Several major bills linger as Iowa legislative session heads into overtime

The interior of the Iowa Capitol dome. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Friday marks the 110th day of Iowa’s legislative session, the final day that lawmakers are being paid per diem for their work at the Capitol. But several key issues including the state budget, tax cuts, policing, unemployment and “vaccine passports,” have yet to be resolved.

“I had a Republican put it to me this way yesterday: ‘The good news is that there are only two things left that they don’t agree on yet, taxes and the budget,’” said Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville.

Lawmakers will stay in session for at least another week to pass a budget and, potentially, additional policy bills.

Budget proposals still far apart between chambers

Policy bills can wait for future sessions, but passing a state budget is the one thing that Iowa lawmakers cannot put off. As of Thursday evening, there were still several parts of the budget proposals that didn’t match across the House and the Senate.

“We have the things that are the priorities as far as House Republicans, and we know what those are, but we also understand, you know, to close the session down, you have to be willing to make compromise,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters Thursday.

Tax reform, including $60 million for mental health, tied up in budget negotiations

The Senate in early April passed Senate File 587, a lengthy tax reform bill that would accelerate the 2018 tax cuts and change how the state funds mental health. 

The House has not taken up the proposal. Grassley said that bill was part of the overall budget negotiations.

“We obviously want to return money to Iowans, but we also have to make sure that we do it in a sound, responsible manner,” he said.

Grassley said the deliberation over mental health would have an impact on the budget negotiations. Under current law, mental health services are funded locally through property taxes. The Senate’s proposal would instead fund the service through annual state appropriations, resulting in an additional $60 million expense for the upcoming fiscal year.

“That is a pretty significant sticking point… from the standpoint of making sure that we have the proper guardrails if we’re going to take over the responsibility of another large and significant growing program,” Grassley said.

Bill on riot penalties, qualified immunity awaits Senate passage

The House on April 14 amended a four-page Senate proposal into a 33-page policing bill. The legislation would increase penalties for protest-related crimes and give police officers increased immunity in cases against them.

The Senate still needs to pass the amended bill before it can go to Gov. Kim Reynolds for signing.

Senate revives bill to introduce an unemployment benefits delay

Senate lawmakers this week introduced and advanced Senate Study Bill 1273, a bill that would introduce a one-week waiting period at the beginning of someone’s unemployment claim. The change would save the state $23 million a year, according to a nonpartisan analysis of the bill.

A similar proposal advanced in the House and the Senate in March, but neither chamber passed it in floor debate.

Grassley said Thursday that he would need to do more “intel gathering” before he could determine whether House Republicans were interested in pursuing the legislation this session.

Biofuels stakeholders not budging

A Senate subcommittee met Thursday morning to discuss a biofuels mandate proposed by Reynolds. Farming groups supported the proposal; fuel retailers did not.

Republican leaders acknowledged that it would be difficult to find a middle ground before the session ends.

“This issue seems to be a lot like the bottle bill,” Grassley said. “We try to get to a place in which we find a good piece of legislation, trying to make some level of compromise with all groups involved, and it’s very difficult at the end of the day.”

Lawmakers also have not completed action on multiple proposals to change the bottle bill.

Vaccine passport bill zooms through the House

While some policy proposals linger indefinitely, lawmakers are pushing others across the finish line. Just weeks after Reynolds asked for legislation on the issue, the House on Wednesday passed a bill to forbid the use of “vaccine passports,” or documentation that verifies a person has been vaccinated. Certain health care settings could require proof of vaccination, but government agencies, public venues and businesses could not.

“Our caucus felt strongly that, while we were here in session, we needed to weigh in on that,” Grassley said.

The Senate still needs to approve the bill, which Reynolds has said she supports.

Democratic leaders on Thursday said the bill was a political “red herring.”

“Iowa has enormous challenges because of the global pandemic,” Wahls said. “Vaccine passports is not one of those challenges.”