- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A bill requiring employers to give time off to non-essential workers so they can attend Iowa’s presidential caucuses received preliminary approval in the Iowa Senate on Tuesday.

A Senate subcommittee backed the bill, which would mandate that employers provide unpaid leave to workers who want to attend their precinct caucus. There are exemptions for jobs that affect public health or safety, or if employers could show that they would experience economic distress.

The legislation will move on to the full Senate State Government Committee for review later this week in the Democratic-majority Senate. It is not clear how it will fare in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Ben Foecke spoke in favor of the bill, saying that boosting participation is key to maintaining the state’s leadoff caucuses.

“These folks want a say in who their next president should be, but can’t get the time off to participate on caucus night,” Foecke said.

The Iowa presidential caucuses are currently scheduled for February 2016.

Iowa Democrats have proposed other ways to expand caucus numbers, including letting the military participate remotely. Foecke said the effort was not directly in response to any criticisms about the exclusivity of the caucuses. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton questioned the way the caucuses are run after her third-place finish in 2008.

“Certainly the other states have always been clamoring for the first spot,” Foecke said. “One thing we always do is try to increase participation.”

The Iowa Republican Party did not attend the hearing. Spokesman Charlie Szold said the group would not take a position on the bill.

A representative from the Iowa AFL-CIO said the organization supported the bill. A lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry said the group was undecided, but offered some suggestions on the legislation, including requiring workers to give more notice if they want to attend the caucus.

In 2008, 240,000 Iowans participated in the Democratic caucuses, about 39 percent of all registered Democrats. About 120,000 Republicans participated that year, representing roughly 21 percent of registered Republicans.

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