutional “logrolling” and voided that part of the law.

The part of the ruling Whitver and the gang are focused on addressed the middle-of-the-night legislative discussion on the bill.  Justice Thomas Waterman’s majority opinion called out the bill’s floor manager,  then-Sen. Michael Breitbach, for repeatedly misrepresenting the bill history and effect of the bill under questioning by Democrats during floor debate.

The bill’s sponsor “could not produce a bill history, nor could he accurately describe the (bill’s) demise in the house earlier in the term,” the ruling notes.

The context of the observation was that the language in question was slipped into a grab-bag of unrelated bills, bypassed the committee process, came up for debate in the middle of the night, and not even the bill’s floor manager could accurately describe what the bill would do.

The phrase “legislative intent” is nowhere in the ruling and Breitbach’s falsehoods were only incidental to the decision.

As Wahls pointed out, the obvious way to prevent such an outcome in the future is not to clam up when asked about the functions of a bill.  It’s to tell the truth.

It would also help if the floor manager knows what he’s talking about, or admits if he doesn’t know.

Instead, we’re seeing majority-party lawmakers in both the House and Senate refuse to answer simple questions, on this and other controversial bills, about how the legislation is supposed to work.  On Wednesday night, Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, refused to engage in a discussion to explain under what circumstances a teacher could end up in a disciplinary hearing under proposed legislation that restricts certain books and prohibits gender-affirming treatment of students without parental permission.

Sen. Eric Giddens, D-Cedar Falls, wanted to know if a teacher could get a warning on two different types of offenses or if a second violation of any type would lead to a licensure board hearing. Rozenboom said he thinks the bill is clear and there’s no point in addressing “hypotheticals.”

But the fact is, legislative language is frequently unclear. That’s the reason the courts get involved. And without a reliable guide to legislative intent, judges may be less likely to interpret a statute the way lawmakers would want.

So based on an apparently flawed reading of the Supreme Court’s ruling that calls for more transparency in lawmaking, Statehouse Republicans are instead trying to obscure their intentions in case of potential litigation. Apparently they can’t trust themselves to tell the truth or get the facts right.

They’re like little kids who, chastised for eating candy before dinner, go on a hunger strike and refuse to eat at all.

I said this should come as no surprise, because this same group has already gone to great lengths to shut the public out of the legislative process. They fast-tracked controversial private school vouchers, even skipping an appropriations committee hearing on the cost.

The Senate ran all of its budget bills out of committee this year with no numbers in the bills, stifling public discussion about spending plans. And, of course, they are continuing to bar media from the Senate floor and holding no regular briefings.

And even with all of this, they have little chance of ending the legislative session on time this week, which means taxpayers will be paying for an extended session.

Maybe next time, instead of issuing a crystal-clear message to lawmakers in a ruling, the Supreme Court should try a puppet show.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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