2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

'Empower Rural Iowa' bill goes to governor

GOP also votes to restrain Democratic attorney general

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids
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DES MOINES — The Republican-led Iowa Senate continued its march to adjournment Wednesday by sending Gov. Kim Reynolds legislation to improve rural Iowa while restricting the power of the Iowa attorney general to freely join national and federal lawsuits some viewed as politically motivated.

Senators voted 50-0 to approve the governor’s Empower Rural Iowa Initiative aimed at improving housing stock and broadband across the state. Included in House File 772 was a $10 million one-time appropriation for workforce housing as part of a recovery package for communities affected by widespread spring flooding.

Passage came on a day members of the governor’s Flood Recovery Advisory Board, with U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-West Des Moines, in attendance at its first meeting, focused on the key need for housing as flood-ravaged parts of western Iowa face massive recovery efforts.

Along with flood aid, HF 772 also increases the existing appropriation for workforce housing tax credits from $20 million to $25 million, with $10 million reserved for smaller communities.

It also sets new standards for rural broadband and updates 2014 service maps to reflect new installations.

“If we are going to be successful as a state, there needs to be growth and prosperity in every single corner of Iowa,” Reynolds said in a statement. “With the passage of today’s legislation, we are one step closer to achieving that goal.”

Senators voted 32-18 to approve a justice systems budget bill providing a $13 million increase for public safety, corrections, prosecutorial and other state services for a total general-fund outlay of $583.8 million for the 2020 fiscal year beginning July 1.

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Included in Senate File 615 are proposals to add $3.3 million in areas that include additional Iowa State Patrol troopers and Division of Criminal Investigation agents.

Minority Democrats expressed concern the GOP budget was underfunding many key state government responsibilities, but their biggest gripe was over a Republican policy change to limit the state attorney general’s independence.

The bill requires the elected official — currently a Democrat — get permission from the governor, Legislature or Executive Council before joining lawsuits that do not originate in the Iowa.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, called the provision “unprecedented” and an “overreaching restriction” that no other state has imposed to “hamstring” the top judicial officer.

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, countered that the move was a reasonable check, but Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, slammed it as “a blatant political move” by Republicans who are “drunk with power” at a time they control the Legislature and the governorship.

“We’re not complaining or trying to prevent the attorney general from filing consumer protection cases or involving himself in those kinds of things — if he had to go out of state to file something like that, he’s not going to have trouble getting on OK and he’s got three different entities he can go to,” Garrett said. “We’re representing the people here and we’re just telling the attorney general, if you’re going to play national politics, let’s involve some other folks in that, too, don’t just go off as the Lone Ranger and do your things.”

However, Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, accused Republicans of trying to build fences around Iowa in a global economy, telling them their new policy language “makes us sound like Mayberry.”

The Senate rejected an amendment to strip the AG provision by a 32-18 margin before sending the justice systems budget to the governor by the same vote.

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Senators also voted 37-13 for final passage of a separate budget bill (Senate File 608) to fund the state’s economic development programs in fiscal 2020 and 35-15 to finalize next year’s $184.2 million spending plan (Senate File 616) for Iowa’s court system that includes a 2 percent raise for judges and magistrates.

Also going to the governor’s desk Wednesday was a bill authorizing the production, processing and marketing of industrial hemp in Iowa subject to USDA approval and under the guidance of the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Senate File 599, which cleared the Senate on a 49-1 vote, would set up a fund managed by state ag officials for fees, appropriations and other revenue that would be generated to help administer the new activity for the 2020 growing season.

And finally, the Senate passed a bill to extend SAVE — Secure an Advanced Vision for Education — until 2051, but senators amended a House version to boost the amount of property tax relief by splitting each penny of sales tax collected, with 70 percent going to school infrastructure and 30 percent for property tax relief.

Originally passed in 2008, the SAVE program established a 1-cent sales tax to support school projects and property tax relief. It is set to expire in 2029 if legislators don’t act to extend it. Senators voted 48-2 to approve House File 546 and send the amended version back to the House for final approval.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he opposed the extension, calling it a $19 billion tax increase over the life of the additional span beyond the original 20-year commitment. Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, countered that the Senate approach will meet schools’ future needs and provide $4.8 billion in property tax relief.

The 20-year time frame of the original law coincided with the typical 20-year property tax-backed school bond.

SAVE funds have been used for school safety improvements, technology, art and science labs, fine arts facilities, air conditioning to lessen days lost to extreme temperatures and to reduce property taxes, according to its advocates.

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Because SAVE will expire in 2029 without action, school boards say they already are feeling the effect of a shortened bonding stream. Extending SAVE would allow districts to take advantage of low interest rates.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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