Lawmakers give governor ‘broad powers’ to run government

By: - March 16, 2020 10:01 pm

GOP legislative leaders are still negotiating a major tax bill as lawmakers end a second week of session overtime. Shown here are House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, left, House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, in March 2020 at the Iowa Capitol. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa lawmakers approved legislation late Monday and early Tuesday to give Gov. Kim Reynolds broad authority to run state government for at least 30 days while the Legislature suspends its session to try to curb the spread of COVID-19.

If the Legislature is unable to reconvene after 30 days, lawmakers voted to provide spending authority at current levels for the first two months of the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Lawmakers also approved a supplemental appropriation for the current budget year of $525,000 for the processing of COVID-19 testing kits at the State Hygienic Laboratory. The bill also included $89 million for Medicaid, $1.7 million for the Hawk-I children’s insurance program and $600,000 for the Glenwood Resource Center, which continues to operate under a state and federal investigation of reported abuses of adult residents with severe disabilities.

Beyond those measures, Reynolds will have expanded authority to transfer dollars that have been appropriated, including from one department to another, and to access up to 10 percent of the state’s economic emergency fund.  That fund currently contains about $190 million. Expenditures of more than 10 percent of the economic emergency fund would require approval from the Legislative Council, a committee of lawmakers that meets when the full Legislature is not in session.

“I would say we have put a lot of faith in our governor, as Iowans have,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said. But, he said, lawmakers have maintained involvement to the extent possible.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said before he had seen the details of the proposal, “I think we can all agree that we need to give the governor broad powers to take decisive action,” he said.

Senate File 2408 passed the Senate unanimously late Monday; the bill passed the House unanimously shortly after midnight.

Lawmakers also waived the minimum required days of instruction at Iowa schools for the next four weeks. That means students will not have to make up days missed due to classes being canceled. The waiver does not include previously scheduled days off such as spring break, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said.  If districts need to close longer than four weeks, the governor would have the authority to extend the waiver statewide or on a case-by-case basis. Lawmakers said she could address questions that may arise, such as graduation requirements for seniors.

GOP leaders said they considered proposals to address the needs of workers who are displaced due to the economic effect of the pandemic. But, they said, they concluded that Reynolds would have the authority to address needs that arise before the Legislature reconvenes.

“Obviously, we’re in a unique situation here tonight,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said.  “We are doing our best to follow guidance to make the best decisions that we can with the information that we have.”

Legislative leaders decided Sunday to suspend the session for 30 days, noting guidance from Centers for Disease Control that gatherings of 250 people or more should be canceled and that vulnerable populations should stay home. “That is largely what the Legislature is made of – a large gathering with vulnerable people,” Whitver said.

The White House later said Americans should avoid gatherings of 10 people or more.

The Legislature also suspended its rules to allow the extended adjournment.  The move preserves legislation that otherwise would face a committee deadline this week to remain eligible for further debate this year.

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