Iowa Democrats call on Legislature to pass policies addressing racism

Iowa Capitol Dome
The dome of the Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Sen. Janet Petersen’s title. She is Senate minority leader.

As protesters across the nation and in Iowa demand action that addresses racial inequality, Democrats in the Iowa Legislature said they plan on highlighting passing those policies when they return to session this week.

“I believe the time is now for us to address racial injustices,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen said during a Zoom press conference Monday morning.

Legislators are slated to return to session on Wednesday, but the steps of the Capitol  have become more active in the last few days as protesters assemble to decry the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Democrats plan on bringing up racial profiling legislation, reducing drug penalties, expanding voting rights to felons and the governor’s “second chance” agenda, which focuses on criminal justice reform.

Democrats are in the minority in the House and Senate. Petersen said she plans on speaking with Republican leadership prior to Wednesday.

”These issues aren’t new ideas,” Petersen said. “This isn’t a new conversation.”

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard said Iowa could be a nationwide leader in “community policing,” a strategy that focuses on law enforcement and local residents problem solving together. 

He cited former President Barack Obama’s “21st Century Policing” initiative, which aims at modernizing police tactics by creating more trust and communication with community members.

“We’ve had a lot of talk, but not enough action,” Prichard said.

The main priority for legislators returning to the Capitol, however, will be COVID-19 recovery, Prichard said.

Returning lawmakers face an estimated $360 million in reduced state revenue for the upcoming budget year and $150 million for the current year that ends June 30.

Some of the initiatives include making a COVID-19 vaccine free for everyone once one is available and using CARES Act funds to help refugees hurt by COVID-19. 

Refugees make-up a large percentage of the labor at Iowa’s meatpacking plants, which have been COVID-19 hotspots.

“We must help people who are being disproportionately impacted,” Petersen said.

Democrats’ COVID-19 agenda for the 2020 legislative session

Health care

  • Provide access to affordable health care, including mental health
  • Ensure universal access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and PPE in all 99 counties
  • Keep hospitals and local health care clinics open 
  • Free coronavirus vaccine once available
  • Support mitigation efforts by cities, counties and emergency management commissions 
  • Prepare for fall COVID-19 resurgence 

Business

  • Help small businesses reopen safely and help them stay open 
  • Provide tests for Iowans returning to the workforce and retesting at workplaces when an employee tests positive
  • Ensure financial security for businesses and workers with COVID positive cases
  • Expand whistleblower protections and workers’ compensation during pandemics, including first responders and health care workers  
  • Expand protections for renters and homeowners during pandemics and severe economic downturns
  • Expand community college opportunities to help Iowans get back to work
  • Ensure paid pandemic leave for workers to stay home when they are sick 

 Child care and schools

  • Protect K-12 public education funding 
  • Provide universal access to technology and home-based internet for students
  • Provide PPE for all educators and students
  • Increase child care services for Iowa families
  • Provide timely guidance to schools, parents and students on reopening

Other initiatives

  • Expand vote-at-home opportunities statewide
  • Provide oversight of Test Iowa and other no-bid contracts
  • Require immediate public notification of COVID outbreaks, ending the current reporting threshold by Iowa Department of Public Health of 10% employee absenteeism or positive COVID-19 tests.
  • Require OSHA inspections and enforcement during health care emergencies