Iowa's top attorney wants to be excused from union lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: Feb 21, 2017 5:26 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa's top attorney wants an outside lawyer to defend a new law that eliminates most collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, saying in a letter released Tuesday that he wants to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

Attorney General Tom Miller said he will seek outside legal counsel to represent the state in a lawsuit filed Monday by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61. "The new collective bargaining law has the potential to existentially threaten the viability of public sector unions — many of the very same organizations that have supported me in the past," he wrote.

The request requires approval from the Iowa Executive Council, a group that OKs certain legal actions in the state and is made up of Gov. Terry Branstad and several top officials.

Ben Hammes, a spokesman for Branstad, said in an email he didn't have anything to add to Miller's comments.

"He summed it up when he said that AFSCME had supported him in the past and he wants to avoid any questions about a potential conflict," Hammes said.

Branstad on Friday signed into law sweeping changes to Iowa's collective bargaining law that would eliminate most negotiating rights for public sector employees like teachers, nurses and correctional officers, though some public safety workers are exempt from certain provisions. The changes have been described by organized labor as union busting.

Republicans argue the changes are aimed at giving local governments more financial control, though hundreds of people at a recent public hearing said the measure would negatively impact the workforce in rural areas.

The lawsuit by AFSCME focuses on the exemptions for certain public safety employees. The group says the law establishes two classes of public employee bargaining units, and the designation violates language in the state constitution that ensures equality to citizens. Branstad's office said it won't comment on the merits of the case.

In his letter, Miller notes his office has defended Branstad and the Legislature in past lawsuits involving AFSCME.

"I think it's most prudent in this highly charged legal dispute to avoid any appearance of politics clouding our office's legal representation and judgment," he said.

The lawsuit doesn't name Branstad as a defendant. It lists the state, a public employment relations board and the state court administrator.