DES MOINES — Simmering hot-button issues — such as imposing tougher abortion restrictions and authorizing taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools — could approach a boiling point as the Republican-led Legislature pushes toward adjournment.
Senate GOP leaders say no decisions have been made, but there were indications Wednesday that those two issues — language barring abortions after six weeks into a pregnancy and the funding of education savings accounts or vouchers with state money — could surface in fiscal 2019 budget bills that must be approved before June 30.
“I’ve heard those rumors as well,” said House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights. “I don’t know what they’ll end up doing.”
Sen. Mark Costello, R-Imogene, co-chairman of the House-Senate Health and Human Services Budget Subcommittee, said it was “a distinct possibility” that the “heartbeat” abortion language the Senate passed in February would be included in the HHS budget bill that is slated to start in the Iowa Senate.
The issue has been stalled in the House, and Costello said backers see the budget process as a vehicle to jump-start the debate as the 2018 session begins to wind down over the next several weeks.
“That’s been discussed,” Costello said. “We’ve not made a decision on that yet, but it’s certainly a possibility. Those of us who are pro-life, we’d like to see it go so that might be what we do.”
The legislation would bar a physician from performing an abortion when tests determine a heartbeat is present unless a medical emergency exists that warrants the procedure.
Violation of the bill’s provisions would subject a doctor to a Class D felony charge carrying a five-year prison term and a fine of $750 to $7,500, but there would be no penalty for the woman seeking the abortion.
Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said he expects the “heartbeat” issue and the education savings accounts legislation pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee will “be part of the mix” in the march to adjournment, even if it lengthens the time that legislators are at the Capitol this spring.
Rep. Lisa Heddens, D-Ames, ranking Democrat on the HHS budget subcommittee, said she opposes the abortion language. She agrees it would prolong the 2018 session if GOP senators try to make a power play using the budget process.
“I think there would be a lot of resistance within our caucus because it’s essentially a ban and really those decisions should be made between a woman, her health practitioner, her family and her God,” Heddens said.
“My hope is that it’s not in that legislation, but if it comes over I’m certain we will have a very long debate,” she added. “That issue has sent us to June 30 not once but twice, so there’s that potential that it could do the same thing again this year.”
Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, the House co-chair on the HHS budget subcommittee, said it would be senators’ prerogative if they chose to expand the budget issues into a policy debate, but he didn’t think it would change the “difference of opinion” within the House GOP caucus on the “heartbeat” issue.
“This is an open debate, this is an open process, and we’ll just have to deal with these issues as they come before us,” he said.
Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, chairman of the House Human Resources Committee and a member of the HHS budget panel, said the House would wait to see what the Senate does and then “we’ll react accordingly.”
“I don’t know how my caucus would respond to that,” he said. “Time will tell.”
Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it “still remains to be seen” if GOP senators decide to put the policy issues in the HHS and education budget bills that start in the Senate.
“At this point, we haven’t talked about adding language or funds” for private school vouchers, said Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, co-chairman of the House-Senate education budget subcommittee. “I think it probably is to be determined, but at this point we haven’t at all talked about it.”
Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, who has been active on both the vouchers and pro-life issues, said he would not be surprised if the issues resurfaced in the budget process.
“That’s what this building is all about — people trying to influence what they think is important. We readily expect that, that there will be some things coming over on some of their budget bills and on each one of those issues, we’ll vet it the same way. We’ll look at where our caucus is at and try to decide whether or not we’ll move them forward,” he said.
“I think if something comes over on a budget it gives it different levels of pressure to get something through,” Rogers added. “It just gives an issue more time to get filtered through everybody’s thought process.”
Hagenow said his expectation is that the House would take up the budget bills in whatever form the Senate sends them, run them through committee “and take it to caucus and see what they want to do with them.”
He added that House Republicans are a pro-life caucus that has made “significant progress” in protecting and saving unborn life, and they “feel very good about that.”
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