DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate voted 44-3 Wednesday to strengthen the state’s animal cruelty laws.
Senators forged a compromise that downgraded a provision of House File 737, which made a first offense of animal torture a felony.
Instead, the bill establishes the crime as an aggravated misdemeanor that also would require a special sentence requiring a convicted offender to undergo one to three years of supervision and counseling.
“This is a huge step for the state of Iowa, and it will take us from the bottom of the rankings on animal abuse laws,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, the bill’s floor manager.
Second and subsequent animal torture charges would be a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison plus a special sentence.
Other provisions enhanced current penalties for animal abuse and neglect and changed some definitions in current law that make it difficult for law enforcement to charge individuals with criminal offenses.
“There has to be criminal intent,” Zaun told his Senate colleagues during floor debate.
In the past, lawmakers have been hesitant to strengthen the state’s animal cruelty laws, primarily due to concerns raised by farmers and organizations that represent them. They raised the concern that any attempt to strengthen animal cruelty laws could create burdensome regulations on livestock farmers.
Lawmakers say they have addressed those concerns in the current proposals by writing the legislation to specifically address pets, or their legal term, companion animals.
And the proposals would amend a portion of state law that is different from the one that deals with livestock.
“We can’t fix bad people, but I think we can go a long ways toward dealing with these issues and keeping the animal agriculture business out of it,” said Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway.
Lawmakers said they worked with all stakeholders to draft a proposal all parties would be comfortable with.
Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, voted for the bill but expected legislators would be working on the issue in future years to address possible unintended consequences of the legislation, which now goes back to the Iowa House for consideration.
“This is needed in my community. It’s gotten out of hand, and we need to send a signal,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines. “It’s been very embarrassing that Iowa was 49th in the country” in rankings of animal protection laws.
Legal smoking age
Also Wednesday, the Senate approved a measure that would put Iowa code in line with a new federal law by raising the legal smoking age to 21.
The federal government in January made it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. The previous limit was 18.
The measure passed with strong bipartisan support, 43-6. It now heads to the House for consideration.
Democrats attempted to amend the proposal to also ban the sale of vaping products to anyone under the age of 21. Republicans ruled the proposed amendments not relevant to the legislation and thus not eligible for consideration or a vote.
Also, senators sent Gov. Kim Reynolds two bills dealing with solar energy and county zoning issues.
Senators voted 48-0 to accept House changes on legislation directing the Iowa Utilities Board to study the value of solar as a part of the state’s energy menu.
Senate File 583 was approved without opposition after the controversial changes in the Senate version were replaced by a study in seven years, or whenever distributive generation reaches 5 percent of the electric market in Iowa.
“This is good legislation. It’s good for our economy, it’s good for the environment, it’s good for the people of Iowa,” said Sen. Eric Giddens, D-Cedar Falls, who noted the compromise made “a flawed bill into a great bill that will strengthen the solar industry in this state.”
“It will strengthen the solar industry in this state, make distributed solar installations more affordable for homeowners, businesses and farmers,” Giddens said.
The bill would establish alternative billing methods, such as net billing and inflow-outflow billing, according to architects.
Groups representing utilities, the solar industry, solar users and installers, and pork producers met over the interim to hammer out their disagreements with “outstanding results,” backers said.
Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, said rate-regulated utilities in Iowa will buy and sell electricity with private customer-generated electricity, and all existing customers operating under the current net-metering arrangement will be grandfathered into the new system.
“This gives certainty to solar customers,” he said.
Under the legislation, the Iowa Utilities Board will hire an independent third party to establish the value of solar — adjusted each year with a cap so rates only go up or down by 5 percent annually.
On a separate issue, senators voted 37-11 to send the governor House File 2512, a zoning limitations bill that would have implications for Johnson County and could affect other county zoning plans in the future.
Current law exempts certain buildings used for agricultural purposes from county zoning ordinances. HF 2512 would prohibit a county from requiring an application, approval or payment of a fee for the exemption to apply to land, farm barns, farm outbuildings, or other buildings or structures that are primarily adopted for use for agricultural purposes.
Backers of the bill said Johnson County’s ordinances are more restrictive than state law and reasserts the state has control over agriculture.
Provisions of the measure also would require that all members of a county planning and zoning commission be residents of the unincorporated area of a county.