Lawmakers eliminate open-enrollment deadline before session adjournment

Final-day action included election changes, creation of opioid settlement funds

By: and - May 25, 2022 1:34 am
Iowa Capitol Dome

The dome of the Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Iowa lawmakers ended the 2022 legislative session early Wednesday with action on some familiar topics: school choice and election law.

The Iowa Senate adjourned for the year at 12:11 a.m. and the House followed at 12:17 a.m.

Before they went home, Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate voted Tuesday night  to eliminate a deadline for open enrollment, over the objections of Democrats who said the move would throw school district budgets into chaos. 

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said parental choice had been a key priority for Republicans. “Iowa has some excellent public schools but they don’t always work for every student. Putting parents first has been a theme for Senate Republicans for the last six years,” he said. 

Earlier this week, House Republican leaders had pulled the plug on the governor’s priority bill that would have provided state aid to help families pay for private school tuition and expenses. 

“And now, the 2022 legislative session is ending after a month of overtime with Governor Kim Reynolds campaigning against incumbent members of her own party in the House because she wants to use our public, taxpayer dollars to pay for private school vouchers,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said.

Instead, Republicans in both chambers pushed through a provision to repeal the school open enrollment deadline of March 1. If the bill is signed into law, students and parents can choose to open enroll to any district in the state. Student-athletes would still be required to sit out of a sport if they transfer districts. The measure would be effective immediately following the governor’s signature.  

“This is a people provision – giving parents and students the choice, not the school district and it is not about money,” floor manager of the bill Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said. 

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said current open enrollment provisions already accommodate students who need to transfer out of a district in cases of bullying. The amendment only hinders school districts from hiring a sufficient number of teachers, she said.`

“It’s unfortunate because I really believe that this could destroy our small schools,” Mascher said. “They can’t handle that kind of fluctuation. That is a problem when they can’t identify what their enrollment would be in the fall.” 

House Minority Leader Rep. Jennifer Konfrst said the open-enrollment deadline is in place so schools can plan their budget. 

“The fact that they are throwing out that deadline, allowing people to transfer any time for any reason seems to be a reaction to some political thing that is happening around the state and not in the best interest of kids,” Konfrst said. “Parents and families have the choice to enroll in different schools, schools deserve to know when that is going to happen. That is why we have the deadlines in place, that is why the law currently exists. This is just an overreach”

House Speaker Pat Grassley told reporters early Wednesday that Democrats were focusing only on the implications for the school district, with no concern for the parents. 

“… The other side is not taking any time to say, what about the parents when it come to the students in those school districts,” Grassley said. “Yeah, we want to have certainty for school districts, but also there needs to be a level of certainty that when you enroll your child in K-12 education… that you have assurance as to what they’re going to get from their education.”

Lawmaker bar private money for elections

The bill also included a pair of 11th-hour election changes. The proposal would bar the Iowa secretary of state or county auditor from accepting any non-public money for conducting an election. Before the 2020 election, grants for election expenses from a non-profit organization funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg were the subject of lawsuits in Iowa and around the country

The legislation also prohibits statewide elected officials from spending taxpayer money to send out mass mailings using their image or likeness within 60 days before an election. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the proposal was modeled after federal laws that govern taxpayer-funded mailings from members of Congress. 

“Generally speaking, I think that this is just another way for the Legislature to micromanage elected officials in the way that they reach out to their constituents,” Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, said.

The House also voted in the standings bill to enhance criminal penalties for minors in possession of a firearm, creating a class D felony punishable up to five years of incarceration. Minors could also be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor with up to two years of jail time and a $250 fine. 

Republicans said this amendment closes a loophole that now allows 16- and 17-year-olds to access firearms. House GOP leaders proceeded with debate despite an objection from Democrats that the law requires the Legislature to consider a minority impact statement before implementing new criminal laws.

“This is probably a good new crime we are creating, but we should know before we vote on it who is going to be impacted by that…” Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton said. “The question is which minors are going to be stopped and searched for possessing a gun.” 

The final day of the legislation included action on a variety of other bills. Here are a few of the highlights:

Vaccine mandates: The Senate sent a bill to the governor’s desk that outlaws required COVID
-19 vaccinations for attendance in K-12 schools, colleges or child care centers. House File 2298 would not allow mandates for attendance at any licensed child care center, elementary or secondary school or postsecondary school before July 1, 2029. 

Judicial nominations: Senate Democrats defeated four governor’s appointees to the Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission. Read more

Opioid settlement funds: Lawmakers created separate funds for money coming to Iowa from legal settlements with pharmaceutical companies that manufactured and marketed highly addictive opioids such as fentanyl.

Attorney General Tom Miller announced in February that Iowa would receive $174 million from a recent settlement. House File 2573 creates a separate fund for the settlement money, to be used for programs created by the Legislature to address the opioid crisis in Iowa. The bill also creates a fund ensure first responders have access to drugs such as naloxone that block the effects of opioids and can save the lives of people who have overdosed. 

Senators voted to amend the bill — which was approved by the House in March — to enable school employees to get training and supplies to treat an overdose.

The bill received unanimous support in the Senate with a 44-0 vote on Tuesday, but Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, was displeased that the bill empowers the Legislature to determine how the money is spent but that there is no plan yet. He predicted that $10 million of settlement money will sit idle until next summer after legislators approve a plan in the next session.

“We have people suffering today, addicted,” Bolkcom said. “We have people overdosing that are addicted. We have people that need treatment, and under Sen. (Julian) Garrett’s proposal they’re just going to have to sit around and wait.”

Eminent domain: The Iowa House retreated from its proposal to temporarily halt the use of eminent domain for liquid carbon pipelines. The House had included language in House File  2590, but on Tuesday it accepted the Senate’s version of the bill that omitted the language.

Kaufmann said lawmakers still sent a message that they are willing to act if property rights are infringed, while also receiving commitments by the Iowa Utilities Board and the pipeline companies to withhold eminent domain requests until the next session in March. 

“So we did get our language voluntarily by the people who attempt to potentially use it,” Kaufmann said.

— Jared Strong contributed to this report.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.

Kate Kealey
Kate Kealey

Katherine Kealey is a senior majoring in journalism and political science at Iowa State University. Before interning at the Iowa Capital Dispatch, she interned at the Carroll Times Herald. She served as the editor-in-chief of the Iowa State Daily in 2022.