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Charter schools, but not vouchers, advance in Iowa Legislature
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Charter schools, but not vouchers, advance in Iowa Legislature

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The Iowa State Capitol building Friday, July 31, 2020, in Des Moines.

DES MOINES — Republicans controlling majorities in the Iowa Legislature began their homestretch march to adjournment Thursday by passing bills dealing with charter schools, child care services and assisted reproduction fraud while leaving a host of other stalled ideas behind as they shift attention to setting a state budget and cutting taxes.

“We’re starting to see a final picture of what bills will still be left to be considered at the end of session,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters on a day when some measures survived but scores fell victim to a procedural deadline designed to winnow lawmakers’ workload heading toward an April 30 adjournment target.

Among Thursday’s second “funnel” casualties were Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to provide state-funded “students first” scholarships to private school families — known popularly as vouchers; Senate Republicans’ bill to cut off state funds for cities and counties that sought “defund” police departments; and several House GOP priorities to expand access to and affordability of child care.

Other proposals to legalize e-sports wagering, restore voting rights for felons who discharged their sentences and made restitution, require information on medication abortions at clinics and allow limited smoking at the Iowa Veterans Home fell victim to requirements of the deadline — that policy measures had to have cleared either the House or Senate as well as a committee in the other chamber.

“What’s frustrating to me is that a lot of the bills that are still alive are things that have nothing to do with COVID recovery, that have nothing to do with the day-to-day lives of Iowans, and that’s pretty frustrating,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, of Windsor Heights, who as a Democrat is in the minority party. “We have one month left and it’s a little disappointing, to say the least, that we haven’t had enough done on COVID recovery and relief. We think it’s pretty important that we address the elephant in the room, which is the global pandemic that’s still taking place. We’re not out of this yet.”

Konfrst blamed failed GOP leadership that has focused too much of the 2021 session on “divisive social issues.”

But Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said majority Republicans and the governor are addressing priorities that voters enlisted them to accomplish, adding, “We still have unfinished business that we have to take care of to keep the promises that we made on the campaign trail that are really important. It’s not a sprint to hurry up and get the budget done and go home. There are still priority bills out there, but certainly once this week is over a lot of the focus will shift to the budget, getting out budget bills, coming up with a joint target and working toward adjournment.”

Whitver acknowledged some differences in priorities have emerged between the House and Senate that he said will get worked out in the weeks ahead.

Grassley noted his GOP caucus was dismayed some of its child care initiatives had stalled in the Senate, and he conceded House Republicans lacked consensus for the governor’s scholarship proposal — but forged ahead with charter school legislation he said would provide greater educational choices for parents.

“We just were unable to find a path forward on that,” Grassley said.

On the Senate side Thursday, members of the Senate Education Committee approved House File 813, a bill that would allow an expansion of charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools. Proponents say charter schools would foster innovation, opportunities and educational choices.

The measure would allow a founding group to apply directly to the state Department of Education to form a charter school. The bill would retains the current method of applying to a local school board to create a charter.

“Charter schools do work,” said committee chair Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who said Iowa currently has laws that are too restrictive. She called Democratic claims the concept would “bleed” schools of students and funding — especially rural ones — “just plain fear mongering.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said a charter-school option has been around since 2002 but “has never really taken off.” He called it “a dangerous precedent” to remove public education funds from the oversight of the people who pay those dollars and their elected representatives, as the bill proposes.

The Senate Education Committee also voted 8-5 along party lines to approve $27 million to cover costs K-12 schools incurred due to COVID-19, but directed most of the funds to districts that held in-person classes. Senate File 532 also included a grant process for preschool programs that saw a sharp enrollment dip in the pandemic.

“Schools that served online students should not be excluded,” said Quirmbach. “I think all of our districts need to be compensated for additional costs.”

Earlier in the day, the Senate Human Resources Committee approved House File 302 a bill that establishes a state-funded “off-ramp” program from Child Care Assistance that gradually increases the cost to families as they increase their income to address the “cliff effect” — removing the ceiling on Iowan’s ability to be successful.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, welcomed committee passage but lamented the committee had spent “a little too much time and energy on bills that anticipated non-existent problems, doubted science and experts, and advanced doubt in our medical system. We did not spend enough time on bills that medical experts and professionals urged us to consider and adopt.”

Grassley, too, applauded the Senate action, but also complained a number of House-passed child-care priorities had stalled in the Senate.

“I think some of those will end up being part of the path to getting out of here. I think those are a part of the final days of session picture,” Grassley told reporters.

Whitver said the same likely will be true for tax-cut proposals the Senate has championed but have not been enthusiastically received in the House.

One of those bills, Senate File 587, legislation that revamps the mental health service delivery system and replaces local property tax funding with state general funds, won approval Thursday in the Senate Appropriations Committee. But Grassley said it likely would be part of “a much bigger conversation” as the session progresses.

“We have a month until we shut down,” said Whitver. “I would hope that a month is long enough to find agreement with a Republican House and a Republican governor on tax cut proposals.”

Across the rotunda, the House Public Safety Committee unanimously approved Senate File 243, legislation that would make it an aggravated misdemeanor to fail to disclose the location of a dead body with the intent to conceal a crime. The bill was in response to events following the drowning of Noah Herring at the Coralville Lake in summer 2020. Three teens and an adult were present when he drowned, but the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office said none of them called 911, and they withheld information about his whereabouts.

“I think if you explained this to just about any Iowan they would agree, yes, as a citizen of this state there is some responsibility to alert authorities if you see someone in imminent danger,” said Rep. Kristin Sunde, D-West Des Moines.

Also, legislation to protect farmers who open their farms for ag tourism and school field trips from liability cleared the House Agriculture Committee 13-7.

Rep. Shannon Latham, R-Sheffield, told the committee that ag tourism in Iowa ranges from backyard bee hives to a bed-and-breakfast “where you can sleep with the cows.”

Senate File 356 would protect farmers if someone trips over a pumpkin vine, she said, but does not excuse farmers from negligence. The bill was amended to remove a requirement that farms covered by the bill are at least 40 acres include farms growing edible or ornamental crops.

Democrats thought the liability protections went too far.

On another issue, the House Human Resources Committee kept a fertility fraud bill alive, passing Senate File 529 unanimously. It says Iowans who are victims of assisted reproductive fraud would be able to seek legal damages and perpetrators would face felony charges. The legislation would apply in cases where those seeking fertility assistance are instead victims of fraud, specifically cases where the physician misrepresents a sperm donor’s identity.

The bill classifies the new offense as third-degree sex abuse, a level included on the sex offender registry.

It was amended to remove from Iowa Code a requirement for spousal consent for a hysterectomy.

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