CORONAVIRUS

Iowa lawmakers grant powers to governor Legislature suspends session until April 25

Rep. Louis Zumbach, R-Coggon, carries a box to his desk Monday at the Statehouse in Des Moines. Iowa leaders are suspend
Rep. Louis Zumbach, R-Coggon, carries a box to his desk Monday at the Statehouse in Des Moines. Iowa leaders are suspending the current legislative session for at least 30 days in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
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DES MOINES ­— Shortly after midnight Monday, the Iowa Legislature approved suspending it session, waiving K-12 school requirements and giving the governor authority to dip into emergency funds to provide resources needed to react to the anticipated spread of COVID-19.

Lawmakers’ action came as the Iowa Department of Public Health reported the state’s 23rd case of COVID-19,

Responding to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ warning that “we’re going to see the numbers rise for a while,” lawmakers suspended their session on the 61st day of what was set to be a 100-day term.

“Hopefully, we’re setting a good example for Iowans by not gathering in a germ-infested building like this one,” said Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.

Monday’s decision to suspend the session was a quick turnaround from Thursday afternoon when lawmakers left Des Moines to return to their districts. At that time, they expected business as usual this week.

The situation “when I left Thursday was completely different than where I’m standing today,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said.

“It’s been a very fast-moving four days,” added Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny. “We thought community spread wouldn’t come until the end of this week … But with the virus spreading so quickly, that community spread happened Saturday, and that changed the guidelines, which changed our decision.”

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One of the first points of agreement Monday was to waive the requirement that schools provide either 180 days or 1,080 hours of instructional time for K-12 school students.

Not requiring schools to make up those class days will help “provide Iowa school districts with the certainty that they need to make decisions locally and move ahead this school year,” Grassley said.

Lawmakers were addressing a “unique situation,” according to Whitver. “We are doing our best to follow guidance and make the best decisions that we can with the information that we have.”

The package, which in an unusual move, was floor managed by Speaker Grassley, “will give the governor the authority to do what she needs to do while we’re not in session to make sure that there’s confidence that government will function appropriately during this time.”

The plan, approved 43-0 in the Senate and 93-0 in the House, gives the governor authority to spend $19.6 million or 10 percent of the $196 million of emergency funds before she will need the approval of the Legislative Council. It’s a 20-member “steering committee” of legislative leaders, senior members and chairs and ranking minority party members of various committees that acts when the full Legislature is not in session.

It also appropriates $89 million to fund Medicaid for six months, $1.7 million for Hawk-I, the children’s insurance program and $600,000 for Glenwood Resource Center. Those items were included in budget plans, but the Legislature is funding them immediately.

It also honors Reynolds’s request Monday for $525,000 for the State Hygienic Lab, which, she said, will be adding a second shift to be able to do more testing.

Lawmakers gave her authority to move funds around inside the budget – from one department to another – without legislative approval.

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They also approved a continuing appropriation for the first two months of fiscal 2021 – July and August -- to ensure essential services will be delivered to Iowans if the Legislature is unable to conduct business before July 1.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, was pleased that the package included Democrats’ recommendation for forward funding for July and August.

The package give Reynolds “enough resources and if it doesn’t we can come back and provide the resources we need,” Prichard said. “This is an ongoing discussion, this is not the final answer.”

However, it didn’t address Democrats’ concerns with protecting unemployment insurance for hourly wage workers who may be unable to work for reasons associated with COVID-19. Democrats also wanted protections for people unable to make their rent or mortgage payments and to advocate for telehealth.

“These are things that we think are important enough for us to raise awareness for the governor to make sure we’re looking out for working families, people trying to make ends meet in these tough times,” Prichard said. “This is obviously going to be a disruption and our goal is to make that disruption as small as we can.”

The day started ominously for members of the public – few as there were – who entered the Capitol. They had to pass through a tent outside the Capitol to have their temperature taken and answer questions about runny noses, sore throats and travel outside the United States. At least one news reporter and one member of the Capitol security staff were turned away.

The Capitol was eerily quiet without lobbyists, student tour groups and other visitors who typically fill the building with bodies and noise.

Lawmakers also passed House Concurrent Resolution 107,the actual framework for suspending the session until April 25 – four days beyond the scheduled adjournment date.

The suspension could be shortened or lengthened by the Legislative Council.

Comments (319) 398-8375; James.Lynch@TheGazette.com

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