Lawmakers hope to buy votes with your tax dollars

How will it cost taxpayers if the Iowa Legislature approves, and Gov. Kim Reynolds signs, a bill targeting so-called sanctuary communities? Let’s count the ways.

The bill, Senate File 481, earned 32 votes and a nod of approval in the Iowa Senate last year. This week, it received a 2-1 vote in a House Public Safety subcommittee — despite law enforcement officials from across the state lobbying and speaking against it. The proposal must still advance through the full committee before it can be brought to the House floor. If approved by the Iowa House without any changes to what the Senate approved last year, it would be sent to the Governor’s Office where it could be signed into law.

On Thursday night, the Reynolds-Gregg campaign used the bill as a fundraising plea, falsely calling out Des Moines and Iowa City as communities that have “passed resolutions and ordinances to move themselves closer to being sanctuary cities.”

As I detailed last spring, the bill sets several requirements for local entities — counties, cities and their employees — to enforce federal immigration laws and cooperate with any and all immigration-related requests by federal officials.

Immigration - Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announces Adam Gregg as Lieutenant Governor Thursday, May 25, 2017, at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announces Adam Gregg as Lieutenant Governor Thursday, May 25, 2017, at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

For instance, if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked a local sheriff’s office to detain a person past a scheduled release date, local law enforcement would be required to comply. Local authorities would be mandated to absorb the extra expense of jailing the person for an indefinite period of time (federal agencies do not generally pay local jail costs), and local authorities would bear the added financial burden of any resulting lawsuits.

The reason many Iowa law enforcement agencies, including those in the state’s most conservative areas, have chosen not to honor federal immigration detainer requests without a proper warrant is a federal appeals court ruling that inferred such requests are civil rights violations, subject to legal action.

The bill also requires law enforcement agencies statewide to develop and implement written policies of how the department and its employees will comply with the new immigration mandates. As a side note, the bill advanced by House Republicans this week places all law enforcement agencies automatically out of compliance. The Senate version, which the House subcommittee sent forward, requires written polices to be completed no later than Jan. 1, 2018.

Any person, including a federal agency — and, presumably, advocacy organizations like the anti-immigrant Iowa Minuteman Defense Corps (the only group to register in favor of this bill) — can file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General or a county attorney to report non-compliance. Investigation follows, during which time the local entity must produce whatever documentation and information is needed in response to the complaint.

If the investigation results in a finding against the local entity, a 40-day window opens for re-evaluation and compliance. The final step is civil action in district court to make the “local entity, including any entity under the jurisdiction of the local entity, shall be ineligible to receive any state funds.”

“Any” is an encompassing word that prompted me to dig through the Iowa Code for other instances in which the state has reserved the right to block all funding. While there may be some language tucked away in an agency’s administrative rules, this bill would mark the first time “any” such nonsense was inserted into the state code.

Current references to denial of funding in the code are safety measures to ensure the state doesn’t impose rules that would prevent it from receiving federal dollars.

So, if this bill becomes law, does its language say a complaint against a county could result in every community within the county losing state funding? That’s how the bill is written.

Does it mean county health departments could be stripped of funding because law enforcement agencies failed to comply? Looks that way.

Could local governments lose community block grants, economic development dollars or reimbursement for providing state agency offices? Yes, yes and yes, based on how the bill is written.

After speaking with local officials, various attorneys and legal scholars, accountants and budgeting gurus, lobbyists and other folks who study Statehouse proposals, the only assurance I’ve received is that this bill is written so vaguely as to encompass almost everything. The only specific exemption is for “state funds for the provision of wearable body protective gear used for law enforcement purposes.”

While this is not the first time a large government entity shook a stick instead of a carrot at a smaller entity, it would be one of the first times the stick had no specific target.

For instance, when the federal government wanted to states to enforce seat belts, the requirement was linked to highway dollars. Likewise, state government requires local jurisdictions to use competitive bidding on road projects that include state funding.

This bill is different to the point of absurdity. According to the Legislative Services Agency, the bill could “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.”

State lawmakers want law enforcement officials to put themselves in legal jeopardy and to perform federal immigration enforcement to the detriment of community policing practices that reap real public safety benefits.

Worst of all, and despite their election year haze, lawmakers know all of this. They completely understand, if this bill becomes law, local residents are going to bear its financial burden, either through compliance with its unfunded mandates or by running afoul of them.

We know they understand it because of the bill’s final sentence: “Section 25B.2, subsection 3, shall not apply to this Act.” That piece of the Iowa Code allows local entities to ignore unfunded state mandates.

What lawmakers supporting this bill have failed to grasp is that while fiery campaign rhetoric may embolden and energize a tiny sliver of their voting base, it translates into poor public policy.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Feb. 4, 2018.