DES MOINES — Just more than two weeks into the 2021 legislative session, statehouse Democrats are asking majority Republicans for the whereabouts of legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
During an online news conference Wednesday, statehouse Democratic leaders said Republicans — who hold majorities in the House and Senate and thus set the legislative agenda in both chambers — appear more interested in using the first weeks of the session to approve partisan legislation than work on proposals that would address the ongoing pandemic.
Among the bills Republicans have run by this session are conservative-backed proposals for K-12 public education, and proposed amendments to the Iowa Constitution with conservative-backed guidelines on abortion and gun rights.
“We came here to Des Moines to start this legislative session a few weeks ago in the middle of a pandemic. And to this point we haven’t seen or really had any talk of doing legislation that helps Iowans get through the pandemic,” said Charles City lawmaker Todd Prichard, leader of the minority House Democrats. “We’re fast-tracking a lot of legislation that really doesn’t deal with the pandemic or isn’t helping working Iowans, regular Iowans get through this pandemic. And we think that shows a lack of proper priorities.”
Democrats said they would like to see the advancement of legislation that would provide state funding to small businesses affected by the pandemic, proposals to create more affordable housing options, and proposals to allow more health care professionals to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.
One such proposal — House Study Bill 71, proposed by the state dental board — would allow dentists to administer the vaccine. The proposal has not yet been considered by the House committee to which it was assigned.
“That’s the kind of legislation that we should be fast-tracking, legislation that would actually speed up the delivery of vaccine to get more shots into the arms of Iowans throughout our state,” said Coralville lawmaker Zach Wahls, leader of the minority Senate Democrats.
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As of Wednesday, 11 unique legislative proposals had been introduced that contain the term “COVID,” according to an online search of legislation produced during this year’s session.
Of those, six were introduced by Republicans. Of those, three are the conservative-supported K-12 public school measures; one would prevent public universities from requiring students to wear face masks off-campus; and another would strip a percentage of funding from school districts that conducted online-only learning without an approved waiver from the state.
The sixth Republican COVID-19 bill would write in state law that pharmacists can administer the COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic. That has already been cleared by the federal government.
Jack Whitver, the Republican Senate majority leader from Ankeny, said it is appropriate for state lawmakers to first understand everything in federal COVID-19 relief packages, including a $900 billion package approved roughly a month ago, and more proposals coming for another round of federal relief.
Whitver also pointed to legislation passed during the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 session, which gave businesses an extra layer of legal protection from COVID-19-related lawsuits. The proposal generally was supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.
“When I talk to small business owners, the No. 1 issue they bring up is being able to responsibly run their businesses without fear of litigation. To address that need, we passed the gold standard for litigation protection at the end of the 2020 session,” Whitver said in an emailed statement. “We continue to work ensuring their businesses can stay open and the owners can earn a living for themselves and their employees.”
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