Government

Iowa's 2020 legislative session shut down until April 30

The ornamental decorations of the Iowa Capitol dome are seen from outside. The Capitol building has been closed since Ma
The ornamental decorations of the Iowa Capitol dome are seen from outside. The Capitol building has been closed since March 18, and the Legislative Council on Thursday extended the Legislature’s shutdown until April 30 because of the coronavirus pandemic. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Members of the Legislative Council on Thursday officially suspended the 2020 session until April 30, but conceded little else is known about what tax collections, policies or even timetables may await them once the curve of COVID-19 cases is flattened and they are able to reconvene.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, gave several “to be determined” answers when quizzed about the outlook for resuming a legislative session that was temporarily suspended March 17 for 30 days.

The session was paused again last week until at least April 30 to coincide with statewide and national directives to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We had 30-some days left in session,” Whitver told council members via teleconference. “I do not see a situation where we come back and finish the 30 to 35 days or whatever. I think it really depends if we are able to come back on May 1, or if it’s pushed back until June, July or whenever, so all of that is to be determined.

“I would expect that as we get closer to being able to come back — whether that’s two weeks in advance or 10 days in advance, we will have a better idea of what that looks like, but as of right now, it’s hard to answer that question,” he said.

Council members voted 23-0 to remain in “pause” mode until 10 a.m. April 30 unless they decide to shorten or further extend the suspension.

Officials in the legislative and executive branches are assessing the impact of the $1.25 billion Iowa is expecting from the federal CARES Act to determine “what resources are available and how those can be used,” Whitver said. “That’s the big first unknown.”

Also unknown, Whitver said, is what shape state revenues will be in once the session resumes and Republicans, who control the Legislature, fashion a fiscal 2021 state budget plan.

“As of right now, that is an impossible question to answer based upon the fact that a large part of the economy is shut down right now,” he said. “So we’re going to need a lot more information about what’s happening in our economy before we’re ready to put that budget together.”

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said he hoped lawmakers would reconvene the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference to get a better sense of what tax collections might look like going forward.

He also is hoping lawmakers will revisit the state’s health care system to address shortcomings and better prepare for similar emergencies.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of stress on our health care system,” Prichard said, “a lot of areas where, if we would have known what was coming, we would have been better prepared. And I would hope that as we come back into the session, that we’re not in too much of a hurry to simply close down the session when there is a lot of issues to address.”

Lawmakers made contingency plans before suspending their 2020 session, including giving Gov. Kim Reynolds authority to use nearly $20 million from the state’s Economic Emergency Fund to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The governor has used $24 million from emergency and economic development sources to offer state grants for small businesses hit hard by coronavirus-related closings and cuts.

As an added precaution, lawmakers voted in a bipartisan manner to set aside enough money to keep state government operating under a “status quo” spending plan until Sept. 1 — which is two months into the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

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

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