The 30-day period after the legislative session that Gov. Reynold has to sign bills into law has now passed. It's a good time to evaluate the wins, losses, problems, and mixed-bag results of the 2019 Iowa legislative session.
Each year, the ACLU tracks and lobbies for or against hundreds of bills that impact civil liberties in our state. Below is a snapshot of some of our work over the past several months.
Major Movement on Ending Lifetime Felony Disenfranchisement
Although this proposed constitutional amendment stalled in the Senate, we're optimistic about the progress that has been made and the amendment’s movement forward.
In January, Gov. Reynolds proposed a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for Iowans with felony convictions. ACLU of Iowa has been working with partner organizations on this issue for years, and we’re happy to see the Governor’s leadership and support.
The proposed amendment passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, 95-2. While the amendment stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the process is not over. Next year, the amendment will start exactly where it stalled—in the Senate Judiciary Committee—after which, it would go to a vote of the full Senate.
Changing the Iowa Constitution is a long process—as it should be. The amendment will need to pass in two consecutive General Assemblies (each General Assembly covers two years —two legislative sessions.) It must then be voted on by Iowans before it becomes part of the Constitution.
In the meantime, Gov. Reynolds has simplified the application process for restoration of voting rights, which is intended to make it easier for those with felony convictions to get their voting rights restored.
The Death Penalty
Once again, some legislators tried to drag Iowa back by a half century to the days when the government executed people. Fortunately, this bill didn't progress.
School vouchers would enable the government to subsidize private (and in Iowa, overwhelmingly religious) schools that discriminate against students because they are gay or pregnant or for other equally discriminatory reasons. This legislation died.
Freedom to Discriminate Based on Religion
For the second year in a row, a misnamed "religious freedom" bill failed to get enough support to pass. This bill would have given Iowans, Iowa businesses and others a license to discriminate against anyone—people of color, gay people, unmarried couples—based on their religious beliefs. A coalition of activists and organizations, including business leaders, strongly opposed the bill and for the second year in a row, the bill didn’t survive.
Victims’ Rights in the Iowa Constitution
It can be tough to explain why adding victim's rights to the Iowa Constitution is a problem. The bottom line is that it would turn the concept of due process upside down, and subvert a bedrock principle of the criminal justice system—the presumption of innocence. Fortunately, enough lawmakers understood that and the bill didn't make it to the governor's desk. Find out more.
Omnibus Election Bill
This bill started out with several outrageous provisions that, fortunately, were removed during the legislative process. Some of the more egregious provisions were:
- Requiring public university students to indicate on a form if they planned on staying in Iowa after graduation. If not, their voter registration would be cancelled.
- Blocking early voting stations on public (but not private) college campuses, and other state-owned buildings
- Determining whether your absentee ballot counts based on whether the county auditor's office thinks your current signature matches what they have on record
The bill that ultimately passed, we're glad to report, doesn't have any significant harmful impact on voting rights. It does make numerous changes to Iowa election law, from changing how long public hospital board trustees serve to the timeframe for candidates to file nomination papers. One important issue it addressed was tracking and counting absentee ballots. The bill requires all county auditors to use the postal service barcode to track and count absentee ballots.
Ag Gag 2.0
In direct response to our win in federal court, which struck down a 2012 Iowa law that criminalized investigative reporting and undercover advocacy work specifically at ag facilities, the Legislature passed a new law, Ag Gag 2.0, that essentially does the same thing. Just like the earlier law, this new law is clearly unconstitutional and we filed a lawsuit in federal court to block this one too. Read more.
Transgender Medicaid Coverage
Also in direct response to an ACLU legal win: Iowa legislators passed a law that bans Medicaid coverage for transgender Iowans seeking medically necessary gender-affirming care. In March, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that such care is indeed medically necessary and that Iowa’s ban wrongly singled out and denied transgender people needed health care. In response, we've filed a lawsuit that seeks to strike down this discriminatory law. Learn more.
Speech on Campus
We objected to a part of this bill that requires state universities to officially recognize student groups even though they require leaders to "agree and support" the organization’s beliefs. This results not in free speech (the groups can state their views—just not with official recognition and funding from the university) but in a license to discriminate against gay people, people of color, women, and others.
The Legislature passed a bill that changes who sits on the State Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominates Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges. The bill gives the governor more power in the selection process, by authorizing the Governor to pick one more person to be on the Commission. This opens up the process to more to partisan politics.
Abortion and Reproductive Rights
Once again, legislators introduced multiple bills to prevent people in Iowa from accessing abortion services. Fortunately, many of these bills were not successful. They included:
- An amendment to change the Iowa Constitution to ban all abortions in Iowa.
- A personhood provision in a fetal homicide bill. The purpose of the provision was to eventually ban all abortions in Iowa.
Unfortunately, legislators passed legislation that yet again goes after Planned Parenthood as an indirect way to restrict abortion access. That legislation blocks Planned Parenthood in Iowa from receiving certain federal grants for sex education. We responded by filing a lawsuit and getting a temporary injunction to temporarily prevent the law from being enforced until the judge can rule on the merits of the case.
The Legislature did advance legislation introduced by Gov. Reynolds that would have made it easier for women to get birth control by allowing them to get up to a year’s supply of contraceptives at a pharmacy in Iowa. The bill passed the Senate but not the House so it’s alive for the 2020 session.
This bill would have required all businesses in the state to use the federal E-Verify system to confirm the employment eligibility status of employees, including immigrants. The E-Verify system is riddled with errors and lacks meaningful due process protections for workers who are authorized to work but who are injured by data errors. The bill passed the Senate but not the House. That means it’s dead for the 2019 session but alive for the 2020 session. Find out more.
Reduced Marijuana Penalties
Research and racial disparities in marijuana arrests show that harsh penalties for marijuana don't keep our communities safer. Instead, they drive people—especially people of color—wrongly and more deeply into our criminal justice system. A bill that would reduce the penalty for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana passed the Senate but not the House. So, while it didn’t become law this year, it is alive for the 2020 session.
The Legislature took another small step forward in making more effective medical cannabis more readily available to Iowans. The bill expands Iowa's medical cannabis program so that nurse practitioners and physician assistants may certify patients for cannabis cards. It also increased the cap on how much THC—marijuana's active ingredient—the product contains, and in some cases, removes the cap entirely. Unfortunately, Gov. Reynolds vetoed this bill.
Anti-Racial Profiling Legislation
Once again, a bill was introduced to ban racial profiling by police. The bill would have banned pretextual stops, required annual data collection, data analysis and release to the public, created an advisory board to review data and make recommendations about best practices to law enforcement across the state, and required annual law enforcement training on issues related to the ban on racial profiling and data collection and reporting. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t survive this session.