Government

6 issues to watch in the 2019 Iowa Legislature

The State Capitol building is shown in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The State Capitol building is shown in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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Here are six issues to watch in the 2019 Iowa Legislature, which begins Monday:

TRAFFIC CAMERAS

With Cedar Rapids preparing to turn back on its automated speed cameras after a nearly two-year hiatus, officials — and drivers — will be looking to see if the Iowa Legislature adopts stricter regulations or bans them all together.

Competing proposals were in play up until the end of the 2018 session. The Iowa Senate voted to ban them. The Iowa House voted to enact regulations that, when met, would allow them. But the Legislature adjourned without making a final decision.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who championed a ban, said last year he wouldn’t be satisfied “until they are all gone.”

The competing House version, managed on the floor by Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, would require a public hearing over the placement of each camera and mandate the revenue generated go to streets, roads and public safety, among other limits.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he expects there will be bills this session about automated traffic cameras, though that issue was not discussed in Senate Republicans’ first group meeting since the election. Democratic Rep. Todd Prichard of Charles City, the House minority leader, said he hadn’t heard the matter being discussed for this year’s agenda, either.

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the state Department of Transportation does not have the authority to regulate the cameras; that instead is up to local governments — unless the Legislature decides otherwise. With Democrats and Republicans on each side of the issue, it’s impossible to predict what — if anything — will happen this year.

But, said Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, as long as Zaun is around, “we will see legislation proposed on traffic cameras.”

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The speed cameras in Cedar Rapids have not been issuing tickets since April 2017 when a dispute between cities and the Iowa DOT was in court. Although the cities won the dispute, the Cedar Rapids speed cameras have not resumed issuing tickets. The city has said it will give the public ample notice before that happens. Proceeds from the cameras would go toward hiring 10 more police officers.

But the city was working on straightening out another big wrinkle first.

In the past, ticket recipients who did not respond to mailed notices were considered liable by default and the debt was sent to a collection agency and eventually, the state’s income offset program. The state Supreme Court ruled last August that process sidestepped state municipal infraction procedures.

Under the city’s new proposal, motorists who don’t pay automated traffic tickets or wish to contest them would receive municipal infractions to be handled in small claims court.

But, Linn County courts note, that has the potential to overwhelm the court system. Linn County courts in 2017 handled 6,889 total small claims cases, including 132 municipal infractions. Add in unpaid citations from traffic cameras and that number could spike to more than 10 times as much.

The City Council has not yet voted on the plan.

IOWA SUPREME COURT

When it comes to ideas for changing the way Iowa’s Supreme Court justices are chosen, a legislative forum held last week in Des Moines underscores that Republicans and Democrats disagree on whether there’s even a problem to fix.

At issue is an idea to evaluate and potentially change the state’s 17-member nominating commission, which now is made up of appointments by the governor and Iowa lawyers.

Proponents of a change say the public needs more input. Critics of a change argue that Iowa has a model system that keeps politics to a minimum in the process.

Whitver, the Senate majority leader, last Thursday argued for a review of the system that he asserted has produced “dozens and dozens of activist rulings.”

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“Over the last 20 years, there’s been more and more judicial activism where the Supreme Court justices are trying to legislate from the bench,” he said. If “they want to be legislators, run for the Legislature. Otherwise they should be interpreting the laws and the constitution that we’ve given them.”

In April 2009, the court ruled that banning same-sex marriage in the state was unconstitutional. Three of the justices were up for retention votes the next year, and all three were removed by voters after a campaign by social conservatives to oust them.

The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in 2015 to uphold same-sex marriage nationwide.

Prichard, the leader of the House Democrats, said accusations of judicial activism are “unfounded.”

“The worst thing that we can do is politicize our judiciary … I think this is a slippery slope and an issue that’s not really a problem. We have a merit-based system in Iowa. We need to maintain and defend that system,” Prichard said.

No specific legislative proposals have been outlined, but Republicans say they are focusing on ways to make changes without triggering a requirement to amend the state constitution.

One possibility Republicans have floated is sharply limiting the role of lawyers in forming the 17-member judicial nominating commission.

The commission now is made up of eight lawyers elected by licensed peers, eight members of the public appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Iowa Senate and a chair who is the most senior member of the Iowa Supreme Court who is not the chief justice.

The commission interviews candidates for a justice vacancy and forwards three to the governor, who must pick from among them.

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Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has said she supports reviewing the commission’s makeup, said Thursday that some may think “maybe the process right now is political” and “we want to make sure that the process is fair.”

IPERS

As the gubernatorial campaign last year between Reynolds and Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell was in full swing, the potential of changes to the state’s public employee pensions became a hotly debated political issue.

Republicans say there’s no plan change the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System.

Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, chair of the committee through which such legislation would need to pass, said “there never was a plan” to alter IPERS, calling that message a “manufactured scare tactic.”

“It unequivocally will not happen,” Kaufmann said, noting that House Speaker Linda Upmeyer. R-Clear Lake, has also taken the same position.

At a news conference last year, Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price said Reynolds had sent “mixed messages” over IPERS, leading to the possibility that it would institute 401(k)-style plans or move toward other privatization in the future.

In an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, Upmeyer rejected what she called “absurd” misinformation from Democrats.

“I would like to set the record straight: There are no planned changes to IPERS or any other public pension system. We will continue to keep our promise to IPERS members. IPERS members are in no danger of losing their pensions.” she wrote.

About 350,000 Iowans are members of IPERS.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

In the wake of several sexual harassment allegations in state government — including in the Senate Republican caucus, the Iowa Finance Authority and against Sen. Nate Boulton, Des-Des Moines, before he was elected — lawmakers in 2018 created a new position of human resources director to handle complaints in the Capitol, updated sexual harassment policies and bolstered training for all legislators and staff.

“Last session we took deliberate action, meeting with experts, changing our rules, hiring the HR director to make sure that we have a better work environment here in the Iowa Capitol. And I think those steps have produced results already,” Whitver said. “But we’re going to have to always continue to monitor our work environment here to make sure that it’s conducive for all employees.”

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Legislative leaders said they do not expect any measures about Statehouse sexual harassment in the 2019 session, Petersen, the Senate Democratic leader, said her caucus may introduce a bill that would address sexual harassment in the workplace outside the Capitol.

Petersen said details were not yet available.

REDISTRICTING

Whitver, the Senate GOP leader, said majority Republicans have no plans to change Iowa’s redistricting process ahead of the 2020 census.

The census will inform the legislative process of redrawing political boundaries for the next 10 years.

Lawmakers in some states have wide authority to draw their own political boundaries. In Iowa, lawmakers vote only on proposals drafted by the state’s legal services agency.

“The only people talking about (Republicans possibly) changing that are liberal bloggers,” Whitver said. There have been “zero conversations in our caucus in changing redistricting, period. Right now I think the system works fine. Unless there’s evidence that says there’s a problem, I don’t see the need to.”

MEDICAL CANNABIS

House Speaker Upmeyer said House Republicans are content with the state’s medical cannabis program and have no plans to entertain legislation to make changes.

The newly expanded program allows cannabidiol to be produced and sold in Iowa, and increases the number of ailments for which the products can be used.

The state’s first licensed manufacturing facility, MedParm in Des Moines, produced the first round of products, which are on sale now. A second manufacturing plant, operated by Iowa Relief, has broken ground in Cedar Rapids.

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Advocates for further expansion say the cap on cannabidiol’s THC content should be raised to make it more useful for those with debilitating conditions.

The new program created an advisory board that could make such a recommendation to legislators. The board is considering a petition to raise the THC limit.

“The rules that they write really give them a lot of opportunity to do the expansion that (the advisory board members), as professionals, feel is appropriate,” Upmeyer said. “So I think we’re pretty comfortable with having that advisory board do its work and bring forward what they think is the right way to go on this topic.”

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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