By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds signaled a willingness Tuesday to sign legislation that would require felons to fully pay any court-ordered debts to victims before having their voting rights restored.
Reynolds has been advocating an amendment to the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentences. Iowa is the only state that requires felons to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored.
Some lawmakers have expressed support for Reynolds’ initial proposal, but Republicans in the Iowa Senate have insisted any automatic restoration must include restitution payment.
“The felon is not the victim in this,” said Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, floor manager of Senate File 2348, which passed Tuesday on a 37-11 vote. Six Democrats joined 31 Republicans in passing it while 11 Democrats opposed it.
The Senate legislation would define that restitution: before having their voting rights restored, felons would be required to complete their sentence — including probation and parole — and pay all damages to victims or their families.
Roughly one-fourth of felony inmates were assessed restitution over the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years in Iowa. The average amount of restitution assessed in both years was more than $11,000, although those averages include high-dollar fines for prisoners who are serving life sentences and thus would not be eligible for automatic voting rights restoration.
While requiring restitution, the Senate proposal does not require felons to be fully paid on court fees and fines.
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Offenders convicted of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter and other forms of homicide would be ineligible to automatically regain their voting rights but instead still would have to apply individually to the governor’s office. The same would hold for felons required to register as sex offenders in Iowa.
Reynolds has said she does not want any changes to make the process harder than it already is. Although felons must apply to the governor to have their voting rights restored, they are required only to show they are making progress toward having their court-ordered debts paid. The Senate proposal requires the debts to be fully paid.
Reynolds told reporters Tuesday she is willing to approve the Senate proposal in the spirit of compromise to ensure the passage of the constitutional amendment.
“I’ve said before that I didn’t want to make it more complicated. They really tied the restitution to victims, and we should never ever lose sight of victims,” Reynolds said. “Compromise is part of how we get things done. When you show no willingness to compromise, then nothing ever happens. So we’ll continue to work with them and see what happens. … “
The restitution requirements would be placed under state law, while the voting rights restoration would be covered by a constitutional amendment.
An amendment to the state constitution must be approved during two sessions of the Iowa Legislature separated by an election, then by a statewide public vote.
A federal appeals court this past month upheld a lower-court ruling that restitution requirements passed in Florida were unconstitutional.
In 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to criminals — except murderers and sex offenders — who had served their time.
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But later, the GOP-controlled legislature there passed a law requiring offenders to pay all court fees, fines and restitution before having voting rights restored.
Iowa lawmakers “are taking that into consideration as they move it through the legislative process,” Reynolds said. “I think they really didn’t want to go through what Florida did. So (they’re) trying to be more prescriptive on the front end, and then we’ll see.”
Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, in 2005, had issued an executive order automatically restoring the voting rights of felons who complete their sentences. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, shortly after being elected in 2010, erased his order, creating the current case-by-case process.
Reynolds was Branstad’s lieutenant governor and replaced him in 2017 when he became U.S. ambassador to China.
Reynolds has said she favors a constitutional amendment because it is more difficult to alter than an executive order.
Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said he would like to see Reynolds take executive action, but in that absence offered tepid support for the Senate Republicans’ restitution proposal.
“Is this the bill that I would have drafted? No, but it certainly seems to be the only way we’re going to get this moving,” Boulton said. “So I think we’re going to see concerns raised by Democrats in the debate, but what’s the most important thing is to make sure people who are being denied the right to vote are getting the right to vote. And if it helps more than a few, that’s the right approach.”
Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.
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