Lawmakers discuss reducing inspections of hotels, asbestos removal – the move led by Bettendorf's Republican State Senator Scott Webster

by Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch
January 23, 2024

An Iowa Senate subcommittee advanced legislation Tuesday to cut back on the law’s requirement for hotel inspections and asbestos-related inspections at construction sites.

The three members of the Senate State Government Subcommittee expressed reservations with various elements of the bill, Senate Study Bill 3064, but the two Republican members said they intended to forward it to the full committee on the theory that there will be more discussion about the bill’s merits and any potential drawbacks.

Currently, state law requires that the Iowa Department of Inspections, Appeals and Licensing inspect hotels and motels at least once every two years. However, the department has not complied with that law for several years and has instead inspected hotels largely on a complaint-only basis with some inspections being performed on a prioritized, risk-based assessment.

The department now hopes to have the law changed so that it essentially legalizes DIAL’s current practice.

One of the subcommittee members, Sen. Scott Webster, R-Bettendorf, said Tuesday he has reservations about longstanding language in the bill that suggests inspectors could enter rented, occupied hotel rooms without providing any notice to the hotel owner or the occupants of the room.

“How is that even legal?” Webster said. “People who are occupying the room need to have notice.”

Webster suggested it “would make sense” for state inspectors to provide hotel owners with 24 hours’ notice of any inspection that’s to be conducted – a proposal that fellow subcommittee member Sen. Tony Bisignano, a Des Moines Democrat, opposed.

“A while back, I did hotel inspections,” Bisignano said. “I sure don’t believe in 24 hours’ notice for any inspections. I mean, what’s the point? If you don’t get to capture a snapshot of that business, then why are you inspecting them? Because if you’re forewarning them, I can tell you there are many cosmetic corrections that can be made to cover up critical conditions.”

Eric Goranson, a lobbyist with the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association, spoke out in favor of the bill, noting that it simply legalizes DIAL’s current, longstanding practice of not adhering to the biennial-inspection requirement. “We have not had members complaining about that current practice,” Goranson said.

The CEO of the lodging association, Jessica Dunker, echoed Goranson’s comments and said she appreciates the industry’s “partnership” with the state inspections agency. “I do want to say that complaint-based inspections are very helpful to our industry,” she said.

Peter Hird, a lobbyist for the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, spoke out in opposition to the bill, citing its potential impact on public health, particularly with regard to bed bugs and mold growth in heating and cooling systems.

He said his past work experience involves construction projects in which laborers had to be put up in hotels and motels, resulting in frequent issues with bed bugs. Hird said he suspects consumers typically don’t complain to the state about a hotel. “I just don’t think the complaint process is enough,” he said. “We need real inspections.”

Bill would eliminate annual inspections of asbestos-removal businesses

The portion of the bill dealing with asbestos-related inspections would eliminate a requirement that DIAL conduct an annual inspection of every business that’s permitted to remove or encapsulate asbestos. That requirement would be replaced with language requiring DIAL to inspect such entities only upon complaint, referral, injuries and accidents, or “media notification” that an imminent danger exists.

A DIAL representative at Tuesday’s meeting indicated one of the problems the agency faces is that some operators are not licensed as required, and so they’re not even subject to annual inspections.

Hird suggested that if some businesses aren’t complying with the law on permits and licenses, that calls for increased enforcement action by DIAL, not a reduction in enforcement through fewer inspections.

“If there isn’t any kind of oversight, and there’s a thought process of, ‘Hey, we’re not going to get inspected,’ that could lead to contractors not doing their job,” Hird said. “Also, if there are that many people out there doing these construction projects without a permit, maybe you could take a look at that and maybe increase the penalties.”

Dylan Gramlich of the Laborers International Union of North America also spoke in opposition the bill.

“We have contractors that actually perform this work,” he told the senators. “We just want to make sure that all of our members and all the construction workers who are doing asbestos removal, those that are licensed to do that, are safe.”

Jon Murphy, lobbyist for the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades, told lawmakers the organization wants to see DIAL conduct annual inspections as well as complaint-based inspections related to asbestos.

“It’s kind of a belt-and-suspenders approach,” he said, “and it increases worker safety. So we would encourage taking a look at how to increase worker safety by doing both.”

Lobbyist John Cacciatore, representing the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33, told lawmakers of a recent situation in which asbestos, while being removed from a building, infiltrated the heating and ventilation system, shutting down the project.

“Now, these folks may be licensed or they may not be licensed, and I understand that,” he said. “But if they are licensed and they can be inspected annually to make sure that they’re doing it right, then they should be.”

After hearing from the lobbyists, Bisignano said he remains skeptical of the bill and its impact on the public.

“I’m not really comfortable with doing less of anything when it comes to public health and public safety,” he said. “We keep edging toward more risk in just about every phase of society when it comes to public health, and so at this point I’m not going to sign (the bill).”

The two subcommittee Republicans, Webster and chairperson Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, each said they intend to support moving bill forward, adding that they anticipate more discussion on the matter.

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