DES MOINES | By summer, Iowans may be able to bet on Cubs games, use medical cannabis for more ailments and get birth control without a doctor’s prescription, if things continue to progress at the Iowa Capitol.
And the state could have a new process for choosing the Iowans who nominate individuals to serve as judges and may be on the path toward amending the constitution to include anti-abortion language.
They are among some of the dozens of bills that are advancing through the Iowa Legislature during the 2019 session and cleared a key deadline this week.
Bills that did not pass through at least the committee level no longer are eligible for consideration for the remainder of the session, although there are legislative tools and tricks lawmakers can and sometimes use to resurrect a bill.
The deadline does not apply to tax policies or budget bills.
Among the bills that passed that first legislative hurdle, known as the “funnel,” was one that would legalize sports betting in Iowa. The activity would be housed in casinos and online, taxed, and regulated by the state agency that oversees the casinos and horse racing tracks.
Bills running through the House and Senate, House File 648 and Senate File 366, are mostly similar. They passed through policy committees and now will be considered by each chamber’s tax policy committee.
Bobby Kaufmann, who chaired the committee that approved the House version, said the question before state lawmakers is not whether sports gambling exists or will expand but whether the state should legalize, tax and regulate it.
“The Legislature has two options,” Kaufmann said. “Option one, we can stick our head in the sand, click our heels and really hope this goes away. Option two is to regulate and tax (sports betting).”
Opponents have expressed concerns about legalizing more gambling and the potential for negative impact on college athletics in Iowa.
Legislation to change the way Iowa judges are selected is alive and well in both the Senate and House, despite concerns from the bar association and others that it is an attempt by Republicans to pack the court.
Currently, the governor appoints half the members of judicial nominating commissions and lawyers elect other lawyers to the other half. The commissions interview candidates to become judge or justice and forward three names for each vacancy to the governor, who picks one. The judges and justices later face voters, who decide if they retain a seat on the bench.
Senate File 237 would eliminate lawyers from picking other lawyers to serve on any of the commissions. The House version was amended last week so that lawyers would play much the same role they do now on the district panels — but not the statewide one.
An amendment to House Study Bill 110 would leave the current system in place for district courts, but change the selection method for the Iowa Supreme Court.
“A lot of the concerns we dealt with when we removed some of the things related to the district courts and focused more on the state commission,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, said.
Republican argue that allowing lawyers to fill half the seats on the nominating commissions reduces public participation and accountability.
Opponents, such as the Iowa State Bar Association, point out that the statewide nominating commission, which also advances finalists for Iowa Court of Appeals vacancies, is 69 percent Republican and 31 percent Democratic – leaving the GOP with a far greater share of representation on the panel than it has in the Iowa electorate overall.
The House measure calls for eight members to be appointed by the governor with the majority and minority party leadership of the House and Senate each would appoint two lawyers, and the Iowa Supreme Court would appoint one lawyer.
Holt hasn’t done a vote count on the bill, “but that will come soon.”
Vouchers – otherwise known as education savings grants – are alive, if only by the thinnest of margins. The Senate Education Committee approved Senate File 372 8-7 vote with two Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.
The grants would be available for K-12 private school students starting in 2020. The bill did not yet have a fiscal analysis, but a similar bill proposed in 2018 would have cost the state $265 million each year, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
If Senate majority Republicans send the bill to the House it likely will die there, according to Education Chairman Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr.
“If it does come over, I don’t think I have the votes over here in the House to move any kind of a voucher bill,” he said.
Dolecheck prefers supporting students in non-public schools through a tax credit to people who contribute to Student Tuition Organizations.
“You want to keep the private schools and public schools separate,” he said. “They have a different set of criteria. Their autonomy, for the most part, a lot of them would like to keep.”
Senate Republicans, upset by the Iowa Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Iowa Constitution in its ruling that struck down a law that would have required a three-day waiting period before a woman could get an abortion, are running a proposal to amend the constitution to state it does not guarantee the right to an abortion.
A lower court later struck down a law that would have banned all abortions once the fetus’ heartbeat could be detected, citing the previous high court decision.
Senate Joint Resolution 21 has strong Republican support in the Senate with 29 GOP members signing on.
Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said the proposal will get a hearing in the House.
“From a personal perspective, I am pro-life, and I’m not at all pleased with what I consider to be an activist (Iowa) Supreme Court that struck down our heartbeat law. So I would like to see a remedy to that,” Holt said. “Personally, not speaking for my caucus, but as myself, there’s a fundamental right to life in the Iowa Constitution, not to abortion. That’s something that will continue to be a priority for me, but it’s not a quick fix.”
Iowa’s constitution can be changed only by resolution that passes consecutive two-year General Assemblies (meaning this bill, if it passes both chambers, must do so again in 2021 at the earliest) and then by a public vote.
Bills expanding the availability of medical cannabis have cleared committees in both legislative chambers.
Both the House and Senate version would allow a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner to approve a patient’s use of medical cannabidiol under the state program. Both would replace “untreatable pain” with “severe and chronic pain” on the list of debilitating medical conditions for which medical cannabidiol may be recommended by a health care practitioner. The Senate bill Senate File 256 specifically includes post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, there differences that would have to be reconciled if the legislation advances. For example, House Study Bill 244 removes the percentage cap on the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, that medical cannabidiol is allowed to contain and prohibits a dispensary from dispensing more than 20 grams of THC to a patient or caregiver in a 90-day period. The bill allows the department of public health to lower this limit by rule.
Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, is seeking a compromise that can get broad approval in the legislature.
“We’re never going to end up in a perfect place,” Klein said, “but we can continue to take steps to provide relief to sick Iowans.”
A proposal to allow women to purchase birth control from a pharmacist – without a doctor’s prescription – cleared the funnel in the Senate.
The bill, Senate File 348, was proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and has received bipartisan support among legislators.
Supporters lauded the bill’s effort to make contraceptives more accessible to women, especially in rural areas where it may be more difficult to see a doctor. Opponents, mostly faith-based groups, cited concerns for women’s health by removing doctors from the process.
Legislative efforts to ban automated or remote systems for traffic law enforcement appears dead, but a plan to regulate traffic cameras and scoop the money to support state public safety efforts has moved forward.
House Study Bill 125 would allow local governments to install traffic cameras in documented “high-risk” areas after conducting public hearings. Under the bill approved by the Public Safety Committee 21-0, cities would retain 40 percent of the revenue – after overhead costs are paid, 60 percent would be forwarded to the Department of Public Safety.
The change is opposed by groups representing cities, including Cedar Rapids, counties and one of the companies that provides the traffic cameras.
A similar bill, Senate Study Bill 1004, was approved by a subcommittee, but didn’t see committee action.