2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Reinstating death penalty considered by Iowa lawmakers- one of the last proposals debated before funnel deadline

The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — After an emotional debate near the end of a long legislative day in the Iowa Capitol, state lawmakers narrowly voted to approve the death penalty as a sentencing option in extreme cases.

The proposal was one of the last to be considered Thursday afternoon before a key legislative deadline.

Bills not passed out of at least one committee this week are not eligible for consideration on their own for the remainder of this year’s legislative session.

The debate over the death penalty bill came at the end of a long day, which came at the end of a long week at the Capitol, as legislators rushed to keep bills alive before the deadline.

The bill proposes reinstating the death penalty — which was banned in Iowa in 1965 — as a sentencing option when the victim is sexually assaulted, kidnapped and murdered.

Lawmakers provided emotional debate: Sen. Kevin Kinney, a Democrat from Oxford and a retired deputy sheriff, spoke about criminals he helped put in jail and the victims of their horrific crimes. He recalled his work as a Johnson County investigator in 2005 of the kidnapping, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids, and seeing Jetseta’s killer in prison.

Kinney voted against reinstating the death penalty.

“(Jetseta’s killer) is living a deplorable life (in prison),” he said. “That is the one thing for me, that if we kill him (via the death penalty), that would be a gift to him. I want him to sit in there and rot for the rest of his life, thinking of what he did to that young girl who I had to carry out of his trailer in a body bag.”

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Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, voted in favor of the proposal, which he described as a limited death penalty bill, although he indicated he supports broader use of the death penalty.

Schultz said criminals already face life in prison once they are convicted of kidnapping and rape, so the legislation uses the death penalty to add another level of punishment when the crime also includes murder.

“It’s the ultimate penalty for the ultimate act,” Schultz said. “I believe that the ultimate penalty can be justified morally, financially and statistically. I’m ready to have that debate.”

The bill, Senate File 296, passed out of the Senate Judiciary committee by one vote, 8-7. The Democrats on the committee opposed the bill, as did two Republicans: Amy Sinclair of Allerton and Zach Nunn of Altoona.

Bills that did not pass out of committee by Thursday are technically eliminated from consideration for the rest of the session, although there are legislative tools that lawmakers can sometimes use to revive proposals.

Tax legislation and spending bills are not subject to the deadline.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she is pleased some of her priorities for the legislative session — Future Ready Iowa, Empower Rural Iowa, establishing a children’s mental health care system and restoring felon voting rights — passed the deadline with “strong bipartisan support.”

“It just reinforces our ability to set aside differences and work together to move our state forward,” Reynolds said in a statement through her spokesman.

Rep. Linda Upmeyer, the Republican Iowa House Speaker from Clear Lake, also said she is pleased with the progress made during the first eight weeks of what is scheduled to be a 110-day session.

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“The things we talked about at the start of the session are still moving forward, so I’m pleased,” Umpeyer said. If something didn’t move forward, “It is only because the members weren’t ready with it. We’ll do it next year.”

Rep. Todd Prichard, the Democratic House Minority Leader from Charles City, wasn’t as sanguine. He said Democrats’ priorities were school funding and fixing Iowa’s health care system.

The $90 million in new school funding to increase the state outlay for K-12 schools to about $3.3 billion for the 2019-2020 school year is not enough to move all schools forward he said. Small schools and rural schools likely will continue to face financial challenges.

There has been no discussion of a bill sponsored by all 46 House Democrats to restore accountability for people in long-term care, “which we think is a vulnerable population,” Prichard said.

“That’s been disappointing. We’ve come with an idea and wanted to have that discussion,” he said.

As the week wound down, it seemed fitting that the last bill to get a House subcommittee hearing ahead of the funnel deadline involved a strike-after amendment to legislation the chairman said wasn’t ready for consideration but he wanted to “keep the conversation going.”

Despite the need for more work, House File 619 was approved by the House Human Resource Committee allowing it to sputter across the finish line and remain eligible — at least until the next funnel.

That will be April 5 when bills passed by one chamber must win approval from a committee in the other chamber.

Elections changes

Another bill moved out of committee Thursday was a sweeping elections bill that was introduced earlier this week. Among myriad other provisions, the bill would close the polls for statewide elections at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., ban state-owned buildings — including public universities — from serving as early voting satellite locations, require all absentee ballots be received by the local auditor before Election Day, and require cross-checking of signatures on absentee ballots.

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Roby Smith, a Republican from Davenport, said the goal of the bill is to provide uniformity, transparency, and checks and balances to make Iowa elections safe and secure.

Democrats see the proposal differently: They said removing public colleges as satellite voting locations would make it harder for young voters, and requiring signature verification for absentee ballots would make it harder for older voters, whose signatures often change regularly.

“The bill before us has been touted as an election reform bill, but let me assure you it is not unless you believe that election reform is about restricting access of the ballot to certain voters in the state,” said Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque.

The bill, Senate Study Bill 1241, was voted out of the Senate’s state government committee on a party-line vote with all Republicans supporting and all Democrats opposing.

Industrial hemp

While the elections bill needed a partisan push to meet the funnel deadline, in other cases it was just a matter of everything finally coming together.

Industrial hemp, for example, has been on the House Agriculture Committee agenda since January, but HSB 241 wasn’t approved until Thursday because the interested parties were still working on them.

“This definitely is a work in progress,” Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, told the committee that voted 21-1 to send it the full House. He’s working with members of both parties as well as senators to fine-tune the bill so the Legislature can send a bill to the governor.

Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, was the lone “no” vote despite his support for hemp as a crop option for farmers. He wants more protections for farmers and Klein plans to continue those discussions.

Medical marijuana

Klein also managed HSB 244 that would let nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, as well as doctors, recommend medical marijuana for patients suffering from chronic pain or other ailments.

It would increase the potency of the cannabis products now being sold legally in Iowa. There is a push to increase the limits on the chemical THC in cannabis products being sold in Iowa. Klein hopes to reach a compromise will get broad support.

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Lawmakers have received advice from medical experts about what level of THC is appropriate in cannabis oils, creams and pills.

Marsy’s Law

Additional protections for crime victims enshrined in the state constitution failed to pass out of a committee ahead of the funnel deadline.

The Senate’s Judiciary Committee had a so-called Marsy’s Law bill on its agenda Thursday, but pulled SJR 8 just before the meeting started, indicating there were not enough votes to advance it.

Proponents of Marsy’s Law provisions, which have been enacted in six states, describe it as a de facto victim’s bill of rights.

Opponents say the Iowa Constitution and state law already provide sufficient legal protections for victims, and that Marsy’s Law language goes too far and could infringe upon the rights of individuals accused of a crime.

A similar resolution cleared a House subcommittee but did not get Judiciary Committee attention.

Solar fee

A proposal, SSB 1201, to allow utility companies to charge a new “grid equity fee” on solar installations installed by small businesses, farmers and other individuals passed out of the Senate’s commerce committee.

Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, said he feels it is fair for the utility companies to charge a fee on solar installations that use infrastructure that the utility must maintain like power poles and lines.

Joe Bolkcom, a Democratic senator from Iowa City, called the proposal a power grab by the utility companies.

The bill advanced with a few Commerce Committee Democrats voting against it.

The legislation is similar to a bill that previously passed out of a House committee.

“We have a grid to maintain. Everybody needs that grid whether they’re largely renewable or not,” Upmeyer said. “We need to make sure that we have a grid that will supply the power on cloudy days, rainy days.”

Employee misconduct

The Commerce Committee also advanced legislation that would more clearly define what constitutes misconduct under the state law that says a state employee who is fired for misconduct cannot receive unemployment benefits.

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Currently, the type of actions that would constitute misconduct are written only in rule, not state law. SSB 1088 would codify those actions.

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said the goal is to provide clarity for both employers and employees.

The bill is unnecessary because decades of case law already inform what qualifies as misconduct Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said, and warned the bill could restart the process of creating that legal reference.

The bill advanced on a party-line vote with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing.

Auditor’s Office

The Senate State Government Committee approved legislation to recognize the State Auditor’s Office as a certified accounting firm even if the auditor is not a certified public accountant. SSB 1239 would require a majority of division heads within the office to be auditors.

The proposal was spurred by a debate that arose during the 2018 campaign for the office.

The legislation was crafted by lawmakers, the Auditor’s Office, and the state accountant’s association, according to Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque.

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