Lawmakers drop private school scholarships, advance budget bills

The Iowa House and Senate gathered Monday at the State Capitol for the first time in weeks with a goal of completing action on the state budget and a few remaining policy bills and possibly winding up their session this week.

Lawmakers have been idling while GOP leaders and Gov. Kim Reynolds negotiated points of disagreement among them. The 100-day legislative session was scheduled to end April 19 and lawmakers have not received their daily expenses since then.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hampton, took one of the most contentious bills off the table. In remarks to reporters Monday morning, he said the House would not approve Reynolds’ private school scholarship proposal.

“When it comes to the school choice bill the proposed governor, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to put the votes together in the House this year to pass that,” Grassley said, according to Iowa Public Radio. “Obviously, we want to continue to work with the governor to get something achieved. That’s been a big priority of hers moving towards next session, and we’ll work on that in the off-season.

Under the bill, public-school students who transferred to a private school would receive state assistance for tuition and other expenses. The public school would lose the per-pupil state aid for that student, a point of contention for lawmakers in rural districts with no private schools.

The measure was a top priority for Reynolds, who has said she will continue to push for the proposal next year.

Lawmakers gave final approval Monday to six budget bills and a handful of policy bills Monday. Here are some highlights:

Gambling: The House gave final approval to a gambling regulation bill that puts a two-year moratorium on new casinos in the state. House File 2497, which is headed to the governor’s desk, shuts down until 2024 the efforts by the Cedar Rapids area and other communities seeking new casino licenses from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, objected to the change. “This is incredibly unfair,” she said. “People have been navigating and working with the gaming commission and now, all of a sudden, we see a moratorium pop up,” she said.

Rep. Shannon Lundgren, D-Dubuque, said the moratorium would give lawmakers an opportunity to consider the expansion of gambling in surrounding states before moving forward with any new casinos in Iowa.

Bottlebill: The Legislature gave final approval to a long-debated overhaul of Iowa’s bottle bill that will exempt many grocers from accepting container returns. Read more

Teacher testing: The Senate voted unanimously to eliminate the exam that new teachers must take to qualify for an Iowa teaching license. The House approved House File 2081 unanimously in February, so the legislation heads to the governor’s desk. Supporters of the bill said the test had little bearing on teachers’ skills and merely presented a barrier and expense at a time when the state has a shortage of educators.

Hunting and trapping: The Senate unanimously gave final approval to House File 2209, which allows a minor age 16 or older to accompany an adult who is trapping any game or fur-bearing animal. The teenager can’t hunt, trap or carry a firearm or weapon. Current law allows a youth to accompany an adult who is hunting raccoon.

Police misconduct: The House gave final approval to House File 2496, which creates a process for disciplinary action against police officers when their credibility is called into question. Prosecutors create a so-called Brady-Giglio list of officers who have impeached themselves during court testimony or failed to turn over evidence, but the list may be informal or even unwritten. The bill requires formal procedures for prosecutors who use such a list, including notification to the officer and the opportunity for the officer to request reconsideration.

Mental health loan forgiveness: The House voted unanimously to give final approval to a bill that establishes a loan repayment program for psychologists and mental health professionals who agree to practice in Iowa for five years or up to seven years if working part time. A Senate amendment to House File 2549 eliminated psychiatrists, physician assistants and advanced nurse practitioners, who can access loan repayment under other programs. The bill moves to the governor’s desk.

Fertility fraud: The House gave final approval, on a vote of 81-1, to Senate File 529, which is aimed at protecting victims of fraud who were seeking fertility assistance. In cases around the country, fraud has been discovered when a DNA test showed that the physician or someone else had fathered the child instead of the agreed-upon sperm donor. The bill creates a cause of action for a lawsuit and a criminal sexual abuse charge for violations.

Sales tax modernization: Both chambers gave unanimous approval Monday to House File 2385, which makes various changes to rates and administration of sales and use taxes and franchise fees.

The bill eliminates the sales tax on diapers and feminine hygiene products such as tampons. Businesses would see a variety of changes. Banks, which currently pay a 5% franchise fee, would have that rate cut to 3.5% over five years. By 2028, when the change is fully implemented, banks will save $13.4 million a year. Credit unions are not included in the fee reduction.

The bill would also exempt from state taxation the $1,000 bonuses paid to teachers and other educators through the governor’s appropriation of federal stimulus funds. Democrats in the Senate raised concern that other school employees, such as bus drivers or food service workers, who received a bonus through their district but not the governor’s action, would have to pay tax on their bonuses.

Democrats: Budget a ‘slap in the face’ to state universities

Here are the budget bills given final approval Monday:

Ag and natural resources: The House gave final approval to House File 2560, which appropriates nearly $42 million for the agriculture and natural resources departments. The House agreed to a Senate amendment that shortens by six months the time state park rangers can continue to occupy state-owned residences in the parks. The state had evicted rangers due to the cost of maintaining the residences. Under the final bill, evicted rangers must move out by Dec. 31, 2023.

Education: The $993 million bill for education agencies is on its way to the governor. The House originally had provided no general budget increase for state universities and instead offered $12 million in scholarships for certain students entering high-demand fields. The House on Monday accepted the Senate version of the bill, which eliminated the scholarships and instead provided a $5.5 million increase for general aid.

“I see this budget as a slap in the face to our Regents universities and the students that attend them,” Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, said.

Responding to Democrats’ frustrations with the lack of funding for the universities, Rep. David Kerr, R-Morning Sun, said he fought for what he could in negotiations with the Senate and he wishes the Biden Administration would address the implications of inflation.

“Tuition would go up 3 to 5 percent and inflation is outrunning that today, just hard to say, but I negotiated in good faith …,” Kerr said.

Health and human services: The House gave final approval to the $2 billion budget for the Department of Human Services.

The House accepted the Senate’s changes to the bill, which included stripping controversial policy language on the use of off-label drugs by terminally ill patients and those on ventilators. The House had added so-called “right to try” language to the budget bill after the Senate did not consider a separate bill. The measure was aimed at allowing seriously ill COVID-19 patients to try drugs such as ivermectin which were not approved by federal regulators to treat the virus.

The Senate version of the bill also stripped out a proposed expansion of Medicaid coverage for 12 months of postpartum care. The final bill includes a study of that proposal and also provides $500,000 to crisis pregnancy centers that offer assistance not including abortion for unexpected pregnancies.

Other budgets: Lawmakers also gave final approval to these budget bills:

  • Transportation: The Senate unanimously gave final approval to House File 2557, which appropriates just over $416 million to the Iowa Department of Transportation.
  • Justice systems: The House gave final approval to House File 2559, which appropriates $632.3 million to the departments of justice, corrections, inspections and appeals, public defense, human rights, public safety, and homeland security and emergency management; the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy; the Board of Parole; and the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
  • Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Budget: The House approved House File 2579 , which appropriates $175 million from gambling revenue and funds dedicated to technology reinvestment.

— Katherine Kealey contributed to this report.

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