2020 Iowa Legislature: Regulations for drivers chief among potential hot-button topics

A close-up view Dec. 19, 2019, shows details on the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. The Iowa Legislature will convene here J
A close-up view Dec. 19, 2019, shows details on the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. The Iowa Legislature will convene here Jan. 13 for its 2020 session. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

First in a series of articles about issues likely to come up for debate in the 2020 Iowa Legislature.

DES MOINES — Inevitably, a number of hot-button issues come before lawmakers during each year’s session of the Iowa Legislature.

This year’s session that starts Jan. 13 could produce more debate on a pair of contentious issues that, if changes to state law were made, would impact Iowa drivers: a potential ban on hand-held use of mobile phones while driving, and on automated traffic enforcement cameras.

Here is a look at those and a few more hot-button issues that could come up during this year’s legislative session:

Hand-held ban

Lawmakers took a big step against distracted driving in 2017 by making texting while driving a primary offense. Before that change, texting while driving was illegal, but officers needed a separate reason to stop and cite a driver. Under the updated law, officers can stop a driver solely for texting while driving.

The updated law also forbids using a cellphone while driving to browse the web and play electronic games. But other uses — like holding the phone to your ear with one hand and driving with the other at the same time — are legal.

Some safe-driving advocates believe the state should move to a complete ban on hand-held use of mobile phones while driving. Only hands-free mobile phone use would be allowed.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she is not initiating any legislation on the topic, but she supports a hand-held ban.


“If you drove down (Interstate) 235, you see people all the time texting (while driving). It’s scary,” Reynolds said. “The statistics are awful. Just awful.”

A total of 434 people died in 401 reported fatal crashes nationwide that involved cell-phone-related activities as distractions in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In those crashes, police reported the driver was talking on, listening to or engaged in some other cellphone activity at the time of the crash.

Leaders in the Iowa Senate’s Republican majority said there is not yet a consensus on whether to extend Iowa law to a hand-held ban, but Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, said he supports a ban.

“And it may be because I see it a lot more than some other legislators, just driving back and forth from downtown to West Des Moines every day. But I’m just tired of seeing people weave in and out of lanes because they’re looking at their phones, or pulling up next to someone at a stoplight or waiting behind someone at a stoplight waiting for them to go because they’re checking email or checking Facebook on their phones,” Schneider said. “I think it’s a public safety issue. I’m not one who believes in having a heavy-handed government, but this really is becoming I think a public safety issue and it’s one that we have to address.”

Traffic cameras

The Republican-led Iowa Senate in 2019, for the third consecutive year, voted to ban the use of automated traffic enforcement cameras.

The Republican-led Iowa House could not reach consensus on whether to ban them or permit them with additional regulations.

So the issue is likely to be debated again in 2020.

Cedar Rapids has automated traffic cameras in nine locations, including four around Interstate 380’s S-curve.

The cameras went on a hiatus amid legal challenges, but were turned back on again last year after the 2019 legislative sessions had adjourned.

“The (traffic) camera bill is sitting in the House,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale. “I think it is encouraging that there is a change in leadership (in the House) where maybe the potential is there.”


Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford, is the new Iowa House Speaker. He was chosen by his Republican colleagues to succeed Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake, who stepped down.

Grassley said he, individually, has supported both proposals. It’s a matter, Grassley said, of House Republicans agreeing on a path.

“I voted to ban traffic cameras. I voted to regulate traffic cameras,” Grassley said. “But that being said, my position on it is I’ve shown my willingness to do something. If there’s the will of the caucus to do that, I’m not going to stand in the way of that happening.”

Medicaid work rules

Sen. Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig, in 2019 introduced a package of bills designed to require able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work or volunteer at least 20 hours per week, to make an effort to pay any child support, and for the state to more frequently verify Medicaid recipients’ eligibility.

The bills failed to advance out of the Senate, and key House committee leader Rep. Shannon Lundgren, a Republican from Peosta, said the proposals would not be considered because they needed further vetting.

But both lawmakers left the door open for the proposals to be tweaked and considered again.

Grassley said he expects House Republicans to have a “broad conversation” on the issue.

Gun rights

Republican-led majorities in 2019 approved the first step in the process of amending the Iowa Constitution to include language strengthening Iowans’ right to possess firearms.

The proposal — which opponents said goes too far and could undo all gun regulations currently in state law — must still be passed again by state lawmakers no earlier than 2021, and then by Iowa voters, to take effect. The soonest it could be on the ballot is 2022.

State lawmakers in 2019 also considered legislation that would eliminate the requirement that Iowans have a permit to carry a gun. The proposal was shelved, but the debate could surface again this year.

Grassley said House Republicans will bear in mind the constitutional amendment process when considering any other gun rights bills.


“Obviously anything we do on the Second Amendment we’re going to be very mindful. And any issue we (will) look at what the impacts are of our ability to actually achieve that (constitutional amendment),” Grassley said.


Republicans led an effort in 2019 to amend the Iowa Constitution to declare that the ability to have an abortion is not a guaranteed right.

The effort was Republicans’ response to Iowa courts striking down as unconstitutional previous legislative attempts to restrict abortions.

The proposal was considered at the committee level, but advanced no further. It could come up again this year.

Rod Boshart and James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.

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