DES MOINES — The Iowa version of “The Walking Dead” is playing out at the Statehouse where resurrected legislative ideas are moving around but facing a likely demise by early April.
Many of the proposed bills have died multiple times in previous legislative sessions as well.
Perennial issues such as requiring drug tests for welfare recipients, placing term limits on state-level elected officials, reinstating Iowa’s death penalty or motorcycle helmet law, legalizing medical marijuana or putting a moratorium of gaming licenses have returned to the Capitol for another look.
Many of the bills are doomed because of the Statehouse’s partisan divide with Democrats holding a slim 26-24 edge in the Iowa Senate and Republicans controlling the Iowa House by a 53-47 margin.
“Things that are very ideologically based are much more difficult, there’s no doubt about it. But I wouldn’t tell any legislator not to introduce something if they really believe in it,” said Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who served in both the majority and minority in the House from 1993-2009 before moving to the Senate. “It may not get any legs to take off and run and become a law, but they have the right to at least introduce the idea.”
And introduce they have. More than 1,600 bills, study bills and resolutions had been drafted heading into Friday’s deadline for individual bill requests, and Richard Johnson of the Legislative Services Agency expects that count will grow by a couple hundred by the time the final tally is made. That would be comparable to the roughly 1,900 bill draft requests two years ago, he said.
Anywhere from a third to possibly 40 percent of the requests are “recycled ideas” — legislation that previously was drafted and is still in the Legislative Services database where drafters can tweak and update the language before printing it as a new measure for representatives or senators to reintroduce at their discretion.
“They don’t take as much time as a very new concept,” Johnson said.
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said some of the bills he has introduced were requested by his constituents, others are issues he thinks should be addressed even though as a minority party member, he understands they face uphill prospects in the legislative process.
“I would never file a bill that I did not believe in, but I understand that sometimes the prognosis for success is not there,” said Zaun, who has been in the Senate since 2005. “Sometimes, when you first introduce a bill, it takes more awareness and more publicity for a bill to have traction.”
Zaun, a crusader to ban traffic enforcement cameras, said support to place restrictions and uniform standards on the devices that document red-light and speeding violations has grown since he and others began to highlight the issue in the legislative arena.
Likewise, Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, has had mixed results waging a legislative war on drugs, successfully blocking an effort to legalize medical marijuana again this year but pushing a child endangerment crime against mothers whose newborn babies test positive for drugs that likely will not get Senate consideration in the 85th General Assembly.
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Baudler said his activism on drug-related issues is rooted in his 32-plus years as a “road trooper” with the Iowa State Patrol.
“I’ve seen a whole lot in my career as a state trooper what it does to the individuals, what it does to the families, what it does to the communities — destroys them from within,” Baudler said. “I think the people that have this disease of addiction, and it is a disease, need to control it. I will do everything I can to see that they have the opportunity to control it; if they don’t, I will do everything I can to force them to control it.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who has introduced medical marijuana and other bills that have stalled in the legislative process, said many measures that lack bipartisan consensus are likely to stall in the Capitol’s split-control environment.
“I could get my head around drug testing people on welfare that get benefits just so long as we do drug testing on people that get tax credits,” Bolkcom said. “I mean if we’re worried about people using illegal substances that get state assistance, then we ought to drug-test people that take advantage of our tax credits. Let’s make that a bill.”
Many issues get caught in the Legislature’s self-imposed “funnel” deadlines that occur in March and then again in April, requiring policy bills to clear certain thresholds to remain active for consideration. But Jochum said there still are the occasional situations in which an idea that has been around for years finally catches fire and wins approval, and that keeps hope alive for sponsors of bills.“There are certain things that aren’t going to happen unless there’s bipartisan support,” he said.
“Some of it is hope that this might be the year,” she said. “If hope didn’t spring eternal around here, we’d be pretty depressed. And then, there’s always next year.”