The Iowa Legislature was supposed to be done by now. So what’s the holdup? Here are 7 unsettled issues

Source: By Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, May 3, 2021

When Iowa lawmakers come back to work this week, they’ll be paying for their own apartments, hotel rooms and gas mileage.

April 30 was the 110th day of the annual legislative session, and the last day that state lawmakers got a per diem stipend for their work. It’s typically the target date to end the session.

But legislators are back at the Iowa Capitol this week — per diem or not — because they have yet to reach an agreement on the state budget, tax cuts and several other measures that are priorities for one group or another.

“The reality is that 110 day deadline is just when we stop getting paid. It’s not when we have to stop working,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Thursday. “And I know our caucus really believes in some of these things that we’re pushing and we wanted to get done, and are more than happy to stay here if we need to longer without pay to get it done.”

Here are some of the issues that have kept lawmakers working at the Capitol:

Budget: Required to pass

The state budget is the one thing lawmakers are required to pass each year, and it’s typically the last item to be finalized before the session concludes.

Legislators are expected to pass a roughly $8 billion state budget. The House and Senate, which are both controlled by Republicans, are fairly close on many of the numbers.

Lawmakers disagree, however, on Iowa Department of Corrections budget. House lawmakers have proposed a roughly $21 million increase and the Senate has suggested a $6.3 million increase. The corrections budget became a controversial issue this year after two Anamosa State Penitentiary staff members were killed in an alleged inmate attack in March.

Another area of disagreement: The Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the state’s three public universities. House Republicans have proposed a budget with no additional funding for the board, and they also want to require the three schools to freeze tuition. Senate Republicans’ budget contains an $8.2 million increase and no tuition freeze.

Tax cuts: Needed to finalize budget

It’s hard to finalize the budget without coming to an agreement on taxes.

The Iowa Senate has passed a series of bills this year that would speed up planned income tax cuts, eliminate the state’s inheritance tax and cut county property taxes by shifting mental health funding from counties to the state.

But the House has yet to pass any of those. Meanwhile, the Senate hasn’t taken action on several child care bills the House has passed, and some of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposals, like more tax credits for affordable housing, are in limbo.

Whitver said he and other lawmakers have been meeting with the governor to come up with a compromise tax bill.

“It’s a fairly comprehensive bill that I think is a really good compromise with the Senate, the House and the governor, so I really hope we can get it passed,” he said.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, has said he wants to have an expansive conversation about not just property tax rates, but how mental health services are delivered in Iowa before the state agrees to pick up the tab.

“That is, in my opinion equally — and not just me but the caucus — equally as important as the levy itself,” he told reporters Thursday. “Whether we can get there or not I don’t know that but that will be part of it if there is going to be a deal.”

Biofuels: Might not get done

Reynolds proposed a bill this year that would require Iowa truck stops, gas stations and convenience stores to offer fuel with higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel.

But she and legislative leaders have acknowledged they may not get to a deal this year, as various industry groups continue to have concerns with the bill.

“Unfortunately, I don’t get everything I want,” Reynolds told reporters Wednesday. “I try my hardest but it’s just a reality of the legislative process. So we won’t give up on it but if I can’t get it through we’ll continue to look for ways that we can continue to build the industry.”

More:Rough road ahead for bill backed by Gov. Kim Reynolds mandating renewable fuel at Iowa pumps

She said she’s told various stakeholders that she plans to convene a meeting before next year’s legislative session to sit down at the table and figure out their differences, if the bill doesn’t pass.

Police policy: House, Senate differences

Increased benefits and legal protections for police officers and stronger penalties for protest-related crimes are likely to become law this year — once legislators can iron out differences.

The House and Senate this year have passed several versions of what supporters refer to as “Back the Blue” legislation intended to support police. Democrats and civil rights groups are concerned pieces of it would chill protests and disproportionately affect Black Iowans.

Most parts of the bill have Republican support, but Whitver said the Senate is still vetting some pieces in the most recent House bill that deal with collective bargaining rights and other law enforcement benefits.

“We’re just trying to work through those provisions and see what we can agree on,” he said. “But certainly we hope to get a bill signed by the governor regarding back the blue.”

Abortion: ‘I don’t know if we’ll find agreement on that or not’

The House and Senate have each passed different versions of a proposed constitutional amendment that would state that the Iowa Constitution doesn’t protect the right to get an abortion.

But the two chambers haven’t come to an agreement on the exact wording, which they would need to do for the measure to advance this year.

“I don’t know if we’ll find agreement on that or not,” Whitver said.

Vaccine passports: ‘Take a stand’

The House has already approve on legislation to limit so-called vaccine passports, and the Senate is poised to do the same, likely this week.

The bill would prohibit local governments and businesses from requiring customers or visitors on their premises to prove they are vaccinated for COVID-19. The penalty for breaking the law would be denial of future state grants and contracts. The bill would also prevent state or local governments from including a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status on an identification card.

Reynolds last month said she wants to “take a stand” against vaccine passports in Iowa and said she would take executive action if the Legislature couldn’t reach an agreement.

“Our caucus felt strongly that while we were here in session, we needed to weigh in on that,” Grassley said Thursday.

Whitver said the Senate intends to take the bill up this week without changing the language.

“I think that bill hits the sweet spot of where we can get the votes to get it through the House, through the Senate and signed by the governor,” he said. “So I would like to keep it as is if possible.”

Bottle bill: Closer than ever but likely not happening

Lawmakers are closer than they’ve ever been to a deal to overhaul the state’s 40-plus-year-old bottle and can redemption process. But leaders in both chambers have said an agreement likely won’t be possible this year.

The bill would allow retailers, such as grocery stores and gas stations, to decline to accept empty beverage containers if there is a nearby redemption center. It would also raise the 1-cent payment to redemption centers to 2 cents, create new standards for how far customers would have to drive to return their bottles and cans and task the Iowa Department of Natural Resources with enforcing the law.

But, as with the biofuels bill, key players are opposed to parts of the compromise and may not get on board.

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.