Gov. Kim Reynolds got some, but not all, of what she wanted from the GOP-controlled Legislature
Emma Nemecek of Mount Vernon checks the exterior of the envelopes before opening them Oct. 31, 2020, at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids. County auditors were allowed to begin opening absentee ballot envelopes that Saturday, though they could not yet be tallied. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)
GOVERNOR’S AGENDA: Gov. Kim Reynolds had mixed successes this session, with her biggest win being a $100 million state commitment to expand broadband to underserved or unserved parts of Iowa in fiscal 2022. The governor sought $450 million over three years and still could tap federal COVID-19 rescue funds to supplement state funding. The governor’s proposal to expand affordable and accessible housing was broken into pieces with some components advancing but at a funding level less than the $50 million she requested. Another Reynolds’ priority to spur sales of ethanol-blended and biodiesel fuels ran into a stalemate between farm groups and energy/convenience store/trucking interests that stalled plans for an aggressive renewable fuel standard upgrade until next session.
EDUCATION ISSUES: Gov. Kim Reynolds scored a blow for parental choice in winning support to expand the formation of charter schools in Iowa, but she fell short in winning majority GOP passage to use public funds to provide scholarships to students attending non-public K-12 schools. The governor also led the charge to end voluntary diversity plans in five school districts that removed restrictions on open enrollment for families seeking to send students to other schools — often moving from struggling urban districts to suburban locations. The GOP-led Legislature also required schools to offer a 100-percent “in person” option as schools moved from online and hybrid COVID-19 learning models and the governor revealed she returned $95 million in federal money aimed at providing expanded COVID-19 testing capabilities in school settings as the pandemic threat lessened as more Iowans received vaccinations.
HOT BUTTONS: Legislators addressed several hot-button issues, including passing legislation Reynolds signed that cuts Iowa’s early voting period by nine days, closes polls an hour earlier at 8 p.m. on general Election Day and makes other changes to state election laws. County auditors no longer can set up satellite early voting sites on their own; plus they could be charged with a felony for failing to follow the Secretary of State’s rules for the administration of elections. Legislators considered but did not pass legislation seeking to revoke tax credits and government contracts from high-tech companies if they restrict certain types of speech on their platforms.
BOTTLE BILL: Lawmakers again tried to revamp Iowa’s 1979 bottle bill that places a nickel deposit on some bottles, cans and other containers but were unable to get a compromise to the governor’s desk. Similar bills in the House and Senate won committee approval, but did not advance for further consideration.
VACCINE PASSPORTS: The Legislature did succeed in adopting legislation forbidding Iowa businesses, schools and government entities from denying entry to people who haven’t received their the COVID-19 vaccinations, but granted an exception for health care facilities in Iowa. In addition, all government entities in Iowa would be barred from issuing ID cards with a person’s vaccination history under legislation Reynolds supported.
DIVISIVE CONCEPTS: The Legislature voted to forbid “divisive concepts” like gender- or race-based stereotypes from inclusion in diversity training for staff and students at most publicly funded institutions and government entities in the state, as well as protect free-speech rights on college campuses.
GUN RIGHTS: Beginning July 1, Iowans age 21 and older will no longer be required to get permits to purchase or carry a concealed handgun but they also still will have the option to obtain a permit if they choose. If they choose not to get a permit, they must pass a background check when buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer. Also, a private seller will no longer have to ask to see a buyer’s permit to obtain. However, under the new law, it will become a Class D felony to sell, rent or loan a gun to a person the seller “knows or reasonably should know” is prohibited from owning firearms. Reynolds also signed a separate law that provides some immunity from legal liability to companies that make guns and ammunition, which backers say will prevent frivolous lawsuits but critics warn will give people injured by a malfunctioning gun no legal recourse.
ON THE BALLOT: Lawmakers agreed to bring a constitutional amendment before voters in November 2022 that would write the right to keep and bear arms into the Iowa Constitution. If adopted by voters, the state constitution would be amended by adding: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.” The “strict scrutiny” legal phrase would make it more difficult for future state lawmakers to pass any laws that would seek to regulate gun ownership and could subject existing regulations to legal challenges.
REFERENDUM: Lawmakers also approved House Joint Resolution 5 that, if approved again next year, would put an amendment on the ballot as early as 2024 to allow Iowa voters to decide whether the Iowa Constitution provides a right to abortion. The resolution reads: To defend the dignity of all human life and protect unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the point of birth, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.
TRANSPORTATION: More parents will be teaching their children how to drive now that lawmakers loosened restrictions that primarily required training from professional instructors. While legislators changed some driver’s education requirements, they did not alter local jurisdictions’ ability to police speeders by banning automated traffic enforcement cameras along highways and city streets in Iowa. Also, the Legislature did not agree to ban Iowans from using hand-held devices while driving, to create violations for slower drivers who refuse to move out of left lanes on divided roadways, or to place adult changing stations in interstate rest areas. They did increase the penalty for drivers involved in deadly or serious crashes who are convicted of traveling at excessive speeds.
‘BACK THE BLUE:’ The “back the blue” legislation would, among other things, shield law enforcement officers from some lawsuits in the form of qualified immunity, and raises the penalty for rioting from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony. The legislation fulfills a promise Republicans made during the 2020 election campaign, and adds protections for law enforcement officers after, over the past year, racial justice protests in some cases turned violent. However, Democrats warned it likely will have a disparate impact on Black Iowans, pointing to nonpartisan state analysis that shows Iowans convicted of rioting are disproportionately Black.
RACIAL PROFILING: Democrats tried to advance Reynolds’s anti-racial profiling proposal that came out of her criminal justice reform focus group. But Republicans said it lacked support among their members. Reynolds called for a statutory ban on law enforcement personnel’s disparate treatment based on race and gender, and would have required agencies to track and report data on the ethnicity of people they stop.