030619-Iowa-State-Capitol-011

The Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines March 6.

DES MOINES — The penalties would be reduced for possessions of small amounts of marijuana under a proposal that passed a key step Monday at the Iowa Capitol.

A first offense of possessing five grams or fewer of marijuana would be reclassified from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor under legislation approved Monday by the Iowa Senate.

That means the penalty would go from up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 under the current law to up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $625 under the proposal.

Dan Dawson, a Republican state senator from Council Bluffs, said the proposal adjusts penalties while keeping the act of marijuana possession illegal.

“This changes the point of entry in the court system,” Dawson said. “Miniscule residue levels like this might be better for a magistrate court.”

SF 378 passed the Senate with strong bipartisan vote with 40 lawmakers voting in favor and eight — all Republicans — voting against.

Democrats supported the measure, but later during Senate debate on Monday expressed frustration that Republicans did not support also including it in a bill that would address myriad other criminal law changes.

Senate Democrats said including the provision in the criminal law bill would have sent a strong signal to the House. Democrats said they fear majority House Republicans will not consider the marijuana possession penalty changes.

“I wanted to make the statement to the House that we’re serious about this. Iowa is getting so far behind on its marijuana laws,” said Tony Bisignano, a Democratic senator from Des Moines.

Dawson said the criminal law bill was drafted in consultation with House leaders in hopes of writing a proposal that both chambers would support and send to the governor.

“I am more of a realist. I’m trying to get something done,” Dawson said. “This is a bipartisan bill. This has ideas from both sides. ... As opposed to sending bills over (to the House) and having them die, I am trying to advance issues in a bipartisan manner.”

The criminal law bill has myriad provisions, including the option for the expungement of one misdemeanor criminal record after at least eight years, a limit on rights to appeal after a guilty plea, and extending the statute of limitations on charges of sexual assault and incest against a minor from 10 to 15 years after the alleged victim turns 18 years old.

Senate File 589 passed the Senate, 31-17, with Democrat Kevin Kinney of Oxford, a retired deputy sheriff, joining Republicans in supporting the proposal.

Lawmakers are working toward a key legislative deadline: by the end of this week, bills must be approved by one full chamber and a full committee in the other in order to remain eligible for consideration for the rest of this year’s session.

Senate Republicans also advanced a bill that would require the state to implement an electronic system to verify the eligibility of Iowans on public assistance programs like Medicaid and food assistance.

The new system would be funded partially by federal dollars, since those assistance programs are jointly funded or operated by the state and federal governments. The state’s costs for computer upgrades and staffing increases would be $7.4 million in the first budget year and $1.3 million in the following budget year, according to the state’s nonpartisan fiscal analysis agency.

The proposal, Senate File 334, passed on a party-line 30-18 vote with all Republicans supporting and all Democrats opposing. It now heads to the House, and leaders there said they do not plan this year to run any bills that deal with requirements for public assistance recipients.

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