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Approaching 'funnel' deadline causes Iowa Statehouse frenzy

Fire alarm forced 30-minute evacuation in day with meetings of 61 subcommittees

A look toward the rotunda from a stairway at the State Capitol in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
A look toward the rotunda from a stairway at the State Capitol in Des Moines. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — The legislative process kicked into high gear Monday as state lawmakers pushed to get their priority bills through committees in the House and Senate to beat an approaching deadline to keep issues alive yet this session.

Senators, representatives, lobbyists and other interested parties bounced from one packed committee room to the next on a day when 61 subcommittees met to debate the merits of legislation considered to be live rounds, walking dead or not likely to make the cut.

“I was hopeful that we covered so many subcommittees last week that this would be a more-subdued funnel week than usual,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig. “Turns out I was completely wrong,”

As a way to pare the workload, legislative rules mark this Friday as the deadline for non-money and policy bills to be passed by at least one standing committee in either chamber to remain eligible. Budget, tax policy and a few other categories are exempt from the “funnel” deadline, which technically will be Thursday since lawmakers generally do not hold Friday sessions.

Committees on both sides of the aisle had a hectic schedule Monday — the 36th calendar day of a scheduled 100-day assemblage. They took a forced break for about a half-hour when sirens blared throughout the Capitol around 2:30 p.m. and meetings briefly were interrupted for evacuation.

The alarms, triggered by smoke from a closed vent in the cafeteria, meant less time for majority Republicans to pass bills with which Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, did not always agree, he said.

“I’m hoping we have more false fire alarms and less damage done to the state,” he said. “It’s one of the few times that false fire alarms are good for the state.”

Meanwhile, subcommittees moved forward with bills to:

• Put a $250,000 “hard cap” on non-economic damage awards that could be recovered against a health care provider in a medical malpractices lawsuit.

• Create a criminal offense for food operations trespass.

• Pay college athletes.

• Seal divorce records in certain circumstances.

• Provide a 2-cent-per-gallon incentive for E15 renewable fuel purchases at Iowa pumps.

“I definitely feel that this year is far busier than last year,” said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel. “In fact, leading up to last week when we had 75-plus subcommittees in one day, definitely people are feeling the pressure to get these bills done and get them ready for the committee process this week.”

Legislative crunchtime brought a large group of banner-waving Iowans to the Statehouse rotunda to rally for legislation that would restore voting eligibility to tens of thousands of Iowans who cannot vote because of a felony conviction.

The approaching deadline signaled the end of the line for a good share of the nearly 660 bills that had been filed in the House and Senate heading into Monday — with most of the casualties being ideas introduced by minority Democrats.

In a surprise, the Senate Education Committee took up a bill filed last year but that failed to reach the governor’s desk that would eliminate the diversity plans for five Iowa school districts: Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo and West Liberty.

Senate File 199, which passed 8-7, would allow open enrollment for students in affected school districts whose requests previously had been denied in districts under voluntary diversity plans.

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

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