DES MOINES — For those who like to compare the legislative process to making sausage, Wednesday was a grinder at the Iowa Capitol building.
Legislators in the House and Senate held nearly 50 subcommittee meetings and passed 57 bills through 15 standing committees as majority Republicans pushed to clear this week’s self-imposed hurdle for policy bills to remain active for consideration this session.
Friday marks the so-called “funnel” deadline for non-money legislation to receive the backing of a standing committee in the House or Senate to be eligible for further debate to be debated during the remaining weeks as the 2018 session winds toward adjournment.
Top GOP leaders expressed confidence their priority issues are advancing.
“I think things are going really well. People seem busy but not frantic so that’s a good sign,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.
“Some of the bills that need more work won’t make it through the funnel and that’s fine,” she added. “We can work on those next year, we’ll continue to find a path and of course there are always ways to resurrect bills until the very end of the session.”
The bulk of the funnel casualties were coming on the Democratic side where Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, cast a contrasting view of the 2018 session’s first 39 days.
“I think it’s been another year of bills that are going to hurt Iowans,” Petersen said. “Bill Dix promised to kick the door in and I think he’s kicked the door in on a lot of areas that Iowans care about and it’s concerning. I think that they have implemented some destructive legislation.”
Senators showed flashes of bipartisanship in the Senate Commerce Committee, where members voted unanimously to approve elements of the Future Ready Iowa initiative – a major priority for Gov. Kim Reynolds during the 2018 session.
“This is a good program and it should be beneficial across the state,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who only hours earlier had berated GOP senators for promoting an “extremist” conservative agenda that was projecting Iowa as unwelcoming to groups not in the cultural and societal mainstream.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said she was “excited beyond belief” with the governor’s plan to help 70 percent of Iowa's workforce to have education, training or recognized certification beyond high school by 2025. To achieve that goal, Reynolds has said an additional 127,700 Iowans need to earn post-secondary degrees and other credentials so they have the qualifications for jobs that are in demand and pay a living wage – given that careers now and in the future require advanced knowledge and technical skills beyond what is learned in high school.
Democrats supported the concept but questioned whether majority Republicans would follow through with up to $18 million in funding given that community colleges and others are being saddled with mid-year budget cuts at a time they are expected to lead workforce readiness efforts.
Another partisan dust-up occurred on a health benefit bill that allowed qualifying associations to assist Iowans who have had trouble getting affordable health insurance in the individual market to bypass the federal Affordable Care Act requirements to arrange coverage not under the jurisdiction of the state insurance commissioner.
“I think this is the sleeper bill of the session,” said Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City. “This is like States’ Rights 101.”
Several Democrats expressed concern that the bill appeared tilted toward Farm Bureau since if referenced an agricultural association and membership might be required to qualify for the health benefit plan but in the end Senate Study Bill 3173 passed with only two dissenting votes.
One of the biggest partisan flare-ups came in Senate Local Government Committee, where Republicans voted 7-4 to approve a bill that would provide a claim or defense to a person whose exercise of freedom is substantially burdened by government action. Senate Study Bill 3171 could create a “strict scrutiny test” for the courts to use in such cases.
Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said 21 states have similar laws on the books and the federal standards date back to legislation signed by President Clinton that provides guidelines to the courts in cases where people follow the dictates of their faith in the face of government intrusion. He said warnings by Iowa businesses that the bill could have negative consequences have not occurred in those other states whose economies are outperforming Iowa.
Democrats who opposed the bill said it would run counter to Iowa’s tradition as a strong civil rights state, and Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, urged majority Republicans to “stop this thing now” because it only has 19 sponsors – seven short of the votes needed for Senate passage.
In sometimes rapid-fire action, committees gave affirmative nods to bills that would require high-school students to pass a civics exam to graduate, increase the personal amounts of beer, wine and spirits that Iowans can transport across state lines, make comprehensive changes to the state’s mental –health services delivery system, spell out free-speech guidelines for state colleges, and writing victims’ and Second Amendment rights into the Iowa Constitution.
On the House side, representatives also voted to advance the governor’s Future Ready Iowa agenda along with bills designed to given K-12 school districts more funding flexibility and extend the sales-tax funded school infrastructure program beyond its 2029 sunset as well as modifying the state’s “dram shop” law that attaches liability to state alcohol license or permit holders for all damages caused by a drunken driver they served by capping a future judgment or recovery to $75,000 per injured victim with a higher limit for situations involving deaths or other circumstances.
Another funnel survivor, HSB 2006 requires the Department of Public Health, Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union to develop training materials and courses to address concussions and brain injuries in high school sports. All coaches and contest officials would have to complete the training at least every two years.