CORONAVIRUS

Iowa lawmakers won't reconvene until at least May 15

Leaders are not considering having a 'virtual' session

A close-up view shows intricate details on the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abe
A close-up view shows intricate details on the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Leaders in the Iowa Legislature announced plans Monday to extend the “pause” in their 2020 session until at least May 15 over their continued concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers, who left the Capitol temporarily on March 17 with plans to restart the session April 15, already had extended the date of their return to Thursday. But they decided that was too optimistic, given that Iowa Department of Public Health officials and Gov. Kim Reynolds don’t expect the state to hit the apex of its positive COVID-19 cases until sometime in mid-May.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said lawmakers plan to monitor conditions over the next two weeks in Iowa’s “hot-spot” regions that include Des Moines and to assess the outlook for tax collections that will impact budget decisions for the current and 2021 fiscal years.

The May 15 extension coincides with Reynolds’ announcement Monday she is reopening some restaurants, shopping malls and a limited number of other businesses in 77 of 99 counties.

But Polk County — home of the Iowa Capitol — now remains under a more-restrictive emergency order for at least two more weeks.

“Prior to the pandemic, Iowa had the best economy in state history,” said Whitver. “As we begin to set the stage for a return of the Iowa Legislature, I look forward to working with the House of Representatives and Governor Reynolds to put policies in place to rebuild the economy to that level.”

Both Whitver and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, have indicated they are not interested in pursuing an online option — which some state agencies and local governments have utilized — for resuming legislative action, which would require rule changes for the House and Senate and carry a cost.

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“We haven’t had any discussions about a remote Legislature,” said Whitver. ”My personal feeling is I’d like to get back and do it in person unless there’s something urgent to do. I think we can make the proper accommodations to come back in person.”

Grassley noted that any change in House rules would require representatives to be in the House chamber to formally take a vote.

“We are not ready to do that right now,” he said. “It’s still premature for us to know what the session may look like moving forward or what changes we might make to the rules.”

Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, said the only way he would favor a “remote” session would be if lawmakers can get back to the Capitol building before Aug. 31.

“I think the logistics would be very difficult to manage in a remote session and I would have no idea of the costs for a secure system to be put in place,” Forbes added. “I would also have concerns on how the citizens of Iowa could be ‘kept in the loop’ if that were to occur.”

A meeting of the 20-member Legislative Council is slated for 10 a.m. Wednesday to formally extend the suspension of session. The council will meet by teleconference.

Lawmakers made contingency plans before suspending their 2020 session for at least 30 days that included giving Reynolds authority to use nearly $20 million from the state’s Economic Emergency Fund to respond to COVID-19.

Before leaving the Capitol building — which has been closed to the public since March 18 — the Legislature controlled by Republicans with a 32-18 majority in the Senate and a 53-47 edge in the House voted to lift all limits and let the governor shift money around within the current state budget, if needed. As an added precaution, lawmakers voted in a bipartisan manner to set aside enough money to keep state government operating under a “status-quo” spending plan until Sept. 1 — which is two months into the state’s new fiscal year.

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Members of the General Assembly also empowered the Legislative Council to convene in the event that Reynolds decides more than $20 million is needed from the fund to meet any additional funding needs.

Iowa is in line to receive the minimum $1.25 billion funding to state governments included in the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act rescue package. Legislative and Reynolds’ administration officials continue to assess details of the spending rules to determine their next steps.

Both Grassley and Whitver expected a scaled-back agenda to finalize a state budget and take up a limited list of policy issues when the Legislature reconvenes.

“I think you’re going to see an agenda that’s focused around issues that have some agreement as well that have some time crunch on them or that need to be renewed,” said Grassley. “I don’t see a situation where we come back and we’re there for a monthlong session and hashing out every single piece of legislation that made it through committee.”

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

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