DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa would no longer bar former felons from voting after they complete their sentences and would ensure that crime victims be told of major status changes involving prisoners who wronged them under constitutional amendments proposed Tuesday by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Reynolds used her first Condition of the State speech since being elected to a full term to outline some major policy goals, including several that would affect current and former prisoners.
Iowa and Kentucky are the only two states that bar former felons from voting unless the governor grants their requests to restore their rights. Florida voters removed a similar ban in November.
Reynolds said she has restored the voting rights of 88 felons since taking office in May 2017, when Republican Terry Branstad left office to be ambassador to China, and that she wants to lift the state constitution's automatic ban on ex-felons voting.
"I don't believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don't believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person," she said. "I believe Iowans recognize the power of redemption; let's put this issue in their hands."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Steven Holt said his committee is willing to consider the proposal.
"I actually respect the governor for wanting to do this right," he said. "It's one of the governor's priorities, so obviously we'll take a really good hard look at it when it gets to us."
Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack restored voting rights automatically through an executive order in 2005, but Branstad reversed that order with his own in 2011. Holt said those orders wrongly circumvented the state constitution.
Reynolds, who will work with a Republican-led Legislature, also proposed a new program in which inmates at the Newton Correctional Facility will build homes that can be moved to rural Iowa communities that need them. The inmates will receive training they can use to get jobs after they're freed, she said.
"There are few things as powerful as the joy of someone who got a second chance and found their purpose," she said.
Reynolds also called for a constitutional amendment that would protect crime victims' rights, including ensuring they be notified if a prisoner who victimized them escapes or is due for release.
"Like 36 other states have done, let's send victims a loud and clear message: We will protect you," she said.
To amend the Iowa Constitution, the Legislature must pass a bill in consecutive two-year sessions before voters back it in a referendum.
Reynolds' budget request includes $93 million more in funding for education, $20 million for her Future Ready Iowa job-training program and $20 million over two years for faster rural broadband internet service.
She also called for the creation of a Center for Rural Revitalization within the Iowa Economic Development Authority that would focus on renovating buildings and improving infrastructure in small towns' business districts.
Reynolds is asking for more money from lawmakers for home- and community-based children's mental health services and plans to introduce a bill that would create a children's mental health care system that will work in tandem with the adult system.
She also proposed funding for four additional psychiatric residencies for doctors committed to practicing in rural Iowa.
Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen said she agrees with Reynolds that it's time for the governor and others to deliver on their promises to fully fund mental health, rural revitalization and job training programs.
"When we can work with Republicans, we will. Our goal this session is to keep focused on improving the lives of everyday Iowans," she said.
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