What you need to know about 2023 legislative session: Bills that passed, died, and Iowa’s newest laws
Iowa lawmakers ended the 2023 legislative session Thursday, May 4. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
The Iowa Legislature passed many significant — and many controversial — pieces of legislation in the four months of the 2023 session, but many still await Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature before becoming law.
The governor has until June 3 to sign dozens of new laws addressing Iowa’s workforce and health care shortages, making changes to K-12 education and reducing government spending and taxes.
Before lawmakers ended this year’s session, Reynolds and GOP leaders celebrated the fiscal and cultural conservative wins passed by the Legislature this year.
“Iowa’s national profile is rising, and Americans are taking notice as states around the country are looking to Iowa as a beacon for freedom and opportunity,” Reynolds said in a statement Thursday.
Democrats said Iowa Republicans spent the session focused on national GOP talking points. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said Republicans “poured gasoline on the flames of the cultural war” this session, and that the legislation will only add to Iowa’s problems with declining population, workforce shortages.
“This session was a disappointment,” Wahls said. “It sets our state back rather than moving it forward. But in our frustration, we must not forget that it does not have to be this way.”
Here’s a recap of what passed, what didn’t, and Iowa’s newest laws at the end of the 2023 legislative session:
Signed into law
Almost all of the policies Gov. Kim Reynolds laid out in her Condition of the State address in January made it through the legislative process.
Private school scholarships: Reynolds’ top goal in 2023 was to sign an Educational Savings Account program into law, after two years of the private school scholarship proposal failing in the House. Before the end of January, she reached her goal, signing into law the program that allows Iowa families to use up to $7,600 for tuition and related costs at a private K-12 school. Implementation of the new program started fast, with plans to be available for the 2023-2024 school year. The education technology company Odyssey was selected to administer the program in February, and Reynolds announced Thursday that ESA applications will be accepted starting May 31.
Current public K-12 students, incoming kindergarteners, and current private school students with family incomes under 300% of the federal poverty level are eligible. In the second year, that income threshold will increase to 400%, and ESA funds will be available to all students beginning in year three. The program is expected to cost the state roughly $107 million this year, and $345 million annually once fully phased in.
Government reorganization: Reynolds signed her massive agency restructuring plan into law in April. The 1,600-page Senate File 514, reduces Iowa’s current system of 37 executive-level cabinet agencies to 16, a process of merging and reorganizing that will the governor’s office said will save the state $214 million over four years.
Government agencies are already in the process of consolidation, following the example set by the Department of Health and Human Services, which combined Iowa’s public health and human services departments in 2022. The governor told reporters in April she hopes to have most of the mergers ready by July 1, the law’s enactment date.
Democrats criticized the measure for changes they say give more power to the governor and state attorney general. Moves like making the Office of the Consumer Advocate a division under the attorney general’s office and giving the governor more power to set salaries and remove agency workers will hurt state government oversight and accountability, opponents argued.
Medical malpractice: As Iowa faces rural health care shortages, Reynolds said House File 161, a measure capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, will help keep rural hospitals open. The governor signed the bill into law in February, which sets a $1 million cap for clinics and doctors and $2 million cap for hospitals in medical malpractice lawsuits where the incident led to loss or impairment of a bodily function, disfigurement or death.
Opponents said these liability limits restrict jury authority, but Republicans argued the measure is necessary to lower insurance costs for Iowa health care providers and keep hospitals from closing after “nuclear” verdicts.
More new laws
While Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver supported many of the governor’s proposals, the legislative leaders also successfully passed several measures that weren’t on Reynolds’ to-do list.
Property taxes: Whitver and Grassley said property tax reform was their top legislative priority in 2023. On the last day of session, Reynolds signed House File 718 into law, providing an estimated $100 million in tax relief to Iowa property owners. The new law sets maximum property tax levy rates for cities and counties, requires new transparency measures and provides seniors and veterans new property tax exemptions.
Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, spearheaded the property tax discussion in the Senate. He said $100 million property tax cut is the first step in reforming what a “broken system,” and said the discussion on property taxes and local government funding will continue in 2024. Local government officials and advocates warned the property tax cuts could hurt localities’ ability to provide essential services, as property tax revenue funds local law enforcement, road repairs and other services Iowans depend on.
Gender-affirming care ban: Senate File 538 prohibits transgender minors from accessing puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy and surgical intervention as treatments for gender dysphoria. The governor signed the bill into law in March, starting the 180 countdown for medical providers to cease gender-related treatment for patients under age 18. Republicans said the measure is necessary to put a pause on treatments until more long-term studies into the results of childhood gender-affirming care are published, and to stop children from making permanent health care decisions they could regret later in life.
Democrats and LGBTQ advocates said the bill puts transgender youth at a greater risk of suicide.
Student bathroom use: Reynolds signed Senate File 482, a “bathroom bill,” into law at the same time as the gender-affirming care ban. The measure prevents people from using school restrooms that do not align with their designated gender at birth. Students who are uncomfortable using the facilities assigned can request accommodations, with parental permission, to use alternate facilities, like single-occupancy restrooms.
Supporters of the measure say restricting bathroom use is a step to keep women safe. But Becky Tayler with Iowa Safe Schools told lawmakers people are not at risk when transgender Iowans use the restrooms of their choice.
“In the state of Iowa, we’ve had equal facility access for transgender individuals for 15 years,” Tayler said. “In this time, not once has there been an accusation of inappropriate conduct.”
Rural emergency hospitals: Reynolds signed into law another measure to help rural Iowa health care providers this year by allowing some hospitals to seek federal funding through the “Rural Emergency Hospital” (REH) program.
House File 75 establishes the state licensure process for REH facilities. Hospitals in the program stop providing inpatient services, but maintain a 24/7 emergency room and stay open for outpatient treatment. The hospitals are subject to other restrictions, such as having 50 or fewer beds.
To-go alcohol: Iowa passed laws in 2020 and 2021 on to-go alcohol sales to help businesses stay afloat through the COVID-19 pandemic. But these laws did not prohibit transporting the to-go alcoholic drinks within reach of the driver, leaving the state out of compliance with federal open container laws and putting $14 million in infrastructure funding at risk.
Chinese investments: Public funds cannot be invested in some of the companies owned or controlled by the Chinese government under Senate File 418. The measure, signed by Reynolds Wednesday, requires firms to consult a list of scrutinized companies involved with the People’s Republic of China, and places restrictions on investments in these companies. Supporters of the measure said Iowa’s trade with China in areas like agriculture and computer chips will not be hurt by this measure.
Nuisance animals: Farmers can kill certain animals deemed a nuisance to crops and livestock, including raccoons, coyotes and skunks through Senate File 358. People wanting to kill or trap nuisance animals would still be required to seek state permission in city limits and non-farm properties, and for cases involving endangered species.
Up for governor’s consideration
The bill also prohibits teachers from providing instruction and materials involving “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to K-6 students, requires schools to seek written parental permission if a child asks to use a name or pronoun different than the one assigned at birth, and says school staff cannot knowingly “false or misleading” information on a child’s gender identity to their parents.
Teachers or school administrators in violation of these rules will be subject to a warning for their first offense and a Board of Educational Examiners disciplinary hearing for any subsequent offenses.
School requirements: Another of the governor’s priority bills, Senate File 391, allows schools to use new strategies to address teacher shortages, such as allowing teachers to instruct multiple sequential subjects simultaneously in one classroom. It also removes some curriculum requirements on foreign language and “financial literacy” classes, as well as making it easier for community college instructors to teach high school classes and for public librarians to work as school librarians.
Teacher accreditation: Another step toward addressing Iowa’s teacher shortage came in House File 614, a bill allowing out-of-state teachers to become more easily credentialed in Iowa.
Lawmakers also approved a bill changing the state oversight of the accreditation process. House File 430 changes the makeup of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners to include more parents. The board is currently comprised of nine school staff from different educational fields, and two parents, the proposal would put five school staff, five parents and one school board member on the board.
While Democrats said this change takes away power from people with the most professional knowledge, supporters said parents should be given more power in education.
Teacher empowerment: House File 604 creates a new disciplinary procedure for teachers dealing with violence in the classroom and disruptive students, an issue lawmakers said many educators asked them to address. The legislation creates a three-strike system for students who repeatedly cause problems in a classroom: the first offense results in one day of in-school suspension, the second in five days of in-school suspension, and the third expels the student from the class.
The bill also requires schools to inform teachers about their rights when coming into physical contact with a violent student and allows teachers to make a complaint to the Ombudsman’s Office on classroom violence.
Diversity, equity and inclusion: The Iowa Board of Regents is not allowed to spend funding on diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Iowa’s three public universities until a study is conducted under a measure passed in the education appropriations bill Wednesday. Board of Regents President Michael Richards already announced his plans to conduct a study and review Iowa’s DEI programs, with the programs’ funding on hold until the review is completed.
Child labor: Senate File 542 made national news for allowing Iowa minors to work in potentially dangerous fields like mining and meatpacking, but the bill lawmakers ultimately sent to Reynolds walked some of those measures back. The legislation allows 16- and 17-year-olds to seek exemptions from the state to work in restricted fields, such as roofing and demolition, as a part of a work-study program.
The bill also expands the maximum daily hours minors ages 14 to 17 can work, allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work a maximum of six hours, and 16- and 17-year-olds to work the same hours as adults. The bill also allows 16- and 17-year-olds to serve and sell alcohol at restaurants until kitchens close; the House also added new requirements such as sexual harassment prevention training for employers and having two adult employees physically present for businesses where minors serve alcohol, addressing concerns that teens would be at a higher risk of sexual harassment in these environments.
Reynolds told reporters Thursday that she supports youth employment.
Asset tests: Iowans receiving SNAP benefits would have to go through asset and identity tests in order to remain eligible for public assistance under Senate File 494. The bill sets new income limits and a $15,000 cap for assets, with exemptions for the value of a home, car, and $10,000 of a second household car.
Food insecurity advocates said these limits discourage saving, and that many legitimately needy Iowans could lose food assistance because of reporting discrepancies and bureaucratic problems through the identity verification requirements. The Legislative Services Agency projected 8,000 Medicaid recipients and 2,800 SNAP recipients may be removed if the bill is signed into law.
Trucking liability limits: Lawmakers also discussed liability limits for the trucking industry this year, with the House and Senate reaching an agreement to cap noneconomic damages at $5 million in lawsuits against against trucking companies whose employee caused injury, death or other damages. Similar to medical malpractice cases, trucking industry professionals said Senate File 228 will protect companies from “bogus” lawsuits and high insurance rates.
While opponents praised the higher cap, some still voted against the measure for limiting Iowans’ constitutional right to a jury trial.
Fentanyl: Reynolds’ proposal to tackle the fentanyl crisis through harsher punishments awaits her signature. House File 595 raises penalties for manufacture, distribution and possession of drugs containing fentanyl, and raises sentences further for cases resulting in injury or death due to drug use.
The bill was amended to expand access to naloxone, a drug used to prevent overdose deaths, allowing first responders and organizations like substance abuse rehab centers access to the opioid antagonist.
Brady-Giglio: Both chambers unanimously approved House File 631, a bill permanently codifying a procedure for the use and keeping of “Brady-Giglio lists.” Prosecuting agencies place law enforcement officials on these lists if their credibility is in question for issues like complaints on misconduct, discrimination, or a history of impeaching themselves in court. The bill removes a sunset on the 2022 law requiring prosecutors inform officers when they are placed on a “Brady-Giglio List,” and provide the them a way to request reconsideration.
Subpoena limits: The House unanimously approved House File 644 Tuesday in an attempt to stop “fishing expeditions” via subpoena — an intimidation or harassment tactic where criminal defendants request and obtain large amount of potential victims or witness’ personal information to discourage them from testifying or reporting crimes. The bill requires defendants present a compelling need for the evidence in documents obtained by subpoena, as well as limiting to access documents containing others’ private information.
Government and regulation
State auditor: Democrats said a bill restricting the state auditor’s access to information was “politically motivated” against Democratic Auditor Rob Sand, and puts billions in federal funding at risk. Senate File 478 limits the office from obtaining personal information when performing an audit, but gives exceptions in investigations of embezzlement, theft, fraud or other significant financial irregularities.
The bill also strips the auditor of the ability to issue subpoenas to government offices and agencies. Disputes where an audited entity believes it does not have to turn over requested information would be settled by a board of arbitration, with two members appointed by the offices or departments involved in the dispute, and a third member appointed by the governor.
Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny, argued the bill is needed to protect Iowans’ personal information. Sand said his office has not published Iowans’ confidential information, and that the version of the bill sent to Reynolds limits the office’s ability to uncover government waste, fraud and abuse
Caucuses: Iowa Republicans sent House File 716 to the governor Thursday in hopes of preserving the Iowa caucuses’ first-in-the-nation status. The bill was introduced in response to the Iowa Democratic Party’s plan to move to a mail-in caucus system.
The bill requires Iowa political parties to meet in person at precinct caucuses to select their delegates as a part of the presidential nominating process. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the measure is necessary as the mail-in system is too similar to a primary, and New Hampshire will move ahead of Iowa.
Scott Brennan, a Des Moines attorney and Democratic National Committee member, said he expects to see the measure challenged in court if signed into law.
Public lands: A bill requiring the Iowa Department of Natural Resources prioritizes maintenance of current public lands over acquisition of new lands died in the House committee process following significant public opposition from conservationists, cyclists and hunters who said the measure would limit the growth of Iowa’s parks and trails. But lawmakers added a similar provision to the agriculture and natural resources spending bill, striking Iowa Code language directing the DNR to have 10% of Iowa’s land under public open-space protections by 2000.
Republicans argued the DNR should focus on taking care of their current lands. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and several cattle farmers supported the earlier attempts at limiting public land acquisitions, saying acquired land could be sold to beginning farmers.
Health and safety
Midwifery: After years of failing to advance, House File 265, a bill establishing a midwife licensure process in Iowa, made it to the governor’s desk in 2023. While some medical organizations opposed the licensing process for potentially misleading Iowans on the safety of the alternative maternal health field, supporters say midwives could help address Iowa’s maternal health care shortage.
Nursing home reimbursements: As Iowa nursing homes face closures and a backlog of complaints, lawmakers approved a measure putting a moratorium on new nursing facilities. House File 685 also gives Medicaid payers more power in recovering funds and reimbursements from other health insurers, and establishes a higher tax on managed care organizations’ premiums to allow the state to collect more in federal reimbursement funds.
Home food businesses: Businesses that make and sell food products from home would be allowed to serve hot, made-to-order dishes under House File 661. The bill loosens restrictions on home food and processing establishments, food processing plants and temporary food establishments, and farmers’ market vendors, which Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said could lead to many food safety violations.
Raw milk: After years more than a decade of stalled legislation, lawmakers sent a bill legalizing the sale of unpasteurized milk to the governor in April. Senate File 315 was amended to require raw milk producers maintain bacteria and antibiotic records, but Democrats said these measures do not eliminate the risk of hepatitis A, E. coli and shigella outbreaks spreading by raw milk consumption.
What failed in 2023
Bills that did not pass in this year’s session are not necessarily gone for good. Reynolds and lawmakers said they plan to hold discussions and negotiations during the interim on bills that failed and followups to legislation passed, such as more changes to Iowa’s property tax system.
Pipelines: House Republicans passed House File 565 with bipartisan support in March, but the Senate Commerce Committee did not take it up before the second “funnel” deadline. The legislation would have restricted carbon capture pipeline companies’ use of eminent domain to obtain land on their route, requiring the companies to obtain 90% in voluntary easements.
Grassley said he would discuss with his caucus whether there’s reason to take up pipeline legislation in the 2024 session.
“If this issue still is lingering out there, I know it’s important to our caucus, and we’ll want to engage in that again next year,” Grassley said.
Family planning, maternal health: While some of the governor’s health care policy proposals made it into the Health and Human Services budget bill, not all of her goals advanced. Her proposal to allow over-the-counter access to contraceptives did not make it in; a standalone bill on the provision also stalled in the House.
Other maternal health care provisions Reynolds put forward in January — increasing funding for the More Options for Maternal Support program to $2 million and including funding for fatherhood programs, as well as increasing paid parental leave for government employees — also failed to advance.
The governor said she planned to bring these issues up again in the 2024 legislative session.
“I want to talk about a fatherhood initiative, and I’m going to continue to talk about the importance of providing over-the-counter birth control,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s important. We’ll continue to work with the Legislature, I’ll work over the interim and you’ll probably see it again next year as part of my program.”
ESG investments: While a measure limiting public investments in Chinese-affiliated companies was approved, the governor’s proposal prohibiting public funds from being managed by firms that account for “environmental, social and governance factors” did not make it to her desk.
Drones: Legislation restricting how close drones can fly to livestock facilities was not taken up in the Senate. House File 572 proposed criminal charges for drone surveillance of livestock facilities without the permission of the property owner, in response to animal welfare groups publishing videos and pictures of the condition and treatment of animals at Iowa livestock and dog-breeding facilities. Similar “ag-gag” measures approved by the Iowa legislature in previous years have been struck down in court.
Firearms in vehicles: The House approved a bill allowing people to have guns in locked vehicles while on school and college properties, but House File 654 was not debated in the Senate. While Republican supporters said the measure would allow parents to pick up their children from school without having to store their firearm elsewhere, Democrats said the bill would put Iowa children at greater risk.
Hands-free driving: Though some lawmakers thought 2023 would be the year Iowa passed a ban on handling phones while driving, Senate File 547 failed in the House. Law enforcement officials have repeatedly asked the Legislature to implement fines for drivers using their phones behind the wheel without voice-activated or hands-free technology, saying current distracted-driving laws are difficult to enforce.
Traffic cameras: Senators discussed requiring local governments to obtain permission from the Iowa Department of Transportation before setting up remote traffic law enforcement devices, like speed cameras, in late April. The bill was not taken up by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, but supporters said state lawmakers should take action on localities using speed traps as “revenue generators.”
Social media use: Lawmakers did not end up debating House File 712, a bill banning minors using social media platforms. While the legislation originally barred all minors from using and creating social media accounts on platforms like TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, the bill was revised to allow access if parents give permission.
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