The 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature was marked by a flurry of last-minute action on much-watched issues. Lawmakers gave Iowa governors new power to help select justices on the Iowa Supreme Court, required property tax hearings in local governments and expanded the state’s medical marijuana program.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature also made under-the-radar moves, many which still require Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signoff, that will impact Iowans’ lives. Here’s a look at some of those changes you may have missed:
1. No more Secretary of State constitutional mistakes
A policy bill finalized on the last day of session would remove the Iowa Secretary of State from the process of changing the Iowa Constitution.
Currently, the Secretary of State is responsible for publishing public notices in Iowa newspapers about approved constitutional amendments.
Secretary of State Paul Pate cited “bureaucratic oversight” for his office failing to publish the required public notifications about a resolution that would add gun rights to the Constitution. It reset the yearslong process to get the proposed language before voters, delaying it by at least two years. Pate’s mistake also impacted an amendment that would have clarified gubernatorial succession.
The circumstances have precedent: Before he was governor, former Secretary of State Chet Culver in 2004 failed to publish notice of a proposed amendment removing the words “idiot” and “insane” from the state constitution when referencing mentally incompetent people who are barred from voting. The provision was delayed by later approved by voters.
The bill passed this session would effectively give Pate’s notification responsibilities to the Legislature.
2. Limitations on energy efficiency plans
The provision, added to a budget bill finalized on the last day of session, prevents utilities from voluntarily spending more than 2% of all revenues on energy efficiency. The spending limit is 2% for electric utilities and 1.5% for natural gas utilities.
The proposal is an extension of a 2018 law that limited utilities’ spending on energy efficiency programs. The new language specifies that the Iowa Utilities Board, which regulates utilities, cannot approve spending plans that go beyond the limitations set by last year’s law.
Critics warned the 2018 cap would lead Iowans to spend less on energy efficiency, effectively hurting the industry’s workforce. The Iowa Environmental Council released a survey in January indicating companies have a negative outlook on the industry.
3. Criminal expungement becomes easier
An expansive policy bill, finalized two days before the end of session, would make several changes to the criminal justice system in Iowa.
One provision would allow people with certain misdemeanor offenses to have one record expunged if it’s been more than eight years since the date of their convictions. The applicants would have to have no pending criminal charges, have not been granted two previous deferred judgments and have paid all court fees.
The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates if the measure is signed by the governor, 5,000 people per year would apply to have misdemeanor records expunged.
Another bill provision would make all public consumption and intoxication violations simple misdemeanors. That change is expected to eventually decrease Iowa’s prison population annually by 72 inmates, saving the state $3.6 million a year.
4. No extra check on prescription drug overcharges
There was bipartisan support in the House for a provision in the health budget bill to direct the Department of Human Services to audit pharmacy middlemen — known as pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs — to check if they’re over billing on prescription drugs processed within the state’s privatized Medicaid program.
Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, said he was motivated to file the provision because, as a pharmacist, he’s seen examples of such overpayments.
In the end, the Senate removed the provision from the final version of the bill. Sen. Mark Costello, R-Imogene, defended, arguing he didn’t think an audit was necessary. Costello cited a conversation with a state agency official in reaching that assessment.
5. New fees on electric vehicles
On the final day of the 2019 session, lawmakers approved a policy bill that would add a surcharge to electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles, an excise tax on hydrogen used as fuel, and an excise tax on electricity used as electric fuel. The fees would go into effect over several years. The Legislative Services Agency said the additional registration fee would eventually be $130 for a battery electric vehicle and $65 for a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
Democrats said the new fees would hurt the emerging electric car industry. Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, noted that electric vehicle drivers already pay a higher registration fee than drivers of gasoline-powered vehicles. Republicans countered they support electric vehicles, and the fees are aimed at ensuring electric vehicle drivers are paying their fair share for road infrastructure.
6. Protecting mobile home residents from rent spikes will wait
One day before the end of session, the Senate unanimously passed a policy bill that would have created a “good cause” protection for mobile home residents in Iowa facing eviction. The measure would have also increased written notice requirements for rent increases from 60 days to 180 days. The legislation is in response to increased rental rates at some Iowa mobile home parks.
The effort will be in limbo for now. The House did not take up the bill in the final hours of session, ending its chances this year. However, because this is the first year of a two-year General Assembly, the House could approve the bill next year and send it to the governor without returning it to the Senate.