Members of the Iowa Black Caucus celebrate approval of legislation addressing racial injustice by police. From left are Reps. Ruth Ann Gaines, Ross Wilburn, Ako Abdul-Samad, Ras Smith and Phyllis Thede. (Photo courtesy of Iowa House Democrats)
The 2020 legislative session was historic mainly for 11 weeks of inaction as the session was suspended due to COVID-19. Even so, lawmakers racked up a surprisingly robust list of actions. Here’s a look at some of this year’s winners and losers:
Iowa Black Caucus and racial-justice protesters: The police reform legislation approved unanimously in a single day grew out of a proposal by Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, and other Black lawmakers. The pressure to advance the bill came from Iowans statewide who protested after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The coronavirus: If a virus can be a winner, it surely claimed a victory with legislative approval of immunity from COVID-19 related liability claims for businesses, hospitals and nursing homes with very little accountability for following public health guidelines and standards to protect the health of workers and customers.
K-12 schools: While educators of course wanted more, the 2.3% increase in per-pupil spending and transportation equity money lawmakers approved amounts to a win in a year when COVID-19 eliminated most other spending increases from the state budget. Lawmakers also addressed some difficult issues related to disruptive behavior in the classroom.
Puppies and kittens: Animal advocates have fought for years to expand animal abuse penalties. This year, it finally happened, although the legislation does not affect farm animals. Under the new law, abuse or neglect of an animal that causes injury is a serious misdemeanor. The penalty rises to an aggravated misdemeanor if the misconduct kills or seriously injures the animal; repeat offenses are a Class D felony.
Purveyors of alcohol: The governor allowed bars and restaurants to sell cocktails for carryout while businesses were closed or restricted because of coronavirus. Lawmakers made Iowa the first state in the national to legalize this product permanently. They also allowed breweries to manufacture canned cocktails.
Underage drinkers: Some lawmakers argued that carryout cocktails would enable underage drinkers. Lawmakers, separately, finally agreed after years of indecision to allow limited immunity from charges for minors seeking or needing help for alcohol-related emergencies.
Gun owners: Local governments that want to keep guns out of their public buildings (not including schools) now have to hire armed security guards and install other security measures.
Kids’ lemonade stands: Cities would no longer be allowed to regulate food or non-alcoholic beverages sold by minors as long as it’s not temperature-sensitive.
Elderly drivers: The age limit for an eight-year driver’s license has been increased from 72 to 78.
CBD retailers: Lawmakers clarified laws dealing with the sale of hemp products containing cannabidiol or CBD.
Mobile barbers and other licensees: Iowa had among the most jobs in the nation that require a professional license. Lawmakers loosened restrictions for professionals moving from out-of-state to qualify for an Iowa license. They also legalized mobile barbering in response to a request from a Waterloo man who serves underprivileged Iowans.
Secretary of State Paul Pate: His fellow Republicans stripped him of his emergency powers ꟷ and $250,000 out of his budget ꟷ after he sent absentee ballot request forms to every active Iowa voter before the June 2 primary. County auditors and others praised his management of the record-turnout primary during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the GOP, despite warnings from some of its own activists, opted to make it just a little bit harder for Iowans to vote from the safety of their own homes amid an unpredictable coronavirus pandemic.
Voters: While the GOP was busy punishing Pate, it also took a second swipe at voters by expanding the odds that any voter who makes an error on an absentee ballot request form will not receive a ballot. On the final day of the legislative session, Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, pushed through a change that forces county auditors to contact the voter directly about any errors or omissions on their absentee ballot request form instead of obtaining the information from their own records. To fill in missing information, auditors must take the time to call or write to the voter within 24 hours. If the voter doesn’t answer the phone or email, the auditors have to mail a letter. All this takes time that may deprive a voter or his or her right to cast a ballot.
Mental health: Lawmakers came together unanimously the past two years to expand urgently needed mental health services and create a children’s mental health system for the first time. This year, the job was to come up with the money to sustain the systems over the long term. Lawmakers ditched the governor’s proposal and failed to advance any other ideas.
Cities and counties: Lawmakers continued their war on local control. This year, they stripped cities of the ability to regulate gun ranges and the storage of weapons and ammunition. Counties got the shaft on mental health (see above) and received new restrictions on their ability to regulate farm buildings and short-term rental property through zoning.
Rural ambulance services: Lawmakers could have revived rural ambulances services by allowing counties to levy a tax to pay for them. Instead, they left this common-sense legislation to die ꟷ just like rural residents who need fast emergency medical care. Another kick in the teeth for counties.
Regents universities: Most other state programs got a status quo budget this year; Regents universities, which were already anticipating a $190 million revenue loss due to COVID-19, took an $8 million cut.
Win some, lose some
Gov. Kim Reynolds: The governor’s centerpiece legislative proposal, the Invest in Iowa Act, was all but dead at the hands of Senate Republicans long before coronavirus stalled more spending priorities. The major consequence was to mental health funding (see above) but also to environmental and tax-cut plans. Lawmakers also ditched a constitutional amendment for felon voting rights restoration that Reynolds championed, leaving her to thread the needle between her GOP base and Black Lives Matter protesters on an executive order. Other priorities advanced, including the Future Ready Iowa Act and broadband expansion, albeit without significant new money.
Pro-life activists: Advocates of abortion restrictions pushed for advancement of a constitutional amendment that would declare there was no right to abortion in the state constitution. When that effort failed to pass the House, they had to settle for a new, 24-hour waiting period for abortion that is already stalled in the courts.
People with criminal records: The governor’s “Second Chance” agenda suffered a blow on felon voting rights but chalked up a win with the licensure reform bill that removes obstacles to professional licensure for people with criminal records that are unrelated to their jobs.
Vaping industry: Lawmakers raised the age for vaping to 21 but bypassed an Iowa Department of Public Health proposal to ban public vaping under Iowa’s Smokefree Air Act.
Cannabidiol dispensaries: Reynolds last year vetoed a major expansion in the cap on THC levels allowed in medical cannabis. Senators tried to hold out for a 25-gram cap within 90 days but lawmakers had to settle for an increase from 3% to 4.5%.
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