Funnel week: Hands-free driving, public lands bills among dozens clearing committees

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The Iowa Capitol as seen Feb. 7, 2024. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch) | El Capitolio de Iowa visto el 7 de febrero de 2024. (Foto de Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
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By Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Lawmakers passed dozens of bills through committee Tuesday to keep them available for discussion as they near the first deadline of the 2024 legislative session.

It’s “funnel week” at the Iowa State Capitol. That means most bills must be approved by a committee by the end of this week to remain eligible for consideration.

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While bills that do not meet this deadline are considered “dead,” it does not mean that the proposals are completely out of consideration for the rest of the session. Legislation involving spending, tax and government oversight components are exempt from the funnel, and language from legislation that did not meet the deadline can be added as amendments to other bills or be brought up as leadership-sponsored legislation.

Legislators in both chambers met for 12 committee meetings Tuesday with packed agendas — the Senate Judiciary Committee had 23 bills on its schedule for discussion. Here are some of the bills kept alive:

Gender balance: The House State Government Committee passed legislation repealing Iowa’s gender balance requirement for boards and commissions on a 15-8 vote Tuesday. House Study Bill 670 would eliminate requirements of equal gender representation on state panels, a measure recommended by the Iowa Boards and Commissions Review Committee in their 2023 report to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and lawmakers.

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Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Northwood, said she believed the gender balance requirement made sense when it was first established in 1987, but that Iowa boards and commissions should be focused on finding the best qualified candidates to serve instead of trying to meet certain gender criteria.

“I think it’s an antiquated law,” Bloomingdale said. “I don’t think we need to be judged on our sex anymore or fill a peg because of our sex.”

Rep. Adam Zabner, D-Iowa City, argued that the gender balance requirement should be kept to ensure boards and commissions are reflective of Iowa’s population. He compared the gender requirements to other demographic criteria that Iowa boards and commissions have on issues like political affiliation or geographic background.

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“I think this bill is a huge mistake,” Zabner said. “I think that is taking away one of the real examples of progress our state has made.”

The bill’s companion, Senate File 2096, received approval from the Senate State Government Committee earlier in February.

School buildings: Senate Study Bill 3112 was passed with an amendment by the Senate Local Government Committee. In its amended form, the bill would prohibit political subdivisions, like cities and school districts, from any restrictions on the sale, lease or transfer of educational institutions to private schools. The bill also would require the sale of former school buildings to private schools if they are the highest bidder.

Sen. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said the proposal would functionally mandate the sale of former educational buildings to non-public schools, as it would allow private schools to bid again if they are not the initial highest bidder on educational properties.

Winckler said that it is not a “fair situation” to require these sales, but also said there are reasons why a former educational building should no longer be used as a school, such as non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sen. Jesse Green, R-Boone, said the bill will ensure the best use of public funds by requiring that public school buildings can continue to be used for educational purposes, as well as prevent discrimination against private schools attempting to purchase property.

“This bill is trying to balance out what is in the best use of taxpayer dollars,” Green said.

The measure passed out of committee with Republican support.

Public lands: Senate Study Bill 3129 was passed with an amendment by the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee on Tuesday. It would prevent the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from bidding for land and also from acquiring land from a not-for-profit organization that obtained it at auction.

The bill was amended to remove an ambiguous clause that might have prevented all future land transfers from not-for-profit organizations to the DNR.

Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway, said the bill aligns with current DNR policy. However, while there might be exceptions to department policy, the legislation does not provide any.

“We’re in a race to the bottom for outdoor lands here in Iowa,” said Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines.

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Republicans of the committee voted to advance it 9-4. 

Hand-free driving and speed cameras: Democrats criticized Senate Study Bill 3016 during the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting for combining two measures that have been introduced in previous sessions as separate issues: banning drivers from using cell phones outside of voice-activated or hands-free modes, and banning state and local authorities from using traffic enforcement cameras to enforce traffic laws.

Law enforcement officials spoke in support of the hands-free provision at a January subcommittee meeting but asked for lawmakers to remove the traffic camera provisions, saying the technology helps reduce accidents and uphold traffic laws.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, criticized Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, and Senate Republicans for making claims about “backing the blue” while not supporting law enforcement in their opposition to the traffic camera bans.

Zaun responded that traffic cameras are “unconstitutional,” and that they are unfair to low-income Iowans. He said traffic lights are used for revenue generation by law enforcement and that he spoke to a police chief at a subcommittee meeting who asked him, “How am I going to replace this revenue?”

“And I said to him, ‘Did you hear what you just said?’” Zaun said. “You didn’t mention anything about safety, (what) you mentioned is about revenue. And these have become more about revenue generation than they have been about public safety.”

The bill passed committee with a 10-8 vote.

Illegal immigration charges: The Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate File 2211, which would make illegal immigration a state crime in Iowa.

Under the bill, law enforcement would be given the authority to arrest immigrants who entered the country illegally, and state courts would be able to order the deportation of undocumented immigrants arrested in Iowa. Law enforcement officers and state agencies would be able to transport undocumented immigrants to ports of entry to ensure they comply with the order to leave the country, and those who refuse to comply with an order to return to their home country could face felony charges.

Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, said the bill is unconstitutional under Article One, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, and that the issue was not under the purview of the Iowa state government.

“Colleagues, I understand that the southern U.S. border is a concern,” Weiner said. “I get it. The challenge is that it’s not our concern here at the state level.”

Rev. Guillermo Trevino Jr., co-president of the immigrant advocacy organization Escucha Mi Voz Iowa, released a statement criticizing the passage of the legislation Tuesday.

“Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and I’m saddened and disappointed to hear that the Senate Judiciary Committee has marked the season by hardening their hearts to the cries of the poor,” Trevino said. “Allowing state police to racially profile immigrant workers and separate them from their families without a hearing is not only an unconstitutional waste of state resources, it is also a violation of the Violence Against Women Act, the Convention Against Torture, and the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger and love thy neighbor. Immigrants and refugees are essential workers and Iowa farms and businesses can’t produce food, build homes, or turn a profit without their labor.”

Gender-neutral language instruction: Iowa foreign language teachers would be prohibited from incorporating gender-neutral language into languages that use grammatical gender systems, like French and Spanish under House File 2060.

Rep. Bill Gustoff, R-Des Moines, said the legislation was necessary both to ensure Iowa students are being taught languages as they are used by native speakers throughout the world, and because teachers had been threatened with disciplinary action for not using gender-neutral language or words in world language instruction.

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“We’re chasing teachers out over some agenda, to do something to a language that makes no sense,” Gustoff said.

But Rep. Heather Matson, D-Ankeny, said the bill would prohibit teachers from including instruction that reflects evolutions in language.

“I think it is incredibly important that when we are talking about language, we need to make sure that we are not dictating to teachers what they can or cannot do around the language that they teach, and especially when they are the actual words that are being used,” Matson said.

The bill passed 15-8.

— Jared Strong contributed to this report.

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