116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Attention good citizens: Be on the lookout for zombie bills as the legislative session rolls toward a merciful end.
This is the point in the session when bad ideas we thought were dead can rise to the surface. Bills that couldn’t pass turn into amendments tucked into massive budget bills. The late game budget process can also give life to new bad ideas we didn’t see coming.
The 2019 stumble to adjournment saw a particularly bad zombie outbreak.
Republicans who run the Legislature shoved through a last-minute measure to deny transgender Iowans coverage of needed medical procedures though government-funded health insurance. Lawmakers also barred abortion providers from receiving sex education funding and altered the way Iowa picks its Supreme Court justices. In the final days of the session, Republicans fast-tracked a bill barring the duly elected attorney general from joining national lawsuits without the governor’s permission.
Then they adjourned, mumbling something about needing fresh brains.
As the current session approaches its end, one zombie bill already has surfaced.
Earlier this year, Senate Republicans passed a bill requiring the Department of Human Services to hire a third-party vendor to do frequent eligibility verification checks on Iowans receiving food assistance, Medicaid and children’s health insurance. The vendor would be rewarded for producing program savings, also known as kicking people off assistance for discrepancies small or large. A household, for example, could lose benefits if it owns two vehicles.
And maybe, if they make verification more onerous and complicated, people just won’t sign up.
Conservative estimates by the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency say more than 9,000 people would be kicked off assistance due to discrepancies under the zombie bill.
The GOP-controlled House wisely let the bill die. And yet, it lives, tacked on to the Senate Health and Human Services budget bill. The Gov. Kim Reynolds also added the measure to her HHS budget bill.
The change is being pushed by the Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project, which lobbies around the country for bills and ballot measures intended to shred the safety net. Opportunity Solutions is plugged into a network of conservative groups and think tanks funded by rich guys who have great ideas for states they don’t live in.
What’s odd about the Iowa push is that the Department of Human services is already pursuing improvements in its application systems. And by next year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be offering states free use of its nationwide system for monitoring food assistance eligibility. So why pay a third-party vendor?
Because it’s really about inflicting callous ideology on low-income Iowans. If this zombie bill could talk it would groan, “Make them eat bootstraps!”
It’s also fresh evidence that this Legislature has learned precious little from the pandemic.
Low-income workers in the service and hospitality sectors were hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic fallout. They lacked sick leave and health benefits. They couldn’t collect unemployment if they refused to work for fear of their health and safety. They struggled to cover rent. And they needed food.
Also, in our neck of what was once the woods, the August derecho delivered a second blow to struggling households. Food banks, pop-up food distribution centers, outdoor barbecue outfits and food stands were jammed with people in need of something to eat.
“It really pulled back the curtain to see how much need there was for food,” said Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha.
So naturally, Senate Republicans would look upon that vast landscape of need and fragile lives lived perpetually on the edge of crisis and decide the best move would be to kick more people off food assistance.
Lawmakers also this session approved a bill that would allow landlords to turn away potential low-income tenants who use federal housing vouchers to pay rent, disproportionately affecting disabled renters and people of color. And budget bills unveiled in the Senate and House this past week would slash funding requested by Reynolds to increase access to affordable housing in Iowa.
This level of tone-deafness is hardly a surprise in a Capitol where Republicans in charge couldn’t bring themselves to even mandate the simple wearing of masks.
Should lawmakers act in the wake of illness and death at meatpacking plants that failed to protect workers? No, what we really need to do is ban vaccine passports. Chart a future for more robust virtual learning? Nah, let’s punish the Des Moines School District for failing to follow Reynolds’ in-person learning edicts.
Again and again, the pandemic has been treated under the Golden Dome of Wisdom like a political opponent to deride, belittle and ignore instead of a series of real time, life and death lessons about our state’s vulnerabilities.
But there’s still time. And not all zombies are bad.
The House passed a series of bills aimed at increasing access to child care, a big problem highlighted during the pandemic. But the Senate didn’t act. Let’s bring those bills back.
The House also supports requiring insurers to pay the same for telehealth mental health appointments as in-person sessions. Telehealth was a lifesaver during the pandemic, and the House measure would make an emergency order that required equal payment permanent. But the Senate hasn’t followed the House’s lead. Let’s keep that idea alive.
Drop the get-tough posturing of “Back the Blue” and return to the spirit of last June when calls for racial justice moved the Legislature to act. Those calls are as loud as ever. Don’t try to silence them.
Other bad ideas should be laid to rest for good. In the final days or weeks, leave the transgender kids alone. Don’t pick culture war fights over history curriculum and dump the diversity training restrictions. Stop beating up on the state’s universities as some vendetta against the libs.
Show us that Iowa still has some fresh brains.
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