Iowa legislative news roundup: dead and alive after the second funnel

The Iowa legislature’s second “funnel” deadline passed late last week. To remain eligible for debate during the remainder of this year’s session, most legislation needed to have passed one chamber as well as a committee in the other chamber. There are a few exceptions to the rule, namely appropriations bills and some tax measures. Rod Boshart listed the most significant “dead” and “alive” bills for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The Iowa House Republican staff compiled a more comprehensive list of “second funnel survivors,” including bill summaries. The Iowa Senate Democratic staff highlighted the most important bills passed by the Senate that died in the House.

After the jump I’ve enclosed more links and some analysis on bills that died as well as those still under consideration. From my perspective, the most surprising casualty of the funnel was a bill to extend the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children (see the “safety and crime” section below).

Any comments on pending legislation in the Iowa House or Senate are welcome in this thread.  

BUDGET AND TAXES

For the first time since the legislature has been in divided control, Iowa House and Senate leaders were able to agree on overall spending targets early in the session. On March 5, Senate Democratic and House Republican leaders released a plan to spend $6.97 billion in the budget for fiscal year 2015, which runs from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2015.

That would represent a 7.39 percent increase compared to current year funding that is $6.492 billion.

[…]

THE FISCAL 2015 SPENDING TARGET is lower than the $7 billion in general fund spending Branstad proposed in January and was under the fiscal 2015 available revenue estimate of $6.983 million established in December by the state Revenue Estimating Conference.

The largest budget area – health and human services – received a nearly $107.4 million boost to $1.858 billion, while education would receive an $87.15 million increase to $986.1 million under the joint targets for next fiscal year.

The joint targets will fully fund a 4 percent increase in state aid to K-12 school districts, provide money to cover 2013 commitments made for property tax relief and education reform, increase the state’s share of Medicaid spending, freeze tuition at regent universities and boost funding for Iowa’s 15 community colleges by $8 million, key negotiators said.

A special bill to be drafted later in the session may include some extra spending for various programs. Doing so would allow lawmakers to increase funding for certain projects without increasing the baseline to be used when next year’s budget bills are drafted. For instance, advocates hoping for $25 million in funding for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’s flagship conservation program may be able to secure $16 million in funding from the regular appropriations bill and $9 million from a supplemental spending bill.

I was skeptical earlier this year when some legislative leaders predicted the session could end on schedule, before May. The legislature has had to work several weeks of overtime, sometimes into June, every year since 2011, when the Republicans took back the Iowa House. After seeing how quickly leaders agreed on overall budget targets, I am coming around to think lawmakers may be able to adjourn for the year by the end of April after all. Some of them are eager to get home and start hitting the doors for their re-election campaigns.

No tax bills loom as large this year as commercial property tax reform did during the 2013 legislative session. A few tax bills are alive, though, including a proposal to increase the state’s gasoline tax for the first time in more than 20 years. Actually, two approaches to this end are under consideration:

One bill raises the state’s fuel tax by 10-cents over three years. The other, cuts the per-gallon fuel tax but raises the cost on wholesalers. “I would say proposal No. 1 which we passed out of subcommittee 5-0 has taken kind of a back seat because the plan No. 2 seems to have a lot more support than just a straight up 10-cent fuel tax,” State Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said.

I would be stunned if any kind of gas tax hike became law during an election year. Governor Terry Branstad has neither endorsed nor promised to veto such a bill. Without the governor spending a lot of political capital to make this happen, it’s hard to see lawmakers sticking their neck out.

In contrast, I expect both chambers to easily pass a bill exempting military pay from state income taxes, which is designed to encourage veterans to move to Iowa.

ECONOMY AND LABOR

Increasing the minimum wage is a top priority for Senate Democrats this year. House Republican leaders are cool to the idea, even though some of them voted for Iowa’s last minimum wage increase in 2007. Instead of passing Senate File 2260 in the upper chamber, only to see it die in a House committee, Senate leaders used a procedural move last week to keep it alive in a different Senate committee. It is hard for me to see how this bill could advance while Republicans control the House.

On March 4, the Senate approved Senate File 2295, a bill designed to address common forms of wage theft. The Iowa Policy Project has called wage theft “an invisible epidemic” costing Iowa workers an estimated $600 million each year. Click here for a few examples of how wage theft works. SF 2995 cleared the Senate on a straight party-line vote of 26 votes to 23. House Republicans let it die in a subcommittee.

EDUCATION

In a continuing violation of state law that requires school aid to be set a year in advance, the Iowa House never did take up a Senate bill setting allowable growth for K-12 school budgets at 6 percent for the fiscal year beginning in July 2015. However, Boshart reported that the increase in school aid was kept alive by adding that language to a policy bill still eligible for debate.

A Senate proposal to expand the statewide voluntary preschool program is still alive too, but I doubt the House will consider that step while Republicans have a majority. Three years ago they fought to end the state preschool program.

On March 18, the Iowa Senate approved Senate File 2318, one of several anti-bullying proposals under consideration this year. The bill passed on a straight party-line vote of 26 to 19 (five Republicans were absent).

Several senators have worked hard to address the problem of radon in Iowa school buildings. Iowa is one of the worst states for radon pollution, which is believed to be a major cause of lung cancer. Fewer than 10 percent of school buildings have even been tested for radon levels. The original intent of Senate File 2262 was to require radon testing in school buildings, along with remediation if high levels of the odorless gas were found. To get through the Senate, the bill was amended to require testing but not remediation. Democratic Senator Matt McCoy said during floor debate on March 4,

“I will support for this bill. It is a warm bucket of spit,” McCoy said. “I’m not happy about it. It is weak. It is sad, but it is the best we’re going to get and I urge the rest of you to plug your nose and support this bill.”

The radon testing bill passed the Senate by 35 votes to 14. All 26 Democrats voted yes, joined by Republicans Rick Bertrand, Bill Dix, Mark Segebart, Roby Smith, Julian Garrett, Mark Chelgren, Jack Whitver, Charles Schneider, and Ken Rozenboom.

Instead of taking up Senate File 2262, House Republicans took up a different radon bill, Senate File 366, which the upper chamber had approved in 2013. A House Local Government Committee recommended passing the bill with an an amendment erasing any requirement for radon testing, let alone remediation, in Iowa schools. Instead, the bill calls on the state Department of Education to notify all schools of the risks associated with radon. Schools then have until December 1, 2014, to inform the department whether they have any radon testing or remediation program in place.

Sounds to me like a load of something less printable than “warm bucket of spit.” But House Democrats didn’t put up a fight; SF 366 passed by 99 votes to 1. Retiring Democratic State Representative Roger Thomas cast the lone no vote; good for him.

SOCIAL ISSUES

Most bills related to marriage or abortion died in the legislature’s first funnel last month. However, House Republicans did pass a bill last month banning the use of telemedicine to provide medical abortions. That bill did not clear any committee in the Iowa Senate. Several Republicans in the upper chamber formally asked the majority party to advance the cause anyway as a leadership bill, avoiding death by funnel. Two recent polls have indicated that nearly two-thirds of Iowans oppose telemedicine abortions. Fortunately, we don’t force individuals to gain majority approval for their health care decisions. Someone should explain that concept to the conservative politicians who otherwise claim to stand for personal liberty.

Senator Herman Quirmbach chaired the subcommittee that did not advance the telemedicine bill. He noted that the Iowa Board of Medicine already banned the procedure in a rule now being challenged in state court.

SAFETY AND CRIME

I was surprised to see Senate File 2109, which would expand the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children (giving victims more time to bring civil and criminal actions), on the list of dead legislation. This bill passed the Senate by 49 votes to 0 last month. It then passed a House Judiciary subcommittee but not the full committee before the second funnel deadline. House Judiciary Committee Chair Chip Baltimore needs to answer questions about this lapse.

Two other bills related to sexual exploitation remain alive; one would “Broaden civil commitment for sexual predators,” and the other would allow people to lose their teaching licenses after a sexual liaison with a student.

A bill seeking to legalize medical marijuana died in the first funnel, but more recently lawmakers in both parties have suggested they are open to considering the issue. I doubt it will pass this year, but State Senator Joe Bolkcom has certainly moved the ball down the field.

The only significant gun-related legislation to clear the Iowa House this year was a bill to legalize silencers. It died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chair Rob Hogg said he wanted to avoid divisive bills on weapons.

A bill to prohibit the sale of some e-cigarettes to minors remains alive, although public health advocates oppose the measure.

A procedural move kept alive a dumb idea to allow Iowans to drive all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on county roads and city streets. That’s guaranteed to increase traffic fatalities if it becomes law.

Texting while driving has been illegal in Iowa since 2010, but a proposal considered this year sought to strengthen that law.

SF 2289 would have made texting while driving or other forms of electronic communication a primary violation. Currently, this is a secondary violation in Iowa, meaning that law enforcement officers have to pull a driver over for a primary issue, such as speeding or driving without a seat belt.

“With the secondary law, it’s hard to enforce that unless they’re involved in an accident and not admitting to being on the phone or they’re speeding and you see them texting and you enforce that,” said [Sgt.Phil] Fort.

Although SF 2289 passed the Iowa Senate on March 11 by a wide margin of 41 votes to 7, it didn’t make it through the House Transportation Committee in time for the second funnel.

Byrnes said the texting bill arrived from the Senate too late to tackle a policy decision of that magnitude on short notice.

“We talked about it because I knew it was going to be coming over,” he added. “There were a couple of people who had concerns that this is a pretty big policy bill to just shove through fast.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Tom Sands rescued a bill that would permit the sale of most fireworks in Iowa for the first time since the 1930s. The Libertarian Party and libertarians within the Iowa GOP have helped to raise the profile of this issue in recent years.

SENATE CONFIRMATIONS

Typically, the Iowa Senate confirms all but a handful of the governor’s appointees. So far this year, senators have confirmed all of the Branstad nominees who have come up for a floor vote. Notable names include Brad Buck, who has been acting as director of the Department of Education since last August; Larry Noble, who is returning to run the Department of Public Safety; Jodi Tymeson, the new commandant of the Iowa Veterans Home; and former U.S. Representative Leonard Boswell, whom Branstad named to the Iowa Transportation Commission.

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