DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - With the coronavirus still spreading and against a backdrop of daily protests over police treatment of minorities, the Iowa Legislature returned Wednesday morning for what is likely be be a brief session to finish its work for the year.
Lawmakers left when the coronavirus pandemic surfaced in Iowa in March, prompting state officials to close the state Capitol.
Lawmakers are expected to meet for at least two weeks to complete work on a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and address policy measures on which House and Senate leaders reach agreement.
The process is complicated by a significant drop in revenue caused by restrictions imposed by the governor to slow the coronavirus pandemic. The governor and the legislature will have about $360 million less for next year’s budget than earlier expected, and the current year’s revenue estimate has been lowered by $150 million.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said budget surpluses in the current year leave the state in good shape. For next year, Republicans will insist on passing “a budget that we feel is sustainable and won’t require mid-year budget cuts when we come back,” he said.
Any policy that is “pro-growth to get people back in the workforce is going to be a major focus,” Whitver said. That might include legislation that would make it difficult to sue if someone claims they were infected by the coronavirus at a business, school, church or nonprofit, he said.
Whitver said Senate and House leaders have been working to narrow the focus “and agree on as many bills as we can before we come back so that a lot of the bills are just ready to go.”
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has in recent days promised protesters that she would listen to their concerns about unfair treatment of minorities by police and in the criminal justice system following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The handcuffed black man died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes as he pleaded for air.
“I’m committed to helping move these conversations forward toward action for change,” she said.
Whitver said with a short session in mind it may be difficult to develop new policy, craft it correctly and get it passed “but were certainly willing and able to work with the governor on any ideas that she may have.”
Sen. Janet Petersen, the Senate Democratic leader, said now is the time to address racial injustices and Democrats have several ideas ready, including racial profiling legislation, bills that would cut back drug penalties, and the governor’s proposed constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons.
“We will reach out to our Republican colleagues and the governor to see if they have the political will to make some significant changes. Iowans are clearly ready,” Petersen said.
With lawmakers returning, staff will check temperatures of people entering the Capitol and provide masks. Meeting rules have been established to allow lawmakers to be at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. Committee meetings and floor debates will be streamed on the internet.
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