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DES MOINES — Legislation seeking to reinstate a limited death penalty, repeal the state's bottle deposit law and require young moped riders to wear helmets fell by the wayside while Republicans voted Thursday to sanction high-tech companies for censoring social media free speech on a critical day for bills to win approval or languish for the 2021 session.
Majority Republicans moved ahead with a conservative agenda they said would advance individual rights while reining in government, but Democrats decried this year's legislative work product as 'mean-spirited and divisive' in lamenting a crop of measures they offered to address Iowans' needs in responsive to the COVID-19 pandemic left dying on a partisan vine.
'We had a very successful fall in the House and the Senate and we're moving the things forward that we campaigned on,' said House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, in response to the complaints. 'If anything, I think Iowans should think it's a breath of fresh air that we're actually following through on the things that we ran on as part of our agenda items.'
Grassley indicated most of the GOP priorities are moving forward in the process. A Senate-passed measure that Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds advocated to establish state-funded scholarships for families with children in private or charter schools survived the funnel deadline but the concept currently lacks enough support among House Republicans to advance through committee.
» DEAD OR ALIVE: These are the bills that survived or died after the first funnel
Senate Republicans held a subcommittee meeting Thursday on a measure seeking to have the Iowa Department of Public Health report abortions performed in the state on a similar 'real time' basis as COVID-19 data, but chairman Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, pulled Senate File 508 from the Senate State Government Committee's agenda. A proposal to establish a program promoting alternatives to abortion also failed to advance on a day when non-money and non-tax policy bills were required to win approval in a standing committee of the House or the Senate to remain eligible for consideration.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said his first session as Democratic caucus leader has been 'very frustrating' to watch as a number of ideas failed to even get assigned to subcommittee. House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City lamented that a 'really mean' Republican agenda was putting an unwelcoming face on Iowa.
'We think that the agenda is taking the state in the wrong direction,' he told reporters.
Committees on both sides of the rotunda advanced bills Thursday intended to send a message to 'big-tech' corporations like Facebook, Google and Microsoft — that they would face sanctions if they censor or silence conservative voices on social media.
'Big Tech companies are using their unfettered power to restrict the ability of Iowans to voice their opinion, their thoughts, their feelings and otherwise be able to communicate with those who are their friends or otherwise,' said Senate President Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel who was lead sponsor of Senate File 402.
The measure, advanced 10-6 by the Senate Commerce Committee, could impact hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives if a court finds an internet company violated the free speech rights of Iowans.
Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, said Chapman and the 29 other GOP co-sponsors were putting thousands of jobs and future business prospects at risk, telling them 'this business-busting bill has turned Iowa into a four-letter word and it effectively puts a 'closed for business' sign on Iowa.'
Chapman countered that there are bigger constitutional and liberty issues at stake.
'Are we going to go to an auction block and auction away our rights?' he asked. 'How much are you willing to sell your freedom, your liberty for?' Chapman added, telling committee members 'if they can censor the president of the United States of America, they can censor any one of us and they're doing it.'
Across the rotunda, House Republicans came up with different approach that would give Iowa's attorney general authority to fine a social media company for blocking or removing online content.
And members of the House Public Safety Committee passed their own version of 'back the blue' legislation in support of law enforcement. House Republicans chose to run their own bill rather than advance similarly-themed proposals from Reynolds and Senate Republicans.
The House legislation passed out of the public safety committee with bipartisan support.
'A lot of us are very supportive, myself included,' said Rep. Wes Breckenridge, the committee's top Democrat and a former police officer from Newton.
While the Senate bill — which passed out of committee earlier this week — includes increased criminal penalties for rioting, unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct, the House bill is more targeted. The House bill adds legal protections for officers who are deemed to be enforcing the law unless the action constitutes 'willful and wanton misconduct,' allows officers to seek legal remedies against an individual who files a false complaint, increases the penalties for eluding an officer and requires law enforcement officers to carry a firearm on duty.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee advanced legislation that would regulate rent at mobile home parks; ban certain topics dealing with racism and sexism from training and curriculum at colleges and K-12 schools; allow some non-violent felony convictions to be cleared from a person's criminal record; and begin the process of amending the state constitution to guarantee voting rights of felons who complete their sentence.
Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, the chairman of the judiciary committee, advanced the mobile home park legislation to give lawmakers more time to work on the issue. It has gained legislators' attention in recent years after out-of-state companies bought Iowa mobile home parks and in some cases increased rent and evictions.
But because lawmakers and stakeholders have not yet reached an agreement, Holt advanced House File 442 as a 'shell bill' — a blank slate that allows negotiations to continue.
Holt also defended legislation that would ban colleges and K-12 schools from training on and teaching 'divisive' topics related to racism and sexism. That proposal, House Study Bill 258, advanced without bipartisan support — only Republicans approved and Democrats all opposed.
'There is no doubt that racism and sexism exists in this country. There is no doubt about that,' Holt acknowledged, adding, 'I'm concerned students are being taught topics that are untrue, divisive and toxic to the future of our country.'
Republicans on the House State Government Committee passed a bill that would set up a process in which Iowa's attorney general would be asked to determine whether an executive order issued by the U.S. president is unconstitutional. House File 481 was passed to the debate calendar, though panel members conceded the bill itself may not pass constitutional muster.