This week in the Iowa Legislature

This week the House and Senate spent countless hours caucusing and debating dozens of bills on the floor feeling the pressure to have their priorities make the pending second funnel deadline just two short weeks away. The House passed about 50 bills and stayed late into the night on Wednesday and ran into the evening hours on Thursday when lawmakers typically head home early in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the Senate passed around 20 bills, some contentious, but a majority were noncons. A few bills were also sent to the Governor and are awaiting her signature.

Both chambers have scheduled floor debate for the first few days and then transition to committee work in the last half as the second funnel approaches on March 15th.

Bills Sent to the Governor

  • Increasing Foreign Land Ownership Oversight: Governor Reynolds’ proposed legislation on foreign land ownership was sent to her desk on Monday. Lawmakers swiftly passed the bill with unanimous approval in both chambers. Senate File 2204 would require foreign entities to register their landownership and provide details to the Secretary of the State. The legislation also increases penalties if foreign landowners fail to comply.
  • Striking Gender Balance Requirements: Senate File 2096 would end gender balance requirements on Iowa Boards and Commissions, as well as local public bodies. The legislation passed the Senate last week and cleared the House with a 62-33 vote. Supportive lawmakers argued the gender balance requirement established in the 1980s is outdated and can create an unnecessary burden when trying to find applicants for some positions while the opposition argued more progress is needed.
  • Religious Freedom Restoration Act: On Thursday, the House passed a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Senate File 2095 would raise the legal standard for proving the government has restricted a person’s exercise of religion. Despite RFRA passing under former President Bill Clinton and a Democratic majority in Congress, House Democrats strongly opposed the bill arguing it permits discrimination in the name of religious beliefs. After over two hours of debate, the legislation passed the House on a 61-33 party-line vote. The bill passed the Senate last week and now awaits Governor Reynolds’ signature.

Notable Bills Debated This Week

As noted above, the House had lengthy caucus and floor debate sessions this week through Thursday evening. Meanwhile, the Senate finished their work on Wednesday. Outlined below are some of the more contentious issues considered:

  • House AEA Reform: On Thursday afternoon, the House debated and passed their version of the Area Education Agency (AEA) reform bill, HF 2612. The House amended their proposal on the floor to confirm AEAs would continue to be the sole provider of special education services. The amendment also requires federal special education dollars to go directly to the AEAs. Current state and local funding for the AEAs would now flow to school districts. Media and general education services would no longer only be provided by AEAs as schools would be able to contract with any provider they choose. These service changes are on a delayed timeline and would not go into effect until the start of the 2025-26 school year. The amended bill gives more oversight authority to the DOE to oversee AEAs and limits AEA director salaries. Finally, the amended bill includes a much-discussed taskforce to review AEA services and make recommendations on improvements to the legislature. The debate on this bill was heated with Democrats arguing these changes are unnecessary and uncalled for. House Education Chair Wheeler outlined his process in meeting with AEAs, education stakeholders, lawmakers, and Iowans over the last two months which culminated in the amended bill. The bill passed 53-41 with bipartisan opposition as nine Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the legislation. This proposal is significantly different than the Governor’s and Senate’s legislation. Discussions on the AEA bills are far from over as the Senate will now consider the House’s proposal.
  • House GOP School Curriculum Reforms: On Wednesday, the House spent hours debating and passing several pieces of legislation regarding education curriculum standards in Iowa. The legislation would require the Department of Education to conduct a K-12 core curriculum review, create new American history standards, and mandate students watch a video on the stages of pregnancy. House Republicans argued the motivation concerning school curriculum was inspired by the review from the Fordham Institute on The State of State Standards for Civic and U. S. History. The report gave Iowa a “D” grade on student comprehension levels and recommended a “complete revision” of the Iowa standards. House Republicans have proposed new standards for social studies in Iowa, with an emphasis on the basic political, diplomatic, and military history of America. An amendment was added to specifically cover the Holocaust and its impact. House Republicans argued the review will “equip high school graduates with sufficient knowledge of civics and the United States history so that high school graduates are capable of discharging the responsibilities associated with United States citizenship.” Representative Wheeler said Iowa students need to learn about the good things Americans such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson accomplished, and not just the negative things. Representative Turek argued the curriculum will incentivize an “inaccurate teaching of history.” The director of the Iowa DOE will be required to release an initial report in December before the start of the next legislative session.
  • School Officers and Armed Employees: House File 2586 would allow school employees to obtain a permit and carry a gun inside school buildings. The legislation outlines the specific qualifications and training required before earning a permit, including annual safety courses approved by the Department of Public Safety. HF 2586 also creates a grant program administered by the Department of Education, which will fund high schools with security personnel. The personnel will be required in districts enrolling over 8,000 students. The legislation passed the House on a divided 61-34 vote after a lengthy debate where Democrats outlined safety concerns with kids having firearms present in the classroom.
  • DNR Buying Land at Auction: The Senate considered SF 2324 on Wednesday afternoon, and debated whether the DNR should continue buying land at public auctions. The bill manager, Senator Shipley, argued the DNR owns over 400,000 acres and has trouble maintaining it. Democrats along with Senator Zaun spoke against the legislation claiming Iowans want more preserved public land. The legislation passed 30-17 and awaits consideration from the House where a similar bill died earlier this session.
  • E-Verify Mandate for Iowa Businesses: After a very contentious debate, Senate File 108 passed on a 30-17 vote in the Senate. The legislation will require employers in Iowa to utilize E-Verify, a federal tracking database, that checks job applicants’ legal status to work in the country. If an employer knowingly employs “an unauthorized alien employee”, Iowa Workforce Development could take the employer to court. The bill manager, Senator Garrett, argued 5,000 Iowa businesses already use the E-Verify system and support the legislation. However, the federal system produces thousands of false positives each year. The business community at-large opposes the bill and a companion died in subcommittee in the House earlier this session.

Looking Ahead

As the March 15th second funnel deadline approaches, legislators are starting to schedule policy subcommittee meetings to prepare to move their final priorities through one of the scheduled policy committee blocks this coming week. Leaders have also scheduled some limited floor debate, but we anticipate this will be less of a focus as the workload shifts back to policy committees leading up to the funnel. To stay up to date on scheduled committees and subcommittees and their virtual access information, follow this link.

Bills of Interest

Advocacy Strategies continues to ensure that every bill pertaining to you will be tracked. Along with this email report each week you will see a bill tracker chart developed by our new bill tracking system, AdvoKit. Please review this and confirm your declared bills are correct. Please let us know if there are any changes that need to be made.

Our ability to best represent you is based on quick and open communication. Once the legislative session progresses further, our requests for bill declarations will increase substantially. We ask you to let us know your organization’s position on each bill within 24 hours of your receiving daily bills in AdvoKit so we can respond accordingly.