CORONAVIRUS

Iowa lawmakers weigh safety, transparency when session resumes

'Extraordinary' coronavirus measures likely at Capitol

Access to the Iowa Capitol building likely will be limited when lawmakers return, possibly on May 15, to finish their  c
Access to the Iowa Capitol building likely will be limited when lawmakers return, possibly on May 15, to finish their coronavirus-interrupted session. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Democratic leaders in the Iowa Legislature on Wednesday called for “extraordinary” coronavirus health and safety precautions at the Capitol building when lawmakers resume their 2020 session, perhaps in May.

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, and Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, requested that voting in the House and Senate chambers be staggered or done remotely and that debates in the chambers be livestreamed with a limited number of legislators — wearing mandatory face coverings and gloves — to keep the public informed and to keep people safe during an abbreviated legislative session.

They also called for requiring health screening of all legislators and others entering the Capitol; livestreaming all subcommittee, committee and floor proceedings; and making all proposed legislation and amendments available to the public at least 72 hours in advance of any action by the House and Senate, while limiting access to the Capitol building and observing social-distancing precautions.

“Clearly, we’re facing a health crisis like our state has never seen before during our lifetime at least,” Petersen told members of the Legislative Council during a meeting Wednesday in which the council voted 24-0 to extend the current “pause” in the 2020 session until at least May 15. The session was halted March 17.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said GOP leaders would seek guidance from Gov. Kim Reynolds and state health officials on when and how to return to the Capitol — given that Polk County continues to be among the state’s hot spots for coronavirus activity.

He said a number of scenarios have been looked at — including separate policy and budget gatherings — but GOP leaders have not settled on a game plan yet.

“We plan to have a comprehensive plan for when everyone gets back to make sure that we’re operating in a safe and responsible manner,” Whitver said.

“There have been a lot of different ideas that have been floated around, but there’s nothing that is concrete now as far as what that looks like,” he added. “Certainly, the health of our legislators is important, but Iowans do expect us to do our work, and so when it’s safe, we’re going to come in and we’re going to get our work done.”

Whitver said legislative and executive branch officials are still assessing Iowa’s $1.25 billion share of the federal CARES Act and the state Revenue Estimating Conference likely will be consulted to give direction regarding projections for state tax collections as lawmakers assemble a fiscal 2021 state budget.

NOTHING ’IN THE DARK’

Minority Democrats expressed concern Wednesday that the legislative process be transparent to Iowans interested in following the proceedings without necessarily having to travel to the Capitol, and Republicans who hold majorities of 32-18 in the Iowa Senate and 53-47 in the Iowa House said they share that goal.

“Our goal is not to come back and do anything in the dark,” said House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford.

“Our expectation is not to be in the building all sitting around each other all day every day for an extended period of time,” he said. “We want to be efficient with our time and not spend week upon week just to be in that building.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he hoped the policy issues legislators take up when they return would be pandemic-related “so we’re there hours rather than days.”

The council met on a day when Iowa reported its most COVID-19 deaths with 12, bringing the statewide toll to 148 since coronavirus was first confirmed in Iowa on March 8. So far, 6,843 Iowans have tested positive for the respiratory illness and 323 were hospitalized on Wednesday.

“The landscape in Iowa has changed dramatically since the Legislature recessed on March 17,” Petersen and Prichard said in their joint memo.

Shortfall Estimate

Also on Wednesday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based nonpartisan research and policy institute, issued revised estimates showing state budget shortfalls could total $650 billion nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout.

The forecast was significantly higher than the center’s estimate of $500 billion a month ago, and center officials said they expected COVID-19 state budget shortfalls could be the largest on record.

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Without substantial, additional federal relief, states will be forced to cut education, health care and lay off teachers and other workers, according to the center’s report, which would worse the recession, delay recovery and hurt families and communities.

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

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