Staff Columnist

Governor, stand up to Iowa's unwise lawmakers

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds looks at a teleprompter as she delivers the Condition of the State speech at the Iowa Statehouse
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds looks at a teleprompter as she delivers the Condition of the State speech at the Iowa Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Somebody, anybody, please remind Kim Reynolds that she is governor of Iowa, with vast powers and authority, with a bully pulpit and a veto pen, with political capital and considerable clout.

Because these are tools she can and should wield when our legislative geniuses running the Golden Dome of Wisdom insist on being far less than wise. They don’t always have to get their way, governor.

But this week, Reynolds signaled once again she’s willing to accept a really bad legislative idea, even if it undercuts one of her most laudable, far-reaching priorities.

Reynolds wants a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons who complete their sentences. Our current system disenfranchises felons for life unless they ask the governor to restore their rights. We’re the last state that bars felons from casting ballots. Reynolds, to her credit, has made this a front-burner issue.

The Republican-controlled House approved the amendment resolution by a large bipartisan majority. But GOP senators have balked at passing it. They first want to make restoration of voting rights contingent on offenders’ full payment of victim restitution. Not even our current lousy system requires full restitution payment, requiring only that an offender is making progress paying debts.

So the Senate bill would make Reynolds’s hope for “second chances” only available to felons who can pay, disadvantaging low-income offenders and likely minorities. It would make the system worse, disenfranchising Iowans based on income. It’s misguided and probably unconstitutional.

And yet, Reynolds seems willing to sign off on it.

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“Compromise is part of how we get things done. When you show no willingness to compromise, then nothing ever happens. So we’ll continue to work with them and see what happens,” Reynolds told reporters, including Erin Murphy of The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau.

“That’s what it takes to get things to done. We have to be willing to take a look and listen at what both sides are saying,” she said.

Of course, the Senate bill is no compromise. And Reynolds already compromised by opting to push for an amendment rather than restore voting rights through an executive order. So now she’s giving up more ground to legislators who would rather score cheap political points than do the right thing.

Nobody is forgetting crime victims. Nobody wants to see victim restitution go unpaid. Also, nobody has shared one shred of evidence that disenfranchising felons makes them pay restitution any faster. But this stuff is rarely based on data. It’s the same sort of hipshot, tough-on-crime lawmaking that’s spawned most of the problems in our criminal justice system. It turns out good headlines don’t always make good laws. The criminal code isn’t a campaign brochure. It’s the same mentality that prompted former Gov. Terry Branstad to rescind Gov. Tom Vilsack’s and Gov. Chet Culver’s order restoring voting rights. It didn’t make us one bit safer, but it made Terry look tough.

For once, Reynolds can use toughness for good. Put lawmakers on notice. Approve the amendment, without throwing up harmful hurdles, or face consequences. If they refuse, use the executive order and deliver those second chances. Reminder: You’ve got the power.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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