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On Monday, it will be March. Almost hard to believe, isn’t it? For those that don’t know me, March 1 is a big date for me. It’s my unofficial start of spring. Which means, I am over winter, want the snow gone and, to signal that change, shave my beard!

We are coming up on a year since our sense of normalcy was disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. As vaccines are slowly, but surely, being deployed, I strongly feel we are in the 4th quarter of this fight, and I know plenty of my fellow lawmakers who would echo that sentiment. When we can, as a state, breathe a collective, unmasked, sigh of relief, it will only made possible by God’s grace and the resolve of Iowans.

As funnel week approaches, we’ve seen a vast amount of movement in the past week. In this issue, I’ll provide exciting updates concerning efforts to relieve school districts of financial burdens imposed by COVID-19, secure the integrity of Iowa’s voting system, and protect the private citizen’s health information from the government eye — and much more.

House Republicans Help Schools with COVID-19 Related Costs

Last Thursday, House Republicans passed House File 532, which provides school districts with additional money to assist in covering costs related to COVID-19. This extra $27.2 million goes to schools that provided in-person instruction, whether that was fully in-person or hybrid, starting July 1, 2020 and ending January 29, 2021 with the enactment of SF 160.

Legislators saw there was a need and wanted to help these schools during this unprecedented time. The bill makes sure to include all schools on all calendars whether it’s year-round or even if school districts started early to make up some time lost. All of those schools districts are eligible for these funds.

No money is being taken away from schools.  No money is being withheld. This is extra money that school districts weren’t planning on ever receiving. Many schools received a significant amount of money from the federal government while others did not.

Recognizing that there are different needs in different schools, this supplemental aid will assist in areas that the federal money possibly could not reach. House Republicans also recognized that schools impacted by the derecho last August had added costs, but some were unable to have in-person instruction, or instruction of any kind due to infrastructure damage. Again, further proving this is not about punishment, districts affected by the derecho still received the aid because the bill is about helping with unforeseen costs. This money goes to any general fund purpose and it arrives immediately.  If schools do not use it all this year, it carries forward to next school year. This bill received bipartisan support.

Commerce Committee Continues to Work Before Funnel Deadline

The first legislative funnel deadline is next week. Unless a bill has been assigned to the Appropriations, Ways and Means (on which I sit), or Government Oversight committee, it must pass out of a committee by March 5th to receive further consideration this legislative session.

The Commerce Committee passed a number of bills out this week, these include the following:

HSB 176 – Requires out of state appraisers to have an Iowa certification when conducting business in Iowa. This ensures accountability and adds protections for consumers in Iowa.

HSB 206 – Clarifies the use of a “future test year” by a rate regulated utility (MidAmerican and Alliant) bringing a new rate case before the Iowa Utilities Board.

HSB 218 – Requires employers to offer the same leave to adoptive parents that they offer to parents with biological newborn children. I am pleased to work on this bill, and we will continue to work on it as we balance the needs of parents and businesses.

These bills all passed out of committee with bipartisan support. With the funnel deadline quickly approaching, expect to see several more bills pass out of committee before the March 5th deadline.

You can see all the legislation the House Commerce Committee is working on by visiting https://www.legis.iowa.gov/committees/committee?ga=89&groupID=696

Board of Regents Recommend Changes to Protect Free Speech on Campus

This week the Board of Regents Free Speech Committee presented their recommendations to the Board of Regents at their February meeting. Board President Michael Richards created the Free Speech Committee in November 2020 after several anti-free speech issues arose on campuses at Iowa’s public institutions. Three regents, David Barker, Nancy Boettger, and Zack Leist, were assigned to the advisory committee. They were tasked to evaluate the board’s free speech policies and campuses’ compliance.

The Free Speech Committee has ten recommendations. The first is that each syllabus at regent institutions will have a First Amendment statement, comparable to the one that Iowa State University has implemented following a Professor prohibiting counter viewpoints in their classroom and in papers. The syllabus statements should reaffirm the schools’ commitment to First Amendment protection of freedom of speech. The syllabus free speech statement will be reviewed at the beginning of each course.

Another recommendation is that university resources will not be used for partisan activities. This will not affect recognized student groups and individual students from utilizing university facilities. Universities will not permit discrimination or denial of educational benefits because of the viewpoints of a student organization or a student.

The committee also recommends that it is established as a permanent committee of the Board of Regents to review free speech complaints, annually review all free speech policies of the Board and universities, review university training for improvements and every two years do a survey on free speech to all faculty, staff, and students. Universities will be required to provide training on free speech to all students, faculty, and staff on annual basis.

The House Government Oversight Committee has received a growing number of contacts from students and faculty at Iowa’s regents universities asking for help in regards to free speech on campus.  These recommendations should be viewed as a start for the Board of Regents to acknowledge and begin to change the culture on campuses that has allowed intimidation and censorship of viewpoints to happen. The Government Oversight Committee will continue to monitor the progress and stand up for free speech on these campuses.

House Republicans Protect Personal Health Info from Government Snooping

Recently, the House unanimously passed House File 488 to protect the health information of Iowans. This bill narrows access to health information to ensure that government employees without proper privacy training are not unnecessarily accessing Iowans’ personally identifiable information.

Specifically, this bill prohibits the State Auditor from having access to names and residential addresses of those with reportable diseases, like STDs and AIDS. This bill also prohibits the collection of names by the Iowa Department of Public Health for inpatient and outpatient hospital data.

The legislature had previously prohibited the collection of social security numbers and is now also including names. Lastly, this bill prohibits all government employees from accessing personally identifiable health information for a reportable disease if the employee does not have confidentiality training.

House Republicans strongly support protecting Iowans private health information, and this bill helps ensure there is not unnecessary government employees reviewing that information.

Information Technology Committee Passes bills on Cloud Computing Broadband Access

This past week the Information Technology Committee, which I am honored to chair, considered bills in committee and passed them on to the full House for consideration. Some of the bills voted on by the Information Technology committee this past week include the following:

HSB 111 – Places an emphasis on using cloud computing solutions for the states and includes reporting requirements for transparency. This ensures the state is using the best technology available and tax dollars most efficiently.

HSB 128 – Adds telecommunications systems and services to list of allowable joint financing actions by public agencies. This adds efficiencies, both for raising funds and deploying resources so more Iowans can have access to internet.

Both of these bills all passed out of committee with bipartisan support. With the funnel deadline quickly approaching, expect to see several more bills pass out of committee before the March 5th deadline. You can see all the legislation the Information Technology Committee is working on at https://www.legis.iowa.gov/committees/committee?ga=89&groupID=709.

House of Representatives Passes Election Integrity Law

This week the Iowa House of Representatives passed a robust election integrity and security bill. The election in 2020 saw record breaking turnout in the State of Iowa and with smooth administration due to Iowa’s strong election system. House File 590 builds on Iowa’s strong track record of integrity and security when it comes to elections. Lawmakers did not want to wait for irregularities or cracks in the system to appear before taking action.

H.F. 590 ensures the integrity of the election in several ways, but one of the most important is confirming that election officials are held to a high standard of performance and establishing recourse for when an elected official defies the laws of the state or does not act in the best interest of the voter. H.F. 590 creates and strengthens election misconduct penalties for any elected official or person who willfully fails to conduct their election duties, fails to perform proper voter registration list maintenance, or interferes with a voter or authorized person at a polling location.

During the pandemic and as more and more Iowans are voting by absentee ballots, it is important that the accuracy and validity of each absentee ballot is secured. This bill increases the amount of reporting on absentee ballot requests received, absentee ballots sent, and completed absentee ballots received by all county auditors and the Secretary of State to be published daily once ballots are mailed. Additionally, each county auditor’s office will have a secure drop box that will be emptied and recorded at least 4 times a day. The drop boxes will be on county property, video surveillance to monitor all activity at the drop box, the drop boxes shall be securely fastened to a stationary surface, and be locked with a tamper evident seal.

The bill also changes the period for early absentee voting, early satellite voting, and early in person voting to 20 days before election day, giving Iowans 21 days to be able to cast their ballots in elections. With that change, Iowa will still have a longer early voting period than 26 other states. Additionally, the bill will conform poll closing times to 8pm for all elections. Previously some elections had a close of 9pm while others had 8pm. Even while closing polls at 8pm, Iowa’s polls will stay open later than the national average of 7:30pm.

With these changes it is important to think of potential voters who can’t leave work to go vote. Current law entitles voters who cannot get 3 consecutive hours off work to vote, excused time off work without penalty to vote. This bill will lower that time, so if a worker cannot get 2 consecutive hours to vote, they would be entitled to excused time off work to vote.

To ensure uniformity throughout Iowa, this bill will apply in law that only absentee ballots received by the county auditor before 8pm on election night will be counted. This will not affect military absentee ballots, anyone oversees, or who participates in the Secretary of State’s Safe at Home program.

If a voter arrives to a polling location after polls are closed they are not allowed to vote, this bill applies the same to absentee voters. There are plenty of ways for a voter to plan to deliver their ballot with 21 days to vote and a multitude of options of for returning an absentee ballot. By enforcing a strict deadline for the absentee ballots it guarantees that every county has the same standard for counting ballots. This policy is not unique, in fact 3 states who do mail voting only (Colorado, Hawaii, and Oregon) use this standard for counting ballots.

The 2020 elections were extremely successful and saw record turnout, but that doesn’t mean that the Iowa Legislature should not continue to work hard to ensure that every Iowan’s vote counts in a fair and uniformed matter. This bill goes a long way to put best election practices into law to ensure the integrity of future elections.

House Ways and Means Committee Passes Three-Part Pandemic Relief Tax Package

This week the House Ways and Means Committee passed Senate File 364 with an amendment, a bill that I am managing. This bill provides three very important pandemic-related tax exemptions. House Republicans maintain that collecting tax on pandemic-related payments to Iowa’s small businesses and families is not the right thing to do and not the right thing for Iowa.

First—the bill makes a fix for fiscal year filers related to the federal paycheck protection program. Current law, for the tax year 2020 and later, Iowa law fully conforms with the federal treatment of forgiven paycheck protection program loans and excludes such amounts from net income and allows certain deductions for business expenses paid using those loans. For fiscal-year filers who received paycheck protection program loans during the 2019 tax year, current law excludes such amounts from net income, but does not allow certain deductions for business expenses paid using those loans. The bill fully conforms with federal law for those fiscal-year filers who previously were excluded from such conformity and allows such filers to take business expense deductions using federal paycheck protection program loan proceeds that were forgiven. This is crucial equity treatment for our Iowa businesses.

Second—the bill (with amendment) exempts from income tax any qualifying COVID-19 grant issued to an individual by the economic development authority, the Iowa finance authority, or the department of agriculture and land stewardship. A “qualifying COVID-19 grant” includes any grant identified by the department of revenue by rule that was issued under a grant program administered by the economic development authority, Iowa finance authority, or the department of agriculture and land stewardship to provide financial assistance to individuals or businesses economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under current law, financial assistance grants provided to small businesses by the economic development authority under the Iowa small business COVID-19 relief grant program are already excluded from the calculation of Iowa individual and corporate income tax. This provision is extremely important to Iowa’s businesses and farmers.

Finally, the bill (with amendment) exempts the extra $600 of federal pandemic unemployment compensation received pursuant to the federal CARES ACT from income tax. Those were payments made by the federal government to Iowa families who lost jobs during the pandemic.

Thank you for tuning in, yet again, for another week. Funnel week will be here soon, and your continued support will be as valuable as ever. Please do not hesitate with your questions, comments, or concerns. Until next week!

Author: Brian Lohse