DES MOINES — A protracted debate Tuesday on a $602.5 million Justice Systems budget wasn’t about the money.
It was, Republicans and Democrats agreed, about politics.
For the record, the Justice Systems budget would include $583.8 million from the general fund — a $13 million increase that would raise most agencies’ budgets to cover, among other things, salary increases for contract and non-contract employees.
But it was a Republican proposal to limit the state attorney general’s independence that sparked an hour-plus debate before the Iowa House approved the budget, 54-45.
“This is a political move,” Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, said about language that would require the attorney general to get permission from the governor, Legislature or Executive Council before joining lawsuits that do not originate in the Iowa.
Because both she and her husband worked for Attorney General Tom Miller in the past, Anderson said she knows “every action taken in his office is carefully vetted for its legal basis and effect on the people and the state of Iowa.”
“I would agree that it’s political, but that sword cuts both ways,” countered House Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake. “It’s political because this attorney general has taken part in out-of-state lawsuits completely contrary to actions taken by Legislature and signed by governor. Those are the types of action we are trying to restrict … because it’s the governor and Legislature that sets the agenda for state, not attorney general.”
His approach won’t remove politics from the attorney general’s actions, Worthan said, “but will control the politics.”
If majority Republicans don’t like his politics, there’s another solution, Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, told Worthan.
“Run someone who can beat him,” said Meyer, who worked for Miller at one time.
Miller, a Democrat, has been elected 11 times and is the nation’s longest serving state attorney general.
“I feel the decision to file a lawsuit is so fundamental to the authority of the attorney general,” Miller said after watching the debate from the House gallery. “I believe that I’ve made those decisions to the best of my ability. The public seems to have agreed. They have elected me many times by big margins.”
In 2018, he did not have a GOP challenger.
An effort to remove the restrictive language was defeated 48-51, with two Republicans joining Democrats.
Miller said he will fight the restrictions when the budget goes back to the Senate, where Republicans have an even larger majority than in the House.
“I will keep fighting and battling it over it,” he said, but called it premature to talk about filing a lawsuit to challenge the restrictions.
Miller has a record of joining fellow attorneys general in multi-state suits, many aimed at blocking actions by President Donald Trump.
In 2018, for example, he joined a half dozen lawsuits started in other states, including one to stop family separations on the U.S.-Mexico border and another adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
Miller also has joined multi-state consumer protection lawsuits, often winning monetary settlements for the state and Iowans.
Worthan’s amendment would require the attorney general to report all court and money settlement awards made to the state as well as report which funds are designated to receive the moneys and cite the legal authority to designate the funds.
He said it’s important to look at whether the lawsuits Miller joined involved federal issues or state issues. Most addressed national issues.
Although Miller filed at least one action opposing the Obama administration — challenging the Waters of the United States rule — Miller said “Democrat attorneys general tend to check Republicans. Republican attorneys general tend to check Democrats.”
The House approved a $184 million budget for the judicial branch, a $3.5 million increase.
The House also accepted a Senate amendment to Senate File 188 that would prohibit community colleges and regents universities from enforcing any rule preventing people from carrying a weapon “producing a non-projectile high-voltage pulse designed to immobilize a person” — or a stun gun.
On Monday, senators added a provision that would allow the regents to bar carrying of stun guns inside of a stadium or hospital under the regents’ oversight.