Lawmakers race against ‘funnel’ deadline to pass bills through committee

By: - March 3, 2023 1:16 am

The Iowa Capitol at night. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch

Legislators ran up against this week’s deadline to pass bills through the committee process, with two House panels working into the early hours on Friday.

Committees advanced controversial measures including a ban on gender-affirming care for minors and a loosening of child-labor laws, as well as the governor’s reorganization plan.  Most policy bills needed approval by a full committee by Friday to remain eligible for further debate.

Five Senate committees and eight House committees met Thursday, with a range of how many bills gained consideration: The House Judiciary Committee discussed 16 bills while the Senate Workforce Committee considered a single bill.

Bills dealing with taxes or spending, as well as those related to government oversight, are exempt from the so-called “funnel” deadline, as are priority bills introduced by leadership. Measures that did not make it through this week can also be added as amendments to bills which do move forward.

Here are some of the bills that will remain eligible for debate:

Agency reorganization: Democrats proposed 39 amendments, all of which failed, to House Study Bill 126, which reorganizes state government agencies.

The proposed changes included keeping the Department of Human Rights as a standalone department and reversing changes to the management of institutions like the Commission of the Blind and Iowa Child Advocacy Board. Democrats said the proposals were suggested by constituents and state employees who would be affected by the changes the bill proposes.

Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Northwood, disagreed with Democrats’ characterization that departments were not consulted on the transition. Members of the subcommittee met with every director and several members of the departments affected by the bill, Bloomingdale said, taking time to talk about the concerns they have.

“To maybe insinuate that we didn’t listen as well, I think is wrong,” Bloomingdale said. “We did listen. We did spend time. This is a streamline bill. And there’s, there are departments that don’t want to be under another department, under another director, nobody likes change. But we all know … our government’s gotten a little too big.”

The governor’s 1,500-page agency restructuring bill was already safe heading into “funnel” week: The Senate approved its version of the bill Feb. 22 on a 12-6 vote. Technical amendments were made to the bill, but Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said any larger changes to the legislation would come up during floor debate. House Republicans similarly said they were saving larger changes for discussion on the floor.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she’s looking forward to both chambers passing measures streamlining Iowa’s state government.

“Right now, we have a state government that is difficult to navigate and bloated – hindering Iowans’ and our states’ growth,” Reynolds said in a statement. “This legislation will streamline services, create a clearer path to new opportunities, and save hundreds of millions of dollars for taxpayers.”

Gender-affirming care ban for minors: A bill banning gender-affirming medical care such as puberty blockers, hormone treatment therapy and genital and chest surgeries gained approval from the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Thursday. Senate Study Bill 1197 has moved through the legislative process quickly, with lawmakers holding subcommittee hearings earlier this week. Parents, doctors, LGBTQ advocates and representatives of religious organizations spoke for and against the measure. The House version, House Study Bill 214, also moved forward with a 12-8 vote of the House Judiciary Committee early Friday.

LGBTQ speakers in the subcommittee meetings argued that denying this care will hurt transgender Iowans. But Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said he has seen research showing the only significant decrease to suicidal ideation among transgender people is when they detransition, returning to living as their assigned gender at birth. The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide prevention organization, published multiple studies finding LGBTQ youth reported lower rates of suicide attempts and ideation when they were in affirming environments.

Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, said not only does this bill put transgender youth at a higher risk for suicide or harm, but that the push for action on transgender youth by lawmakers this session is making Iowa a less welcoming place.

“Legislation like this firmly states that some are not wanted here, in this case, transgender young people, in my opinion,” Wilburn said. “This piece of legislation will hurt some people. Some have already left the state for this type of legislation even considered.”

Bathroom bills: People could only use public school restrooms and locker rooms aligning with their assigned gender at birth under House Study Bill 208. In subcommittee meetings Tuesday, supporters of the bill said the measure is necessary to keep women and girls safe in bathrooms, while LGBTQ advocates said the measure will only put transgender students at higher risk. In the 12-8 vote advancing the legislation, Holt said policies allowing transgender students to use school facilities corresponding to their preferred gender, is misleading children by telling them “they can choose their gender in denial of biological reality.”

“I believe that arriving at a place where we believe that telling children they can choose their gender and use the bathroom of the opposite sex, completely ignoring the rights and concerns of young girls and boys, is an untenable and immoral place to be,” Holt said.

Child labor: Changes loosening restrictions on employment options for 14- to 17-year-old workers have cleared committees in both chambers. The Senate Workforce Committee passed Senate File 167 Thursday. It would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work in places like factories and mines if the jobs are part of a school or employer training program. It also would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol. The House version of the bill cleared the House Commerce Committee Wednesday.

Religious medical protections: Health care providers would not have to provide medical treatment, such as abortion, to a patient if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. House File 297 would prohibit discrimination against providers for care related to their religious beliefs. If a health care professional will not perform a procedure or give treatment to a patient because of their beliefs, they would also not have to give the patient a referral for another provider to perform the care. While Democrats expressed concerns about patients being harmed if a doctor refuses to give certain medical treatment, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, said people have different opinions on what constitutes harm, pointing to changing professional recommendations on medical care like gender-affirming surgeries.

Student members of school boards: School boards would be required to appoint at least one student to serve as a non-voting liaison to the board under House File 437, which narrowly passed the House Education Committee on a 12-11 vote. Under an amendment approved Thursday, school districts would be excused from the requirement if no student applied for the position. Student members would not be allowed to attend special meetings or receive information on confidential topics such as personnel issues or student discipline, Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, the bill sponsor, said.

Home-school diplomas: The credential or diploma issued for completion of secondary education by a home school or nonaccredited private school would be considered the equivalent of a high school diploma under House File 391, which passed the House Education Committee Thursday. Rep. Bill Gustoff, R-Des Moines, said some home-school graduates have been discriminated against by potential employers or post-secondary institutions because they lack a traditional high-school diploma.

Traffic cameras: The House Public Safety Committee approved two bills limiting where local governments would be allowed to place traffic cameras. Under House File 173, cities could only place cameras on their municipal street system and counties could place cameras on county roads. The Iowa Department of Transportation would retain the ability to place traffic cameras on roads maintained by the state like interstate highways. House Study Bill 161 would require local governments to get IDOT approval to place traffic cameras on highways. Democrats argued the bills would remove funding for local law enforcement and make Iowa roads less safe.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.