After ten days, the revived 2020 Iowa Legislative Session has ended and the partisan debates waged in the closing hours are likely to continue through the fall campaign. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver of Ankeny said “unprecedented” is the best word to describe the session.
“The state of Iowa has never seen a legislative session that takes a two month pause and comes back and still has a productive session,” Whitver told Radio Iowa.
The Republican-led legislature’s big policy pieces, Whitver said, were dictated by the times.
“The pandemic that hit Iowa caused a lot of concern for a lot of people. It caused concern for our state budget and so finalizing a solid budget that keeps us in a strong fiscal position will be one of the great accomplishments,” Whitver said, “and then the liability protections for all the churches and schools and cities and businesses that want to open up I think is really important.”
This weekend, Republicans in the legislature voted to cut the state budget for conducting elections by a quarter of a million dollars and to force the state’s top election official to get permission from legislative leaders if he intends to send absentee ballot request forms to voters. GOP lawmakers have also voted to create new voter verification steps for casting an absentee ballot. Senator Roby Smith, a Republican from Davenport, said if a ballot request form has the wrong voter I-D number on it, a county auditor cannot use voter registration data to correct it and send a ballot out, but must contact the voter by phone, email or letter to verify the person is a qualified voter.
“This is about security,” Smith said early Sunday morning. “This is about making sure the people that voter are the right ones.”
House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard and all the Democrats in the legislature opposed these election-related moves.
“I can’t believe that I’ve had to do more in this House in defense of voter rights,” Prichard said midday Sunday. “…What’s more fundamental to democracy than elections?”
On Saturday, Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines railed against another bill GOP lawmakers sent the governor to establish a 24-hour waiting period for abortions.
“In the middle of a global pandemic when we have Iowans in the hospital fighting for their lives, Iowans scared to go to work because they’re not sure if their employers would tell them the truth if they’ve had a COVID outbreak — and this is what we see,” Petersen said. “This is wrong.”
Republicans hope the bill sparks a reversal of a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court opinion on abortion.
Republican Representative Gary Mohr of Bettendorf — chairman of the House Appropriations Committee — said many new ideas “had to be put on the shelf” because of the pandemic, but while other states are dealing with massive deficits, Iowa lawmakers shaved about $360 million from next year’s state budget plan without using any of the state’s emergency and cash reserves.
“We expect to take in enough revenue to maintain the status quo,” Mohr said, “and maintain our commitments to our schools and our health care system.”
Democrats like Representative Chris Hall of Sioux City say Republican legislators are giving Republican Governor Kim Reynolds too much leeway to spend federal money and adjust the state budget plan in the midst of the pandemic.
“We hope to goodness that nothing bad happens, that we don’t see another second wave of outbreak,” Hall said, “but this was our opportunity to prepare for it and this legislature’s punting.”
A move to automatically restore voting rights to released felons stalled in the final hours of the 2020 legislative session. In 2019, Governor Kim Reynolds began lobbying legislators to advance a proposed constitutional amendment on the topic. The Iowa House took bipartisan action last year, but there were never enough Senate Republican votes for it. Republican Senator Brad Zaun of Urbandale said there has always been concern about the message it would send to victims.
“It’s a very emotional issue and secondly all indications are the governor is going to sign an executive order,” Zaun told Radio Iowa.
On Friday, Governor Reynolds and a group of Black Lives Matter protesters discussed using her executive authority to automatically give released felons the right to vote now, rather than waiting until the constitution might be amended in 2022. Representative Ras Smith, a Democrat from Waterloo, said a permanent solution of a constitutional amendment is always the best.
“If it’s a bargaining chip every year that we can count on them pulling back from the table when it comes time to ante up, that’s disappointing,” Smith said.
The Senate completed action on bills at six o’clock Sunday morning. House suspended debate at about 10 p.m. Saturday, then resumed debate mid-day Sunday. The House and Senate adjourned shortly after 1:30 p.m.