Lawmakers open session, call for action on tax cuts, in-person classes, child care, limiting abortion

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

Republican leaders in the Iowa Senate on Monday opened the 89th General Assembly with pledges to cut taxes, push schools to hold in-person classes, improve child care and limit abortion rights.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said he and his GOP colleagues would work to protect the state’s budget reserves, even in the face of an economy rattled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“For years we have been saying we need to be responsible and budget conservatively so we can prepare our state for hard times,” said Whitver, R-Ankeny. “Last year, our state saw what ‘hard times’ really means. We experienced a virus that threatened the lives and livelihoods of Iowans and their families.”

But despite the pandemic and the August derecho, Whitver said it is not time to “raid” reserves set aside for emergencies. 

 “Our state was recognized as one of the most resilient when it comes to our budget,” Whitver said. “This does not mean we start raiding the surplus and recklessly spending what we have so carefully built up. It means we are prepared if revenues dip again and not enough money is available to keep the promises we made to public safety, health care and education last year.

“When Iowans face financial struggles, they tighten their belts and live within their means. They expect their government to do the same,” Whitver added.

Whitver said the Legislature wants to support measures that will put people to work, including looking for new tax cuts to add to a package passed in 2018 and still rolling out. 

“Tax relief is always going to be a priority for me and a priority for this caucus,” Whitver said. “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. 

“… Achieving this goal means conservative state spending is just as important as it has been these last four years.”

Whitver paraphrased President Ronald Reagan as saying, “The best recovery plan is a job.”

GOP push to require in-person classes

Whitver also pushed the idea of requiring school districts to hold in-person classes. The Legislature passed a bill last session that required districts to hold most instruction in person, but some have requested waivers as the pandemic sickened teachers, staff and students. Many classes have been held online.

“Despite the pandemic, we must not sacrifice the future of our children,” Whitver said. “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.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said some districts have pushed back against the law, prompting discussions of new legislation to control local actions.

“Some schools have taken every effort to provide in-person learning,” said Grassley, who was elected to a second term as House speaker and sworn in by his grandfather, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. “But in some areas of the state, parents and students who wanted to be back in school were met with at best a lack of responsiveness and at worst outright contempt.

“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,” Grassley said.

Currently, districts can petition the state Department of Education to allow more than 50% of courses to be offered online only if the COVID-19 positivity rate in their county rises above 15% and other guidelines are met.

Gov. Kim Reynolds last week also said it would be a priority to get children back to in-person learning, while specifying that parents should still have a choice to keep children at home with online instruction.

Abortion rights

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, was sworn in as Senate president. 

Chapman urged his GOP colleagues to pass a proposed constitutional amendment restricting abortion rights. Republican lawmakers failed, despite having the legislative majority, to advance a similar measure during the past two-year General Assembly.

“This legislative body has stood courageously for the life of the unborn.,” Chapman said. “Regrettably, five unelected judges with the stroke of a pen fabricated a constitutional right to an abortion under Iowa’s Constitution. This egregious usurpation of power will not be left unchecked. It is our responsibility, it is our oath-bound duty, to rightfully propose to the people of Iowa a constitutional amendment to correct this judicial overreach.”

Chapman also argued for states rights. He told a story about how the founders of Iowa lobbied Congress to change its original decision to set the new state’s western boundary 80 miles to the east of the Missouri River. That, Chapman said, would have meant thousands of Iowans would now be Nebraskans. 

He used the story to suggest federal power needs to be kept in check.

“Wisely, Iowa voters knew better than Congress,” said Chapman, R-Adel. “They submitted a second request, and the borders we now know today were approved. May we always remember and maintain our rights as a state against an ever increasingly centralization of power exerted by the federal government.”

Child care action eyed

Grassley said child care also will be a priority this year. 

“As I’ve prepared for the session, I can tell you almost every meeting I’ve had, regardless of what part of the state they were from or what political party they may affiliate with, the need to increase access to safe and affordable child care is a priority,” Grassley said. “Any sense of normalcy for our state during and after this pandemic depends on it.”

Grassley specifically cited the need to address what is often referred to as a social-services “cliff,” the abrupt loss of assistance when a family gets a pay raise that pushes them out of eligibility.

The House last year approved a bill that would have phased out child care assistance gradually as parents’ income increases. House File 2424 was approved 99-0 in the House but the Senate did not take it up.

Democrats also have pushed for improved child care, including legislation to prevent the loss of aid when parents take a part-time job.

— Kathie Obradovich contributed to this report.