- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Gov. Terry Branstad had the authority to shutter two state mental health centers earlier this year, according to an Iowa judge who dismissed a lawsuit filed by some Democratic lawmakers and a union leader challenging the governor’s power to close the facilities.

Polk County District Judge Douglas Staskal’s ruling, filed Tuesday, approved a request by state attorneys representing Branstad to throw out the lawsuit.

The suit, filed by the head of Iowa’s largest public employees union and 20 Democratic lawmakers, said that closing the centers in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant was illegal because Iowa law requires the state to operate them. Branstad’s attorneys disagreed, arguing that even if the law mandated such funding the governor acted within his authority in vetoing it.

Staskal’s ruling agreed that Branstad’s role as governor gave him the appropriate power.

“When the issue here is reduced to resolving a conflict between the Governor’s authority and the operation of a statute, the Governor’s authority must prevail. The Governor’s item veto authority is of constitutional magnitude,” the ruling reads.

Mark Hedberg, an attorney representing the lawmakers and the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he disagreed with the ruling, and he plans to appeal it to the Iowa Supreme Court.

“The governor, by this interpretation, could negate any government system or service required by statue with his item veto pen,” he said. “Essentially allowing one branch of the government to nullify a huge part of Iowa code, and that’s our concern.”

Branstad removed funding for two of the state’s four mental health facilities when he released his budget proposal in January for the fiscal year that began over the summer. Some lawmakers and health care providers criticized the move, but a legislative push to restore some funding was vetoed by Branstad.

The Iowa Democratic Party said in a statement it disagreed with the judge’s decision, and called Branstad’s decision “reckless.”

Ben Hammes, a spokesman for Branstad, said the ruling allows the state to continue improving mental health services in Iowa. Earlier in the year, Branstad said the facilities, which were housed in old buildings, were outdated and patients could receive treatment elsewhere. Critics argued the facilities were well maintained and some patients with special treatment needs had no other place to go.

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