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Iowa Legislature to tackle hot button issues: distracted driving, abortion, guns, marijuana
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Iowa Legislature to tackle hot button issues: distracted driving, abortion, guns, marijuana

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The Iowa State Capitol building Friday, July 31, 2020, in Des Moines.

DES MOINES — Public safety officials want to ban hand-held cellphones while driving, Republicans want to bolster gun rights and weaken abortion rights in the Iowa Constitution and Democrats want the state to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

Those are some of the “hot-button” issues that likely will emerge after the 2021 legislative session launches Monday.

“I’m thinking like the 2021 session being more like the stock car races on the old dirt track at Hawkeye Downs,” Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, told a pre-session legislative forum, noting the 89th General Assembly will be a mix of Statehouse veterans who “have been there awhile” and “a lot of young guns coming in with some great ideas.”

“So, I think it will be an interesting session as we circle that track a number of times.”

Among the issues that have circled the legislative track but have broken down before the finish line in past sessions are efforts to ban drivers from using hand-held electronic devices, ban the use of highway cameras to issue speeding and red-light violations, repeal or modify the state’s decades-old bottle deposit law, make either daylight saving or standard time permanent, provide “religious freedom” protections for businesses, change the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, increase the state minimum hourly wage, allow end-of-life options for patients with terminal conditions and increase speed limits on Iowa roadways.

“I think COVID-19 has taken some oxygen out of the room for a few of those issues,” said Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. “I think COVID has put so many other things on the radar, some of these typical ones maybe weren’t as hot as they once were.”

The state constitutional amendments dealing with gun rights and abortion are likely to be part of majority Republicans’ 2021 agenda, but other topics offered by individual legislators or sought by state agencies or various interest groups will have to face a General Assembly with 26 new members who will be considering details for the first time and veteran committee leaders who will pick and choose what topics they will allow to advance.

“We give our chairs of our committees a lot of authority to go work on issues,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny.

For instance, Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, the returning chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he probably will drop another traffic camera ban into the legislative hopper for consideration and would “explore” the possibility of reinstating a limited death penalty for murderers and child rapists, but likely would not take up a proposal being pushed by Democrats to regulate marijuana like alcohol for adult use.

Marijuana laws

“I am not interested in legalizing recreational marijuana,” said Zaun, after 39 state and local elected officials unveiled the idea Wednesday. “I am, however, as in the past, supporting legislation that would lower the penalties on first possession (of small amounts of marijuana) with no intent to deliver.”

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has indicated she does not support legalizing marijuana as some other states have done, but Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said Reynolds “is not going to be governor forever” and advocates for “ending marijuana prohibition” are laying the groundwork for eventual passage of legislation legalizing marijuana, regulating it like alcohol or decriminalizing possession of small amounts to be treated as civil citations rather than crimes.

Gun rights

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, who is moving to a new job as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said his new duties likely will take him away from an effort to place work requirements on welfare recipients but he expects a separate effort to hire private vendors using electronic verification to check assets, incomes and residency of Iowa welfare recipients likely will move forward.

Schultz said he expects the Legislature will approve a resolution that would give voters the opportunity as early as 2022 to adopt an amendment to the Iowa Constitution providing Iowans with the right to keep and bear arms. The previous General Assembly had to revisit the issue because the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office failed to meet a notification requirement, forcing the amendment process to start over.

State constitutional amendments must pass two consecutive General Assemblies in exactly the same form to come before voters. If adopted by voters, the state constitution would be amended by adding: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”

“I expect that to happen soon and probably not make that many waves,” he said. “Everybody knows it’s coming. It will be incredibly important but I do not expect that to be one of the major newsmakers, other than it simply happens. It’s not controversy in the Senate.”

Abortion rights

Majority Republicans also plan to revisit a resolution passed by the Senate but not the House that would give Iowa voters a chance to amend the state constitution to say there is no fundamental right to abortion or public funding of the procedure. Proponents say the amendment is a way to “right a wrong” by “activist” Iowa Supreme Court justices.

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, argued the change is needed to correct a judicial “overreach” by justices “inventing” a right that did not exist before the court’s 5-2 ruling to strike down an abortion limit in 2018.

“I feel fairly confident that there will be a level of support to pass a constitutional amendment when it comes to life but what the exact language looks like, I can’t tell you that,” said Grassley.

Like the gun issue, the joint resolution on abortion must pass both the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House in exactly the same form this session and then win support of the 90th Iowa General Assembly before the measure would come before voters, as early as the 2024 general election.

phones and driving

Patrick Hoye, bureau chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau and a former head of Iowa State Patrol, said the state Department of Public Safety has filed a bill seeking to prohibit drivers from using a cellphone or other hand-held electronic device while operating a motor vehicle and face tough penalties for violations.

“I think we definitely will have that conversation,” said Grassley. “I have no idea where the new members stand on something like that.”

Sen. Waylon Brown, R-Osage, incoming chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he has had a number of groups contact him on the issue and expects “multiple versions” of hands-free legislation to be introduced.

“It is my hope that we will be able to have the support to move something through committee and see it advance,” he said. “Undoubtedly, there will be robust discussion around this issue.”

Iowa’s current anti-texting law, which carries a fine of about $100, prohibits the use of hand-held electronic communication devices to write, send, or view electronic messages while driving.

But Hoye said “it permits cellphone use for a variety of other tasks and what we’ve found is in talking with our law enforcement partners it is very difficult to enforce the current law.

“Their belief is if we can do a hands-free law, it becomes easier to enforce and would actually change the driver’s behavior and that’s what we’re hoping to accomplish there,” he noted.

Bottle deposits

Another bill already filed seeks to repeal Iowa’s 1979 bottle deposit law upon enactment, and give Iowans six months after the repeal to recoup their nickel deposits before the law goes away.

Last year, officials in the state Department of Natural Resources rejected a petition from the Iowa Grocery Industry Association seeking changes in the rules governing beverage container deposit redemption centers, so the industry filed a lawsuit after Iowa DNR Director Kayla Lyon ruled the change would be up to lawmakers.

Various efforts to change, expand or do away with the anti-litter measure have stalled in the Legislature. Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in outlining his legislative priorities, noted “we must either get the bottle bill fixed by increasing the penny profit or get rid of the program altogether. I will work to make the recycling program work again by increasing the penny profit for recyclers.”

Collection: Read about the 2021 Iowa legislative session

2021 Iowa Legislative Session Preview Series

Sunday, Jan. 3: COVID-19

Tuesday, Jan. 5: Redistricting, tax policy and the budget

Wednesday, Jan. 6: Higher education

Thursday, Jan. 7: K-12 education funding and policy

Friday, Jan. 8: Criminal justice reform

Saturday, Jan. 9: Hot-button issues

Sunday, Jan. 10: The digital divide, and demographics of the new Iowa Legislature

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