CORONAVIRUS

Iowa lawmakers figure out rules for returning to work June 3

They also want revised revenue estimates for budget

Legislative leaders met Thursday to decide on how to safely get back to work June 3 at the Capitol in Des Moines. (The G
Legislative leaders met Thursday to decide on how to safely get back to work June 3 at the Capitol in Des Moines. (The Gazette)

Iowa legislative leaders approved a plan for lawmakers to resume their in-person work at the Capitol on June 3 with the expectation of finishing a budget and other essential work the following week.

Lawmakers, who suspended their session March 16 as part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, will operate under new health and safety guidelines approved by the Legislative Council in a telephonic meeting Thursday afternoon.

“We’re trying to take every precaution to make members feel comfortable coming back,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said.

However, concerns were voiced that the guidelines didn’t go far enough to protect lawmakers who are elderly, have preexisting conditions or underlying health concerns.

Before entering the Capitol, legislative staff and members of the public, but not lawmakers, will be required to go through a health screening consisting of having their temperatures taken and answering a few questions.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, explained lawmakers cannot be denied access to the Capitol when the Legislature is in session.

“I appreciate whatever constitutional rights people think they have not to have their temperature taken,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said, but hoped all lawmakers would wear personal protective equipment and undergo the screening as the “neighborly thing to do.”

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There are no plans for remote voting for members who might not feel comfortable being part of a mass gathering in Des Moines, which is one of the nation’s COVID-19 hot spots.

Once inside the Capitol, personal protective equipment will be encouraged but not be mandatory.

New Funnel

Procedurally, Republicans, who control both chambers, said they will set June 5 as the second funnel deadline, which requires bills to have been approved by one chamber and a committee of the other to advance to final approval.

Whitver and Grassley said they will provide guidance on what legislation they intend to take up, but did not take a suggestion from Democrats to decide before June 3 which bills the majority party has agreed to pass.

“There may be a new bill or two out there, but bills that were alive when we left are still alive,” Whitver said. “My hope is that when we come back June 3, the budget is agreed to and ready to go.”

Revenue questions

Before lawmakers return, Gov. Kim Reynolds and the legislative leaders want the Revenue Estimating Conference to meet and evaluate the state’s financial position before lawmakers create a fiscal year 2021 budget.

The leaders pointed to the “healthy” surplus and reserve accounts under their conservative budgeting practices. However, much has changed in the two months since the REC last met, Grassley said.

When the REC met in March, the three-member panel predicted state tax collections would grow by $76.1 million above the current expectation to nearly $8.091 billion for the current year. The panel lowered the fiscal 2021 outlook to 1.8 percent growth — nearly $8.237 billion, which was $12.3 million less than its December 2019 estimate.

The Legislative Services Agency reported Thursday the year-over-year decline in state tax revenue from March 19 to May 13 was $531 million — 34 percent.

Total tax receipts Thursday were 2.37 percent below May 14, 2019, with personal and corporate income taxes each off nearly 7 percent. Sales taxes were running 5.2 percent ahead of this point in 2019.

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Much of the decrease is due to Iowa extending the deadline for paying income taxes from April 30 to July 31, the Legislative Services Agency said.

“The numbers are really bad, but it doesn’t seem to be permanent yet,” said Jeff Robinson, a senior tax analyst for the agency.

SESSION CHANGES

In addition to health screenings for the public before entering the Capitol, the Legislative Council said social distancing guidelines should be practiced. If that’s not possible, people are encouraged, not mandated, to wear a face mask or shield, which will be made available at the Capitol.

Hand sanitizer stations will be positioned throughout the Capitol.

Committee meetings will take place in either the Senate or House chamber and be livestreamed on the legislative website, https://www.legis.iowa.gov/, and may be viewed on television monitors throughout the Capitol.

House-Senate budget subcommittee meetings will be discontinued. Budget bills will go through each chamber’s Appropriations Committee.

Members of the public are strongly encouraged to submit written comments on legislation via the Legislature website, https://www.legis.iowa.gov/.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.