Iowa governors have a lot of power. Vetoes and line-item vetoes, appointments and transfer authority, across-the-board budget axing, executive ordering, etc.
Once in a while, someone, or a group of someones, believes that a powerful governor has gone too far, so they go to court. Sometimes, the courts agree, and they wave a big ‘ol stop sign in front of that authority-exceeding chief executive.
But rarely will you see a stop sign waved as emphatically as Polk County District Court Judge Scott D. Rosenberg did on Wednesday. Rosenberg turned on some flashing lights, lit flares and threw down stop sticks.
He ruled that Gov. Terry Branstad and his Department of Human Services Director, Chuck Palmer, exceeded the executive branch’s constitutional authority when they closed the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo. The Legislature appropriated $8.8 million to run the home, and Branstad signed that budget into law. To then close the home, Rosenberg ruled, flies in the face of the governor’s duty to faithfully execute state laws. If he wanted to close the home, he contends, Branstad could have vetoed its line item.
Clearly, in his ruling, Rosenberg wasn’t going for subtlety:
“To later, however, decide that the Toledo Home should no longer operate under any circumstances is to not only a failure to carry out his Constitutional duties to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, but is an affront to the very purpose and establishment of our governmental institutions as adopted by the Constitution of the State of Iowa with the approval of the people of the State of Iowa. The danger in allowing such an action to happen is the destruction of our republican form of government itself and the democracy which it is designed to serve for the general welfare of all of its citizens.
“No citation is needed in recognizing that we are a nation of laws and not a nation of men and women. Our laws serve to protect the will of the majority and the rights of the minority. No one person under our form of government, unless duly authorized by that form of government through our Constitution can exercise a power not delegated to it or in contravention of the government itself and the laws duly enacted.
“Here, the Governor did not lessen the expenditure of funds as is necessary to run the Toledo Home, but, rather, found that no Toledo Home should be established or operated any longer. This was not the intent of the legislature and the laws enacted establishing the Toledo Home and the appropriations to make sure that it operates appropriately.”
Read the whole thing if you have the time.
How the governor responds to this ruling is unclear, now that the home has been closed, its staff has been let go and the girls who lived there are scattered. I assume the governor will appeal the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Generally, I like to see governors get a strong double shot of not so fast. This is the second time in two years that Branstad has run into a big judicial stop sign. In 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the governor acted unconstitutionally when he vetoed language directing the funding of workforce development offices, and then used the money elsewhere in his budget. That case, like the juvenile home lawsuit, was brought by AFSCME President Danny Homan and a group of state lawmakers.
And Justice Thomas Waterman, another Branstad appointee, wrote the workforce development ruling. Here I thought it was a bunch of Vilsacktivist judges that were causing all the trouble.
But I have some mixed feelings about Rosenberg’s ruling.
From a practical standpoint, it seems like there might be moments when moving quickly to close a state facility is the right thing to do. This seems to suggest, if the facility is funded by a legislative appropriation already signed into law, that a governor would need to call a special legislative session to seek closure.
But from a governance standpoint, I like Rosenberg’s moxie. Closing the juvenile home, after 50 years of operation, is the sort of major policy decision that should be in the hands of more than one elected official and his appointee. It might be nice for the governor to make a high-profile problems go away with the wave of his hand, but that’s not how our system is supposed to work. The legislative branch, despite its occasional resemblance to a stranded cruise ship, should be involved.
The juvenile home’s problems, chronicled in an exhaustive Des Moines Register investigation, were severe and troubling. The governor was right to use his executive authority to convene a committee to dig into the situation. That committee made a series of solid recommendations, which didn’t include a shutdown. And yet, that’s what the governor decided to do. And swiftly.
Was he trying to make a high-profile problem disappear, fast? Perhaps.
It’s also possible that closure is the way to go, but it never seemed like a truly solid case was made by the administration, and questions remain. We’ve had this facility for decades, but now it’s no longer needed? With so much already invested there, wouldn’t it make sense to attempt revamping its function and mission and fixing its problems? When our editorial board met with juvenile home staff and foundation members last month, they made a fairly strong case that changes and improvements were already making a big difference before the closure.
Essential Estrogen’s Lynda Waddington offers up another factor:
But if you know anything about Gov. Branstad’s extremely long tenure, then you know that the facility had one big black mark in his eyes: workers who were members of a union. And that’s the one thing for which Gov. Branstad has proven — time and time again — to have no tolerance.
It’s a known fact that union workers are paid more. In fact, according to an August 2013 report filed by WHO-TV in Des Moines, workers at the Toledo facility earned a range of $40,000 to $59,000 per year plus benefits. Workers with similar titles at a private facility earned between $20,000 and $29,000 per year plus benefits. What that report alludes to, but never fully fleshes out, is that the types of juveniles being served at the state’s “option of last resort” were much different from those typically served (and too often dismissed) from private facilities. Many times, juveniles at the state facility had attempted treatment or criminal restitution at private facilities before they were dismissed and ultimately placed at the Toledo facility.
And that raises broader questions beyond Toledo. Government facilities caring for at-risk or disabled people with higher-paid staff are facing a financial squeeze, which could end up placing care in the hands of folks making much less pay. Pay is a pretty big factor in staff stability and experience. Is this a trend we can accept? How much do we value the people who look after vulnerable people? Are we saving money now only to pay a stiffer price later?