Iowa Legislature to return May 15 with the state budget set to top the agenda

View of the State Capitol building in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jake Webster

Iowa’s Legislature is set to remain closed until May 15 due to the impacts of COVID-19.

Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, said he had not heard whether the reopening of the legislative session would be delayed again.

“I haven’t [heard], I’m getting the word from our Minority Leader [Todd] Prichard, he’s on the team that meets with the majority party and as far as I know the 15th is the date upon which we will start up again,” Wilburn said. “He was told, and then therefore we were told, that the majority party is in communication with the governor’s office and [they are] following public health guidelines.”

At least 22 state and territorial legislative sessions are currently suspended due to the ongoing pandemic, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Iowa’s has been suspended since March 17.

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, said there’s a lot of questions about how much time the Legislature would be in session.

“House leadership pretty much wants to do a budget and get out,” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

Wessel-Kroeschell added Senate leadership is looking at passing additional legislation, however.

Democratic leaders in each of the Legislature’s chambers sent a letter to the members of the Iowa Legislative Council, which consists of legislators from both parties, recommending steps to ensure the health and safety of Iowans when the Legislature reconvenes.

Prichard and the minority leader of the Iowa Senate, Janet Petersen, also called for enhanced public access to legislative proceedings in their letter.

Prichard and Petersen recommended the Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature require health screenings, advise maintaining a six-feet distance between people in the Capitol, advise legislators and mandate staff use personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, restrict access to the chambers and Capitol, make hand sanitizer available and continue to keep the Capitol closed to tours and other visitors.

The top Democrats in the Legislature also laid out their recommendations to increase public access to legislative proceedings in their letter.

“Because of the prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people, we are requesting that extraordinary efforts be made to ensure public access to any upcoming proceedings of the Iowa Legislature,” Prichard and Petersen said in their letter.

These include:

  • Livestreaming all subcommittee, committee and floor proceedings.

  • Making all proposed legislation and amendments available to the public at least 72 hours in advance of any action by the House and Senate.

  • Allowing access to the Capitol to all credentialed press.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, who serves on the legislative council alongside Prichard and Petersen and others, did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

Wilburn said he agrees with the recommendations in the letter.

“It’s important that we are ensuring the public safety as well as the safety of the Capitol staff, the legislative staff — we don’t want to come together and not have everyone participating in reducing the spread of the virus — that would be tragic if the Legislature came together and then went back and carried the virus and started contributing to the ongoing rise in number of cases.”

Earlier in the week Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a press conference her team is working to revise their fiscal year 2021 budget to put before the Legislature when it returns.

The governor said the state entered the crisis “in pretty good shape.”

“Our cash reserves are full, we had about a $300 million surplus in fiscal year [20]19,” Reynolds said. “So we’re in pretty good shape going into this, but this is going to have an impact on our budget, we know that. We were fortunate to keep over 80 percent of our essential businesses open and running, but we still have had businesses and small businesses that have been impacted by the coronavirus and so we’re going to continue to monitor what that impact looks like and the impact that’ll have on our revenues and then we’ll continue to work with the federal government.”

Wilburn said the state budget is his “number one” priority for when the Legislature returns.

“We will have to make sure that incorporated in the budget are any adjustments that will need to be made to help pay for the coronavirus response,” Wilburn said. “We still don’t know if and when the revenue estimate committee is going to be meeting, their input will influence some of those budget decisions — I have not seen the governor’s budget proposal — last week during a press conference she said she was working on that.”

Wilburn added jobs, child care and health care and education would be “critical” components of the budget.

Wessel-Kroeschell named similar priorities for when the Legislature reconvenes.

“In terms of priorities, I think we need to make sure people are safe and that includes some work on Medicaid and making sure people have access to health care,” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

With regards to education, Iowa State is expected to suffer a financial blow from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a meeting of the Board of Regents on April 30, President Wendy Wintersteen said the financial impact of the pandemic on Iowa State will be “unprecedented.”

“Campus units that rely heavily on revenue are projecting significant losses,” Wintersteen said. “Including the Memorial Union, Department of Residence, ISU Dining, the Iowa State Bookstore, the Iowa State Center and University Museums.”

Wintersteen said the university has incurred incremental costs to move courses online and support employees working from home.

“In addition, we understand the circumstances of this crisis continue to change rapidly and will undoubtedly have additional financial implications for which we must account,” Wintersteen said. “We will continue to carefully monitor our losses and increased costs during the coming months, and while uncertainty remains you can count on Iowa State University to fulfill our land grant mission to serve our students and to serve all Iowans.”

Wessel-Kroeschell said the regent universities have been “underfunded for so long” and higher education is one of her “top priorities.”

“I am hoping for more federal relief for the states so we can help higher education and continue to do our due diligence in services across the board,” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

Wilburn said the governor’s revised budget will be a starting point, and prior to the crisis there were some projects he thought would be very important for Iowa State, including the renovation of Lagomarcino Hall.

“So I will be interested to see the governor’s revised [budget], how that’s going to affect our regents institutions, in particular Iowa State,” Wilburn said. “I know something that’s critical right now […] President Wintersteen has appointed a committee that’s taking a look at how classes will start up again in the fall. I don’t know if that will include any requests, budgetary requests or refinement of the original request […] but I will be interested in seeing what that will say.”