House restricts attorney general from participating in lawsuits from out of state

CAPITOL LETTERS

BY STATE REPRESENTATIVE GARY WORTHAN

District 11, R-Storm Lake

Chairman of the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee

We are in “shutdown” mode in the Iowa Legislature. There only a couple of budget bills left that have not been agreed upon. When the last of those clears both chambers and heads down stairs to the Governor’s office, there will be little incentive to stick around to work on policy. 

Last Tuesday I ran the two Justice Systems bills on the floor of the House where they were approved and sent to the Senate. Last Wednesday the Senate approved them, and they are now on the Governor’s desk for her consideration. Justice Systems is unique in that we approve two bills, one that finances the Courts and one that finances the various departments. This year these appropriations totaled $768 million, which is ten percent of Iowa’s general fund budget.

The bulk of that $768 million goes to our corrections system, with the prisons consuming the lion’s share at $278 million, and community based corrections using the remainder. We have nine prisons that range from maximum security facilities at Fort Madison and Anamosa to the women’s prison at Mitchellville, and minimum security facilities like Rockwell City.  Community based corrections are spread all across the state and house work release facilities along with counselors, probation and parole officers. Escalating costs hit our corrections system just like our own personal budgets.Increased expenses for supplies and food, along with an increase in prescription costs, make funding an ever increasing challenge.

We spend $184 million on our courts system. Our courts have facilities and employees in every courthouse in the state. The clerks of court offices, magistrates and district court judge’s salaries and operating expenses come from this appropriation.

The Department of Public Safety requires just over $100 million per year in operating costs. We devote $66 million a year to the Iowa Highway Patrol, $15 million to the Division of Criminal Investigation, and $4 million in the Fire Marshal’s office. The remainder goes for Narcotics Enforcement, the Crime Lab and other ancillary expenses.

We are all familiar with the line on the cop shows, “if you want an attorney and can’t afford one, one will be provided for you.” Well, we spend $68 million a year doing just that, supplying attorneys for defendants that can’t afford one.  The budget supplies $27 million to the Public Defenders’ office which employs full time attorneys to represent indigent defendants. The division also spends $41 million to hire private attorneys in areas where the public defenders are unavailable. Indigent defense funds have allowed many attorneys to build their practices in small town Iowa as they build their businesses and clientele.

Some of the smaller departments under this budget include the Civil Rights office, the Law Enforcement Academy, the Parole Board, Iowa’s share of the National Guard’s expenses, and Iowa’s Homeland Security Department.

Making the news this week is the portion of our budget bill dealing with the Attorney General’s office. The House initiated action to restrict the Attorney General from participating in the prosecution of lawsuits outside the state without the permission of the Governor, the Executive Council, or the Legislature. This comes as a result of the Attorney General participating in suits outside the state that were absolutely contrary to Iowa code enacted by the Legislature and signed by the Governor. The most egregious examples include participating in an Ohio suit that supported Planned Parenthood when Iowa had just defunded Planned Parenthood, and a California suit that sought to restrict the 2nd Amendment rights of Californians. Further evidence of the Attorney General’s partisan use of his office included analysis that showed from 2012 to 2016 the AG participated in no suits against the federal government, however in 2017 and 2018 he took part in over 35 actions against either the federal administration or other federal departments. The House and Senate agreed that the AG’s participation in these actions was not a good use of Iowa taxpayers’ money, and that he should be required to get permission to undertake these actions in the future. The legislation is currently on the Governor’s desk for her consideration.

My intentions for this week include a lot of windshield time in a tractor with seeds going into the soil and fair amount dirt under my fingernails.   

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