Government

Returning Iowa lawmakers face leaner budget

Paused session resumes in state's worst coronavirus hot spot

A close-up view shows intricate details on the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abe
A close-up view shows intricate details on the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — The Iowa Capitol will swing back into legislative action this week after lawmakers called an 11-week “pause” to their 2020 session as part the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus that showed up March 8 in Iowa.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a breakdown of normalcy and forced new mitigating ways of doing things that will be on display — if mostly through online viewing by the public — at the Statehouse.

Legislators will gather to craft a new state budget, shuttle in and out of the House and Senate chambers for committee discussions and conduct floor debates on policy priorities under never-before used precautions designed to keep participants safe and healthy.

“It’ll be weird,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, one of the 150 lawmakers who suspended their session March 16. They now plan to resume their 2020 work Wednesday with hopes of wrapping up this year’s assemblage by the following week.

“I don’t think anyone is ever going to forget this one,” said Senate President Charles Schneider, a retiring West Des Moines Republican who will preside over an in-person session that will be conducted with limited staff and new health, safety and social-distancing guidelines designed to accommodate committee and floor action while allowing lobbyists and interested Iowans to view the proceedings remotely or in designated areas.

“Our goal is to minimize the amount of time that members have to not only be in the chamber but be in Des Moines as well,” said House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. “I’m not going to lay a specific date out there, but it’s not going to be a situation where we complete what would have been the rest of session as far as that many days would have existed when we left here. It will be an abbreviated schedule but I won’t make a prediction on how long.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he hoped Republicans who have majorities of 32-18 in the Senate and 53-47 in the House will already have a fiscal 2021 state budget agreement when they gavel in Wednesday.

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Given the economic turmoil that has both temporarily and permanently shuttered businesses, idled workers and revamped government, Whitver said he expected a $7.752 billion “status quo” state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 could be a best-case scenario.

But that still will require cuts in some areas to accommodate plans to boost state aid to K-12 schools by 2.3 percent and fund commitments to Medicaid, child-care and children’s health insurance, mental health, water quality improvements and other funding priorities from a shrinking pool of tax revenue.

A state revenue estimating panel Friday shaved off more than $500 million in expected tax collections for the next 13 months due to economic hit the coronavirus pandemic delivered to Iowa’s economy.

Majority Republicans have given their fellow Republican governor considerable leeway in using Iowa’s $1.25 billion share of the federal CARES Act money for one-time purposes. But they have indicated they do not plan to use either the federal stimulus assistance or about $800 million in reserve accounts to fund ongoing expenses in fiscal 2021.

“What we don’t want to have happen is for us to come back into session next year and have to de-appropriate funds in the middle of the year,” Schneider said. “We’ve had to do that before and that’s not easy for anybody and it doesn’t provide any kind of stability for departments and programs that rely on state funding. So we would rather be responsible on the front end and be overly conservative if necessary to make sure that we don’t have to come back and de-appropriate in six months.”

However, the GOP leaders are getting pushback from Democrats and groups representing essential workers and state employees who see the COVID-19 outbreak as exactly the kind of crisis the emergency reserves are meant for.

“Iowans have sacrificed a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have closed, workers have been laid off, and too many Iowans have been sickened or killed by this horrible disease,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, ranking member of Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Because of their sacrifices, Iowans deserve to have their state leaders focus on solutions and maintaining key priorities when the Legislature reconvenes next week.”

Bolkcom said this is both a health care and economic crisis.

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“Based on the updated revenue estimates, the governor and legislators must strategically use available resources — including federal funds and the state’s rainy-day fund — to protect key priorities: education, health care and employment security.”

Danny Homan, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, urged Congress to pass the additional $1 trillion in state and local assistance included in a proposed federal HEROES Act. But, he said, “absent that, the legislature and Gov. Reynolds must tap into our cash reserves to protect critical services.”

Grassley called the revised revenue estimates that pared back fiscal 2021 tax revenue prospects by $360 million a “launching point” for this week’s discussions.

“The budget is going to be huge. The COVID-19 response is going to be huge,” Zaun said. “We’re not going to be down there negotiating back and forth on policy. It’s pretty much everything has got to be agreed upon and then we run it.”

Reynolds said she is in the process of revamping her fiscal 2021 budget plan in concert with GOP leaders after announcing she put on hold her “Invest in Iowa” proposal.

That proposal sought major tax policy changes to fund income and property tax relief, mental health program expansions, water quality efforts and other priorities while raising the state sales tax by a penny.

Republicans say they still plan to offer tax-policy language to shield federal stimulus payments, grants or loans received by businesses or individuals from state taxation, and to keep 2018 tax relief “triggers” on track — but probably not major income tax cuts as previously planned before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“There will be tax policy, but I don’t envision a complete rewrite of any parts of the tax code,” said Whitver.

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“This is the time where we have almost 200,000 people out of work; people are taking pay cuts. We don’t believe this is the time to grow government,” the Senate leader said. “We believe that we should be tightening our belts just like the average family in Iowa, the average business owner, are tightening their belts. We do think that we want to be very conservative.”

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said he thought it would be better for legislators to wait until August to reconvene when they would have a better picture of how state income tax collections delayed until July 31 fared.

“I don’t think they have any idea what they are doing. I expect the budget to free fall until fall,” he said.

Legislators were discussing whether to run the budget as individual bills or one omnibus package to streamline the process. Also, lawmakers will be debating policy bills each day they return with committee chairs and bill sponsors being encouraged to have agreements worked out when they reconvene if they hope to see their priorities make it to the governor’s desk.

Among the issues expected to see debate are a measure seeking voter approval of a constitutional amendment on abortion rights; raising the state’s tobacco/vaping possession age to 21; giving schools more power to manage disruptive students; requiring felons to pay victim restitution before voting rights are restored; expanding provisions of Iowa’s medical cannabis program; expanding Future Ready Iowa workforce incentives; expanding incentives for broadband in rural areas; boosting flood recovery assistance and several bills expanding rights for gun owners and permit-holders.

Other bills that might still be in play would ban hand-held electronic devices while driving; review public assistance recipients’ eligibility; toughen laws involving the mistreatment of animals; and impose a $750,000 “hard cap” on medical malpractice non-economic damages.

“Whatever is important to us that we think that we can get through with agreement from the other chamber and the governor we will work hard to get done,” said Schneider.

A debate already has been underway even before lawmakers return to the Statehouse whether it’s safe to do, so given that Polk County continues to be a COVID-19 hot spot of positive cases and deaths.

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Grassley conceded there may be “a few hiccups I’m sure in terms of the technology” and that the Legislature may not function as efficiently as it normally does. But he said he expects legislators will be able to get their work done in a responsible way.

Under planned safety protocols before entering the Capitol next week, legislative staff and members of the public — but not lawmakers themselves — will be required to go through a health screening consisting of having their temperatures taken and answering questions.

Wearing personal protective equipment inside the Capitol will be encouraged but not mandatory. Also, there are no plans for remote voting for members who might not feel comfortable being part of a mass gathering in Des Moines.

Committee meetings will take place in either the Senate or House chamber and be livestreamed on the legislative website, legis.iowa.gov, and may be viewed on monitors throughout the Capitol.

Procedurally, Republicans, who control both chambers, said they will set June 5 as the second funnel deadline, which requires bills to have been approved by one chamber and a committee of the other to advance to final approval.

“I expect the June 3 session to be very fast and with relatively little controversy,” said Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, House president pro tempore. “I feel very safe with the procedures that have been put in place. I think it is an appropriate level of measure to protect legislators, media and guests to the Capitol.”

However, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who chose to stay away from the Statehouse — citing public health recommendations when coronavirus began to spread in Iowa — said he believed it was a mistake for the session to reconvene Wednesday in a “coronavirus hotbed” that puts legislators, staff, and the public at the Capitol “at unnecessary risk for themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Hogg advised GOP leaders to extend the session suspension for at least two more weeks.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said the procedures set up at the Capitol this week are “not ideal at all.”

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“Senators will be forced to work in the gallery,” she said. “The elevators will still be crowded. The restrooms are shared by hundreds of people and have poor ventilation. All we can do is PPE up and use our best judgment.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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