Government

Odd Iowa legislative session ends with abortion waiting period, status-quo budget

2020 session interrupted for weeks by coronavirus pandemic

State Representatives stand at their desks during the Pledge Of Allegiance in the Iowa House chambers, Wednesday, June 3
State Representatives stand at their desks during the Pledge Of Allegiance in the Iowa House chambers, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Lawmakers returned Wednesday after suspending the session when the coronavirus pandemic surfaced in Iowa in March, prompting state officials to close the state Capitol. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — In the end, it was partisan distancing that went epidemic at the Statehouse.

Iowa lawmakers spent their weekend — with senators pulling an all-nighter — at the Capitol wrangling over abortion restrictions and details of a nearly $7.8 billion budget plan that were standing in the way of adjourning their elongated 2020 session.

“This is a ‘no’ vote all day long and twice on Sunday,” said Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, in reference to a fiscal 2021 budget plan passed 30-17 as senators could see the Sunday morning sunrise breaking through the windows.

The 88th Iowa General Assembly — made up of GOP majorities of 32-18 in the Senate and 53-47 in the House — ended its two-year run on the session’s 154th calendar day when the Iowa Senate dropped the final gavel at 1:29 p.m. Sunday and representatives followed six minutes later.

Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement afterward, saying together they faced unexpected challenges and “we rose to the occasion.”

“In the closing days of the legislative session, Future Ready Iowa, Empower Rural Iowa, and historic police reform passed with unanimous support,” the governor said. “Paired with comprehensive changes to our licensure laws, these significant steps will ensure every Iowan, regardless of their background or circumstance, has an opportunity to find success.”

A session that had to be paused in March due to the threat of coronavirus spread managed to jump start back into action June 3 with unexpected twists and turns — the most striking being the speed with which Reynolds and GOP leaders worked with Democrats to fashion a police reform package against a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests that was not on anybody’s radar when work resumed earlier this month.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, who is in his seventh term and first year presiding over the House, said the year had been a learning experience. Although he and the GOP caucus didn’t accomplish all they set out to do, he said they had made progress on issues, such as child care and broadband.

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However, Democrats in both chambers expressed disappointment that little was done to address needs exposed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, ended Sunday’s work by raising a concern that someone with coronavirus symptoms may have exposed those in the Capitol building.

“I don’t know of anybody in the building who has exposure to coronavirus,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny. “There may be, but no one has brought that to my attention over the last 11 days that we’ve been here.”

Hopes of adjourning the session Saturday sunk into darkness as an emerging abortion battle and a late-arriving budget plan prompted senators to work through the night until breaking after 6 a.m. Sunday.

During a Saturday that bounced between farewell speeches by departing legislators and contentious floor debates. Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, presented a “status quo” fiscal 2021 spending plan that he told colleagues was the best that House and Senate negotiators could muster, given the economic chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that drained about $500 million in expected revenue since March.

“None of us wanted this session to go this way,” Breitbach told colleagues, saying some shortchanged priority areas possibly could get some midyear supplemental money if the economy rebounds.

“I’m not saying that’s the way it’s going to go,” said the retiring senator.

Democrats slammed the process that withheld negotiated details from them until being “dumped” in the waning hours and forcing them to debate under the “cloak of darkness” while most Iowans slept.

“The process really sucks at 2:30 in the morning to be blunt,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.” The process is lousy and the product is as well.”

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Democrats called the 2.3 percent boost for K-12 schools next fiscal year inadequate and complained that an $8 million cut to regent universities was “shortchanging education” and would mean lost revenue due to declining enrollments.

Democrats also complained that commitments to fund children’s mental health, child care needs, rural hospitals and medical providers and other priorities were going unmet while majority Republicans generally were silent in addressing new health care and workplace challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Breitbach said the nearly $7.8 billion fiscal 2021 spending plan set to take effect July 1 was $26.6 million more than the current budget, but status quo for many areas of state government.

“This is a status-quo budget but it’s not a status-quo year,” said Bolkcom, who slammed Republicans for “stockpiling” a $311 million ending balance at a time when surplus resources, he said, should be invested in a myriad needs.

The weekend march to adjournment featured a bruising abortion debate that Republicans engineered after they came up short for the 51 House votes they needed to set in motion a process to bring a constitutional amendment before voters by 2022 to state that nothing in that document created abortion rights.

House Republicans revamped a bill that dealt with life-sustaining medical decisions involving children to include language creating a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion — a move Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, decried as a “Trojan horse” bill amendment.

During the House debate, Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, called House File 594 a “pathway” to “advance the pro-life movement” by requiring a physician to get written certification from the woman at least 24 hours before performing an abortion.

Proponents in the House and Senate said the language was in line with the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a 24-hour waiting period was not an undue burden and similar to the way Iowans have to wait to get married, divorced or adopt children. They also pointed to 27 other states that have abortion waiting periods.

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Both sides conceded the bill on its way for Reynolds’ expected signature is an attempt to get the abortion issue back in front of the Iowa Supreme Court. Previously, Republicans revamped the judicial nominating process to give the governor more sway and a combination of deaths and retirements have enable Reynolds to appoint four of the current seven-justice panel.

“At no point has there ever been stated in our constitution that there is a right to an abortion,” said Lundgren. “It’s never been approved by this legislative body; it’s never been approved by Iowans who get to decide what our constitution looks like. This extreme action by our court creates a law that deeply effects the lives of Iowans and removes their voice from the discussion.

“We look forward to the day where Iowans can have a seat at the table and maybe this will provide an opportunity for the courts to rectify the terrible situation that they’ve created here in our state,” she added before the House voted 53-42 to approve the waiting-period language.

Bolkcom said it was unsettling to see another “unrelenting Republican attack” on women’s health care rights in the middle of the night and in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 650 Iowans in less than three months.

“So much for protecting the lives of the people living and working in nursing homes and workers in packing plants,” he said. “Not one minute over the last 10 days has been spent by the majority party protecting these lives or the lives of thousands of Iowans infected with COVID-19. Oh, the irony.”

Faced with a 1 p.m. deadline when the House reconvened Sunday to end debate and vote on the final versions of budget bills, House Democrats spent nearly 90 minutes attacking a change in the $7.778 billion general fund budget, House File 2643, that Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, called “flat out voter suppression.”

According to Democrats, the provision would limit county auditors’ ability to correct or fill in missing information on absentee ballot requests. Republicans said the change simply would require auditors to contact voters if information on the request was missing or incorrect.

The change is “one more little chip you are taking away from the cornerstone of our democracy,” according to House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, who has served in Kuwait, Egypt and Iraq as an Army Reserve officer. “I’ve had to do more in this House in defense of voter rights” than in his military service, he said.

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“I have friends who have pictures on the first floor of this building because they made a sacrifice,” he said referring to a Capitol memorial to Iowans killed in military service.

However, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said that although voter fraud has not been a problem, the measure was analogous to installing a home security system despite no history of burglaries.

The measure, part of a larger package of budget changes, was adopted 51-41 and the bill was approved 51-41.

Grassley said the 2020 session did not play out as expected for anybody.

“When I was first elected, child care was not one House Republicans would typically have tried to tackle, but we listened to our constituents,” he said. “I think we’ve shown on most of those issues can be done in a bipartisan way.”

Republican budgeting has left the state in a position where despite a pandemic “we’ve been able to fulfill our commitments” to K-12 education and, for the most part, maintain the status quo, Grassley said.

In reflecting on the session, Prichard said lawmakers had been “led down a path no one could have predicted.”

Despite the challenges, the Legislature “came together to make a united statement in taking the first step for racial justice,” he said about a package of police reforms that were passed unanimously by the House and Senate and signed into law.

He specifically thanked the Legislative Black Caucus for its leadership “and tireless efforts in the fight for justice.”

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“The bill we passed was long overdue. We know difficult conversations are ahead. We pledge to listen and stand with you,” Prichard added.

For her part, Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said the failures of the GOP demonstrated “it’s clearly time for new leadership.” When Republicans passed a budget in the middle of the night, she said they “failed to take any meaningful steps to make Iowans safer during this pandemic.”

“In fact, they took away the rights of workers, residents of long-term care facilities and others hurt or killed by COVID-19,” Petersen said. They should have “worked in a bipartisan manner to protect the health and safety of all Iowans, stabilize basic economic security needs of Iowa families and create an Iowa-focused economic recovery plan,” she said.

Whitver said view of Iowa at the end of this year’s session Sunday “looked very different from what we thought it would, and vastly different from all years prior.

“In January, nobody could have predicted the session would take a 10-week break, restart in June with no clerks or pages, and see subcommittee meetings held in the Senate chamber in the name of public health,” Whitver noted. “As we finish this legislative session, I look back on the work we have done and the decisions we made and I believe implemented important policies to help this state recover from the economic shocks of the coronavirus. But our work is not done.”

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