Lawmakers open session with focus on workforce

By: - January 13, 2020 12:35 pm

Iowa senators and staff applaud speeches in the Senate chamber on the opening day of the legislative session on Jan. 13, 2020

Despite a minor glitch with some of their microphones, Iowa legislative leaders were loud and clear about their priorities as they opened the 2020 legislative session on Monday.

“Yes, I know the sound is off – you’re just going to have to strain your ears and I apologize for that,” Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, said as he began his opening remarks.

But lawmakers didn’t have to strain to hear the themes legislative leaders emphasized in their speeches.

Republicans, who control the majority in both the House and Senate, were unanimous in calling for action to expand Iowa’s workforce – also a top issue among business groups in Iowa.

“Iowa’s economy is growing but employers are desperately in need of skilled workers,” newly elected House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford said.  He called on lawmakers to address the state’s lack of access to child care and to continue working to expand broadband capabilities across the state.

Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, is speaker-select of the Iowa House.

They also emphasized fiscal control and an interest in continuing to cut taxes.  The GOP-controlled Legislature in 2018 passed the largest income-tax cut in state history – legislation that is still being implemented.  There was no mention Monday of a looming proposal to raise sales taxes in Iowa to pay for water quality and mental health programs while potentially cutting other taxes.

“We want to continue to reduce those rates to bring our state from the back of the pack to one of the states with the lowest rates,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver,  R-Ankeny, said. “We can continue to do more to simplify and make taxes lower, fairer, and more efficient. But the ultimate goal is to ensure the people who work hard for their money are getting to keep more of it.”

Democratic leaders also acknowledged the need to expand Iowa’s workforce. But they emphasized K-12 and early-childhood education as their priorities.

“Democrats understand that to build a better future and grow our workforce, we must educate the children and students of today to work and lead tomorrow.  That is why we will introduce legislation to put education first again and build on our once proud history of leading the nation in education,” House Minority Leader Todd Pritchard, D-Charles City, said.

Republicans, however, have pushed back at the suggestion they have fallen short in their commitment to education and they did again on Monday.  “Every funding promise we have made to K-12 education, we have fully funded,” Whitver said. “Those promises are yielding results. Iowa has the highest high school graduation rate, highest average ACT score, and the highest rate of concurrent enrollment in the country.”

While GOP lawmakers decried dysfunction in Washington, D.C., to call for setting aside partisan discord, Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, invoked children’s television icon Fred Rogers. She asked fellow lawmakers to focus on Iowans in need – and on policies such as raising the minimum wage, banning so-called “conversion therapy” that attempts to reverse homosexuality and expanding health care and mental health services, among other proposals.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen is a Des Moines Democrat.

“Mr. Rogers famously told this story: ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ In that spirit, I’m asking today that we strive to be the new helpers focused on working together to build a healthier, happier, safer and stronger Iowa neighborhood for our parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren and our friends.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, is scheduled to deliver her agenda to a joint session of the Legislature Tuesday. The 100-day session is scheduled to end April 21.

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