Iowa lawmakers unanimously passed a bill Monday night responding to issues related to COVID-19 and ensuring state government funding can continue before they officially suspended the legislative session for at least 30 days to prevent the spread of the disease.
They gave Gov. Kim Reynolds more authority to transfer funds between agencies and to use nearly $20 million of the state’s Economic Emergency Fund to respond to the new coronavirus outbreak. The Legislative Council, a group of top lawmakers, would have to approve spending emergency funds above that level.
Lawmakers also approved Reynolds’ request of $525,000 for the state hygienic lab to fund six weeks’ worth of COVID-19 testing.
“So the measures that we’re going to take will give the governor the authority to do what she needs to do while we’re not in session, to make sure that there’s confidence that government will function appropriately during this time,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny.
If the legislature is unable to convene and pass a new budget before the start of the next fiscal year that starts July 1, the bill passed Monday night contains a provision to extend current state government funding levels through July and August.
The deal also waives the requirement for schools to make up days canceled because of COVID-19. Reynolds on Sunday night recommended all Iowa schools close for four weeks to prevent spreading the new coronavirus.
The funding bill also provided additional money in the current fiscal year that was not prompted by the virus. It gives about $90 million more for Medicaid and $600,000 for the Glenwood Resource Center as it faces allegations of inadequate care and human experimentation.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said she is proud of the bipartisan agreement.
“I think we’ve achieved some important goals with this,” Petersen said. “First, ensuring that we have tools in place to protect the health and safety of Iowans. Also ensuring that key government services will stay in place as the pandemic continues to expand with the appropriate safeguards in place for lawmakers to be brought back in if need be.”
She added it’s important that lawmakers are setting a good example for the public by suspending session and going home to prevent the spread of disease.
House Democrats offered an amendment to the bill that would ensure people don’t get evicted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other provisions. Republicans voted down the amendment.
“I strongly encourage the governor to look out for the protection of all Iowans,” said House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City. “Disasters always tend to harm society’s most vulnerable: children, the poor, and the elderly. We must ensure that she takes action that minimizes the disruption to the lives of these people.”
Suspension of Iowa’s legislative session
The typically busy hallways of the Iowa Capitol were quiet and mostly empty Monday.
The decision to suspend the legislative session came Sunday in response to the detection of community spread of COVID-19 in Iowa.
State public health officials say community spread is determined when they cannot identify where a person’s case of the disease came from.
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said suspending the session can help protect medically vulnerable people.
“It isn’t just about lobbyists and representatives,” Grassley said. “This is about all these folks that work in the building, come from all across the state, and then head back to where they came from. So there is some unique circumstances we face here within the building.”
He said the suspension does not mean lawmakers will stop working.
“The expectation is that we continue to work through the process,” Grassley said. “Obviously, we’ve had a scenario thrown at us that we did not expect. But we have the capabilities to continue to have some of that work going on.”
Grassley said lawmakers will not be voting in private. Instead, after they leave the Capitol, they could continue the discussions they typically have privately.
Petersen said Iowans should continue to reach out to their lawmakers, who can pass coronavirus concerns on to the governor’s office and other government offices.
Several major pieces of legislation including constitutional amendments related to felon voting rights and abortion rights hang in the balance. Legislative leaders said they are waiving this week’s deadline for certain bills to pass through committees.
“We want to pass as much of the people’s business as we can, but all that’s to be determined when we come back,” Whitver said. “But it’s our intent to continue to pass policy along with the budget when we come back.”
Iowa Capitol access
The Statehouse is still open to the public, but members of the public have to go through a brief health screening before entering. Lawmakers are exempt from the health screening requirement.
There are two tents outside the building manned by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Inside the tents, health workers in gowns, masks and goggles ask people if they’ve traveled outside of the country in the past two weeks, and if they have certain symptoms. They also take the temperature of the people entering the building.
“It was a little creepy,” said Kathy Rodham, who was visiting the statehouse from Dubuque with her two daughters. “But it was great, because then we kind of felt safer coming in.”
Rodham was taking a tour of the state Capitol until the guide was ordered to end the tour about halfway through. Tours and events at the Statehouse are canceled until further notice.
This post was updated Tuesday, March 17 at 12:27 a.m.