Iowans’ voices are being shut out of legislative debate

June 8, 2020 8:00 am

Capitol visitors watch a subcommittee meeting on video as social-distancing rules prevent public attendance of some proceedings. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The three-day return of the Iowa Legislature has done more harm than good to the people of Iowa. Legislative leaders should again suspend their session now and not come back until lawmakers find a better way to balance public access to the legislative process with the safety measures needed to avoid spreading COVID-19.

I knew before I went to the Capitol on Wednesday, the first day of the resumed legislative session, that any health precautions in place for members of the public would be undermined by lawmakers themselves.

What I did not expect was that the public health measures would be even more lax for members of the public entering the Capitol than they were on March 16.

On the last day before the Legislature suspended its session, members of the public had their temperature taken orally and they were asked questions about potential exposure before they entered the building.  On that day, less than two dozen Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19 in the entire state.

A forehead thermometer is used to check the temperatures of Capitol visitors. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

On June 3, they received a temperature check with a far-less-accurate forehead thermometer and then were allowed to enter without any questions about potential exposure. So anyone who might be infected but was not yet showing symptoms was free to go infect others. On June 2, the Polk County health department had reported 324 new cases of COVID-19 and 20 deaths.

I suppose the lack of serious health screening doesn’t matter much, because lawmakers were not required to submit to even those minimal precautions. Most of the Republican legislators did not wear any sort of face covering and many did not make an effort at social distancing measures as recommended by public health officials. This led to heated debates on the floor of the House and Senate.

Those who were prudent enough to stay away from that inherently risky setting were left to try to follow debate online. That offered its own set of challenges.

The public access to the legislative process was better in some ways and worse in many others. On the plus side, full committee meetings and subcommittees were livestreamed and recorded, which doesn’t normally happen.

But that was not enough to provide adequate public access to the process. The House and Senate approved rules limiting public access, including shortening or doing away with waiting periods between committee approval and floor debate and doing away with public hearings on bills.

An example of this process in action was Senate File 2338. That’s a bill that House Republicans overhauled to provide almost complete immunity to businesses from any responsibility for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 among their employees or the public. Under the legislation, unless someone who contracted COVID-19 from a business can prove actual malice or intent to cause harm, they are pretty much out of luck under this legislation.

The bill, which originally addressed medical malpractice, was approved in Senate on Feb. 25. It was first discussed in a House Commerce subcommittee on June 3. While amendments are not approved in subcommittee, copies had been circulated among lawmakers and the amendment was discussed that morning.

The House had not made clear in protocols announced in advance whether members of the public would be allowed to attend subcommittee meetings. The protocols said only that members of the public would be “strongly encouraged” to submit comments to bills in writing through the legislative website.

Even so, several lobbyists spoke in person about the bill. If any comments were submitted in writing, they were not made public during the subcommittee meeting.

Those who did not attend the subcommittee meeting in person and tried to watch the livestream encountered audio that sounded like it was broadcasting from the bottom of the Des Moines River. The subcommittee was the only opportunity to hear from interested parties about the effect of the legislation.  At no point — not in subcommittee, committee or in floor debate — did the bill’s floor manager, Rep. Gary Carlson, R-Muscatine, describe his amendment for COVID-19 legal immunity in detail.

State Rep. Brian Meyer is a Democrat from Des Moines. (Photo by Iowa Legislature)

Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, tried to get answers to detailed questions about the amendment during the subcommittee meeting. Neither Carlson nor the other Republican subcommittee member, Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, seemed prepared to answer a single question. Instead, lobbyists from interest groups that apparently authored the amendment answered some of the questions.

The full Commerce Committee passed the bill a couple hours later, again without any detailed explanation from the majority party about how the immunity was supposed to work. Meyers offered an amendment in committee and on the House floor that would have set a clear liability standard that would protect businesses that followed public health guidelines to protect workers and the public. The amendment was rejected in committee and on the floor.

On Friday, after spending roughly 12 hours in closed-to-the-public party caucuses, the House majority Republicans brought the House back after 9 p.m. to debate two bills. For the second, the COVID-19 immunity bill, the GOP majority imposed a 40-minute limit on debate before forcing a vote. As a result, a complicated bill that could affect thousands of Iowans’ ability to seek a remedy in court for an employer’s or business owner’s negligence in protecting them from COVID-19, is now more than half-way through the legislative process with no significant debate or public input.

“They have given blanket immunity with no public input, and I think people would be shocked to know that,” Meyer said in an interview. “This is unprecedented time, but I thought it should have been slowed down and sort of thought about more, instead of just being crammed through.”

This is an unprecedented time. It benefits the public, as well as lawmakers, if the Legislature does its work swiftly and efficiently and gets out of town. But seeing as the majority party still didn’t have an agreement on the budget as of Friday afternoon, it could have at least taken more time to allow sufficient public input and review of the policy bills it was considering.

Lawmakers are staying home Monday while the budget talks continue. They should stay home indefinitely until these public-access issues are resolved.

Iowans are suffering. They need the Legislature to pull together on thoughtful, careful solutions to a variety of acute and complex issues. But most of all, they need lawmakers to listen to them.  Instead, they’re getting shut out of the process while highly partisan, special-interest legislation gets a fast track.

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