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‘Blind Hog’ Test: Iowa Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Collective Bargaining Law

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  The state's second-largest public employee union says a 2017 law limiting collective bargaining was written to specifically target its members and therefore is illegal.

Today the Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by AFSCME Council 61 against the State of Iowa.  AFSCME is asking that House File 291 be declared illegal, claiming it violates the equal protection clause of the state's constitution and the "rational basis test" applied to laws.

The bill, signed into law by Terry Branstad in 2017, made sweeping changes to a 40-year-old public bargaining law.  Under the law, any bargaining group made up of less than 30% public safety employees can only bargain for base wages and not other benefits, including insurance coverage.  In effect, the bill allowed only police and firefighter unions to negotiate insurance benefits.

AFSCME claims the 30% threshold was chosen only to cut negotiating powers of its 40,000 members in Iowa.  Justices pressed Matt McDermott, who is representing the state, on how that figure was reached.

"How did it happen at the end of the day that," Justice Brett Appel asked, "with 100% effectiveness, that all AFSCME employees were excluded?"

“It seems that they picked the 30% to exclude AFSCME somehow," Justice David Wiggins added, "The old saying goes: ‘a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.'  AFSCME didn’t get any acorns in this thing.”

McDermott argued that the law allows a "wide berth" in determining such factors in legislation.  However, McDermott also acknowledged that there is nothing in the legislative record that shows how the 30% number was settled on.  “I don’t believe there is anything in this record that would explain that.  The legislative record is very limited here," McDermott said.

Mark Hedberg, representing AFSCME in court, says with no explanation of how the threshold was set then the bill fails the "rational basis" test that requires there be an acceptable explanation of why a bill was written the way it was.

Hedberg also argued the law violates the equal protection clause of the constitution by creating two different groups of Iowans when it comes to collective bargaining.  Hedberg says AFSCME members include legitimate law enforcement officials, including campus police officers and motor vehicle enforcement officers among others.  "Airport firefighters are carved out yet they have the same duties as any other firefighters in the State of Iowa," Hedberg argued, "They can be called upon not only at the airport but other jurisdictions yet they don’t have those abilities (to bargain for benefits)."

At the same time, Hedberg says non-public safety officials are allowed to collectively bargain simply because of the union they belong to.  “Included are people who have no public safety function," Hedberg said, "For example: the fire inspector does not fight fires, river gaming enforcement officers don’t make arrests they just check out slot machines."

Justices pressed McDermott on that argument.  He says he can't speak for exactly what lawmakers were thinking but he offered one hypothetical: lawmakers may not believe that campus police officers are as important as fire inspectors or gaming enforcement officials.

“I think with respect to campus police, a legislator rationally could have determined that other (public safety officials) could have maintained peace and public safety even without campus police so in that respect they would have been redundant,”  McDermott told the court.