DES MOINES — State lawmakers, some wearing protective gear due to coronavirus concerns, faced both physical and political distancing Wednesday as they reassembled to complete their 2020 session under unusual and unprecedented conditions.
Lawmakers paused their budget and policy work in mid-March due to restrictions Gov. Kim Reynolds placed on mass gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19.
They resumed policy debates and budget talks under the watchful eyes of staff, lobbyists and media at the Capitol and Iowans who tuned into online livestreams of committee meetings that sometimes featured hard-to-follow video and audio feeds.
“It’s definitely a surreal scene, for sure. Everything is unusual,” said Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, in assessing a session resumption that included a mix of people observing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health precautions and legislators who took a business-as-usual approach to their return.
As part of the guidelines set out by Reynolds and state Department of Public Health experts, security personnel checked temperatures of people entering the Capitol and provided masks to those who wanted them but did not require their use.
GOP leaders, in setting up safety protocols, said they were taking “an abundance of caution” by placing hand-sanitizing stations around the building and encouraging social-distancing.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined session being suspended due to a worldwide pandemic,” said Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone. “We have gone till the end of June before but that was due to budget differences.”
Added Rep. Mary Mascher, an Iowa City Democrat and Statehouse veteran: “I am taking all the precautions by washing hands, going through the Capitol screening, and using a mask/shield. I know the Democrats are all doing the same. I am not seeing the same on the part of Republicans. That concerns me. We should all be taking this seriously.”
Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, told an outdoor rally on the Capitol’s west steps of Iowans opposed to vaccinations he was refusing to “be governed by unsubstantiated health theories,” adding, “this virus isn’t even killing anybody.”
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Shipley told the gathering, “I don’t know what to do anymore but just laugh at it. If you go in there and you’ll see a lot of lawmakers, the men and women we’ve elected to lead our state into health and prosperity and freedom, they’re covering their faces with a plastic face shield. I don’t understand this.”
Moment of silence
Members of the General Assembly — where Republicans hold sway by 32-18 in the Iowa Senate and 53-47 in the Iowa House — began Wednesday’s floor action by pausing for moments of silence for Iowans who have died or lost loved ones in the pandemic.
“Dear God, we come to you in trying times. We come to you when our nation is in turmoil, when our state is in turmoil,” said Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, in offering the opening House prayer against a backdrop of a health crisis and protests over police brutality.
However, the Democrat representative’s call for efforts to stand together and work together quickly gave way to partisan divisions as lawmakers took up legislation designed to restore felon voting rights and girded for a controversial abortion debate.
COVID-19 Liability cap
The pandemic took center stage in the House as Commerce Committee members took up legislation seeking to grant new protection against coronavirus-related lawsuits except in cases of malice or where unnecessary risks were taken.
The issue was added as an amendment to Senate File 2338, a measure designed to impose a $750,000 cap on medical malpractice non-economic damages that had sparked controversy.
Lobbyists for groups such as the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and the Iowa Hospital Association, argued for the COVID-19 liability protection, while representatives of the Iowa State Bar Association argued against putting limits on the ability to recover damages for legitimate claims.
J.D. Davis, a lobbyist for the business association, said the proposed protections were narrow and would prevent the court system from becoming an institution used to lay blame for the spread of a pandemic.
Brad Lint, executive director of the Iowa Association for Justice, applauded the committee’s decision to remove the lawsuit damage caps from SF 2338 before passing it, 13-10. But he lamented adding the provision to establish “blanket” COVID-19 liability immunity for Iowa businesses and employers.
“These measures are get-out-of-jail-free cards, and they are guaranteed to worsen the spread of COVID-19,” Lint said.
House Democrats opposed several Republican proposals that changed the rules representatives will follow in setting a Friday “funnel” deadline for policy bills and making other adjustments guiding efforts to end the 2020 work by next week.
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Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, an Ames Democrat and ranking member of House Human Resources Committee, said she was upset majority Republicans planned to “play politics” by scheduling a Thursday debate on a divisive bill seeking a constitutional amendment against abortion rights at a time lawmakers should be working together to keep Iowans healthy.
GOP leaders said their main focus is crafting a fiscal 2021 state budget and finishing their policy priorities. But as of Wednesday, they were still trying to resolve their differences of the spending plan.
During Wednesday’s floor debate, House members voted 51-44 to approve a Senate bill intended to set up a framework for felons to get their voting rights restored — one of the governor’s priorities.
Senate File 2348, which won Senate approval 37-11 earlier this year, would require that a felon complete a criminal sentence — including probation and parole, and pay restitution owed to a victim or victim’s family — before he or she would regain the right to vote. Felons would not be required to pay restitution to a company, corporation or government to regain their voting rights.
Felons would not be eligible they have been convicted of murder, child endangerment resulting in the death of a minor, serious sex offenses or if they are on the sex offender registry, or first-degree election misconduct, said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, the floor manager.
Under provisions of SF 2348, the bill would be effective only if a constitutional amendment on felon voting rights is ratified by 2023.
The bill now goes to the governor.
Under Iowa law, an amendment to the state constitution must be approved during two sessions of the Iowa Legislature separated by an election, then by a statewide public vote.
House Joint Resolution 14, which would set up the amendment process the governor wants, still would have to be passed by the Senate during the current legislative session, and then passed by both the House and the Senate again during the next General Assembly to appear on the 2022 general election ballot to be enacted before January 2023.
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The joint resolution amends the Iowa Constitution to provide that a person found guilty of a felony is not entitled to be an eligible voter in the state until the person has discharged his or her sentence. Under the current Iowa Constitution, anyone convicted of an “infamous crime” is not entitled to vote unless the person’s rights are restored by the governor.
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