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The Iowa Legislature Gavels In Monday. Here's What To Watch For This Session.

iowa capitol
John Pemble/IPR file
Iowa Capitol

State lawmakers are heading back to the Iowa Capitol for the 2020 legislative session Monday, Jan. 13. This session will mark the fourth consecutive year with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the governor’s office.

Here are some of the topics statehouse leaders expect to discuss this year.

Mental health funding

In the past two years, lawmakers overhauled the adult mental health system and created one for children. Republicans and Democrats say the state needs to ensure those systems have enough funding. Counties partially fund mental health services through property taxes, and there are several different ideas about how the state could supplement or change that. Republican leaders say they expect to act on this issue, but they have not yet decided on a path forward.

Voting rights for Iowans with felony convictions

Iowa is the only state in the nation that still permanently bans all people with felony convictions from voting, unless they appeal to Gov. Kim Reynolds. In 2019, she proposed a constitutional amendment to change that. The House passed it, but the Senate didn’t. Reynolds plans to keep lobbying Republican senators to pass the amendment in 2020. They’ll also be discussing restrictions, like excluding people with certain kinds of felony convictions from automatic voting rights restoration.

Medical cannabis

In 2019, lawmakers passed a bipartisan expansion of Iowa’s medical cannabis program. Gov. Reynolds vetoed it, citing discomfort with raising the THC limit to a level much higher than a state advisory board’s recommendation. Some lawmakers are looking to work with her to find a lower THC level she would sign into law, while others caution against limiting Iowa’s program in a way they say could hurt some patients and threaten the program’s financial viability.

Tax policy

Republican leaders are considering raising the state sales tax by one cent, with three-eighths of that going to a voter-approved fund for water quality and outdoor recreation. But they also say that would have to come with tax cuts in other areas. Top Republicans have not yet described a specific plan for a tax package that could include changes to sales, property and income taxes. They say forming a plan will take a lot of discussion over the course of the 2020 legislative session.

Child care

Leaders from both parties say they want to improve access to child care in Iowa. One aspect of that may be movement toward easing the child care assistance “cliff effect,” which completely cuts off assistance to families when they reach a certain income level. Lawmakers say they also want to improve the quality of child care. Republican leaders have mentioned facilitating training for child care workers, while Democrats say there may be a need for more state investigators to perform oversight.

Responding to investigations of DHS facilities

Republican statehouse leaders say they are not yet planning to hold oversight hearings about allegations of inadequate medical care and human experimentation at state facilities for residents with severe disabilities. House Speaker-Select Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said it is too soon for oversight hearings, and he wants to see the findings of ongoing federal and state investigations before acting. Democratic leaders say the legislature should hold oversight hearings sooner. They called for investigations of the facilities in the spring of 2019, but Republicans denied that request.

Changes to public assistance requirements

Senate Republicans in 2019 passed bills to require more frequent eligibility checks for people receiving food and health care assistance, and to add work reporting requirements for Medicaid. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he wants to get those policies signed into law this year. The top House Republican and Gov. Reynolds did not explicitly endorse those policies, but they said they are open to discussing them with the Senate.

Medicaid oversight

Gov. Reynolds said she has some new ideas for holding accountable the private companies that manage Iowa’s government-funded health insurance program for poor and disabled residents, but she did not elaborate on her plans. Health care providers have repeatedly complained that the companies are not paying them on time, and the state recently announced it is withholding millions from one company until it resolves payment issues.

Abortion rights constitutional amendment

Almost all Republicans in the Iowa Senate signed onto a proposal last year that would amend the Iowa Constitution to say it does not guarantee a right to abortion. The proposal did not make it to a full vote of the Senate, but anti-abortion rights groups are pushing lawmakers to take it up. The amendment is a direct response to a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court ruling protecting abortion as a fundamental right.

Katelyn Harrop is a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa