While Republican legislature obsesses over culture war, Iowa Dems pitch pocketbook policies

Gov. Kim Reynolds after a 2023 bill signing. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

By Ty Rushing

March 8, 2024

All Sami Scheetz wanted to do was feed kids.

The Democratic representative from Cedar Rapids introduced HF 575 last session, which would allow 23,000 Iowa students enrolled in the federal reduced breakfast and lunch program to receive free meals at school. The state would use a small portion of its billion-dollar-plus surplus to pay the difference.

Universal free school meal plans are unpopular with a lot of Iowa’s elected Republican officials, so Scheetz’s bill was a compromise: low-income kids would get to eat free but the program wouldn’t cover families who don’t already receive assistance.

Twenty Iowa House Republicans agreed to co-sponsor Scheetz’s bill and for the second session in a row, Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Hull), chair of the Iowa House Education Committee, declined to give the legislation even a subcommittee.

“This bill’s bipartisan support demonstrates that when we set aside our differences, we can deliver for families who desperately need our help … Every child deserves access to nutritious meals, regardless of their family’s income,” Scheetz said. “Unfortunately, Republican leadership in the Iowa House chose to put politics over Iowa kids.”

Under Iowa’s one-party rule, proposals from Iowa Democrats such as feeding kids, raising the state’s abysmal $7.25 minimum wage, making childcare more affordable, locking in tuition rates for in-state freshman undergrads at regent universities, or putting abortion rights directly on the ballot simply go nowhere—often without so much as a subcommittee.

“What I take from the fact that Republicans have ignored our legislation over and over again is that they are more interested in playing politics than they are in governing,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, leader of the Iowa House Democrats.

“We also represent constituents in this state. We also have a right to be part of these conversations and I think Iowans believe that because bills sometimes pass in a bipartisan way, that means we were part of the process and that simply—most of the time—is not true.”  

Notably, Republicans in charge of Iowa’s government have spent more time targeting LGBTQ Iowans than writing and enacting legislation to tackle kitchen table issues—unless you consider plant-based proteins a scourge on your day-to-day life.

Over the last two years, Iowa Republicans have introduced 60+ bills targeting the LGBTQ community, many of which have gone on to become law.

In that same period, Iowa Republicans have:

  • Passed a six-week abortion ban—which is before many people know they are pregnant—and continue to introduce other bills stripping reproductive freedoms.
  • Passed bills aimed at weakening the powers of the office of Iowa’s only statewide elected Democrat.
  • Loosened child labor laws.
  • Tried to ban gay marriage.
  • Declined federal dollars to feed kids over the summer citing obesity concerns.
  • Tried to prevent people who receive public assistance from being able to buy fresh meat.
  • Continued to underfund public schools and passed legislation to divert hundreds of millions of dollars to private school scholarships.
  • Banned books in schools and accused public school educators of indoctrinating and grooming students while also pushing legislation to give guns to those same teachers. 

This list is a small sample of Iowa Republicans’ recent legislative priorities and what they have done with unchecked power. Many of the bills have been cookie-cutter legislation run in other Republican-led states and drafted by well-funded right-wing think tanks.

“Every bill that we have introduced over the last several years has been really to give Iowans a better deal and been very focused on issues that they have talked to us about trying to solve,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, leader of the Iowa Senate Democrats.

“Many of the issues that we have seen introduced on the floor for debate this session have been very much culture issues and Iowans are sick of the culture war. They want us to address child care and housing and funding for our schools and our mental health system.”

Jochum has served in the Iowa Legislature since 1993 and said it wasn’t always like this.

“I’ve been here long enough to know that there really was a day when Democrats and Republicans really did work together to solve problems,” she said. “We really did. We understood that no one party had all the answers and there was more of a give and take.

“Ideas that the minority party may have had was actually heard and oftentimes would be incorporated into a bill or accepted as an amendment to the bill. This way we are operating today is just simply wrong. It does not solve the problems facing our state and it’s not being responsive to the needs of Iowans.”

Correction: The Iowa Republican abortion ban was six weeks, not 15 weeks.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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