Commentary

Safety and transparency at the Iowa Capitol? Not even close.

January 18, 2021 8:00 am

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, speaks to anti-mask demonstrators at the Iowa Capitol Jan. 11, 2021. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Republican legislative leaders told reporters less than two weeks ago they were going to do all they could to preserve public access to the Iowa Capitol while keeping lawmakers, staff and the public as safe as possible from COVID-19. They are failing on both counts.

“We have to have a transparent process to the government, regardless of what party and I think we would all agree on that,” House Speaker Pat Grassley told reporters Jan. 7 at an Iowa Capital Press Association forum. “So we have to find that fine line in which we can still do that. We can still try to be as safe as we can, but also have transparency in this process.”

Protesters oppose mask mandates in a shoulder-to-shoulder gathering at the Iowa Capitol as the Legislature reconvened on Jan. 11, 2021. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa’s Capitol is not as safe as legislative leaders can make it. Not even close.  On the very first day of the 2021 session, about 200 members of an anti-mask group crowded into the rotunda. Two Republican legislators, Rep. Jeff Shipley of Fairfield and Sen. Dennis Guth of Klemme, also maskless, spoke to the group.

Masks are offered but not required for anyone. Dozens of Republican lawmakers also were maskless the first day of the session, although more were covering their schnozzes by the end of the week. By then, they had already sent a very clear message to Iowans who want or need to avoid virus exposure: Stay the heck away from the Capitol.

And, no surprise, on Friday a message went out to lawmakers from the House chief clerk: An unidentified person “associated with the House” had tested positive. The person was last in the Capitol on Wednesday, according to the email, and had been wearing a mask. But since we don’t know who it is, we have no way of knowing if that’s true.

No information was provided on whether the person is a lawmaker, legislative staff or even a page. The hundreds of people who were in the Capitol last week and potentially were exposed will have to wait and see if they get a call from a public health agency doing contact tracing. (Not likely.) Or if they get sick. And how many more people will have been exposed by then?

The lack of information makes it even more of a gamble to spend time at the Statehouse. Unfortunately, most of the accommodations the Legislature has offered to allow Iowans to monitor and participate in meetings remotely have been a joke. (One notable exception was the live broadcasts by Iowa PBS of the governor’s Condition of the State address as well as the annual speeches on the state of the judiciary and the Iowa National Guard.)

That should concern every Iowan, because this year’s legislative agenda is likely to affect every person in the state in some way. It will affect your taxes, your children’s schools and day care, access to housing, health care and broadband in your communities and much more.

Democrats complained that their constituents were being shut out. Rep. Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights, minority whip, said one of her constituents is on the waiting list for a heart transplant but still would like to address lawmakers on a variety of issues.  She “has tried to log in to House committees, to committee meetings. Sometimes they’re accessible, sometimes they’re not,” Konfrst said.

“Republicans in the House and the Senate have been using the pandemic to limit public input and rush through a partisan agenda that has nothing to do with COVID recovery. And that’s pretty frustrating,” Konfrst said. “Iowans need more input more opportunity to give their feedback and share, use their constitutionally protected right to petition their government.”

Of course Democratic legislative leaders are going to complain about the majority party’s actions. It’s part of their job. But they’re not wrong about the lack of meeting accessibility.

My first effort to watch a committee meeting online was Tuesday, when the House Human Resources Committee was getting an important and newsworthy briefing from the Iowa Department of Public Health on COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the state. The audio was nearly useless — choppy and over-modulated to the point of being incomprehensible. The lone camera was aimed so only one side of the long meeting table was visible. Even that went dark for four minutes; people trying to view online were told that the web host’s “computer died.”

Senate committees are being held in the full chamber, using the clunky but serviceable system that has long been used to livestream full Senate proceedings. But the legislative website gives no notice of shifting committee schedules, leaving viewers with no idea when to tune in to view a meeting.

Subcommittees are in some ways are the most important legislative meetings for the public. This is typically the only time in the legislative process when ordinary Iowans can speak directly to legislators about a bill in a public setting. In normal times, subcommittees are often held in small spaces, with lobbyists, members of the public and media huddled around a table.

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, left, and Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, hold a subcommittee meeting via Zoom on the death penalty Jan. 14, 2021. (Screen shot from meeting)

The Senate is holding its subcommittees via Zoom, which at least allows remote participants to hear clearly and speak directly to lawmakers — if they have access to a computer. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the death penalty went mostly smoothly, at least after the chair figured out how to call on people waiting to speak.

The House, however, is using the same system for subcommittees as for committees: unreliable audio, one fixed camera with no view of many speakers, and potentially no option for remote participants to speak. Written comments are accepted, with no guarantee they will be read. Iowans deserve better.

The Republican legislative majority has had months to plan for this. A colleague remarked to me that most city councils have figured this out, admittedly on a much smaller scale but also with significantly smaller budgets. Democrats’ conclusion that this is a deliberate scheme to shut out Iowans may not be entirely fair, but it at least seems clear public access is a low priority to the GOP majority.

There were a lot of things the Legislature could have done to make participation safer for their members, staff and the public. Some of the ideas Democrats presented included postponing the session until vaccinations were more readily available or moving it to a larger venue with more space for social distancing. If lawmakers and the governor can’t or won’t require masks in the Capitol, they should be offering rapid-results COVID tests at the door. The public needs more information about lawmakers and staff who test positive.

But barring any of those, the very least the GOP majority can do is make sure there are satisfactory, reliable options for remote participation, and safe alternatives for those who lack internet access. Businesses, schools and community organizations figured out months ago how to run a virtual meeting; we should expect nothing less of the Legislature.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.