House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst (D-Windsor Heights) and her Democratic colleagues know Iowans are exhausted and disappointed by the Iowa Legislature.
“We hear from people all the time: ‘This is not the state I grew up in,’ and they’re concerned and they’re depressed and they’re upset about it,” she said.
This year, the Iowa Legislature passed school vouchers, banned books, penalized the mention of LGBTQ people and issues in school until sixth grade, relaxed child labor laws, and passed a six-week abortion ban in a July special session.
Even though Konfrst and her colleagues are in the minority at the Capitol, she said they plan to hold Republicans accountable for this extreme legislation and push for changes Iowa voters want to see.
“It’s important for us that we look at what an Iowans everyday budget is like,” Konfrst said. “So what can we do to help fix their energy costs? What can we do to help with housing?”
Addressing the pay for child-care workers and ensuring there are more—and affordable—child-care slots are also issues Konfrst and her colleagues want to look into.
Reproductive freedom bills Democrats introduced in March this year are also still on the table for consideration, though Konfrst said she doubts Republicans will touch most of them.
“We pushed for a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights,” she said. “Let’s stop sending it to the courts. Let’s let Iowa voters decide that they support reproductive freedom. If we do a constitutional amendment, [Iowans] would get that chance to consider it at the ballot box.”
The other bills include making birth control available over-the-counter from pharmacies, without a prescription, restoring family planning programs under Medicaid, and extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months.
Of those, Konfrst said Republicans have shown interest in extending postpartum coverage, though she and her colleagues plan to bring up all of the proposals again.
“Democrats are ready to talk if Republicans just ask,” she said.
Konfrst said she can’t say for sure but doesn’t think Republicans will bring a vote on their constitutional amendment, which would explicitly state the Iowa Constitution doesn’t include the right to abortion. If it passed this session, it would be on the 2024 ballot for voters to accept or reject.
“If it’s a good policy, if it’s a policy that Iowa needs, I don’t know why they’re afraid to send it to the voters, but it appears that they are,” she said.
Unfortunately, Konfrst said she’s heard Republicans are considering more restrictive education bills this coming legislative session and raising teacher pay by slashing spending for special education services.
“They’re governing by culture war,” she said. “They look at all the things that their extreme base and their special interests tell them they want, and they do those and then they don’t really care what the implementation is like.”
Banning books and reporting students who request different names and pronouns not in their school records to their parents are a few examples.
What a lot of voters don’t realize, she said, is that many Republican legislators are more extreme at the Capitol than they appear when talking one-on-one to voters back home. And with so few numbers, there’s little Democrats can do to stop them, especially when Republicans rarely discuss legislation outside of their caucus.
“We walk to the floor and we vote on the bills that they’ve put together,” Konfrst said. “We’re ready to have the conversations, we just need them to be willing to listen.”
Though she expects this legislative session to be rough, Konfrst hasn’t lost all hope.
“We go out and we talk to voters and they tell us, ‘Can you just do things to make things better?’ And we are reassured that Iowans are not as extreme as this legislature,” Konfrst said.
With Republicans firmly in control of the Iowa House, the most Democrats can do is offer amendments on the floor and gather resources for their constituents. When the gender-affirming care ban passed, Konfrst said she and her colleagues have helped families travel out of state for care and connect them to the resources they need.
Konfrst said the best thing Iowans can do is to be loud about their thoughts on legislation and to tell their Republican lawmakers. And then they need to be ready to vote, so the Republican majority narrows and they have to moderate their policies or talk to Democrats.
“We’re not saying only vote,” she said. “We’re saying a key part of making change in this state is to vote and be an advocate and a voice for those who don’t have a voice.”
At town halls, Konfrst said people bring up their concerns about vouchers and reproductive freedom all on their own, and she hopes Iowans are ready to keep fighting back.
“Iowans who feel like the state has gotten out of control, who feel like the state is not recognizable to them anymore. What we need [those] Iowans to do is stand up and fight,” she said.
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