When Republicans retained full control of Iowa government in the 2020 elections, Democrats knew full well they would face another challenging legislative session. But GOP legislators have pushed the boundaries of hot-button Iowa partisan issues during the first month of the state’s 2021 legislative session to an extent some did not expect, all while loosening COVID-19 mitigation requirements.
Since the start of session on Jan. 11, Iowa’s Republican House, Senate and governor have furthered legislation that seeks to divert public school funding to private schools, relax gun control and increase abortion restrictions in the state’s constitution, reinstate capital punishment and accelerate over a dozen anti-LGBTQ proposals, among other pushes for conservative proposals.
And during a time when Gov. Kim Reynolds dropped all mask and social distancing mandates while signing into law a bill that required schools to offer 100% in-person learning options this week, Democratic lawmakers are reassessing their legislative strategy to meet the onslaught.
“I think that it’s fair to say that Iowa Republicans have taken a pretty hard turn even further to the right. It’s very much the party of Trump now,” said Cedar Rapids Democrat Sen. Rob Hogg.
“I’m of the mindset that right now for Iowa Democrats, our job is to survive, stop what we can and live to fight another day.”
Despite record spending on the left during the 2020 general election, Iowa’s 89th General Assembly started with Republicans gaining six seats in the House, taking a 59-41 majority. The GOP also has a 32-18 advantage in the Senate.
Sioux City Sen. Jackie Smith, a Democrat, said she suspects her GOP colleagues think they should enact an “extreme agenda” because it’s what their constituents want after November’s election.
“Their priorities seem to be a lot of things that are dividing us,” Smith said in an interview with Iowa Starting Line. “The priority is pretending there’s not a pandemic and we’re going to push a radical agenda. I really believe they think that’s what the voters want.”
“They have a majority. They have the trifecta, they’ve had it two cycles now and maybe I would think the same thing too. Like ‘Hey, we have our chance, Iowa elected more Republicans, they must like what we’re doing.’”
Republican strategist David Kochel told the Des Moines Register that including constitutional amendments on firearm protections and abortion restrictions on upcoming ballots might further drive the GOP base to turn out in the 2022 and 2024 elections.
“It can really become a rallying call for drawing attention and energizing Republicans,” Kochel said to the Des Moines Register.
“In an off-year election, you’re looking for anything that gives you a turnout advantage … Particularly after the huge turnout we saw in 2020, there will be a drop-off. So you’re trying to create an advantage in the electorate that’s going to show up on Election Day or vote early.”
But Amber Gustafson, an Ankeny resident who has been active with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said the advancement of language further protecting gun rights in the Iowa constitution is “something that the extremist gun lobby has been pushing in Iowa for a long time.”
“Iowa voters aren’t asking for this. It isn’t coming from the people of this state that are saying they don’t have enough gun rights. It’s totally coming from extremist state lobbying,” Gustafson said. “I think what we have seen every year since 2016 in the general assembly has been a smash and grab.”
Iowa Democrats also speculate that the pandemic has created convenient distractions for the GOP to pass legislation they’ve been aiming to accomplish for a while.
“We have a decade of underfunding our public schools, we’ve had a lot of legislation attacking our public schools over the past several years. I think it’s part of a general strategy that’s anti-public schools,” Windsor Heights Democrat Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott said in an interview with Iowa Starting Line after a low education funding plan advanced through the Senate last week.
“And maybe this seems like an opportune time to push those things when the public can’t really be present at the Capitol. When a lot of our legislators can’t be as engaged in-person because it’s an unsafe work environment when there’s a lot of stress and confusion that’s taking a lot of people’s attention.”
Here’s an overview of just some of the legislation the Iowa Legislature has advanced thus far this session:
Proposed bills in the House and Senate would end tenure systems at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa—systems that University officials say safeguards academic innovation.
The legislation has surfaced because GOP lawmakers say they’ve been aggravated by “unfair treatment” from faculty toward politically conservative university students, according to House Speaker and New Hartford Republican Rep. Pat Grassley.
Another bill advancing in the Senate would force the body that governs Iowa’s public colleges and universities to survey all employees in order to determine their political affiliations.
While You Weren't Looking:
The IA GOP proposed S.F. 292, which would force the Iowa Board of Regents (the body that governs Iowa's public colleges and universities) to survey public employees (ie: professors) to determine political affiliations.
This is modern day McCarthyism. pic.twitter.com/WLFgwyvVvg
— Christina Blackcloud (@wanasattia) February 10, 2021
K-12 education funding has taken precedence at the Capitol this session—first with the passage of a school privatization bill through the Senate.
The bill, which has garnered significant pushback from public school advocates and Democratic lawmakers, includes a state-funded school voucher program that would allow qualifying students to receive scholarships to attend private school, makes open enrollment available in all districts and removes voluntary diversity plans for large school districts.
Democrats are holding out hope that the legislation won’t advance much further. It passed through the Senate by a minimum Republican majority of 26-21 after three GOP lawmakers opposed it and three were absent. The bill now sits in the House without any scheduled debate.
“Because it’s a bad bill, it’s really unpopular. We had three senators on the Republican side not vote for it and there are a lot more representatives who are really uncomfortable with it,” Trone Garriott said.
But after Gov. Reynolds signed into law the first bill of session, which required all Iowa schools offer 100% in-person learning options by Feb. 15, Republican lawmakers introduced their K-12 education funding plan—a proposal Democrats say is much too low for public schools, especially as they grapple with the expenses and challenges of COVID-19.
School curriculum is also being debated at the Capitol after GOP lawmakers advanced a bill in the House which would strip state funding from schools that teach lessons based on the New York Times’ 1619 Project—a Pulitzer Prize-winning project from a former Iowan detailing the United States’ legacy of slavery.
“Of course the main argument in the project is that America is inherently racist, founded on slavery, racism and bigotry,” said Orange City Republican Rep. Skyler Wheeler, who sponsored the bill. “However that’s simply not true. America is the only majority-white country in the world to elect a Black president, and we’ve done it twice.”
A Senate committee passed a proposed amendment stating that the Iowa Constitution doesn’t protect abortion rights—one of two proposals this session to amend the Iowa Constitution.
“To defend and protect unborn children, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion,” the proposed constitutional amendment reads.
This effort to add language against abortion rights protections has moved forward for the third year in a row. House Republicans passed the amendment last month after not having enough support to pass it in 2020. The measure passed the full Senate last year and the GOP-controlled Senate is likely to do so again this session.
A number of anti-LGBTQ legislation has been proposed this session, outstripping past aims to loosen protections.
“It’s definitely accelerating at a pace that we haven’t seen in the past before,” Damian Thompson, a lobbyist for Iowa Safe Schools, told Iowa Public Radio.
The first of these anti-LGBTQ bills to advance is a “bathroom bill” pushed forward in early February by a Senate panel, which would require people to only use bathrooms that align with their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity in Iowa schools.
This “bathroom bill” has sparked significant pushback in the state—over 100 people listened in to the virtual subcommittee. A similar bill passed in North Carolina in 2016, garnering national attention.
Another bill introduced this session bars participation in school sports for students who wish to participate in sports teams that do not correspond to their sex at birth.
Others include removing gender identity as a protected class from the Iowa Civil Rights Act—legislation that did not advance in 2020, although proposed. Banning some medical treatments for transgender youth has also been introduced in legislation this session, along with a bill requiring schools to notify a parent or guardian of their child’s pronouns if requested.
Another proposal this session to amend the Iowa Constitution includes adding expanded second amendment language.
The state constitution would add: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny,” if adopted by voters.
The adage will be voted on by Iowans in 2022 after Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate approved the proposed constitutional amendment in late January.
“This piece of legislation is really just a push to obliterate the second amendment and replace it in the state with something that’s far more extreme and really problematic for the state going forward,” Moms Demand Action member Amber Gustafson said.
Iowans aged 18 or older who are convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a minor would be subject to a reinstated limited death penalty, under legislation advanced by Republicans on a Senate subcommittee.
“It’s a very limited bill. It only applies where someone has kidnapped, raped and murdered a minor,” subcommittee Chairman Sen. Julian Garrett, an Indianola Republican said, despite strong opposition expressed from people in the remote hearing for the bill.
by Isabella Murray
Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.