Government

Iowa lawmakers consider racial justice reforms

GOP leaders working with Democrats on legislation

State Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, speaks Thursday on the steps of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. Speakers called for cr
State Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, speaks Thursday on the steps of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. Speakers called for criminal justice reforms to address racial disparities and police misconduct. Republican legislative leaders said Friday they are working with Democratic lawmakers to fashion legislation for consideration this month. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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JOHNSTON — With pressure building for lawmakers to deal with racial injustices that have triggered mass protests in Iowa, top Republican leaders said Friday they are working with Democrats to formulate legislation to address some immediate concerns and lay plans for future action next session.

The state Capitol building has been among the Iowa locations where protesters have decried the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and appear to be sparking a political response from Iowa legislators before they wrap up their 2020 work this month.

“Those voices are being heard, and we’ve had conversations with the speaker (of the Iowa House) and with the governor about taking a very positive step forward,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said during the taping of “Iowa Press” at Iowa PBS studios in Johnston. “Hopefully, we can get something passed this session,”

Whitver’s remarks came one day after several Democratic lawmakers and racial justice activists proposed immediate legislative action that would ban most police choke holds, bar the hiring of law officers who have a record of serious misconduct or using excessive force and give the state attorney general and local county attorneys the authority to investigate police misconduct.

“I think it would be a very good step forward if we could craft a bill that incorporates these ideas, maybe others,” Whitver said during the taping. “But we want to make sure we’re listening and these are good ideas that they are bringing forward, and we want to see if we can get it done.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said Republicans want to “work with the Democrats” to find some common ground and, to that end, he met privately this week with Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, an African American representative from Des Moines who has worked to keep protests peaceful and seek positive action after Floyd’s death.

Both leaders are working under a compressed timeline to craft a state budget and finalize policy issues in a legislative session interrupted for 11 weeks by the coronavirus pandemic,

Grassley said he is focused on “what are some things that we can do immediately to have an impact immediately on the situation before us, and I’m hopeful that some of these things are in response to us having those conversations, and I think we can have a productive piece of legislation come from that.”

The immediate focus in on police misconduct, but Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds have indicated they expect there will be a broader discussion about racial disparities during the 2021 legislative session.

On Thursday, Reynolds touted some criminal justice reform measures her administration has undertaken and currently is working on.

“We’ve made some significant steps, but we have a ways to go” in closing gaps that exist in Iowa’s criminal justice system and policies that impact minority Iowans, she said.

Since reconvening the paused 2020 session on Wednesday, Senate Democrats have pressed majority GOP senators to advance racial justice legislation.

Whiter has indicated he would be willing to consider specific proposals to make constructive policy changes.

Grassley and Whitver said negotiations continue with the governor in hopes of reaching an agreement on a fiscal 2021 state budget.

Lawmakers, who will return to the Capitol next week, spent Friday passing a few bills in committee to keep them eligible for consideration this session.

To watch

“Iowa Press” can seen at 7 p.m. Friday and noon Sunday on Iowa PBS; 8:30 a.m. Saturday on Iowa PBS World; and online at iowapbs.org/iowapress.

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

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