No issue was too big for Iowa legislators to ignore or small enough to tackle during their just-concluded session.
With the state facing a pervasive problem of harmful nitrates and bacteria in its waterways that could cost $4 billion to clean up, legislators continued their virtual inaction. Even the head of the Iowa Soybean Association called their 15-year, $282 million ruse a year ago “a timid response.”
Last month the Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council reported thousands of private wells, particularly those less than 50 feet deep, are susceptible to contamination.
Meanwhile, municipalities are shouldering the expense of reducing nitrates from the water supply, although many dump it right back into rivers.
Iowa voters approved a 2010 amendment to the state constitution raising the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to improve water quality, but tax-averse Republicans have put ideology over health and environmental concerns.
On a measure involving far fewer residents, legislators acted quickly.
After the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a ban on Medicaid payments for “surgeries for the purpose of sex reassignment,” legislators reimposed it, inviting another court test. An estimated 9,300 Iowans identify as transgender, although fewer will seek surgery.
After dealing a blow to Planned Parenthood funding a year ago because of its stance on abortions, legislators eliminated its sex education funding this year. But they also rebuffed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ request for over-the-counter access to contraceptives, which would limit unwanted pregnancies.
For her part, Reynolds was more the pragmatist, refusing to pursue a court fight over the Legislature’s 2018 “fetal heartbeat” abortion bill, which the Iowa Supreme Court also struck down.
So went the relatively uneventful session. Perhaps after the groundbreaking tax overhaul in 2018 and curtailing the rights of public sector employees in 2017, a respite was in order.
Or, maybe Republicans, who control both houses as well as the executive branch, were wary of overstepping after midterm elections reduced their numbers in the 100-member House from 59 to 53, then 52 when Rep. Andy McKean of Anamosa switched sides.
But they did seek more control over the judiciary.
Iowa’s 17-member nominating commission, which interviews applicants and sends three names to the governor for appointments, had long been independent. But the Legislature replaced the senior justice from the commission with a gubernatorial appointee, meaning Reynolds and future governors could pick nine members.
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The Legislature also wants the attorney general to seek its permission before becoming involved in class-action suits. Democrat Tom Miller has angered Republicans by signing on to cases opposing Trump administration decrees.
That legislation is headed for the courts because the Iowa Constitution makes the attorney general beholden to the judiciary branch, not the legislative.
Vouchers for private school and home-schooled students never found footing, but legislators extended what had been local option sales tax funding for public school infrastructure improvements, later converted into a statewide program. A2029 sunset clause was moved to 2051, with some money earmarked for property tax relief.
Instead of taking a draconian position to limit local property tax increases — after previously ending some business-related sources of local tax revenues — legislators compromised with local entities. If city or county tax revenues will increase more than 2 percent, two-thirds of the governmental body now must approve it instead of a simple majority.
Unlike water quality improvements, which most Iowans favor, odds were that legislators would approve expanded gambling, which most Iowans opposed, according to a Des Moines Register poll — 52 percent against legalized betting on professional sports and 68 percent against college sports betting.
Six other states had approved gambling on those sports in the aftermath of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court decision, but pitfalls exist.
Consider that a decade ago, the NBA was oblivious that referee Tim Donaghy was involved — and later convicted — in fixing point spreads.
College athletics are hardly pristine. Basketball is currently mired in a scandal, including University of Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller, reportedly accused on an FBI wiretap of paying a player $10,000 per month.
And fantasy sports games have a history of professional gamblers and savvy statisticians ripping off small-stakes players.
But expanded gambling could mean revenues of $2.3 million to $4 million annually at the state’s 19 licensed casinos, so legislators let the chips fall where they may.
While Reynolds, most Iowans in another Register poll and nearly the entire House favored restoring the voting rights of released felons, it died in a Senate committee that couldn’t get beyond conditions determining the end of a sentence, including payment of restitution.
Reynolds would do well to follow Democratic predecessors and issue an executive order.
Bottom line, given the fiscal roller coasters of recent years, we’re just grateful legislators concluded by passing a $7.644 billion budget without any mid-session adjustments required or corrections looming on the immediate horizon.