116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There’s a familiar routine to Iowa legislative sessions.
After opening speeches from legislative leaders and the governor’s Condition of the State address next week, lawmakers devote much of their time to myriad bills addressing everything from all-terrain vehicles and animal feeding operations to water quality and weights and measures.
Despite disagreements over the amount, funding for K-12 schools typically gets set early on. Behind the scenes at first, then in subcommittees and committees, the budget gets put together — the big $8 billion-plus general fund spending plan as well as smaller departmental and program budgets that are a part of it.
When spring arrives and farm fields and golf courses beckon, deals are made and the session ends, usually until next January.
Along the way, however, there are any number of issues that can disrupt, delay and derail that routine. Often, they are the same topics from year-to-year: abortion, gun rights, traffic cameras, gambling. There’s always a risk — or opportunity, depending on one’s view — that a new issue will come up also.
It would be dangerous to scratch gambling from the list of “hot button” issues that could pop up. However, one change that seems unlikely is Iowa following moves by six states to authorize online casino — as opposed to sport betting — gambling.
In November, Iowans wagered nearly $10 million a day on sports, according to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. That led to some talk of the state authorizing online casino gaming that would enable Iowans to set up accounts to gamble from smartphones or their computers for all legal gambling.
Wes Ehrecke, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Gaming Association, doesn’t expect his association to offer legislation this year. So far, he said, there’s no consensus among the operators of Iowa’s 19 state licensed casinos. Some of them support online casino gaming while others oppose it or aren’t ready to support a change at this time.
There’s more to consider than just gaming, Ehrecke explained. The state and casino operators have created “premier destinations” where dining, hotels, comedy clubs, concerts and conventions are all a part of the total package of visiting a casino.
The discussion needs to “evolve over the next year or so,” he said.
Like gambling, a bottle bill debate is one of those “it’s not an official legislative session unless …” topics that comes up early.
“I would love to see the bottle bill finally fixed. I was told we were closer than ever last session,” said freshman Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia, who has endured only one debate on fixing the four-decade-old law that imposes a nickel deposit on carbonated beverage containers that is refunded when the cans and bottle are returned to retailers.
But close doesn’t count. In 2021, lobbyists for grocers and beer wholesalers came close to an agreement, and lawmakers resurrected an effort push it across the finish line in the final days of the session. House File 872 would have doubled the 1-cent handling fee for redemption centers and stopped dirty beverage containers from being returned to grocery stores.
Rep. Jacob Bossman, R-Sioux City, called the plan a “pretty good fusion of everybody’s needs.”
“But every time it seems like we get right to that point, everybody gets cold feet,” said House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. If anything happens in 2022, “we have to be willing to accept that everyone will not like we do.”
“When I say everyone, I don't necessarily think Iowans because I think Iowans want the program,” Grassley said. “I'm for doing something about it as long as it doesn't eliminate the program.”
Across the rotunda, Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, believes there is support for a “transparent and valued” bottle bill.
In recent years, attempts to address distracted driving by banning the use of hand-held communication devices — cellphones — have failed to gain the support of a majority of legislators despite support from a governor’s task force and Public Safety Commissioner Stephen Bayens.
“I think that would be fantastic. Distracted driving’s been obviously a big concern for a long time,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said. However, he’s not aware of a proposal from majority Republicans.
Objections to a ban on the hand-held devices involve personal freedom arguments as well as concerns about equity because not everyone has a car that supports the technology, he said. Wahls also is “sensitive to potential racial equity concerns in that area.”
Democrats have pushed for legislation on racial profiling and traffic stops, “but Republicans, obviously, haven't been willing to move that.”
It's likely there will be proposals to raise Iowa’s minimum wage for the first time since 2009 when Democrats had control of the Legislature and the governor’s office. It’s been $7.25 per hour for nearly 13 years.
“Wages are not growing in the way that they need to,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said.
Minimum wages are going up in 25 states this year, with eight states tying the hourly rate to the consumer price index.
However, there doesn’t seem to be much interest from Republicans, who now have the Statehouse trifecta and prefer to let the marketplace set wages.
“It's an employee's market,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said. “Drive by a Jimmy John's or McDonald's, and they're paying 3, 4, 5 bucks an hour more than they were just a couple of years ago. So it’s a really competitive workforce environment.
“That means wages are going up at a market rate that businesses can afford and pay as opposed to some government-mandated increase,” according to Whitver. Rather than focus on minimum wage, he said he wants to focus on attracting market-wage jobs.
Zach is likely to try again to win protections for residents of manufactured homes. Previous proposals have drawn bipartisan support, but not support from key leaders.
In recent years, legislators have introduced a rewrite of mobile home legislation. The first attempt had 30 sponsors — 15 Democrats, 15 Republicans. However, Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, refused to schedule a subcommittee meeting on it, Wahls said.
The proposed legislation would protect people living in manufactured housing from massive rent increases when mobile home parks are bought by investment groups, which has happened in several communities around Iowa.
Over time, the lobby representing the park owners “have just whittled away the protections that are there for mobile homeowners,” Wahls said. “We’re just trying to level the playing field because they don't have a paid lobbyist.”
While proposals to either limit and expand abortion rights are nearly certain, some Republican legislators say discussions about women’s health shouldn’t stop there.
Sen. Chris Cournoyer of LeClaire and Carrie Koelker of Dyersville expect to continue efforts they started in 2021 regarding maternal health care. In the House, Rep. Megan Jones of Sioux Rapids would like to see more support for families interested in adopting.
“I understand a lot of people look at pro-life officials and ask, ‘What are you doing for the families after the kid is born?’” she said. “The discussion doesn’t just end at abortion. We can do a lot better — and a lot more.”
In 2021, Jones and others pushed a bill to allow families involved in a Child in Need of Assistance proceeding to use their public defender lawyer to facilitate an adoption, with the state picking up that cost. She would like to see that expanded to help more adopting families.
“Additionally, families should have access to and flexibility for family planning,” Jones said. “We need young families in our state — and we need to be listening and responding to their barriers.”
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