The 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature may be remembered as much for what state lawmakers didn’t pass as for what they did.
Lawmakers concluded their work for 2019 just over a week ago, using rare Friday and Saturday sessions to complete a busy week that wrapped up the session.
Some big bills passed the Iowa Legislature this year, perhaps none bigger than a proposal to legalize sports betting in the state. Lawmakers also approved legislation that would lay the foundation for a statewide children’s mental health care system — which currently does not exist — create a plan to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, tweak the citizen panels that nominate judicial candidates, and expand the state’s medical cannabis program.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed into law the children’s mental health care system legislation. She still is considering the others.
But some pretty big bills did not wind up with enough support to pass both chambers this year, despite unified Republican Party control of the Legislature and governor’s office.
That list includes two priorities laid out by Reynolds in her condition of the state address to the Legislature during its first week: felons’ voting rights and expanded access to birth control.
Reynolds proposed an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would automatically restore voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences. Iowa is one of just two states in the nation that requires felons to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored; Reynolds said her feeling is that no one person should wield that authority.
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But the proposal stalled in the Legislature, where Republicans in the Senate refused to advance the legislation until they determined what would be required of felons before their voting rights would be restored. Senate Republicans wanted legislation to also say whether felons should be required to have all fines and court fees paid in full; if there should be a period of time before voting rights would be restored; or if some violent crimes should mean a permanent loss of voting rights.
That debate never happened — at least not over proposed legislation — and Senate Republicans were not willing to advance the governor’s proposal and return to the restitution issue later. So the proposal did not pass.
Nor did the governor’s proposal for birth control pills to be made available through a pharmacist without a doctor’s prescription.
An interesting wrinkle to the governor’s two priorities that stalled this session: the felon voting rights proposal passed the House but stalled in the Senate, while the birth control proposal passed the Senate but stalled in the House.
It wasn’t just the governor’s agenda that ran into hurdles this session.
Another proposed amendment to the state Constitution — one that would specify the document does not guarantee the right to an abortion — failed to make it out of the House. That proposal was drafted after the Iowa courts struck down bills that would have restricted abortions.
A package of bills designed to add work requirements and other stipulations for Iowans who receive Medicaid benefits also failed to pass the House after getting started in the Senate.
And a sweeping bill that would have made numerous changes to state elections laws was significantly reduced in scope. It started with proposals to ban public universities as early voting locations, add more triggers to move voters to inactive status and close the polls for statewide elections at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.
In the end, the much smaller bill’s most significant provision required intelligent mail bar codes on all absentee ballots.
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While they failed to gain sufficient traction this year, this was just the first of a two-year General Assembly. Lawmakers could come back next year and revisit some of those issues. In fact, Reynolds has pledged to continue to work on her priorities, and at least one key House Republican said he hopes to continue the discussion on the anti-abortion constitutional amendment.
So while this year may be remembered in part for the significant provisions that failed to pass, perhaps next year will be the year of second chances.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.