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The legislature resumed their work on Wednesday, June 3 amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the demonstrations and rioting occurring in the Des Moines metro area and other cities in our state.  The legislature is operating under different rules in light of the pandemic.  All sub-committee and committee meetings are being conducted in the House chamber in order to provide space for social distancing.  This of course causes all these meetings to be done one at a time, lengthening our day.  The House Republicans are caucusing in the Law Library so we have sufficient room to social distance.
One of the significant bills we ran in the Commerce Committee that I sit on was Senate File 2338.  This bill started out as a medical liability bill prior to the pandemic.  We amended the bill to include limited legal immunity from lawsuits that are a result of the spread of COVID-19 for all persons, businesses, health care providers, and virtually all other legal entities.  This legislation ensures that those businesses, schools, churches, and others who followed public health guidance and directives are held harmless from lawsuits that seek to capitalize off the COVID-19 pandemic. When COVID-19 reached Iowa, our communities rallied together to fight back against the virus. Iowans sewed facemasks for health care workers and businesses in Iowa retrofitted their facilities to produce necessary protections like hand sanitizer, masks, gowns, and face shields. These Iowans should not be punished for their selfless acts of kindness and ingenuity in order to assist their fellow Iowans during an unprecedented crisis. This legislation provides limited immunity to individuals and businesses who helped our state respond to the COVID-19 emergency by producing or donating these personal protection equipment items. This legislation is also perfectly clear that there is no blanket immunity. These protections are not extended to individuals who acted recklessly, were negligent, or intentionally tried to harm others. Those who failed to reasonably protect workers and consumers and keep them safe during the pandemic are not offered these protections. This legislation ensures bad actors can be held accountable for their actions.  This legislation is only intended to protect those people who acted responsibly and followed public health guidance and restrictions during the COVID-19 emergency.  We hope to pass this bill on the House Floor on Friday.
On Wednesday we passed Senate File 2261 which provides enabling legislation to allow mental health services in our schools via Telehealth.  The purpose of this is to allow children that need mental health services to receive them at the school, eliminating the need for an adult to take the child out of school and drive them to a mental health provider and back in the middle of the school day, taking up precious class time and embarrassment for the child. These mental health services are not provided by the school, and are only done with the parent’s full involvement and permission.
Another significant bill we passed on Wednesday was a bill dealing with Emergency Medical Services, Senate File 2283.  This bill was amended to give county supervisors the option of voting to create a county wide EMS service, including taxing authority, with a vote to accept afterwards by the citizens of the county.  This ensures that if a county moves forward with EMS services and residents approve, long-term investments can be made in the program. This option exists currently but requires a referendum by the voters of the county first and only last for a couple of years, thus making it a difficult for counties to shoulder the upfront costs for something that may go away shortly after approval. By allowing the county supervisors to initiate the action and make those investments, we hope to increase the opportunity for counties to provide more comprehensive EMS.
This week the Senate passed two significant bills that were passed in the House before the legislature suspended the session.  House File 2502 makes numerous updates to our firearms laws that improves shooting range protections, prevents judicial overreach of weapons bans in courthouses, and strengthens prohibitions on local weapons ordinances.  Senate File 2363 was also passed by the Senate with changes made in the House. This bill makes important updates to the Medical Cannabidiol program, most significantly by placing a limit on the total amount of THC a patient can purchase in a 90 day period. Previously the law allowed any amount of THC as long as it did not exceed 3% of the medication. This bill limits it to a specific amount of 4.5 grams per 90 days, an amount consistent with medicinal use.  Both bills now go to the governor for action.
As always, the state budget will be one of the biggest issues we deal with at the end of the session. Over the last several years under Republican leadership, we have made it a priority to craft responsible budgets that values the hard-working taxpayers of Iowa.  This year will be no different.
Before we suspended the session in March, this year’s budget had a large projected surplus and our reserve accounts were fully filled. Normally we base our budget off of December or March Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) projections. This year, due to the pandemic, the legislature asked for a revised estimate which occurred on Friday, May 29.  Based on the new estimates, the bottom line for the numbers is that for the current fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, we will still end in the black with about $190 million in cash.  For the fiscal year we will be crafting the budget for, July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021, we will have $360 million less than we estimated in March.  The income tax revenue losses from the pandemic are delayed by a year because we pay our personal income taxes in the following year.  With careful budgeting we will be able to manage these changes and the budget remains in strong financial position compared to most other states. Our commitment to responsible budgeting has put us in a position where we have the ability to react to unforeseen circumstances and invest in key priorities. Before adjourning for the year, we will once again pass a cautious and conservative budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

Normally I close my newsletter with an invitation to come visit the capitol.  At this time it’s not that simple. Guided tours of the capitol are not available, dome tours are closed, and access to the House and Senate Chambers are limited to key staff and legislators only.  I hope that you can visit at a future time. Stay safe!

Author: Dean Fisher