Legislative "Funnel" Ends Hope for Many 2014 Bills
By Rod Boshart, Reporter
DES MOINES, Iowa – The Ides of March came early for scores of legislative bills that met their demise on Thursday.
The mid-March foreboding proved prophetic for measures dealing with traffic-camera regulations, texting while driving, minimum wage increases, voting rights for convicted felons and abortion services delivered via telemedicine that failed to survive this week's self-imposed legislative "funnel" deadline.
Other casualties of a requirement for non-money bills to be approved by one legislative chamber and a committee of the other house by Friday to remain eligible for consideration this session included bills authorizing gun owners to possess "silencers," cracking down on wage theft by employers, revamping sentencing laws for juveniles convicted of murder and other Class A crimes, and banning minors from using tanning facilities.
The normal frenzy of a funnel week was somewhat muffled this year by the reality of a divided Legislature, with control split between Republicans who hold a 53-37 edge in the Iowa House and Democrats who have a narrow 26-24 majority in the Iowa Senate.
"It's kind of a low-key week. We haven't done a lot," said Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "It's just a different session."
Nevertheless, lawmakers remained on track to fashion legislation to address problems associated with harassment and bullying of students in schools, exempting military pay from state income taxes and providing other advantages to veterans, banning minors' access to electronic cigarettes, regulating government and private use of drones, expanding access to broadband especially in rural areas, and beefing up protections for elderly Iowans.
"It's an effort to compromise," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.
"The work product would be very different if it was just Democrats who were in control; the work product would be very different if it was just Republicans in control," he added. "We believe the voters sent us here to get something done, to look for common ground and compromise, and that's what we've pursued, so the work product is the product of the hand that the voters dealt us."
While the funnel is designed to winnow the General Assembly's work load by removing issues that fail to generate consensus, lawmakers found creative ways to keep issues alive. A fireworks bill was converted to a House Ways and Means Committee bill, which made it exempt from the funnel. Likewise, a proposed gas tax increase, an anti-bullying bill, and a measure to expand support services for refugee families were placed on the exempt appropriations track while boosting school aid by 6 percent in 2016 and allowing voters to register online were amended to policy bills still eligible for debate.
Yet other bills dealing with sports fantasy games, blood alcohol tests for drunken boaters, and allowing all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to operate on county roads and city streets survived by a procedural move to place them on the unfinished business calendars in both the House and Senate. A Senate bill designed to fill the void of services for delinquent services due to closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo did not survive the funnel, but legislative leaders still expect to address the issue in some manner yet this session.
Byrnes said the texting bill arrived from the Senate too late to tackle a policy decision of that magnitude on short notice.
"We talked about it because I knew it was going to be coming over," he added. "There were a couple of people who had concerns that this is a pretty big policy bill to just shove through fast."
Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, that the Senate Judiciary Committee did not consider the gun "silencer" bill even though it passed the House 83-16 will broad bipartisan support in February.
"I find no reason why this common sense piece of legislation should not be taken up for consideration and sent down to the governor," he said, noting the Statehouse was flooded with email and phone calls supporting House File 384.
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not take up any weapons-related bills this session, saying they were divisive and he preferred to concentrate on areas of consensus.
Likewise, Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, expressed disappointment that the bill to ban telemedicine abortions stalled in the Senate. A group of GOP senators indicated they plan to mount an effort next week for a leadership bill or some other legislative vehicle to get it to the Senate floor for debate.
"That's a bill that Senate Republicans are strongly behind and one that we're disappointed that is still not going to move forward," he said. "It's something that is important to protect the health of women and eliminate a bad medical practice."
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, leader of the subcommittee assigned the telemedicine bill, said he did not take it up because the Iowa Board of Medicine already made the practice illegal – an administrative decision that currently is the subject of a court challenge and a judicial stay order.
For their part, legislative Democrats expressed dismay that efforts to expand educational opportunities and funding have stalled in the House.
"We hope that maybe the House will see the light yet and I'm not sure how they will do it, but we certainly are asking them to reconsider killing bills that deeply affect our children," said Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque.
Gronstal said he was disappointed a Senate-passed wage theft bill died in the House.
A bill seeking to legalize a number of fireworks products in Iowa was salvaged from the funnel scrap heap when Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, pulled it under the umbrella of the House Ways and Means Committee he chairs.
Sands said a number of legislators and constituents favored the measure while others are "dead set" against it, but he felt it needed a fair debate to determine how much support exists for the change.
"Up here, something can die nine times and still find a way to find some life some way and this would be one for that particular bill," he said of the funnel-proof House Study Bill 672.