Lawmakers wrestle with tech challenges in legislation and at their desks

Iowa lawmakers have wrangled with technolgy in legislation and in their work this year. (Photo illustration by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch. Capitol dome photo by Getty Images)

When Rep. Steven Hansen, D-Sioux City, began his first term in 1987, two lawmakers would share each desk phone. It was a “big deal,” he said, when each legislator got their own phone.

Hansen left the Legislature in 2002 and returned in 2021 to a surprise: There weren’t any desk phones at all.

“Everybody is expected to have a cell phone,” he said.

Far more had changed than just the phone situation. Legislators in 2021 faced a slew of technological challenges, from setting up Zoom subcommittees to considering bills on broadband, social media, microchips and more. After the April 2 legislative deadline, several major technology bills still linger for the final weeks of the season.

Meetings go online, but remote participation not always possible

The first technological challenge for lawmakers in the 2021 session was bringing meetings from the Statehouse to the internet. 

State Rep. Steven Hansen is a Democrat from Sioux City. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

“I have to laugh because in the committees, you see the high schoolers, the pages, running the controls for the Zoom meetings,” Hansen said. “I’m guessing that a lot of the legislators, including myself, might have a little trouble doing that.”

Senators used Zoom, allowing people from across the state to weigh in on subcommittee meetings. The House instead chose to use Cisco Webex and to not take comments from video callers. Representatives also could not vote remotely.

Democrats in the House said they were disappointed with the choice to prohibit digital participation from both members of the public and House members 

“That really put a stymie on any kind of deliberation, especially in the beginning when we were being even more careful about COVID,” Rep. Dave Williams, D-Cedar Falls, said. Williams is the ranking member of the newly formed Information Technology Committee.

It’s uncertain whether the meeting broadcasts will stick around after Iowans are vaccinated and the COVID-29 pandemic subsides. Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, said the virtual option made meetings more accessible to the general public, especially those with strict work schedules.

State Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, talks about a bill he introduced that would require schools to share information about vaccination exemptions whenever they communicate about immunizations. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, said technology could continue to have a role in the Legislature, but that it shouldn’t replace in-person interactions, especially for important bills.

“I certainly prefer people being there in person,” he said. “I think that’s how you’re going to get the best legislative outcomes, the best discussions.”

Rural catch-up: Broadband bill moves ahead with changes

Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a $450 million package to improve broadband internet access across Iowa. Iowa would provide grant money to internet providers who expand their networks to cover underserved parts of the state by 2025.

The House and the Senate have both taken up the proposal. The House unanimously passed a version of the bill with amendments. The Reynolds proposal would require upload and download speeds of 100 megabits per second, but wireless providers told lawmakers that could be a dealbreaker in the most rural areas of Iowa. The House version of the proposal would require 100 megabits per second for downloads, but just 20 megabits per second for uploads.

“When the bill came from the governor, we agree, we want world-class speed,” House Speaker Pat Grassley said March 26 on “Iowa Press,” an Iowa PBS show. “However, we also want to make sure that those areas where there’s one house every four miles, does it make sense for those local providers or the state to be investing the top dollar amount to just do that?”

Social media censorship bills falter

Lawmakers considered several bills to address online censorship in the months after Twitter and other platforms banned President Donald Trump. The proposals would punish social media companies that censor online content. 

Thirty Republican senators proposed Senate File 580, a bill that would prohibit state agencies from contracting with technology companies that censor “constitutionally protected speech.” 

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation is part of the “growing pains” of social media, which he said was “weaponized” against conservative viewpoints.

“These platforms have become weaponized by progressive ideology and moved to the point that they will leave anything inappropriate on the progressive side of the nation’s ideological spectrum but seem to jump immediately, like a guard dog, against anything that moves to the conservative side,” Schultz said in February.

Business groups said the proposal could scare away partnerships with companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft. State education groups noted that severing ties with a company like Microsoft could crash their entire administration system. A spokesperson for the attorney general said an entirely new division would be necessary to litigate the censorship.

The Senate passed the bill Senate File 580 in mid-March. The House did not take up the legislation ahead of the second funnel. 

The House considered a different censorship bill, House File 830. The bill proposed that social media companies could not block or remove elected officials from the platform. If a company did so, it would be ineligible for state tax credits or “other special benefits” until the elected official is allowed back on.

That bill advanced through a House subcommittee and committee, but never came up for floor debate.

‘Future-proof’ bills: Lawmakers look ahead to microchips, other innovations

News about Wisconsin vending machine company Three Square Market went viral in 2017 when dozens of employees volunteered to have a microchip installed under their skin. The chip allowed employees to unlock doors, log into computers and buy snacks touch-free. It spurred a wave of media criticism and questions: Would all companies one day require implants? What information can employers gather on their employees?

The trend has not caught on broadly in the United States, but lawmakers are thinking ahead. House File 259 would allow employers to offer microchips or other devices for implantation. However, employers cannot make the modification mandatory or offer special incentives to employees who decide to use the technology.

The House voted unanimously to pass the bill in February. It is now eligible for floor debate in the Senate.

Lawmakers on the House Information Technology Committee said one of the challenges for technology legislation was staying abreast of ever-evolving systems. For Williams, that means keeping bills concise and letting the private sector continue to innovate

“I really like to keep legislation as lean as possible and to be as future-proof as possible because of how fast technology changes,” he said.

Lawmakers identified several areas of technology they hoped to explore in future sessions, many intersecting with other legislative priorities. Hansen asked: How could Iowa better train teachers for remote learning? How will COVID-19 vaccine data be tracked and used, questioned Shipley. How could Iowa improve state cybersecurity? How will the continued rollout of broadband work?

“Technology changes, and you adapt and you grow with it,” Hansen said.