NOTE: This post has been updated to reflect new measures taken by the governor and lawmakers to address coronavirus-related issues as of late afternoon Monday, March 16.
Legislative leadership has suspended the 2020 session for at least the next 30 days due to community spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. House Speaker Pat Grassley (R-New Hartford) and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny) announced the decision on Sunday following discussions with Governor Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health. All scheduled subcommittee and committee hearings have been cancelled. The legislature is generally required to pass a budget before the beginning of the next fiscal year on July 1. Lawmakers are expected to vote on an emergency resolution to allow the government to continue functioning if the legislative suspension continues past that deadline.
Meanwhile, Governor Reynolds announced Sunday that based on conversations with the Iowa Department of Public Health and CDC guidelines, she is recommending that schools close for four weeks. She has also signed a series of emergency disaster proclamations over the past week. They authorize various state agencies to tap into resources to prevent the spread of the virus, contain it, and mitigate it. One of the proclamations temporarily eases certain size and weight restrictions for transportation of necessities such as food, medical supplies, and cleaning products. In a news conference last week, Reynolds said that Iowa would also receive emergency federal aid within the next 30 days. Recently, President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion appropriations bill to address the coronavirus.
On Monday afternoon, Reynolds announced that the state would assist workers and employers affected by coronavirus-related lay-offs. Under the new guidance, workers who have to care for family members, self-quarantine, or have an illness related to coronavirus could qualify for unemployment benefits if they meet all other eligibility requirements. If a claim is directly or indirectly related to COVID-19, employers will not be charged. Fact-finding interviews will also be waived in those instances, and workers could expect to receive benefits within seven to 10 days. In a news release, Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend encouraged employers to allow employees to work remotely or use sick leave before making temporary layoffs.
In other news, last Thursday the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) projected the state will generate about $12 million less during the 2021 fiscal year than predicted last December. Although the annual December REC estimate provides a rough guideline for lawmakers as they craft the next year’s budget, if the March figure is less than anticipated, they are bound to use the lower number. This week the REC projected a total fiscal year 2021 budget of $8.237 billion. REC members also said they are unsure of the economic impacts of the coronavirus, and there’s not enough information for them to substantially alter current projections. The 2021 fiscal year begins on July 1.
And, the House also overwhelmingly passed a series of bills last week designed to increase access to childcare. HF 2270 and HF 2271 would increase state reimbursement levels for childcare providers. HF 2424 would allow families to gradually phase out of state childcare assistance as they earn more money. Currently, recipients are subject to a “wage cliff,” in which a slight pay raise can result in the sudden loss of government benefits. And another bill, HF 2485 would ease certain restrictions on the maximum number of children that childcare providers are permitted to have onsite in the event of school cancellations or delays. Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, and well as Governor Reynolds, have said childcare access is a top priority this session. The bills now go to the Senate for consideration. They must pass full committee by next Friday to remain alive for the rest of session.