Lawmakers fast-track bills ahead of funnel deadline

The Iowa Capitol dome. (Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Lawmakers moved more than 50 bills through committee on Thursday ahead of a major legislative deadline. The legislation covers a wide range of issues, from policing to social media censorship and diversity trainings.

Even as lawmakers were rushing to meet the deadline, legislative leaders were offering partisan critiques of their work so far this year.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said Democrats have introduced over two dozen bills aimed at recovering from the pandemic, but only one has advanced in any meaningful way.  That bill, which exempts unemployment benefits from state income taxes, passed the House this week as part of a larger pandemic-related tax relief bill.

“Republicans instead have been focused on legislation that is mean, bad for business and completely ignores the global pandemic in which we still find ourselves,” Wahls said.

Democrats cited anti-LGBTQ legislation such as one dealing with school bathrooms and a GOP focus on legislation dealing with censorship of conservative voices as being “bad for business.”

Business leaders have spoken against bills they say would make it difficult to recruit workers, including a proposed ban on tenure at state universities that could curtail research and a proposal to deny state contracts and development incentives to tech companies that “censor” voices.

Twitter and Facebook have intervened in the spread of what they have deemed dangerously false information about COVID-19 and the 2020 election. Twitter drew conservative ire by suspending former President Trump’s account after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, defended his party’s focus on free-speech legislation. “Well, first thing I’d say that’s extremely concerning that the Democrats here in this state government don’t think their free speech should be something we should be advancing,” he said. “… I think our caucus has made it very clear that freedom of speech is going to be one of the things that we emphasize.”

Grassley said the message he’s hearing from business groups is they want to see more of the policies Republicans have advanced that have led to record low unemployment before the pandemic and increasing state revenues.

March 5 marks the end of the eighth week of the 2021 legislative session, a deadline known as the funnel. But because no meetings are scheduled for Friday, that left Thursday as the last day to push bills through a committee vote.

With several exceptions, bills that do not make it through a committee in either the House or Senate would no longer be viable for the session. Bills dealing with appropriations, taxes and government oversight are among those exempt from the deadline. Bills that fail to clear the funnel can be revived in various ways, including amendments to other bills or leadership-sponsored bills.

Several bills introduced this week were being considered in back-to-back meetings Thursday to squeeze past the deadline. Other controversial bills from earlier in the session are returning for a last-minute committee vote. 

Here are some of the bills that lawmakers were working on Thursday ahead of the deadline:

Fundamental parental rights

House File 714 would add a section to Iowa law to explicitly state that parents have a fundamental right to “direct the upbringing, rearing, associations, care, education, custody, and control” of their children. Any state action to interfere with a parent’s relationship with their child would be subject to strict scrutiny in court.

Rep. Eddie Andrews, R-Johnston, wrote the bill. He said Thursday it would codify the rights of parents, protecting from any future state overreach. But some in the subcommittee raised concerns that the bill could make it harder for the state to intervene in abusive family situations.

“Is it a parent’s right to send their child to bed without dinner because of a disciplinary action? Absolutely,” said Blank Children’s Hospital lobbyist Chaney Yeast. “Is it a parent’s right to withhold food for two days, two weeks? That’s when things start to get more gray.”

Andrews responded that the legislation would not change the state’s ability to remove children from dangerous situations.

The subcommittee moved the bill on Thursday morning. The full House Judiciary Committee moved the bill on Thursday afternoon.

Public records confidentiality and creating a “peace officer bill of rights”

Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a “Back the Blue” bill in January that would ban racial profiling, increase penalties for several crimes, introduce penalties for municipalities that decrease police department funding and allow law enforcement officers to pursue civil remedies against those who make a false claim against them.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate did not take up the governor’s whole proposal, instead creating their own plans with some of her suggestions. House Study Bill 266 is one of those bills.

“This isn’t the governor’s bill,” said bill sponsor and committee chair, Rep. Jared Klein. “This is the House Public Safety’s bill in support of law enforcement. “

House Study Bill 266 would:

  • Allow law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors to join address confidentiality programs;
  • Require peace officers to carry a firearm at all times while on duty;
  • Allow law enforcement officers to file a civil claim against someone who files a false report against them; 
  • Introduce new penalties for drivers who do not pull over for law enforcement.

Several Democrats on the committee asked to see a minority impact statement on the bill.

“This is an affront to the Perfect Union (bill) that we passed before,” said Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines. He said that he wanted to be sure that policing bills passed this session were not geared toward punishing protesters from the summer of 2020.

House Study Bill 266 does not include the racial profiling ban recommended by Reynolds. The House Black Caucus said Thursday Reynolds should veto any policing bill that advances if lawmakers don’t address racial profiling. The House Public Safety Committee did not consider an additional bill that would prevent municipalities from decreasing police budgets, but a version of the bill is alive in the Senate.

“Let’s pass legislation that supports good law enforcement officers,” Klein, R-Keota, said.

The bill moved by a 16-4 vote, marking it safe ahead of the funnel.

No gunfights on the highway

The House Public Safety Committee also moved a bill Thursday that would prohibit individuals from discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle on a public highway. Lawmakers voted unanimously to move House File 94 to the House floor.

New policies for election details

The Senate State Government Committee moved Senate Study Bill 1237. The legislation was introduced earlier this week and makes several “technical corrections and changes” to Iowa’s election policies, according to floor manager Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport.

It focuses on several contingencies: What if a candidate dies right before the election? What happens if someone serving in an elected office is elected to a new position before their term ends?

The State Government Committee moved the bill.

Divisive concepts barred from Iowa school training sessions

The House Judiciary Committee moved a bill Thursday afternoon that would prohibit Iowa’s K-12 schools and public universities from teaching “divisive concepts” about race and sex in mandatory training sessions for students or faculty.

Supporters say the bill would not restrict teaching about diversity issues in classrooms. The bill mirrors language from a 2020 executive order from President Donald Trump.

House Study Bill 258 would forbid schools from including in training:

  • That one race or sex is superior;
  • That the U.S. or Iowa are racist;
  • That an individual could be systematically or unconsciously racist, sexist or oppressive due to their race or sex;
  • That an individual is responsible for the actions of others of the same race or sex;
  • That individuals should feel uncomfortable or guilty about their race or sex.

Bill leader Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his defense of the bill.

“How, if we’re living up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words about judging by the content of character rather than the color of skin, can we make statements like, ‘The United States of America or Iowa are fundamentally racist or sexist’?” Holt asked.

Democrats in the committee objected to the bill. They agreed that no school should teach that any race or sex is inherently better than another, but worried that the legislation could bar educators from addressing real, systematic problems.

Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Iowa City, shared an incident where a white woman yelled a racial slur at him after they nearly bumped carts in a grocery store.

“When I see statements or concerns that minimize that there is racism and sexism in our society … I’ll just say it’s not my life experience,” Wilburn said.

Holt responded that he recognized the existence of racism and sexism, but that he objected to claims that whole institutions or races could be inherently racist.

The committee moved the bill by a 13-8 vote.

Prohibiting social media censorship

House File 633 and  Senate File 402 would prohibit social media companies from censoring constitutionally protected speech or restricting the access of users who expressed constitutionally protected speech. If a social media website did block a user or a post, it would have 30 days to explain why.

“We do not need fact-checkers to tell us what to believe,” Holt said. “We don’t need elitists to decide what we can and cannot read. We don’t need big tech giants censoring our words or deciding what we read.”

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, noted that it could be difficult to litigate the division between constitutionally protected speech and hate speech. False news could also present a problem.

“What one person considers to be hate speech,” she said, “another person considers to be facts.”

The House Judiciary Committee and Senate Commerce Committee each moved its version of the bill. Senate President Jake Chapman, who proposed the legislation, said it would be updated to make sure state universities don’t lose access to computers across campus and the systems that run boilers, scoreboards and other equipment. 

Voting rights restoration

House Study Bill 231 would include in Iowa Code that a person convicted of a felony could vote after they have completed their confinement, parole and probation and paid any restitution owed to victims. Persons convicted for child endangerment resulting in death or election misconduct would still need a gubernatorial pardon to vote.

The legislation, similar to a bill that passed last year, is more restrictive than the governor’s current executive order. Supporters say the measure is intended to limit a proposed constitutional amendment on restoring voting rights to felons.

The House Judiciary Committee moved the bill by a 13-8 vote.

Civil option for false police report harassment

House File 421 would create a new definition for harassment to include false reports made to law enforcement about another individual. If someone knowingly made false claims about a person with the intent to “intimidate, annoy, or alarm” them, then the accused person could pursue a civil case against their accuser.

The House Judiciary Committee moved the bill by a unanimous vote.

Updating the bottle bill

Separate legislative bills that would change Iowa’s 42-year-old beverage container deposit law advanced Thursday. Lawmakers indicated, however, they are far from a compromise on the proposals.

Senate File 565 would require an accounting of unredeemed container deposits. It passed the Senate Commerce Committee. House Study Bill 252 would allow retailers to decline to take bottles and can returns if there is a redemption center in the area. It passed the House State Government Committee. 

Broadband expansion

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ $450 million, three-year program to improve broadband service in Iowa is still alive in the Legislature.

The House Information Technology Committee advanced House Study Bill 133 on Thursday. The bill offers aid on a sliding scale to tech companies that will install broadband service.

Reynolds wants companies to aim for 100 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads, far more than many areas of the state have now.

During earlier debates, companies suggested the goal is too lofty for rural areas.

Business groups, and the governor’s own Economic Recovery Advisory Board, have said better broadband service is critical to attracting workers and boosting Iowa’s economy.

A companion bill in the Senate, Senate File 390, passed the Commerce Committee last month.

Reviewing presidential executive orders

Not all bills that survived the funnel seem destined to reach the governor’s desk. The House State Government Committee advanced House File 481, even though the bill manager, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, said it was unconstitutional.

The bill is aimed at reviewing presidential executive orders to see if they are constitutional. It also would prohibit state and local governments, and any entity that gets money from them, from complying with a presidential order that “restricts a person’s rights or which the attorney general has determined to be unconstitutional.”

Perry Beeman and Kathie Obradovich contributed to this report.