When Iowa became the third state in the nation to legalize gay marriage eight years ago, I was working in Washington, D.C. My coworkers were taken aback by what they thought was a conservative, red, rural Midwestern state taking such an important leap forward in equal rights. They were even more surprised when I informed them that, actually, Iowa often has a progressive streak on social policies and we’re a very purple state politically.
That was true then. It’s not anymore.
Just over three months ago the Iowa Legislature gaveled in with a fully Republican-controlled Statehouse. For the first time in 20 years, Republicans controlled the Iowa House, the Iowa Senate and the governor’s office. While Donald Trump and the GOP’s national rule have been hobbled by infighting and incompetence, Iowa Republicans have rolled through their sweeping changes with brutal efficiency.
The result has not been just mere policy changes, but a wholesale transformation of what Iowa is and stands for, and none of it has been for the better.
A state that put a schoolhouse on its quarter ripped away the bargaining rights of teachers, set the third-lowest funding levels since 1973 and plans a voucher push next year.
A state that once led the way in women’s reproductive health choices with options like telemedicine has now joined some of the reddest states in the nation with draconian abortion restrictions.
A state that once prided itself on having one of the highest voter turnouts in the country, thanks in part to easy-access early voting, will now limit the ways voters can cast their ballot and imposed a needless ID requirement.
A state that boasted of “local control” government saw the Legislature strip away local municipalities’ ability to set their own minimum wages and limit how they bargain with public employees.
And longstanding problems were made worse.
Iowa’s mental healthcare crisis deepened as the biggest cuts to the state’s budget came from DHS, including several mental health programs.
Little progress was made on water quality improvements. Instead, Republicans spent much of their time on a retribution bill aimed at dissolving the Des Moines Water Works.
More than that, Iowa’s reputation for its even-keeled, respectful and well-informed political process took a serious hit as Republicans imposed one-party rule measures that stifled debate.
Republican leaders set “time-certain” ends to debates on contentious bills, the first time the Iowa Senate has ever done so. They also moved senators’ “personal privilege” speeches – the time when senators can talk on the floor about whatever issue they please – from the morning to late afternoon or evening. That may seem minor, but it effectively pushed their speeches to when reporters were often not around – making it harder for legislators to make news on issues they care about.
And massive changes to things like collective bargaining were fast-tracked, passing both chambers in just a little over a week, giving the public very little time to understand the legislation or respond to it.
Many of the voting rights changes were aimed at suppressing the vote of college students, the poor and minority voters, all people most negatively impacted by Republicans’ policies.
And then there was the legislation that was just outright cruel.
Republicans pushed through a bill that would limit the ability of Iowans sickened by asbestos poisoning to sue the businesses responsible for it. And the workers compensation changes would prevent many workers from collecting benefits from career-ending injuries.
Those last two followed one of Republicans’ few themes to their governing approach: protect big donors’ profits at the expense of working people whenever possible.
Indeed, it was difficult to discern what sort of ideology the Republican majorities were following this year as they remade Iowa. Say what you will about Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment, but at least it seemed to be based in a very conservative tax philosophy. Iowa Republicans’ only unifying belief seemed to be a sense of mean-spiritedness for workers, as well as a desire to shovel more taxpayer dollars to corporate friends.
The Legislature is expected to finish up work next week, but the impacts are already being felt. Teachers around the state are questioning whether they’ll stick around in a state that doesn’t seem to care about public education. Minority communities are fearful of what “stand your ground” laws mean for their safety. And young people are considering moving elsewhere.
The Iowa that many people knew – that I have known and loved since moving here in 2003 – is quickly slipping away. Even Steve King is starting to look less like the outlier, and more like the status quo.
There will be one chance for Democrats to reverse this situation, and one chance only: retaking the governor’s office in 2018. If they fail that, Iowa will cement its status as a red state and take its place as the next Kansas.
Because it is one thing to watch as a political party completely transforms a state with its extreme ideology. It is another to validate those changes by reelecting the very people who did it.
by Pat Rynard