116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES - It's do or die week in the Iowa Legislature.
Friday marks the second 'funnel” deadline, which means policy bills that do not involve budgeting or taxation issues must be passed in either the House or Senate and clear a standing committee in the other chamber to remain eligible for further consideration this legislative session.
There are some exceptions, but generally issues that have stalled due to lack of support or lower-priority status likely will find their way to the Statehouse recycling bin by week's end - barring some 11th-hour maneuvering - as lawmakers work in anticipation of adjourning by their April 30 target.
Bills currently being shadowed by the legislative Grim Reaper include measures designed to ban most traffic enforcement cameras, end faculty tenure at regent universities, make daylight saving time Iowa's year-round time, lower the penalty for possessing marijuana, bar employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, override presidential executive orders and sanction left-lane 'campers” who refuse to drive in the slower lane of traffic.
'We're still trying to sort through all of those bills,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, 'and I still have members lobbying for or against all of those bills, so I don't feel entirely comfortable right now saying what's dead or what's alive. Some of these, when it gets to the last minute, it's because there is resistance at different points.”
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said most of the majority GOP priority bills are advancing, along with Gov. Kim Reynolds' initiatives to expand broadband, housing opportunities and ethanol fuel consumption. But he had concerns some House-passed measures to promote child-care access and affordability have stalled in the Senate, and both he and Whitver wondered if long-standing issues around Iowa's bottle deposit law will see another year of stalemate.
The House speaker, appearing on Iowa PBS' 'Iowa Press,” said legislators are trying to 'force” competing interests to end the 'finger-pointing” that plagued bottle-bill changes and negotiate a solution that may not please everyone.
For instance, he said, if food stores don't want to deal with returned empty cans and bottles, they may have to contract with other businesses to handle them - meaning that, in those cases, consumers would have to go somewhere besides the grocery store to redeem empties.
'If anything is going to happen with the bottle bill,” Grassley noted, 'the Legislature has to make a decision what's best for our constituents, what's best for the long-term viability of the program and just go forward and the folks in the industry may not love that solution but at some point we're just going to have to do it.”
Whitver said there are a number of bills with a number of different approaches that have been introduced to address problems with Iowa's nickel deposit law, but the various players have not been able to 'narrow down a preferred path” with session time starting to slip away.
'A lot of times when you have 12 different ideas, you don't really have any,” he said. 'At this point, I haven't seen any sort of movement toward one particular idea.”
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the 2021 session has been 'different” because many issues saw quick action due to concern another COVID-19 outbreak might interrupt proceedings like last year.
While things are less frantic as the funnel deadline approaches, he expects a busy week of debate, subcommittee and committee meetings.
'Here we are, once again we're getting down to the wire,” Zaun said Thursday. 'I've gotten calls all day from House members wanting me to run their bills (in the Senate). I expect to be treated the same way.”
Zaun said he hasn't given up on the traffic-camera ban, but conceded the prospects for Senate File 516 were not good to win full Senate passage and get it through a House committee in time this week.
'I know time is getting kind of tight,” he said. 'It's getting late. I'm saying the prognosis of passing this and keeping it alive is probably very small.”
The bill would ban automated traffic law enforcement cameras statewide - expect the speed cameras around the S-curve on Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids.
Zaun said the same probably was true for other bills he had championed - ending faculty tenure at regent universities, making daylight saving time permanent, and allowing college athletes to be compensated for use of the name, image or likeness.
But he held out hope his colleagues would approve measures giving more time to bring criminal and civil actions against pedophiles who sexually abuse minors by eliminating Iowa's statute of limitation on criminal and civil actions involving sexual abuse of children.
House-passed bills seeking constitutional and statutory action to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who have served their sentences and repaid all restitution may not see Senate action this year, Zaun said.
House members said they planned to take up legislation dealing with qualified immunity and other protections for law enforcement officers, but make changes to what the Senate sent them.
Funnel not final
An issue on both House and Senate debate calendars that likely will survive the funnel is a legislation that would place a hard $1 million cap on non-economic damages that can be awarded by Iowa juries in medical malpractice cases. The House is expected to debate House File 592 this week.
Two bills seeking to ban the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving likely will be placed on unfinished business in both chambers - a maneuver that circumvents the funnel for the time being.
Another legislative procedure to make a bill 'funnel proof” occurred with Senate File 580, a measure under which high-tech companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft would be denied future state and local tax breaks if they were found by a court to have illegally stifled speech or certain viewpoints on social media.
Because the bill deals with taxation issues, it was converted to a House Ways and Means Committee bill that is exempt from the funnel rules.
Even though bills may die because they failed to clear the deadline, Statehouse veterans caution that issues can never be considered completely discarded until the final adjournment gavel falls.
For instance, a long-standing battle over legalizing dove-hunting in Iowa took an unexpected twist during the 2011 session. A Senate bill dealing with raccoon hunting became a flash point when House members substituted it with dove-hunting language that then made a speedy trek to then-Gov. Terry Branstad's desk for his signature into law.
Likewise, Republicans last June took a bill dealing with lifesaving medical support for children and amended it to establish a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion in Iowa that was approved by both chambers and signed by Reynolds.
Democrats, who are outnumbered 18-32 in the Senate and 41-59 in the House, expressed concern Republicans have embarked on a divisive agenda dealing with issues to expand access to guns, restrict access to certain health care options and weaken public education with bills like the House-passed charter schools expansion that is slated for Senate committee action this week.
'We still haven't seen any real COVID-19 relief move out of the General Assembly at this time,” said Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville. He pushed for Senate approval of a House-passed bipartisan package exempting federal paycheck protection loans and grants to businesses and unemployment insurance benefits from state income tax.
However, Whitver was non-committal on the tax relief measure, saying the 'entire focus” of the GOP-run Senate is to press ahead on tax changes that would compress state income tax brackets, lower rates and eliminate federal deductibility. To do that, lawmakers would need to abandon the 'triggers” they set in 2018 that dictate the financial thresholds that have to be met before state taxes could be cut further.
A separate measure would deliver $100 million in property tax relief by shifting mental-health costs from local tax levies to state general fund appropriations
'These are really good tax ideas. Our focus is on those pieces of policies and we're going to continue to push those,” the Senate leader said.
Against the funnel week backdrop and in the spirit of the NCAA 'March Madness” college basketball tournament, Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, issued its 'extreme 16” bracket that matched up what the group considered to be the most extreme proposals of the 2021 legislative session.
The group ranked Senate File 413, a bill that shortened early and general Election Day voting times and made other changes to Iowa's voting system, as its No. 1 seed.
Reynolds signed that bill into law on March 8.
The group ranked the permit-less carry gun bill - SF 535, currently on Reynolds' desk awaiting action - as Progress Iowa's No. 2 seed.
'The competition for this year's extreme 16 was unfortunately one of the strongest we've ever seen,” said Sinovic. 'Gutting public schools, making it harder for Iowa families to get by, legalizing discrimination, and preventing Iowans from voting are just a few of the top seeds in this year's bracket. To make matters even worse, the Republican controlled legislature barely lifted a finger to help Iowans who are still suffering one year into the pandemic.”
Whitver said the 2021 session is entering its final month with tax policies and fiscal 2022 state budget decisions moving front and center, with Monday marking the 78th day of a session slated to run 110 days.
'There is no reason that we need to go beyond 110 days,” said Whitver. 'In fact, with the Republican trifecta (control of the House, Senate and governorship) trying to push conservative ideas through in the last few weeks, there's no reason we need to even get to 110 days. A lot of it will come down to that budget negotiation and frankly the tax conversation.”
Legislative Republicans expect to make a 'significant” investment in expanded broadband in Iowa - Grassley pegged it Friday at $100 million - in finalizing a state general-fund budget that will top $8 billion for the first time.
Also, Whitver said the 89th General Assembly is putting forth 'generational ideas” - providing income and property tax relief, phasing out the state's inheritance tax while maintaining a 'very sustainable” budget with surplus reserves against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic.
'I think this could be an extremely successful year,” he said. 'I know Senate Republicans have put forth generational ideas that really are going to move this state forward. I think when it's all said and done we are on pace to have a very successful year.”
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