Cedar Rapids, Iowa News, Sports, and Weather
DES MOINES – The 150 members of the 85th Iowa General Assembly aren't due to convene at the Statehouse until Jan. 14 but already their ideas for creating new laws already are pouring into the Capitol.
Richard Johnson of the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency said drafters have received about 500 bill requests from new and returning lawmakers and state agencies that will be introduced for consideration during the Legislature's scheduled 110-day session. That's down from 556 requests that had been submitted to LSA staff attorneys by last Jan. 2 and the 709 proposed bills that were sought before the 2011 session got started.
"It looks like we're running a little bit behind last year," Johnson said Monday. "The policymakers, both the legislative and the executive branches, seem to be thinking about major priorities and concentrating on those."
Issues dealing with tax policy, education reform, health care implementation, state spending and effects of federal funding cutbacks are expected to dominate this year's limited agenda given that control is split with Republicans holding a 53-46 edge in the Iowa House pending a Jan. 22 special election and Democrats returning with a 26-24 majority in the Iowa Senate.
"With split-control in the General Assembly, we see fewer requests than some times have been filed. I think it has some dampening effect on it, but it's hard to quantify it," Johnson noted. "Every session is different. We just roll with the punches and try to get priority drafts done first and then all of our other work so everyone has a piece of the action."
The state Department of Education already is getting the education reform discussion rolling by pre-filing a bill seeking to replace the current 180-day school calendar with a system where K-12 school districts will be required to provide a minimum of 1,080 hours of instruction during the school year. It was one of about 110 agency bill requests lodged with the Legislative Services Agency before the Nov. 30 deadline.
Department spokeswoman Staci Hupp said the pre-filed bill is one of a number of reform recommendations made by several task forces that met since lawmakers adjourned last spring. The proposed 1,080 of instructional hours would exclude lunch periods, parent-teacher conferences and extra curricular activities but would include "passing time" between classes and recess at the elementary level.
"The legislation stays true to the task force's belief that a school year with a minimum number of hours rather than days allows for a more-effective use of time in school and provides for local flexibility in scheduling," Hupp said.
Johnson said he expected many of the proposed bills would be ideas offered by lawmakers or state officials in past sessions that failed to move but will be redrafted for another try.
One such case is a bill being offered again by the Iowa Attorney General's Office seeking to require that criminals convicted of aggravated misdemeanors be required to submit a DNA sample to authorities to be added to the state's databank. Currently, the requirement only applies to convicted felons.
"We think that DNA is an extraordinarily strong criminal justice tool to convict the guilty and to exonerate the innocent," said Eric Tabor of the Attorney Generals' office.
He said a number of the aggravated misdemeanors can result in jail time and are classified as felonies in other states so "it makes sense" to extend the requirement to them – a change that was opposed in past session by civil libertarians and criminal justice advocates.
The AG's office also is seeking to expand rights for tenants in mobile-home lease agreements to bring Iowa up to par with protections in other states. The proposal would allow tenants to live in a park or facility for at least 12 months unless they violate terms of their rental agreements, park rules or regulations, and they would be allowed to continue living there beyond 12 months with a lease termination unless they violate rules or there's been a change in the use of the land or the landlord has a legitimate and material business reason that doesn't target an individual.
"The way things are structured today the landlord can pretty much terminate the tenancy for just about any reason at just about any time. That's not a situation that we think is right and so we're trying to fix that," said Bill Brauch of the AG's consumer protection division. The proposal is scaled back from previous legislation that stalled in the legislative process, he added.
Another crime-related bill being proposed by the AG's office and the Iowa County Attorneys Association would give judges the discretion to sentence juveniles convicted of a Class A felony, such as premeditated murder, first-degree kidnapping or first-degree rape, to life prison terms with or without parole. Iowa law carries a mandatory life prison term without parole for a Class A conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that provision in unconstitutional for crimes committed by juveniles.
Corwith Ritchie of Iowa County Attorney Association said he believed Iowa lawmakers would take action on the proposal this session.
"They obviously need to do something because otherwise we're sitting here with a statute that is unconstitutional as presently constituted," he said.
Rep. Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, has filed a bill seeking an exemption to annual vehicle registrations charges for veterans of U.S. armed forces who have service-connected disabilities rated at 30 percent or more. The veterans also would be entitled to one set of disabled vet registration plates free of charge.
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, is proposing the state Department of Transportation design and issue and Olympic vehicle license plate, with part of the proceeds going to one or more statewide nonprofit organizations with primary missions of providing sports, recreation, health and wellness opportunities for Iowans of all abilities.