DES MOINES — For those who like to compare the legislative process to making sausage, Wednesday was a grinder at the Iowa Capitol.
Legislators in the House and Senate held nearly 50 subcommittee meetings and passed 57 bills through 15 standing committees as majority Republicans pushed to clear this week’s self-imposed hurdle for policy bills to stay under consideration this session.
Friday marks the so-called “funnel” deadline for non-money legislation to receive the backing of a standing committee in the House or Senate to be eligible for further debate as the 2018 legislative session winds toward adjournment.
Leaders of the GOP, which controls both legislative chambers, expressed confidence their priorities are advancing.
“People seem busy but not frantic, so that’s a good sign,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.
“Some of the bills that need more work won’t make it through the funnel and that’s fine,” she added. “We can work on those next year. We’ll continue to find a path and of course there are always ways to resurrect bills until the very end of the session.”
The bulk of the funnel casualties were coming on the Democratic side, where Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, cast a contrasting view of the 2018 session’s first 39 days.
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“I think it’s been another year of bills that are going to hurt Iowans,” Petersen said. Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix “promised to kick the door in, and I think he’s kicked the door in on a lot of areas that Iowans care about and it’s concerning. I think that they have implemented some destructive legislation.”
Senators showed flashes of bipartisanship in the Senate Commerce Committee, where members voted unanimously to approve elements of the Future Ready Iowa initiative — a priority for GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds during the session and as she faces election.
“This is a good program and it should be beneficial across the state,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who only hours earlier berated GOP senators for promoting an “extremist” conservative agenda that was projecting Iowa as unwelcoming to groups not in the cultural and societal mainstream.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said she was “excited beyond belief” with the governor’s plan to help 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce have education, training or recognized certification beyond high school by 2025. To achieve that, Reynolds has said an additional 127,700 Iowans need to earn postsecondary degrees and other credentials so they have the qualifications for jobs that are in demand and pay a living wage.
Democrats supported the concept but questioned whether Republicans would follow through with up to $18 million in funding, given that community colleges and others are being saddled with midyear budget cuts at a time they are expected to lead workforce readiness.
Another partisan dust-up occurred on a health benefit bill. It would allow qualifying associations to assist Iowans who have had trouble finding affordable health insurance in the individual market to bypass the Affordable Care Act requirements and arrange coverage not under the jurisdiction of the state insurance commissioner.
“I think this is the sleeper bill of the session,” said Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City. “This is like States’ Rights 101.”
Several Democrats expressed concern the bill appeared tilted toward the Farm Bureau since if references an agricultural association and membership might be required to qualify for the plan. But in the end, Senate Study Bill 3173 passed with only two dissenting votes.
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One of the biggest partisan flare-ups came in the Senate Local Government Committee, where Republicans voted 7-4 to approve a bill that would provide a claim or defense to a person whose exercise of a freedom is substantially burdened by government action.
Senate Study Bill 3171 could create a “strict scrutiny test” for courts to use in such cases.
Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said 21 states have similar laws on the books and the federal standards date to legislation signed by President Bill Clinton that provides guidelines to the courts in cases where people follow the dictates of their faith in the face of government intrusion.
He said warnings by Iowa businesses that the bill could have negative consequences have not occurred in those other states whose economies are outperforming Iowa.
Democrats who opposed the bill said it would run counter to Iowa’s tradition as a strong civil rights state. Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, urged Republicans to “stop this thing now” because it had only 19 sponsors — seven short of the votes needed for Senate passage.
In sometimes rapid-fire action, committees gave affirmative nods to bills that would require high-school students to pass a civics exam, increase the personal amounts of beer, wine and spirits that Iowans can transport across state lines, make comprehensive changes to the state’s mental — health services delivery system, spell out free-speech guidelines for state colleges and write victims’ and Second Amendment rights into the Iowa Constitution.
On the House side, representatives also voted to advance the governor’s Future Ready Iowa agenda along with bills designed to give K-12 school districts more funding flexibility and extend the sales-tax funded school infrastructure program beyond its 2029 sunset.
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