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There's still time to get involved in Iowa's lawmaking process

Madeleine King
IPR File
Katarina Sostaric (pictured here in 2022 - second from left) reports from the Statehouse throughout the legislative session.

Iowa Public Radio recently asked our audience what questions they had about the Iowa legislature, and reporters on the IPR politics team answered them on Facebook Live.

Below we've compiled some of the most frequently asked questions. You can find the full video with Morning Edition Host Clay Masters and reporters Katarina Sostaric and Grant Gerlock here.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How can I get involved?

Masters: “How do people weigh in on stuff that's going on at the Iowa legislature?”

Sostaric: “Definitely contacting your lawmaker. You can email or call your lawmaker. I think they also like to know that it's their constituents who are contacting them, so it's good to say what town you live in, or what neighborhoods, so that they know that you're one of their constituents.

“Then there are subcommittee and occasional public hearings. A subcommittee is also a public hearing, but a public hearing is more official and only applies to some bills. Both of those go on at the state Capitol. They're open to the public. The Senate also allows virtual participation now through Zoom, so that could open up more opportunities for people who can't make it to the Capitol.”

Masters: “What else should we know about the legislature this year? And, again, ways for people to get involved in the legislative process?”

Gerlock: “There are still some budget discussions going on. If you have a particular interest in what the state government is spending in different areas, there's still time to get involved. Let your lawmaker know what you think about what they're proposing to spend on different departments and on different programs.

Sostaric: “Also, in terms of getting involved in the legislative process, people really like to pay attention to the national news and what Congress is doing. State Legislators can act a lot faster and do a lot more drastic changes a lot of the time than what's happening at the federal level. So even just paying attention to your state legislature is a great start.”

Masters: “Another thing they can do is they can vote. It is a midterm election year, and there are some pretty high profile elections.”

“…There are some new legislative districts that have been drawn. And there are a lot of races that are happening at the local level. Remind us how to find out who your candidate is, or and who's running in that race.”

Sostaric: “Right on the legislature's website. And I think on the Secretary of State's website there's a way to type in your address and find out how the district that you live in has changed, and then you can, from there, figure out who will be running in your district. There's a lot of long-time lawmakers who are retiring, there's some from the same party that are now being put into primary races against each other. So it's all kind of shaken up this year.”

How do I learn what’s being discussed before it’s too late?

Masters: “So how do people learn about it? The website sometimes — even I've had experience getting on the website, and I have to go through my own tutorial. Is that the best way to find out what's going on in the Iowa legislature and how to weigh in on these subcommittees?”

Gerlock: “It helps to get used to the legislative website. Some things that can be tricky are keeping track of the bill numbers, because those change through the process. After a bill goes through committee, it gets a new number before it goes to the floor of the House or the Senate.

"There are ways to sort of track when you go to a particular bill on the website. On the side, you can see some of the changes that have happened with a piece of legislation.

There are also other places where you can see a list for the day, all the different subcommittee meetings or standing committee meetings that are happening on any given day or any that are scheduled on the calendar.

Especially early in the session, there are tons of subcommittees happening. If you've got a particular bill or issue that you're interested in, it's worth keeping a close eye on the calendar for all those meetings.

“For the House meetings, you can go online to watch and listen to the subcommittee meeting. In the Senate, on Zoom, you can sometimes participate in those meetings, depending on the lawmaker who’s running the meeting and how many people are in the room with those lawmakers who also want to comment on something. So it varies a little bit from bill to bill and from House to Senate. But there are at least more ways than before to see what's going on and, sometimes, to participate remotely.”

Sostaric: “I just also want to say that different issue advocacy groups pay people to be there and track what's going on. So if you have something that you're particularly interested in, whether it's something related to education, related to gun regulations, related to abortion — there are groups on all sides of those issues. Find the group that is advocating for or against the issues that you care about. Usually there are ways to follow those groups, and they will give notices when there is something going on. If there's one particular area that you're interested in, that's a good way to find out what's going on.”

How do I know who funds and advocates for legislation?

Sostaric: “When you look up a bill on the legislative website, there's a link on the left side that will say 'Lobbyist Declarations.' You can click on that and see what organizations are thinking about the bill, or whether they're for or against it.

"Sometimes there will be bills where everyone is opposed, and then one organization is registered for it. If that's the case, it's a pretty safe bet that that's the organization that has either pushed for that or submitted that bill themselves. But — a lot of that is just asking questions of your lawmakers.”

How do party divides affect the lawmaking process?

Masters: “I think that a lot of times, as people might be listening, they might not think about the fact that the House and the Senate, while both are controlled by Republicans, don't always come to the same conclusion. And Democrats will have a say, they can speak, but they're in the minority. Are Democratic ideas making much headway, or what kind of suggestions are they giving? And are they moving anywhere? Is there any kind of bipartisanship going forward with the way that these conversations are taking place?”

Sostaric: “Yeah, it's quite rare right now for the minority party, the Democrats, to have either a bill or an amendment even that is accepted by the Republicans. There are certainly a lot of bills passed with bipartisan support. But on some of these bigger, more controversial issues, there really is not much bipartisanship on those.”

Masters: “How much influence does the governor have over the lawmaking process? I can remember covering Gov. Terry Branstad when the Senate and the House were in split control, and he was kind of a deal-maker. What's the governor's role right now look like?”

Sostaric: “For the most part, if the governor proposes something herself, the Republican leaders of the legislature are going to at least give it a hearing or try to move it forward. She will advocate for her own legislation. But when we are at press conferences and ask her questions about legislation that other lawmakers have proposed, she makes it clear that she does not like to comment on legislation.”

Masters: “’I want to read it first.’”

Sostaric: “Yeah, she says, ‘I'll see how it turns out. I'll wait until it reaches my desk.’ So there are quite a few things that she doesn't weigh in on publicly, even though she could use those times to try to be more influential in the legislative process. It just kind of depends on how she chooses to use that power that she has.”

Do you have any questions about the lawmaking process? Let us know at IowaAmplified@IowaPublicRadio.org

For even more on Iowa politics and legislation, subscribe to the Political Sense weekly newsletter and check out the weekly podcast Under the Golden Dome.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio