Judge to rule whether Branstad's closure of mental health hospitals broke Iowa law

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DES MOINES, Iowa — A judge says he'll decide within 30 days whether Gov. Terry Branstad violated the law by using a line-item veto to close two state mental health hospitals.

A bipartisan plan that Branstad vetoed this summer would have reversed his closing of the Mount Pleasant mental health institution and temporarily kept open another in Clarinda. Both are now closed, and workers have been laid off.

Democratic lawmakers and the main state workers' union sued Branstad, arguing that his veto broke a state law requiring Iowa to operate four mental hospitals, including the two closed facilities. Lawyers for both sides argued in court Thursday before Polk County District Judge Douglas Staskal, the Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1VITrvK ) reports.

Plaintiffs' attorney Mark Hedberg acknowledged that the governor has broad veto power, but said the veto of the spending bill violated a specific statute.

"That is the case in a nutshell for us," Hedberg said.

If Branstad wanted to change the statute, Hedberg argued, he could have gone through the legislative process.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Thompson, representing Branstad, said the spending bill was the type the governor has the authority to veto. Thompson said the statute cited by opponents is "less than clear" about the state having to operate four mental hospitals, but that such a statute shouldn't override the governor's veto power regardless.

Branstad had said private agencies could better provide services offered by the mental hospitals, which he contends were outdated and inefficient. Critics said he closed the facilities too quickly before arranging replacement services.

The losing side of the judge's coming decision would be able to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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