Capitol Report - Week One 2021

January 17, 2021

By: Paula S. Dierenfeld

They’re Back. The first week of the 2021 legislative session was filled with speeches, starting first with the Opening Day Remarks by the Legislative leaders, then followed with the Condition of the State by Governor Kim Reynolds, the Condition of the Judiciary by Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen and the Condition of the National Guard by Adjutant General Ben Corell.


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She Said. “It’s been a year - and I’ll let you fill in whatever adjective you want. Covid-19. Civil Unrest. A drought. A derecho. We’ve been beaten and battered in about every way imaginable and some unimaginable. But together, we’ve met every challenge with bravery and outright grit... And despite what we’ve been through—or maybe because of it—the condition of our state has never been stronger.”


That’s how Governor Reynolds began her Condition of the State address. The Governor’s opening statements provided the backdrop for her priorities in the upcoming session:


Broadband Expansion. Governor Reynolds said every year she has been governor, she has focused on expanding broadband and that we’re making progress, but not enough. In a third of Iowa counties, high speed internet is rarely available and for many Iowans, it not affordable. The Governor said it’s time for bold action and she announced the “biggest buildout of high-speed internet in the country.” Her plan includes spending $450 million over the next three years to provide affordable, high-speed broadband to every part of the state by 2025.


School Choice. The Governor spoke most passionately about the impact of the pandemic on education. “If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that our parents need choice. And it’s not just in-person versus virtual. Sometimes it’s about which school to attend altogether.” Governor Reynolds urged the Legislature to immediately send her a bill that gives parents the choice to send their children back to school full time. She also proposed making open enrollment available in all schools districts, allowing communities more flexibility to create public charter schools and creating education savings accounts to help parents pay for their kids’ K-12 education.


Affordable, Accessible Childcare. Calling the lack of high quality, affordable childcare options a “workforce crisis,” Governor Reynolds has proposed spending $3 million to jump-start development of childcare facilities by businesses and communities and $25 million for block grants to encourage child care start-ups.


Tax Reform. Regarding taxes, Governor Reynolds said that “unlike many other states, we’re starting from a good financial position. We aren’t looking at tough budget cuts and we’re certainly not looking at raising taxes.” She went on to say, “If anything, we need to continue the conversation about cutting taxes, and we can start by getting rid of the unnecessary triggers that were put in place in 2018.” Removing the triggers will result in an automatic reduction in individual income tax rates and elimination of federal deductibility in tax year 2023.


Social Justice and Police Protection. Governor Reynolds said she will be introducing a bill that “protects law enforcement and continues our march toward social justice. The bill will make clear that if you riot or attack men and women in uniform, you will be punished… The bill will also ban racial profiling and other forms of disparate treatment.” Last session the Legislature passed and Governor signed the More Perfect Union Act, a bill that banned the use of police choke holds, required de-escalation and bias training for police, banned hiring officers who have been fired for misconduct or for using excessive force and gave the Attorney General authority to investigate cases when an officer’s action resulted in death.


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He, He and He Said. Consistent themes arose in the priorities shared by legislative leaders:


Senate President Jake Chapman: “My hope is that this chamber does not wish for life to return to normal, but that we set our sights on a brighter tomorrow. Let that brighter tomorrow include renewed efforts to tear down the barriers that prevent parents from choosing where to send their children for education. Let us recognize that sound fiscal policies of budgetary restraint have insulated Iowa in our weathering Covid… Now is the time for us to take bold, unwavering measures to reduce and perhaps even eliminate some of the tax burdens many Iowans are facing.


Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver: “Tax relief is always going to be a priority for me and a priority for this caucus. We have been working to make our state and our tax climate more competitive with other states. While we have made some progress these last few years, we want to continue relieving some of that tax burden on Iowans… Despite the pandemic, we must not sacrifice the future of our children. We cannot let a generation of kids fall behind in school. Kids learn better when they are in school, in classrooms, in person, instead of in front of a screen. The longer they are out of school, the more their skills deteriorate and the further they fall behind… Our focus will be on giving parents an option to send their children to school safely.”


Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls: “We must take up legislation passed with strong bipartisan support in the House to assist child care providers, who were already struggling before the pandemic began. We must make the necessary changes to ensure every Iowan has access to high speed broadband internet. We must continue the work we began last summer to address racial inequities in our society. And we must enact legislation to expand access to and build more affordable housing to help family budgets and protect Iowans from predatory landlords.”


House Speaker Pat Grassley: “Our state was facing a child care crisis before COVID-19 even began. Often times, families are hesitant or outright reject a pay raise because it could result in the loss of their child care assistance. This is the cliff effect, and it must be addressed because it is holding our workforce and our families back. It is incumbent upon the Legislature to provide an off-ramp from government assistance when it comes to child care… Getting our kids back in the classroom is critical to their mental health and wellbeing. This should be one of this legislature’s top priorities - to ensure that every family that wants 100% in-person learning has access to it.”


House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl: “This last November, Iowans sent a clear and resounding message to their elected officials. They want less government, not more. They want more freedom and less restrictions. They want their tax dollars to work for them, not against them. As we move forward this session let us strive to advance policies and budgets that restore Iowan’s freedoms and gets government off of their backs.”


House Speaker Pro Tempore John Wills: “My goal as a legislator, as is many of you, is to wisely spend the taxpayer’s dollar, provide efficiency of government services, advance our freedoms and liberties like the 2nd Amendment and life, and ensure our government works for the people, not the other way around.”


House Minority Leader Todd Prichard: “If you look at history, we are not in uncharted waters. Similar cycles have been met by our country in the past. We can COMPETENTLY address the pandemic. We can BUILD our economy, FIX our healthcare system, and PROTECT civil rights. We have the ABILITY and the RESOURCES to solve environmental problems and address climate change. Solutions are within reach.”


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And Then, They Said. In her Condition of the Judiciary, Chief Justice Suzie Christensen shared that in her prior life (as a district court judge), she was known as the Cookie Judge. She said it was her way of connecting with children who were experiencing severe neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse or mental health issues. The Chief Justice said her priorities focus on child welfare and the courts’ efforts to keep children in their homes or return them to their parents if removed.


During his Condition of the National Guard speech, Maj. Gen. Ben Correl recapped the many missions Guard members have been involved in over the past year, both home and abroad. He also recommitted the National Guard’s efforts to address sexual assaults, sexual harassment and retaliatory behaviors and to “hold those who cross the line accountable.” The vision of the Iowa National Guard is to be the “most trusted organization in Iowa” and to always be ready to defend our country and come to the aid of Iowans in time of need,” Correl said.


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Week Ahead. With Martin Luther King Jr Day on Monday, this next week will be a short one. Even though it’s short, the House and Senate Calendars are filling up with committee and subcommittee meetings.  All committee and subcommittee meetings can be observed virtually on the Legislative Website. Participation in Senate subcommittee meetings is via Zoom only. House subcommittees require in-person attendance by those wanting to participate.


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Final Word. On Friday, legislators were informed that “someone associated with the Iowa House of Representatives has tested positive for COVID-19. They were last in the building January 13 and tested on January 15, 2021.”  The Legislature’s COVID-19 protocols may well change before legislators return on Tuesday.