DES MOINES — Like everything else in 2020, the legislative session in Iowa was disjointed and more than a little bit unusual. When lawmakers gaveled out on June 13, what they left was more than a little different from what anyone had predicted when they began their work in January.
“The session was definitely unusual,” says Mindy Larsen- Poldberg, director of government relations for the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “It felt like a special session.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“We did not get what we asked for at the start of the session,” says Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill.
But he says when farmers take into consideration the dramatic changes in the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are happy that agricultural programs and budgets weren’t cut and that property taxes didn’t get raised.
“It’s a mixed blessing,” he says, crediting lawmakers with putting the state in a financial situation that allowed it to not make massive budget cuts and tax increases.
Meanwhile, lawmakers did pass a controversial bill related to those who trespass at livestock farms or processing facilities. The bill changes the state’s trespassing law, according to Eldon McAfee, an attorney with Brick Gentry P.C. in Des Moines, representing the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
At the start of the session, Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a bold change to the state’s tax system that would have included raising the sales tax to fund the program generally known as IWILL (Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy) and then lowering the state’s income tax. The plan also could have led to changing the funding mechanism for mental health care in a way that would remove some of the burden on property taxes.
But when the COVID-19 crisis hit, lawmakers gaveled out for two and half months, returning in June for a two-week session. That timeline essentially eliminated any slim chance the governor’s proposal might have had. Instead, lawmakers looked at a much different budget situation and approved a largely status-quo budget that actually included cuts to some programs.
At the start of the session, the Farm Bureau’s top priorities were property tax reform and shifting mental health funding, as well as more funding for conservation, Hill says. Those priorities were not realized, but COVID-19 had something to do with that.
There were a number of other items that were passed, most of them small and not controversial. And there was at least one that upset some non-agricultural interests.
Among those items were funding to support veterinary students who planned to practice large animal medicine in rural areas, as well as money for biofuels and some legislation regarding solar power. And a trespassing law change aimed specifically at agricultural or food processing operations that upset some consumer and animal rights groups.
Biofuel infrastructure got some support in the form of HF 2642. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Infrastructure Program (RFIP) was renewed at its current $3 million per year level. And SF 2403 reauthorized the Iowa biofuel tax differentials. In the past, that program offered a tax advantage to ethanol blends of fuel but lawmakers this year changed it to provide more of the incentive for higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel instead of the E10 ethanol blend. Those changes had been proposed by the biofuel industry.
“They had to get that done,” says Larsen-Poldberg, “The program was set to expire on July 1.”
Those programs were priorities for the ICGA and the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
Lawmakers approved $300,000 a year in funding for a program aimed at helping five veterinary students a year if they agree to work in rural areas. That program could help address the shortage of large animal veterinarians in rural areas, Hill says.
Some businesses were given immunity from lawsuits related to COVID-19. While many in the business community lauded that legislation as helping them to deal with financial losses due to COVID-19, some in the labor community said it effectively punished employees, especially those at large packing plants, who were on the front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic
An animal health bill allows the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to seize an abandoned animal to prevent the possible spread of infectious disease. Related legislation is aimed at feral swine and defines feral swine as swine running at large. It allows IDALS to destroy feral swine after determining there is no owner and allows private individuals to destroy feral swine found on their land or damaging their property but does not require them to determine ownership first. It also prohibits anyone from knowingly releasing swine to become feral swine.
And perhaps the most controversial of the ag-related items was a new trespass bill aimed specifically at farms and livestock production or processing facilities.
That bill, SF 2413, defines a food operation and increases the penalties for trespassing at those food operations. The first offense is now an aggravated misdemeanor and the second now becomes a class D felony. That effectively increases the fines for those offenses.
“It’s a trespass law,” McAfee says.
Lawmakers had passed two previous laws related to people who gained access to livestock farms by deception including lying on an employment application to cause damage or economic harm. Both of those laws are now tied up in court. This legislation is less complex than those previous ones, McAfee says. It is a straight-forward trespass law.
“This is intended to provide greater protection to our food supply from disease and other disruptions,” he says.