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ERIN MURPHY: Less transparency in government is almost never good

January 19, 2019

The 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature had a bumpy rollout this week thanks to some rules changes brought 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 be available to the public.

Jack Whitver, the Senate Republican majority leader from Ankeny, said the rules changes were made to give legislators more flexibility in scheduling committee meetings on legislation.

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

“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. on Tuesday, announce a 9 a.m. committee meeting on 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.

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 meetings 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 meetings are when any interest group, lobbyist or individual from the public can attend and express their feelings to legislators.

By the time a bill reaches the next step, the full committee meeting, the public cannot weigh in. The bill is debated only among legislators.

Eliminating that public subcommittee meeting 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 very brief time, Iowa did not have representation on the Committee on Agriculture in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That happened this week when Rep. Steve King, a Republican from western Iowa’s 4th District, was stripped of his committee assignments after his latest round of racially-charged comments. (He said to The New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization --- how did that language become offensive?” King later insisted he was talking only specifically about Western civilization when he asked rhetorically why such language was deemed offensive.)

Iowa lacking a House member on its Agriculture Committee was considered unsettling for obvious reasons, but it didn’t last.

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

“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. “Agriculture is not only an economic driver and job creator in our state, but our Iowa farmers and producers feed people here at home and around the world. Ensuring our agriculture industry thrives is not only beneficial for Iowa’s economy, but the entire country.”

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 new poll released Friday.

The poll was published by a PAC created by Jim Mowrer, a Democrat who previously ran for Iowa’s 4th District House seat and for Iowa 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 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 ran against and narrowly lost to King in 2018.

When asked whether voters would choose King or a generic Democratic candidate for Congress right now, 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 LLC, 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.

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

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