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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Statehouse Republicans are making progress on finalizing their state budget negotiations and whittling their list of the 2021 session’s must-do bills.
That list, a key House leader said Thursday, no longer includes a proposed ban on hand-held use of cellphones while driving.
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters — on a day when both chambers spent less than five minutes in session — that private “global” discussions among House and Senate Republicans and Gov. Kim Reynolds have moved them closer to “the same numbers” in setting a fiscal 2022 spending plan and finalizing state budget pieces.
“I think we’re getting close to agreeing on all of that,: he said. ”I think we’re making progress from the standpoint of what things need to be addressed before we would get out of here.
“Obviously, the budget, whether there’s any specific pieces of tax legislation and how that ties into the budget conversation. So even though it doesn’t maybe look like that, there’s progress happening.
“We are having some productive conversations.”
House Republicans have not issued an overall spending target, while Senate Republicans proposed just under $8 billion with expectations the number would grow. The governor made her $8.1 billion in spending proposals known in January.
Grassley said most fiscal 2022 budget bills have cleared the subcommittee process and are being readied for floor debate once “apples to apples” spending levels are finalized.
The 2021 adjournment target is April 30, but the speaker declined Thursday to predict when the session will end.
Cellphones while driving
One thing that appears off the table is a bill that would have barred drivers from using hand-held devices while operating a vehicle.
The legislation has been on debate calendars in both chambers for weeks but apparently has enforcement and personal freedom concerns that will keep Iowa from joining more than two dozen states that ban motorists from using cellphones while driving, Grassley said.
“At this point, I would say that’s probably not something that will move from the House’s perspective,” he told reporters, saying his members had concern about how the enforcement of a ban “would all play out.”
“There’s a lot of members in the (House Republican) caucus who have a lot of questions of how that would actually look in its implementation,” he said. “I think the principle of what we’re trying to address is much easier to get agreement on than what it actually is in practice.”
Iowa law currently prohibits the use of hand-held electronic communication devices to write, send or view electronic messages while driving, and Reynolds has sided with law enforcement, insurance and other groups that support allowing only the use of hands-free technology for making cellphone calls while driving.
Bills awaiting legislative debate would make exceptions for emergency vehicles, law enforcement officers, medical personnel, utility maintenance and transportation network drivers. Voice-activated or hands-free equipment would be allowed.
During a Democratic leadership conference call with reporters Thursday, Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said she had been getting “a lot” of favorable feedback from Iowans who “really want that hands-free legislation. I don’t know why it’s controversial.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said he senses the 2021 session is starting to “wind down” and he expressed frustration “we have done next to nothing for COVID relief. We’ve basically wasted an entire session in the middle of a pandemic not addressing what I would call the most pressing issue of the day.”
Konfrst said the session has lacked “a common thread” or continuity but rather has been “sort of a mishmash,” with majority Republicans seemingly “going one direction one day and another direction another day” as the session reached its 95th calendar day.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of coordinated planning and effort and strategy here and Iowans deserve better than that,” she said.
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