Republican lawmakers advance bill that cuts off state funding to any city that reduces its police budget

Matt Ring

A bill that would halt state funding to any city or county that reduces the budget of its local law enforcement agency is making its way through the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives.

SSB 1203, known in the House as HSB 230, was introduced last Thursday and approved by subcommittees in the both the Senate and House on Monday. In both cases, it only received support from Republicans.

According to the bill’s backers, the regulation is needed to prevent cities and counties from “defunding the police,” even though no city or county in Iowa has proposed doing that.

Under the provisions of the bill, if a local government reduces the budget of a law enforcement agency it will lose state funding, unless it also reduces the city or county budget overall “by an equal or larger percentage,” or can provide “sufficient justification” for the budget cut to the Iowa Department of Management (IDM).

The bill includes four examples of acceptable reasons for reducing a police department or sheriff’s office’s budget.

  • Because there was a capital expense — such as buying new vehicles or other equipment — in the current year that will not reoccur the coming year.
  • Because new officers with lower salaries are replacing more highly-paid senior officers.
  • Because of a cost-saving consolidation of services.
  • Because the population in an area has declined and therefore so has the demand for police services.

The bill leaves it up to IDM to create rules to determine if the reasons a local government may give for reducing a law enforcement agency’s budget meets the standard of “sufficient justification.”

If IDM were to rule against a city or a county government, it would lose all state funding starting the next fiscal year. The ban on state funds would remain in place until IDM determined the local government is back in compliance with the law. The only exception to the ban on state funds would apply to law enforcement agencies, which would still get their full state appropriation.

Making IDM the judge of how local governments budget their funds likely violates the Iowa Constitution, cautioned Larry Murphy, who represented the Urban County Coalition at the Senate subcommittee meeting on Monday. The coalition is a partnership between Black Hawk, Dubuque, Johnson, Linn and Scott counties, and it opposes the bill.

“If you think about what you’re actually doing, you are delegating the rulemaking to the Iowa Department of Management to oversee cities and counties in terms of their expenditures in the public-safety area,” Murphy told the lawmakers. “If you think about the home-rule constitutional amendments that were passed not by the General Assembly, but by the people of Iowa in 1968 and 1978 — in ’68 for the cities, in ’78 for the counties — they made it very clear in that amendment that the cities and counties are free to move ahead and make decisions without the state overruling them, unless the state specifically wrote legislation that was very exact about what they were not allowed to do.”

The text of SSB 1203 is taken entirely from the first section of the “Back the Blue Act” proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office. During her Condition of State speech last month, Reynolds said “there will be no talk of defunding the police” in Iowa.

But talk is all there has been.

Even Iowa City, which is currently considering how to restructure its police department, isn’t planning to defund the department, despite calls to do so from the Iowa Freedom Riders and other likeminded citizens. Instead, the city is looking at ways to promote community policing and have the police develop partnerships with local organizations that are better suited to provide services in situations involving mental health crises or substance abuse. Next year’s proposed city budget actually contains an increase of 2.5 percent in funding for the Iowa City Police Department.

Gov. Reynolds and Republicans in the legislature seeking to impose a law with a draconian punishment on local governments to address a problem that doesn’t exist in the state, but does excite or enrage conservatives, should seem familiar to Iowans. It happened in 2018.

That year the Republicans in the legislature forced through a bill to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Iowa, despite there being no such cities in the state. Gov. Reynolds, who was running for reelection in 2018, used the bill in a fundraising pitch to her supporters, telling them that by sending her money “you can send a message to far-left liberals in Des Moines and Iowa City on this important issue.”

The bill passed with only Republican support, and Reynolds signed it into law.

That law penalizes any municipality determined to not be fully cooperating with federal immigration agents by cutting off all state funds. An analysis by the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) outlined the impact that would have.

The denial of State funding based upon a valid finding of a violation… would potentially impact a wide range of State funding, which includes: Road Use Tax Fund allocations, grants, and reimbursements; State property tax replacements, tuition replacement, flood mitigation projects, community college funding, grants made by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and many other areas.

LSA has not yet published an analysis of SSB 1203, but the results should be the same.

No organization has registered in support of SSB 1203. The ACLU of Iowa, the Iowa State Association of Counites, One Iowa and the Iowa Conference of United Methodist Church are among the groups that have registered in opposition to it. So has the Iowa League of Cities (ILC).

“Our members believe that these local budgeting decisions need to remain at the local level,” Robert Palmer, the ILC’s general counsel and director of Government Affairs, said during the Senate subcommittee hearing. “This is not about public safety. This is about state imposition into local budgeting decisions.”

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