The Three Months That Changed Iowa

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
Posted 4/12/17

14 Comments on "The Three Months That Changed Iowa"

  • This column should be required reading. Sadly, what I’ve noticed, too, is that, in the main, Democrats’ politics have moved more centrist in direction (at least since I moved here in 2010). It seems that good old common sense really ISN’T very common, any more (read progressive, inclusive values).

  • I thought Kansas was turning blue. Then I heard this morning’s news: something about a red win in the vacant congressional seat.

    The crucial time in Iowa was when collective bargaining for public employees was passed. Citizens didn’t realize that the courts would rule that government’s fund raising ability is a bottomless pit. “Impartial” mediators would almost always find in favor of the employee union’s position.

    Collective bargaining in the public sector is so much better than in the private sector, since private companies like, John Deere for instance, actually must turn a profit of go broke and close factories. Government unions have no fears. The taxes can always get higher. And in the federal realm, money can always be printed and digitized. Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

    • This state has been pretty abysmal when it comes to collective bargaining, especially regarding health insurance benefits. If the Iowa legislators had been better at it, this action would likely not have been felt to be necessary. Maybe our electors ought to look at the other things they don’t do well and quit doing those things as well.

  • Republican control of state houses does not have to be in Draconian. We just moved to New Hampshire from Iowa (among other things CAFOs violated our airspace). While both US senators and both congressional representatives are D (and all women), the state house, senate, and governor are all R. Despite this, a right to work bill was defeated in state house, showing that at least in some places, there is not a lockstep trampling of worker’s rights.

  • If the next next Democrat runs on the “Legalize Marijuana” issue, they will be a shoe in. The young and moddle aged alike see this as the opening we have been waiting for. Why shouldn’t Iowa make millions of Marijuana, people are going to still smoke it, so why shouldn’t that money be spent right here in this state instead of being spent in Colorado

    It seems everyone is waiting for Governor Brandstandt (who’s nose appears bulbous from acute alcoholism) to get out and go to China. He has taken away almost all Mental Health facilities, and sold the Insurance Companies who took over Iowa Medicaid a huge lie. They are millions in debt, and healthcare is changing for many Iowans……We are IOWA…..not Kansas…..lets get our state back

  • Take a very close look at the color of the voting map from November 2016 and you’ll see what the entire nation thought of Democrat rule. There was wholesale rejection of the ridiculous and dangerous progressive policies that were forced on the country including here in Iowa. Redefinition of marriage was forced on Iowa – not embraced by Iowans- by overbearing judges. And any bipartisan or common sense legislation here in Iowa was held hostage by the extremist Senate Majority leader Gronstal – whom Iowa voters decidedly threw out. If you can’t handle the pace at which the legislature is correcting the imbalance, I would suggest not pulling so far left in the first place.

  • People will revolt when they finally “realize” what these lawmakers have done to us. #ResistanceRising #ExpectUs

  • To many peoples’ chagrin, every coin has two sides. When I come across an article that is one-sided, whether on the left or the right, a question pops into my mind: “what is the other side?” Did anyone else wonder what the other side is to each of the views described in this article? Or do readers assume that the issues mentioned are like a one-sided coin, and the side presented in this article is the only one?

  • All very true…. could also add we have a new rule in the House …no visual aids when speaking and trying to get our point across.

  • Excellent article and sadly, quite true. Our Republican politicians no longer represent the people of this state. They represent ALEC and the agenda with that organization. There was a time our state government worked together for the people of this state. ALEC is destroying that across the nation. I would suggest researching it. We all need to know why this is happening. I want my state back!

  • While in control the Dems did not do enough to satisfy the voting public of Iowa as evidenced be the election results. Should the Republican majority do the same a reversal will happen. So, for those not happy with the popular vote get up get out and get active in the political process. It could be interesting. Waiting for a politician to act in any area you feel needs attention will not bring you any more satisfaction than you already have. I might suggest, though, you most likely be more effective with your efforts if you rely on truthful sources that can and will verify there sources rather using rumor that is not to have actually happened or partial quotes that will be damaging to reputation.

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