Iowa Senate drama derails some legislation

Legislature's second funnel deadline comes Friday

The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Senate Chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, Mar. 7, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — This week’s Senate leadership train wreck has helped derail some bills from clearing a key legislative hurdle, while others had come off the tracks on their own as the Republican-led Legislature rolls toward adjournment.

Bills that have already been declared dead for the year — or that face major hurdles to survive Friday’s second, self-imposed legislative “funnel” deadline — includes those dealing with religious freedom protections, highway-blocking protests, racial profiling by law enforcement officers, enhanced bicycle safety on Iowa roadways, weapons in courthouses and increased oversight of public-assistance programs. Legislation that does not fall under the budget, tax policy or oversight categories must be approved by one legislative chamber and a standing committee of the other house this week to remain eligible for consideration this year.

The fact that lawmakers don’t meet on Friday, and the disruption created by Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix’s sudden departure Monday and a replacement vote Wednesday, spelled new trouble for bills already facing challenges to advance.

“I think after yesterday’s flare-up, it will be a quiet death, and we’ll revisit it next year,” Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that is listed on the Senate debate calendar.

Guth said Senate File 2154 — a bill that would provide a defense to a person whose exercise of freedom is substantially burdened by government action — would have had to be debated by the Senate on Tuesday, and that didn’t happen.

“We’re just not going to have any opportunity to get that done,” Guth said. “We had some plans to do that, but yesterday’s plans all changed.”

Likewise, Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said a bill that would have created stiff penalties for protesters who intentionally block an interstate highway to slow traffic and create a potentially dangerous situation also would fall victim to this week’s funnel. Senate File 426 would have made such an action — like a post-2016 election protest on Interstate 80 near Iowa City — a significant criminal offense.

Schultz also said a Senate bill to implement specific requirements — including work, volunteer or job training as well as drug testing — for recipients of public assistance programs such as Medicaid, the Family Investment Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — would not see debate.

But Schultz was not ready to give up on a separate measure to allow Iowans who have a valid non-professional firearms permit to carry their weapon onto school grounds when transporting a student to and from school.

“I’m still working on that one. I’m still asking that we give it consideration, but I’m probably not going to win that,” Schultz said Tuesday. “I just don’t want to say the words I’m giving up on it.”

Also, backers of a bill seeking to combat racial profiling by law enforcement and other entities also held out hope but conceded the bill likely would not advance.

The bill sought to require profiling-prevention training for law enforcement officers and to establish standardized data collection on officer stops and compliance. It would create a community policing advisory board to develop a uniform reporting form by April 2019 and begin evaluating the compiled data on stops and complaints, with annual reporting, by 2020.

In the house

The Senate-passed “fetal heartbeat” bill that would ban most abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy is in legislative limbo in the Iowa House, according to House Human Service Chairman Joel Fry, R-Osceola.

The bill, Senate File 2281, which was approved 30-20 in the Senate, has been assigned to his committee.

The typical process is for a subcommittee to have a hearing on a bill before the committee takes action, but he has not assigned it to a subcommittee. The Human Resources Committee is scheduled to meet once again — Thursday — before the funnel deadline.

Although House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, likes to say House Republicans are a prolife caucus, Fry said there are several concerns with the bill. At the top of the list is language that would repeal a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy that the Legislature approved last year, he said.

That raises a fear that if the fetal heartbeat bill is challenged in court and found unconstitutional, there would be little in the way of a prohibition on abortion in Iowa.

“We don’t want to lose what we have,” Fry said.

Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Chariton, hoped to get a conversation started with House File 2429 that called for an interim study of restoring voting rights for some felons. It was a short conversation “because there just didn’t seem to be much support in leadership,” and Heartsill is not seeking re-election.

Johnston Republican Rep. Jake Highfill’s bill, House File 2344, to allow gamblers to use their debit cards to get cash at casinos, also appears headed for the scrap heap.

It’s “doubtful” a bill to “stop judicial overreach” in county courthouses will survive the funnel, according to Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley. House File 2310 gives the Judicial Branch supervisory control of only that portion of a courthouse used for court services. The remainder would be under the supervision of the county auditor.

However, his House Joint Resolution 2009 to add Second Amendment language to the Iowa Constitution remains alive for further consideration.

Several bills, including House File 2320, managed by Rep. Stan Gustafson, R-Cumming, are “on the bubble.” The bill would make changes in Iowa’s corporate farmland ownership law.

Also in that category are:

  • Emmalee’s Law, House File 2400, a bill named for Emmalee Jacobs, an Urbana freshman at Iowa State University who was killed in a hit-and-run accident.
  • House File 2419 that would require a student liaison on local school boards.
  • House File 2428 that would seek a waiver from the federal government to allow the state to set work requirements for Medicaid recipients.
  • House File 2301 that would establish additional bidding requirements for Board of Regents’ projects.
  • House File 2434 that sets standards for post-hospital care.
  • House File 2341, a safe biking bill, has hit a dead-end.

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