Will GOP senators defy Iowa voters to protect unpopular pipelines?

March 27, 2023 8:00 am

Opponents of liquid carbon pipelines rally Nov. 9, 2022 in Cowles Commons in downtown Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

We may learn this week who Iowa Senate Republicans fear most: The governor and the ethanol industry or the Farm Bureau and the voters.

The pivotal issue is about pipelines. The majority Republicans in the Iowa Senate need to decide this week what to do about legislation to increase landowners’ power over encroachment by liquid carbon dioxide pipelines. The issue puts support for property rights, supposedly a GOP principle, in conflict with support for a multibillion-dollar Iowa industry.

Three projects tied to Iowa’s ethanol industry want permits from the state and two of them are expected to seek the ability to force reluctant property owners to allow the pipelines to cross their land. The Iowa House approved a bill last week that would require pipeline companies to obtain voluntary easements for 90% of their route before they would be allowed to use eminent domain for the rest.

House File 565 would also expand farmers’ ability to recoup damages to their crops from the pipelines’ construction. Oh, there’s also a provision to create a study committee to evaluate eminent domain regulations.

The Iowa House passed the bill, which was blessed by the Iowa Farm Bureau, on a 73-20 vote. That’s a bold statement, given that the equally influential ethanol industry is claiming the bill would decimate their Iowa plants and, as a result, tank corn prices. Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she supports the current law.

The Farm Bureau isn’t in the driver’s seat here, reassuring as its support must be to GOP lawmakers. In this case, it’s angry rural voters who have rattled House Republicans enough to defy the Renewable Fuel Association and potentially the governor.

The recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll tells the story: A whopping 78% of Iowans oppose using eminent domain to build carbon-capture pipelines on private land. That includes 72% of Republicans, according to the poll of 805 Iowa adults taken March 5-8 by Selzer & Co.

One might think this would be a no-brainer for Senate Republicans. Not so far – a Senate subcommittee killed a bill late last month that would have required pipeline projects to secure only two-thirds of their routes voluntarily.

The GOP trifecta has already defied the opposition of most Iowans this year, bowing down to the governor’s plan to funnel hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools.  A majority of Iowans – 62% — oppose this plan, according to the Register/Mediacom poll results published last week. A narrow majority of Republicans, 51%, also oppose this plan, which offers little benefit and poses significant risk to viability of rural public schools.

The governor made all the difference on this issue. It was Reynolds’ only real priority during the 2022 campaign, besides vague support for cutting more taxes. She even made the shocking-for-Iowa move of backing GOP primary opponents to a handful of House Republicans who defied her last session.

Reynolds has paid a relatively small price so far for forcing such an expensive and divisive program on Iowans. The Register/Mediacom poll published Sunday shows her approval rating dipping 3 percentage points since Oct. 2022, now standing at 50%. While she’s still undeniably popular with her own party, her approval rating has dropped 5 points with Republicans to 86%.

She has been relatively tight-lipped about the pipeline legislation, despite expressing support for the current law during the 2022 campaign. There have been no public veto threats and she said last month she might be open to “tweaks” in the law. During a rare media availability last week, a reporter asked Reynolds if she had communicated with House leadership about their bill. Her one-word answer: “No.”

So where does that leave anxious farmers? The House bill needs to clear a Senate committee this week to remain eligible for debate. There are lots of ways around the so-called “second funnel” deadline, but a stalemate is likely to interfere with budget negotiations and potentially other GOP priorities.

An impasse also might force Reynolds’ hand. I suspect more than a few Republicans in both chambers wouldn’t mind smoking her out on this no-win issue. Many are still smarting over the high-handed way she has prodded her agenda – including some significantly unpopular aspects of her government reorganization bill – through the Legislature.

The smart money in such situations is often on the Legislature doing nothing – or the next best thing, which would be a study like the one in the House bill. There’s also a better-than-even chance GOP leaders and the governor will whittle the House bill down to a “tweak” that won’t do squat to stop forced easements across Iowa farms.

Lawmakers are willing to act against the wishes of a majority of Iowans as long as they think their constituents will reelect them anyway. Iowans who have something to lose over the pipeline issue will have to persuade senators and the governor they have something to lose, too.

Correction: This column has been updated to correct a statement about pipeline projects’ potential use of eminent domain. Wolf Carbon Solutions has said it does not plan to seek eminent domain authority.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.