GOP achieved ‘most, if not all’ policy goals for 2021 legislative session, leaders say

By: - May 20, 2021 4:45 pm

The Iowa Capitol. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa’s 2021 legislative session came to a close late Wednesday with the passage of a ban on local mask mandates, a final win for the Republican-controlled House, Senate and governor’s office. 

Over the course of the session, lawmakers passed bills to bring students back to school and remove mask mandates, allow permitless carry of handguns, protect police officers from legal challenges and encourage charter schools to start in Iowa. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver told reporters Thursday morning that “most, if not all the priorities” of the Republican caucus were achieved by the end of the session.

“Now, I know it took an extra three weeks to conclude this legislative session,” Whitver, R-Ankeny, said. “I think in the end, it was well worth it for the number of major policy pieces that we were able to accomplish this year.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday praised the Legislature, highlighting a massive tax bill that passed after weeks of negotiations. Whitver identified the tax bill as one of the biggest accomplishments of the session.

“I’m really, really proud of the bill we were able to get passed. That, on top of a lot of other things we were able to do this year,” Reynolds said. “It’s a big year for Iowans.”

Democrats did not feel as optimistic as the session wound to a close. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said it had been a “very difficult session.”

“Republicans also brought forward … maybe the most radical cultural divisive agenda that we’ve seen in our state since Republicans took the trifecta,” Wahls told reporters Wednesday.

Here’s a look at some of the session’s major actions:

Tax bill would eliminate inheritance tax, shift mental health funding to state

Republican leaders spent several weeks at the end of the session working through a large tax proposal that will phase out the inheritance tax and the property tax backfill, shift the mental health and disability services funding to a state appropriation, and create several new tax credits. The bill also allows a series of income tax changes passed in 2018 to take effect immediately.

“This is an easy vote for me,” Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said in a Tuesday debate. “I’m going to side with the Iowa taxpayer.”

After reaching an agreement over the weekend, the House and Senate both passed the bill, clearing the way for a slate of other budget and policy bills to pass and for the session to end.

Bringing kids back to school full-time

An early priority for lawmakers this session: get students back to school full-time, in-person. By the end of January, the House and Senate had passed Senate File 160, which required all Iowa schools to offer 100% in-person learning for students. The law took effect on Feb. 15.

Until that point, school districts had been allowed to offer hybrid options instead, so long as at least half of the instruction took place in person. Only 15 public school districts, many in urban areas, had not made the leap to full-time instruction.

The legislative success became a milestone for Reynolds, who touted Iowa’s pandemic response in press conferences and on Fox News. In late April, Reynolds told a Fox News panel that she had returned $95 million of federal COVID-19 aid meant to assist with back-to-school initiatives.

“They sent an additional $95 million to the state of Iowa to get our kids back in the classroom by doing surveillance testing,” Reynolds said. “And I said, we’ve been in the classroom since August. Here’s your $95 million back.”

Lawmakers create $100 million broadband grant program

Reynolds asked lawmakers to invest in broadband infrastructure, which would expand access to high-speed internet in rural Iowa. Lawmakers created a program for internet providers to apply for broadband grants, subsidizing more for projects in remote, rural areas. For the first year of the program, they appropriated $100 million, shy of Reynolds’ request of $150 million. 

Focus on campus cancel culture leads to free speech trainings, ‘divisive concepts’ ban

Republican lawmakers focused extensively on free speech issues and a perceived liberal bias at Iowa’s schools and colleges. In February, they met with representatives from Iowa’s Regent universities to discuss incidents where conservative students or groups felt censored. Soon after, Republicans grilled Ames school officials for creating a Black Lives Matter week

From controversy came a law to restrict the teaching of concepts like systemic racism in the U.S. and Iowa, or the idea that someone is unconsciously racist or sexist due to their race or sex. Lawmakers amended the bill to clarify that schools may still teach about racism, slavery, oppression and discrimination, and the ways that laws may result in racism and sexism. Reynolds has not signed the bill into law.

Under another bill, the Board of Regents must conduct additional First Amendment training for university staff. Reynolds signed the bill into law Thursday.

Sweeping elections bill shortens absentee voting window 

Iowa Republicans swept the 2020 election. At the Statehouse, they gained seven Democrat-held seats in the House and maintained a 32-18 majority in the Senate. U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Republican, ousted incumbent Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st district, and U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks narrowly won a victory over Democratic competitor Rita Hart. Former President Donald Trump won the state by 8%.

State lawmakers went to work on a major election bill soon after, which Republicans said would strengthen Iowa’s voter integrity and protect against voter fraud. Democrats contended that the law would instead restrict voter turnout and was a response to Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.

The law shortens the window for absentee and early in-person voting, introduces new restrictions on how ballots can be dropped off, closes polls an hour earlier and creates new penalties for election worker misconduct. In the final hours of the session, lawmakers introduced some additional restrictions to ballot drop-off.

Final ‘Back the Blue’ legislation has protections for police, penalties for protesters

Lawmakers on Tuesday passed a final version of the much-discussed “Back the Blue” bill. The legislation creates new penalties for protest-related crimes and gives qualified immunity to police officers. It would also expand the definition of assault to include shining a laser at someone’s eyes and would criminalize eluding an officer in an unmarked car.

The bill does not have the racial profiling ban and data collection requirements that Reynolds proposed at the beginning of the session. Grassley said early Thursday that racial profiling was part of the discussion, but “the things that we could work on with law enforcement and that were workable” dictated what parts of the bill went forward.

Democrats said the bill was a disappointment following a bipartisan effort last summer to ban chokeholds and create more accountability for police officer misconduct.

Reynolds has not yet signed the bill into law.

Law allows permitless carry of handguns, constitutional amendment advances

Beginning July 1, Iowans will no longer need a permit to acquire or carry a handgun. Instead, federally licensed dealers will conduct background checks every time someone purchases a firearm, a new system that Republicans say will lead to more background checks overall. Opponents of the bill say private sales, where the seller cannot conduct a background check or use a permit as proof of a background check, will be less safe.

“We will never be able to outlaw or prevent every single bad actor from getting a gun, but what we can do is ensure law-abiding citizens have full access to their constitutional rights while keeping Iowans safe,” Reynolds said in a statement when she signed the bill in early April.

The Legislature also approved language for a constitutional amendment that would subject all state gun laws to “strict scrutiny,” a higher legal standard than other laws. Iowans in 2022 will vote on whether the amendment should be added to the state’s constitution. 

Abortion amendment passes General Assembly for the first time

The proposed constitutional amendment on abortion has a longer road ahead. The Legislature agreed on language for the amendment this week, passing it in both Houses. The proposal would make it explicit that Iowa’s constitution does not recognize a right to an abortion, directly contradicting a 2018 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court. 

The next General Assembly will need to approve the same language. If it does, Iowans could vote on the amendment in the 2024 general election.

New pathways for charter schools to start in Iowa

Reynolds on Wednesday signed into law a bill that introduces new opportunities for charter schools to open in Iowa. The law allows charter schools to apply directly to the state Board of Education to form a school, rather than working with local school boards. 

There are currently two charter schools operating in Iowa. Reynolds said allowing more freedom in the application process would “breathe new life into the charter school system too long stifled by restrictive rules.”

Vaccine passports and banning mask mandates

Democratic leaders criticized Republicans for not doing enough to aid Iowans during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican majority did pass several pandemic-related bills, although not what the Democrats were looking for. 

Lawmakers passed a bill on “vaccine passports” that forbids businesses and governmental agencies from requiring proof of vaccination from customers or visitors. Reynolds signed the legislation into law on Thursday.

Just before the session ended Wednesday, lawmakers also passed a bill that forbids schools, cities and counties from introducing mask mandates that are stricter than the state standard. Reynolds signed the bill into law early Thursday, immediately ending any mask requirements at Iowa schools.

Lawmakers will return this year for redistricting
The session is over, but lawmakers aren’t done yet. Iowa must use Census data to draw new state legislative and congressional district maps. Usually, redistricting takes place during the spring session, but delayed Census data left legislators unable to start the process.

Republican leaders said the special session will likely occur in August. Both Grassley and Whitver said that redistricting would be the priority, although they did not rule out the possibility of considering other issues during the session.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.