Statehouse standoff leaves Iowans in the dark

April 18, 2022 8:00 am

Gov. Kim Reynolds is talking to Sen. Jack Whitver, left, and House Speaker Pat Grassley in public in this March 1, 2022, photo but lately, all the discussions have been behind closed doors. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital DIspatch)

The 100th day of the 2022 legislative session in Iowa is Tuesday.

I know that’s probably not a day marked on your calendar. Most Iowans don’t pay much attention to whether the Legislature is in session or not. Those who celebrate Easter, Passover or Ramadan may have been spending time with family. Others may be planning their gardens, attending kids’ track meets and working toward the end of the school year. Some may have spent the weekend figuring out their taxes.

Speaking of taxes, yours are paying for everything that happens at the Iowa Statehouse, and guess what? Not much is happening right now. And whatever may be happening is being done in secret, behind closed doors, where you aren’t welcome.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst summed it up: “First and foremost, I want to echo what I’ve heard from so many Iowans who have reached out to me over the last few days and said the phrase: ‘The hell’s going on up there?’”

The Republicans who control the Iowa House, Senate and governor’s office have been unable to reach agreement on some key elements of the governor’s agenda. As a result, work on the state budget is at a standstill.

House GOP balks at private school vouchers

The big sticking point, it appears, is Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to use taxpayer money to help pay for private school tuition and expenses for families that want to move out of their public schools. The Senate passed the bill last month, but Republicans in the Iowa House are balking.  A similar bill Reynolds proposed died last year for the same reason.

And it’s a good reason. Many rural GOP lawmakers and their constituents have recognized that they don’t have many private schools in their communities. And because of that, this scheme doesn’t help them and it has the potential to harm the already-struggling public schools that these rural communities have fought hard to maintain. You’d think a governor running for reelection would think twice about a proposal that so many of her own party’s lawmakers are resisting.

Instead, Reynolds last week insisted she’s “never gonna give up” on the idea.

“If we don’t do that, I’m going to come back next year,” Reynolds said. “I believe so strongly in giving every parent this opportunity.”

It sounds to me like lawmakers can wait and see if Reynolds is back next year.

The bill also includes the governor’s so-called “transparency” proposal that requires public-school teachers to post all their class plans and materials on the internet so parents can see what’s happening without having to speak to their children or, heaven forbid, the teacher.

So, to be clear, legislative leaders and the governor are working out in secret the fate of legislation to require more transparency for other people. Isn’t that just typical?

Stalemate spawns bad budget practices

I should point out here that the Iowa House has followed a conventional process for putting together its budget and a pretty darn efficient one as well. If House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl could also run the Senate, the Legislature would have adjourned weeks ago.

House members have done the heavy lifting on the budget. They held appropriation subcommittee meetings and committee meetings and the House has approved all but one of the customary budget bills. The Senate has not participated in what are traditionally joint subcommittees and it has not approved a single budget bill, even though the two chambers’ spending targets aren’t far apart.

The standoff has already led to one undesirable budget practice. House members have resorted to tucking previously approved policy language into budget bills after the original legislation has stalled in the Senate. This is a bad idea for a variety of reasons, including that it makes legislation more difficult for Iowans to track.

One example is the controversial “right to try” bill. The proposal gives terminally ill patients and those on ventilators the option, with their informed consent, of off-label use of drugs like ivermectin if a doctor prescribes it, even if it is counter to their own physicians’ recommendations. Ivermectin gained some popularity as a treatment for COVID-19 even though federal regulators continue to say it has not been proven effective and might be harmful. The language is now in the House-passed health and human services budget after senators did not consider the original bill.

An even worse practice may be yet to come, once the back-room deals are done and senators start to rush bills through final floor debate. This is when we may see lawmakers violating their own rules to take shortcuts with the process, including rolling the entire budget into a massive omnibus bill.  This is terrible for public access to government, as even many lawmakers are left to vote on bills they haven’t read or taken the time to fully understand.

Senate Republicans’ disregard of public information and access shouldn’t come as a surprise to Iowans. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver left no doubt about that when he barred the news media from the chamber floor.

Iowans may not care whether lawmakers go home on time. Some may even enjoy the fact that the politicians won’t get paid for their daily expenses after Tuesday. But every day the Legislature is in overtime costs taxpayers extra money. And every decision lawmakers make behind closed doors costs Iowans their voice as well as their tax dollars.

Update: This column has been updated to clarify that under  proposed legislation, a doctor must prescribe off-label drugs for use with the patient’s informed consent.

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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.