2021 legislative session: The good, the bad and the ugly

May 24, 2021 8:00 am

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)

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver cast the work of the 2021 Iowa Legislature as “generational,” and maybe even “historic.”

“And the work that we’ve done this session, I think will have lasting impact for many years to come,” Whitver told reporters Thursday after lawmakers adjourned for the year late Wednesday.

Whitver’s right about the scope of the Legislature’s work. Lawmakers started with an uncommonly long wish list from Gov. Kim Reynolds and added significantly to the agenda as the session progressed. He’s also right about the potential for long-term effects from the Legislature’s actions, including tax cuts estimated to save Iowans $1 billion over eight years.

Lawmakers worked on a bipartisan basis to address some well-documented problems and their efforts likely will benefit Iowans for years to come. However, the GOP majority also indulged in some historically partisan, baseless and ill-considered legislation that could leave a deep scar on our landscape.

Clint Eastwood starred in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” (Photo courtesy of MGM)

Since we’ve gone back to the Old West on gun policy, let’s get our serapes and our cigarillos and look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the 2021 session.

The Good

Mental health — The long-awaited approval of telehealth parity for insurance coverage of online appointments is a game-changer, especially for rural Iowa. Kudos especially to Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, for standing his ground on that bill and for getting additional dollars into children’s mental health services this year. I’m still skeptical about the Legislature’s long-term commitment to adequately funding Iowa’s mental health system from the state’s general fund. I would have preferred a dedicated source such as the sale-tax revenue Reynolds proposed last year. But this section isn’t called “The Perfect.” The shift from property taxes combined with performance-based contracts gives the system the jump-start it needed to expand and improve access statewide. It will be up to Iowans to insist lawmakers keep their promises.

Broadband — Not only did lawmakers agree to most of Gov. Reynolds’ ambitious, $450 million broadband grant program, but they insisted projects meet standards for upload and download speeds. This is a long-awaited breakthrough for businesses, schools and individuals, especially in rural parts of the state.

Other good stuff — Smoothing out the child care “cliff,” expanded state support for affordable housing, increased state spending for understaffed prisons, renewal of the Resource Enhancement and Protection fund, exempting COVID-19 grants and unemployment benefits from state taxes and eliminating the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse.

The Bad

“Back the Blue” – This could have been a win for racial justice as well as showing support for police. Instead, lawmakers sowed division by leaving out the governor’s proposed ban on racial profiling and data collection and enacting draconian new penalties for non-violent crimes associated with protests of police misconduct.

“Divisive concepts” – GOP lawmakers waved the banner for the First Amendment while simultaneously trying to muzzle discussion of touchy racism discussions.

Get yer gun – Iowans can pack heat without a permit, without any safety training and without even a background check if they go around the licensed sellers. Forget the face masks, shop the back-to-school sales for body armor.

White flight? No problem – In the name of parental choice, lawmakers voided district plans intended to maintain diversity in urban schools. Worse, they ignored district budget deadlines to allow immediate open enrollment.

Other bad stuff: Failure to assist mobile home park tenants at the mercy of predatory, out-of-state park owners, the bottle bill is still bottled up, a $3 million per year increase for state parks was watered down. Senators again ignored a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to felons.

The Ugly

Midnight ban on mask mandates: It wasn’t a surprise that GOP legislators would disregard science and common sense to prohibit schools and local governments from enforcing mask requirements. Even the dangerously short-sighted nature of cementing such a prohibition in law without specifying the current COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t startle anyone who’s been paying attention to how this GOP majority operates. What was shocking, however, was the level of naked contempt the governor showed to teachers, parents and many other Iowans by signing a law after midnight that took effect immediately.

Election restrictions: GOP lawmakers limited the time and variety of ways people could vote at the polls and by absentee ballot for no better reason than because they had the political power to do so. They spitefully enacted draconian penalties against local election officials who tried to make it easier for people to vote. Worse, some Republicans, like U.S. Senate candidate Jim Carlin, used the forum to reinforce the “big lie” that the 2020 election was “stolen” from former President Donald Trump.

Housing discrimination: Republicans trampled on local control by voiding cities’ prohibitions on landlords turning away tenants using federal housing assistance. Not only did that give landlords a loophole for otherwise-illegal discrimination but it ran directly against a larger goal of increasing affordable housing opportunities in the state. Sad.

Animosity toward state universities: Republican lawmakers spent significant session time harping on perceived discrimination against conservative voices and liberal “indoctrination” in state universities. While punitive legislation such as a tenure ban failed, legislators approved no state aid increase for universities. A proposed tuition freeze didn’t pass, which likely means students will bear the burden of this ideological vendetta.

Other ugly stuff: While none of them passed, a plethora of anti-LGBTQ bills, including the governor’s call to restrict transgender athlete participation, sent an unwelcoming message that businesses said would hinder their efforts to recruit workers. Likewise, lawmakers gave an unprecedented forum to the anti-vaxx crowd, encouraging vaccine hesitancy, while only approving a mostly harmless vaccine passport ban.

A historic session? Maybe, but some of it was historically terrible. Lawmakers accomplished a lot but Iowans should think about how much more good they could have done if the majority party wasn’t so busy pushing the bad and the ugly.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.