The Most Extreme Bills Proposed So Far in the 2018 Iowa Legislative Session

State lawmakers have introduced legislation to reinstate the death penalty, target "sanctuary cities" and anti-Trump protests, discriminate against the LGBT community, ban nearly all abortions, privatize schools, and axe a state-mandated energy efficiency regulation

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

As the Iowa Legislature enters its fourth full week in the second consecutive year of total Republican control, the party seeks to continue its remaking of the state before the 2018 election. Here’s a look at some of the most extreme legislation GOP lawmakers are trying to push through to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for a signature.

Death penalty reinstatement (SF 335/HSB 569)

For many years, Iowa Republicans have proposed bringing back the death penalty, which was abolished in 1965 by Democratic Gov. Harold Hughes. Gov. Terry Branstad campaigned on the issue in the ‘90s, arguing on Iowa Press in 1991 that gangbangers as young as 16 should face execution. The party renewed interest in the issue in 2013 after the bodies of two young girls were found near a lake in Winneshiek County. That same year, since-disgraced state Sen. Kent Sorenson proposed bringing back capital punishment for child killers.

This year, state Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, has introduced legislation similar to Sorenson’s proposal that would be limited to criminals convicted of abducting, sexually abusing, and murdering a minor. In the House, former state trooper Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, has proposed a much broader bill that would reverse the 1965 ban on the death penalty, allowing for lethal injections for first degree murder convictions. Baudler, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, pointed to the 2016 ambush slayings of two Polk County police officers as a case in which he believed his bill should apply. The bill was advanced out of a subcommittee but faces opposition from lawmakers including Republican Steve Holt of Denison.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa opposes reinstating the death penalty. “Iowa simply should not go back half a century to an era when people were executed at the hands of our government,” it has said. “It was a system filled with injustices, and in some cases, innocent people were put to death.” Across the country, dozens of people have been wrongfully executed or sat on death row for years before being exonerated, sometimes costing states millions of dollars in settlements from public funds. The death penalty is disproportionately applied to African Americans, which would likely be the case in Iowa, whose prison population has one of the highest rates of racial disparities in the nation.

Sanctuary city crackdown (SF 481)

Steve Holt may oppose bringing back the death penalty, but he’s called a proposal to ban so-called sanctuary cities — cities with local laws protecting undocumented immigrants from federal authorities — “a common-sense issue for a lot of people.” The debate comes amid a nationwide US Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdown that is impacting immigrants who have lived in Iowa for decades. The crackdown bill would withhold state funds from local governments that refuse to comply with federal immigration enforcement detainer requests or discourage local cops from enforcing immigration laws. The Senate passed the bill near the end of the 2017 session, and late last month it advanced out of a subcommittee of the House Public Safety Committee despite that Republicans found no one to testify in support of it.

It’s debatable whether Iowa even has sanctuary cities currently — the ACLU of Iowa says it doesn’t, although the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies identifies Iowa City as one, along with over a dozen counties including Story.

Highway protest ban (SF 426)

Republicans are still pushing for a ban on highway protests because of an anti-Trump protest in Iowa City after the 2016 election that led to a half-hour partial shutdown of Interstate 80. That same month, Wilton state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, the son of Trump booster and state GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann, made his “suck it up, buttercup” proposal to investigate universities for helping students worried about how the election would affect them and also impose criminal penalties — under the current proposal, a class D felony with a penalty of up to five years in jail and a $7,500 fine — for highway protests. The resulting bill, which last month was advanced by a Senate subcommittee on a 2-1 vote, is one of many that have been introduced across the country in response to protests against the president.

”Religious freedom restoration” (SF 2154/HF 2209)

The deceptively titled Religious Freedom Restoration Act, introduced by homophobic state Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, is similar to laws passed in 21 states already and modeled after the notorious Indiana law when Guth first presented it last year. It would allow Iowans who are accused of discriminating against the LGBT community in violation of state law or local ordinance to continue to do so for “any action that is motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” In 2013, Guth addressed the Senate to warn colleagues of the “numerous” health risks of homosexuality that “ultimately” lead to earlier deaths, adding that “many civilizations have fallen” for failing to protect the traditional family against the “lie” of the homosexual lifestyle. “Simply put,” Guth said, “it saves lives to have honest communication not only about the sexually transmitted diseases that shorten lifespans, but also about the deep loneliness that accompanies a life based on youth, beauty and sex.”

Anti-trans bathroom bill (HF 2164)

Introduced last week by social conservatives, this bill would remove legal protections for transgender residents in the Iowa Civil Rights Act, allowing businesses and schools to prevent them from using “a toilet facility, locker room, living facility, or other area of a public accomodation designed for use by persons of one sex to a person of the other sex.” (The civil rights act already allows religious institutions, as well as schools “when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose,” to restrict restroom access.) The bill is currently awaiting further action in the House Judiciary Committee but currently lacks support from GOP leadership.

Fetal heartbeat abortion ban (HF 2163)

Another bill introduced by social conservatives, this would ban all abortions after the point when a heartbeat can be detected for a fetus — around six weeks, before many women even know they’re pregnant. It would not impose criminal penalties on women who receive abortions after this period but would subject their physicians to disciplinary action by the Iowa Board of Medicine. A similar bill passed in Ohio in 2016 but vetoed by the governor was later introduced in Congress by Steve King, although it would likely be ruled unconstitutional if it were to become law.

School voucher program (SF 2091)

School privatization efforts are not uncommon among Republican lawmakers, and Gov. Kim Reynolds last month called a proposal that would allow some parents to take $5,000 or $6,000 from the state’s already troubled public school budget to put their kids in private school “not unreasonable.” But that’s hardly the case; as Informer contributor Greg Wickenkamp has explained, privatizing public education elsewhere has had a track record of failure, prioritizing profit-making over student learning. What’s more, the legislation was introduced by the disreputable state Sen. Mark “Chickenman” Chelgren, who last year was caught in a lie claiming he’d received a business degree from what turned out to be the owner of a Sizzler steakhouse franchise and in 2011 compared a state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds to Nazi indoctrination.

Elimination of energy efficiency requirement for public utilities (SSB 3078)

A bill introduced by state Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, would eliminate the requirement currently mandated by state law that public utilities file energy efficiency plans with the Iowa Utilities Board (the same board that controversially approved construction of the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline, brushing off concerns about its potential impact on climate change). The energy efficiency law has been relatively uncontroversial, protecting consumers while keeping energy rates below the national average, but axing it could mean a windfall for major utilities like MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy. The companies may have played a role in supporting the bill behind the scenes; last year, MidAmerican lobbyists secretly worked with Iowa State University officials to compromise the previously university-run Iowa Energy Center, transferring it to the state’s executive branch.

Another proposal (SSB 3093/HSB 595) would further scale back energy efficiency regulations, remove consumer protections, and hit solar customers with new charges. Speaking to the Des Moines Register, Mark Schuling, a state consumer advocate, said, “It looks like the utilities’ Christmas list was all rolled into one bill. It’s good for utilities but not for customers.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.