Iowa Legislature brushes off COVID to fight the culture war

Protesters oppose mask mandates in a shoulder-to-shoulder gathering at the Iowa Capitol as the Legislature reconvened on Jan. 11, 2021. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches its one-year anniversary in Iowa, it’s startling to see how this all-pervasive event could have such a profound effect on the state and yet provoke such a negligible amount of attention from the Iowa Legislature.

The number of COVID-related bills that have either passed or are eligible for floor debate in the House or Senate is far outnumbered by bills that address a different sort of malady.

Many of the bills that stemmed from the pandemic are aimed not at preventing disease but denying or maybe even helping to spread it. So far, lawmakers have forced schools to reopen and withheld money from districts whose leaders thought it was unsafe to hold classes in person. They have advanced legislation to bar employers, even health-care facilities, from requiring workers to get vaccinated.

Perhaps someone realized the pandemic anniversary was coming up, so lawmakers also fast-tracked a bill to cut taxes for people or businesses that received state or federal relief funds or unemployment checks. (Meanwhile, lawmakers are also working to cut unemployment benefits for Iowans starting next year.) A couple of bills also remain alive that allow dentists and podiatrists to deliver vaccines and a House bill dealing with the state vaccination registry that is contradicted by the anti-vaxx bill in the Senate. A bill to assist home delivery of alcohol is also advancing, which I applaud.

That’s about it.  Lawmakers are also doing serious work on child care, broadband and housing issues that have taken on a higher profile during the pandemic, as well as proposals to address Iowa’s health-care worker shortage and an expansion of the direct-care workers registry, but these were urgent needs even before the coronavirus.

It’s possible legislators will address some pandemic-related issues during the budgeting process. Or maybe not — they have been content to let the governor decide how to spend federal relief funds so far, with little oversight. They killed the House Democrats’ proposal to set up a COVID-19 oversight panel to track expenses. And they agreed to spend $21 million for a human resources software contract after Gov. Kim Reynolds tried and failed to get the feds to pay for it with CARES Act dollars.

Instead of dealing with COVID, the GOP majority has been laser-focused on fighting the culture wars instead. They’ve worked to funnel state money to private schools and undermine voluntary diversity plans in public districts. They’ve advanced bills to defund cities that “defund” police departments, and to increase penalties for people arrested at protests.

A bill is on the governor’s desk to cut back the amount of time Iowans have to vote, so Republicans can stoke ongoing fears based on lies about election integrity. They advanced a bill to review presidential executive orders, though even its backers admitted it was unconstitutional  They are working to amend the state constitution to say Iowans have a right to guns and no right to abortions. And then, apparently to prove how pro-life they are, they are passing bills to shield the gun industry and trucking companies against liability for deaths and injuries.

And then there’s all the “free speech” bills: banning tenure (which exists in part to protect free speech) at state universities, penalizing tech firms that “censor” lies like the ones that incited the deadly U.S. Capitol riot, and requiring First Amendment training at schools and universities. That last one is a good idea, actually, but lawmakers are also rushing to make sure educational “training” doesn’t include “divisive concepts” like implicit bias, systemic racism and reparation for slavery.

Imagine what lawmakers could have been doing with the time they spent debating bills like reinstating the death penalty, telling transgender kids what bathroom to use and what sports teams they can join, upsetting the balance of power with unconstitutional proposals to let legislators overturn Supreme Court rulings and telling schools what they can and can’t teach about slavery.

They could have instead been working on improving oversight and regulation of nursing homes, where nearly 2,200 residents with COVID-19 have died. They could have been figuring out how to adequately pay for mental health care, an issue that was acute before the pandemic and is reaching critical stages again. They could have been exploring ways to make schools and workplaces (including the State Capitol) safer.

A year after the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Iowa, we’ve lost more than 5,550 Iowans to the virus. While the disease is waning in the state, we’re still losing an average of a dozen people a day. Over 367,000 Iowans have tested positive to date, and we’ve averaged 463 new positive cases a day over the past week, according to the New York Times database.

The Iowans who have died and will die of this virus matter.  They matter to their loved ones, their neighbors and their communities. But what matters to the majority of the Iowa Legislature is making social media safe for falsehoods and conspiracies.