Time for Iowa lawmakers to stop using legislation to target political foes

February 15, 2021 8:00 am

Iowa GOP lawmakers are using legislation and money to target political foes. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Newly elected baby legislators often go through a phase of trying to use their legislative powers to nurse their post-election grudges. They file bills hoping to criminalize lying on the campaign trail and suggesting draconian penalties for the theft of campaign signs. It’s kind of cute.

Eventually, they work that out of their system and the good ones refocus their priorities on what the people in their districts want and need. Those who don’t run the risk of burning out fast or getting sent home by a challenger with a better grasp of what it means to be a public servant.

This year, however, it seems the Republican majority in the Legislature feels secure enough to indulge in more ambitious acts of political vengeance. We’ve already seen several examples this year of legislation being used as a bludgeon against specific individuals or groups with whom lawmakers have a conflict.

Lawmakers use pandemic aid to punish Des Moines district

One of the most chilling of these is the move by the Republican majority of the Senate to use state money to punish a single school district by making it ineligible for roughly $2 million in pandemic-related assistance.

It’s easy to understand why Gov. Kim Reynolds and her legislative allies are unhappy with the Des Moines Public Schools. The district openly defied the governor and the state Department of Education by keeping students on remote learning after being refused a waiver under the state’s emergency pandemic rules.

The arguments over getting kids back in the classroom immediately versus waiting until it’s safer based on COVID-19 conditions have been well-publicized and I don’t need to rehash them here.  Regardless of where one stands on ensuring parents have an option for 100% in-person learning, the fact is the Legislature resolved that problem with the first bill signed into law this year.  All districts, including Des Moines, will offer 100% in-person learning starting Monday.

The House offers a slightly different approach that puts more money, retroactively, into the hands of districts that had more students attending 100% of the time.

The issue of extra money for districts that complied with the rules or kept students in the classroom is purely about reward or retribution after the fact. And it is the Des Moines students who will suffer most. If it were really about compensating districts for extra expenses related to holding in-person classes during the pandemic, as supporters claim, the bill would simply create a fund and have districts submit those costs for reimbursement.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, the Senate Education Committee chair, hotly disputed Democrats’ allegations during a Feb. 9 debate that she and her GOP colleagues were being vindictive toward Des Moines schools.

“I don’t even know where to begin on the accusations that this is petty and it’s revenge and that I’m somehow trying to hurt children in Des Moines public school district, because I am appropriating dollars that will meet the needs of districts who have actually had children in classrooms,” Sinclair said.

Maybe she even believes that. I’d like to think so, because she’s always struck me as a smart, capable and generally forthright person who happens to wield a huge amount of power over the lives of Iowa’s children.

But in the very next comment, Sinclair angrily claimed that Des Moines’ superintendent, Dr. Thomas Ahart, had said in a public meeting that he “actually hoped for an uptick in COVID activity among children and staff.”

A spokesman for the Des Moines Public Schools says that “old trope” was taken out of context from a two-hour meeting and Ahart was not expressing regret that there wasn’t a COVID-19 surge.

So maybe these lawmakers aren’t vindictive toward children, just administrators, using money as a cudgel in a way that directly affects children. Existing procedures would have been fully adequate to address noncompliance by the district. Instead, lawmakers are swatting a fly with a bazooka and causing all sorts of collateral damage.

Tenure debate aimed at university liberalism

If that were the only example, it would be enough. But I’ve written already this year about other proposals aimed at other groups with whom the conservative majority bears ill will, including judges and intolerant liberals. I don’t really expect those bills to go anywhere this year, although bad ideas never really die at the Statehouse.

A bill banning tenure at public universities may have a better chance this year. House File 49 has now made it through committee and is eligible for floor debate — something House Speaker Pat Grassley wasn’t ruling out in a statement last week. Lawmakers have come up with various excuses for this type of legislation over the years. This year, the excuse is alleged violations of freedom of (conservative) speech on campus.

Grassley suggested GOP lawmakers have been talking “for years and years” with universities about making sure free speech rights are protected on campus. Apparently, they are tired of just talking.

“And I think our caucus is really at the point now, where we feel that, you know, we invest millions and millions of dollars every year in higher education. We think it’s something that needs to have a serious look,” Grassley told reporters Thursday.

The thing is, tenure has little to do with tolerance and everything to do with being able to attract quality faculty. Lawmakers reviewed three incidents from the past year at state universities. All of these incidents were resolved in favor of free speech. Two of them involved student decision-makers and a non-tenured lecturer.

The tenure debate isn’t about speech, anyway. It’s about a growing conservative conviction that universities are a hotbed of liberalism. This anti-intellectual movement has advanced to undermining science and has succeeded in Iowa at eroding state support for our public universities.

Luckily, in Iowa there are plenty of important, science-friendly employers who don’t want to lose their pipeline to quality university research. Let’s hope they impress on lawmakers that they’ve spent enough time indulging their ideological revenge fantasies and they need to get to work addressing the serious problems facing Iowans who just want to live, work and raise families in this state.

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