Iowa GOP touts legislative victories; Democrats decry ‘culture wars’

By: and - May 25, 2022 5:09 pm

The American flag and the Iowa flag fly on the grounds near the State Capitol in Des Moines. (Photo by Katie Akin/ Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Republican legislative leaders cheered the accomplishments of the 2022 legislative session, which ended early Wednesday and included major tax cuts and the culmination of years of work on issues ranging from the bottle bill to biofuels.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, in a statement early Wednesday, applauded the approval of many of her priorities. “This legislative session, I charged the House and Senate to work together to further advance Iowa’s strong growth through policies that cut taxes, invest in biofuels and strengthen our families, communities, schools, workforce and economy. I’m proud that our state is leading the nation in many of these areas and delivering on the promises we made to the people of Iowa.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, meeting with reporters early Wednesday, previewed the GOP message to Iowa voters.

“Yeah, I think the pitch is going to be that over the last two years, it’s been a very difficult time for us to lead or anybody to lead in this very uncertain, uncertain environment that we all have to live in right now,” Whitver, R-Ankeny, said. “But at every turn, we’ve had Iowans’ back, whether it’s getting our kids back in school, whether it’s supporting our police, whether it’s addressing the mask situation in schools, just time and time again, we’re trying to have Iowans’ back and we’re trying to put our trust in Iowans, whether it’s opening up the economy or trusting parents … with their kids.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley said the “crown jewel” of the session was the tax cut that Reynolds signed into law on March 1. The bill, when fully implemented, will create a single 3.9% income tax rate, reduce corporate taxes and eliminate the state tax on retirement income.

“With inflation at a record high and costs increasing on just about everything, it became even more important that we continue to ease the tax burden on Iowans,” Grassley said in a midnight speech to close the session.

Democratic leaders said the GOP majority was focused on “culture wars” at the expense of doing more to address the state’s workforce shortage.

“There could be no clearer sign that Republicans have zero interest in addressing the substantial economic headwinds facing our state: inflation, high gas prices, a formula shortage, and the ongoing Reynolds workforce crisis,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said late Tuesday. “Because rather than tackle these issues head-on, Iowa Republicans have spent 2022 pouring gasoline on the flames of the culture war and made many of these challenges much worse.”

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst pointed to one of the GOP’s most controversial proposals, which would have transferred public school aid to parents who choose to move their children to private schools. The bill, despite significant pressure from Reynolds and a month-long session delay, failed to pass. Legislation requiring teachers to post all lesson plans and materials for public review, and proposed penalties for providing “obscene” materials to students, also failed.

“A majority of Iowans are opposed to the governor’s voucher scheme and a majority of us in this chamber listened to Iowans and stood strong to represent the people we serve,” Konfrst said. “It was a tough fight.” 

State budget approved 

After back-and-forth between the Legislature and the governor’s office, the state finally settled on a $8.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget for the current fiscal year, 2022, is about $8 billion.

The state ended the previous fiscal year with a surplus of $1.2 billion, and over $800 million in reserves. 

The final legislative action spent about $8 million more than the governor proposed. 

Here’s a look at some of the session highlights and a few of the proposals that didn’t make the cut.

Passed

Biofuels: Most Iowa gas stations will be required to dispense 15% ethanol-blended fuel, known as E15, from about half of their pumps by 2026. The bill provides $5 million a year in grants for retailers that upgrade their equipment to sell E15 and higher ethanol blends. Smaller businesses are exempt. Gov. Reynolds signed House File 2128 on May 17.

Bottle bill: Most grocers would be allowed to opt out of accepting bottle-and-can returns under Senate File 2378, which awaits the governor’s signature. The legislation increases the handling fee for redemption centers to 3 cents per container, up from the current penny. That fee is paid by beverage distributors, but the distributors get to keep the full 5 cents for containers that aren’t redeemed. Retailers can stop taking the containers if they are licensed to prepare ready-to-eat food or are located within a certain distance from a redemption center or mobile redemption center. That distance is 10 miles in counties with 30,000 or more residents and 15 miles for smaller counties.

Child care

  • House File 2127, approved by both chambers of the Legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature, would allow child care providers to charge parents the difference between state child care assistance and the private pay rate at that center. It was a recommendation from the governor’s child care task force, which determined that the current program may “be a disincentive for child care providers to accept children” receiving state assistance.
  • Lawmakers voted to include a $2 million employer tax credit in House File 2564, the budget bill for economic development.  “I am very proud of a lot of things moving through this budget, especially our employer child care tax credit,” said floor manager Rep. Phil Thompson, R- Boone. “I do believe that is going to fix a lot of our child care issues in our state.” 
  • Lawmakers also passed House File 2198, which allows 16-year-olds to supervise school-age children without an adult present, and increases the allowable number of toddlers per staff member.
  • A parent with a permanent disability will be allowed to access state child care assistance under House File 2252, allowing the other parent to work outside the home. Currently, a parent can only access assistance while on temporary disability. Reynolds signed the bill May 24.

Child labor: The Legislature exempted from child labor laws the operation of a type of pizza dough roller with safeguards to prevent injury while operating. Senate File 2190 awaits the governor’s signature.

COVID-19 vaccines: COVID-19 vaccination cannot be required for attendance in school, college or a child care center under a bill that is headed to the governor’s desk. House File 2298 would not allow mandates for attendance at any licensed child care center, elementary or secondary school or postsecondary school before July 1, 2029. 

Criminal justice and policing

  • Catalytic converter theft: The governor signed Senate File 2287 on Monday, a bill aimed at making it more difficult to sell stolen catalytic converters. The bill requires proof of the seller’s identification and ownership of the device before a used catalytic converter can be sold. 
  • Firearms: Lawmakers voted Tuesday to enhance criminal penalties for minors in possession of a firearm, creating a class D felony punishable up to five years of incarceration. Minors could also be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor with up to two years of jail time and a $250 fine. 
  • Garbage search: Reynolds signed into law SF 2296 which grants law enforcement the right to search garbage placed outside of the private property. 
  • Police misconduct: Prosecutors who blacklist police officers whose credibility has been called into question must create formal procedures to notify the officer and allow them to contest their status under House File 2496, which is awaiting the governor’s signature.
  • Police vision exams: The Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, which trains and certifies police officers, would no longer impose a vision requirement and would instead leave vision rules to the hiring police departments under House File 2358. The Senate approved the bill unanimously and sent it to the governor.
  • Sex abuse: Lawmakers passed several bills related to prosecution of sexual abuse. House File  2239, signed into law this week, would allow testimony about out-of-court statements a victim who is a child or person with disabilities has made to an adult about the alleged abuse. Senate File 2363 creates a process for former offenders seeking to be removed from the state’s sex offender registry.

Deer hunting: In response to increasing deer populations, there will be a new hunting season for antlerless deer that will extend to January. Senate File 581 allows hunters to use semi-automatic rifles during the new season. Fines for taking an antlerless deer without a license were decreased to $750 per deer. 

Education

  • Open enrollment: GOP lawmakers voted to eliminate the March 1 deadline for school open enrollment, a move that supporters said put Iowans first. Democrats argued the move would leave districts unable to plan for staffing and other needs because they couldn’t predict how many students they would be serving. The open enrollment bill was a last-minute add on to the Administrative and Regulation budget, passing in the final day of the 2022 legislative session.
  • Teacher tests: The House and Senate voted to terminate the test Iowa educators must take in order to obtain a teaching license. House File 2081 now awaits a signature from Reynolds. Proponents said the test didn’t reflect teachers’ ability in the classroom and acted as another barrier, exacerbating the educator shortage.  
  • Increase for Regents universities: After two years without a raise, the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowan will receive a $5.5 million increase in general state aid. Originally, House Republicans proposed zero increase and a $12 million scholarship program aimed at teachers and other high-demand jobs. The final bill eliminated the scholarship fund.
  • Radon testing: The governor this week signed House File 2412, which requires radon testing and mitigation in public schools.
  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing student literacy: The governor signed House File 604 into law this week aimed at creating new resources for language and literacy development for children who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Food delivery: As part of a larger alcohol bill, lawmakers on Tuesday approved new restrictions on third-party food delivery services. The proposal, attached to Senate File 2374 by the House, would require third-party delivery services to enter into a formal agreement with restaurants from which they deliver. That means the apps couldn’t advertise a restaurant’s menu without first reaching an agreement with the restaurant owner. New food-safety requirements are also included in the legislation.

Health care

  • Asthma medication in schools: House File 771 allows students with respiratory ailments such as asthma to keep and use an inhaler or other medication in school, with written parental permission and a doctor’s statement. Schools would be allowed to stock the medications and appropriate personnel may administer it to students reasonably believed to be in respiratory distress.
  • Mental health loan forgiveness: House File 2549 establishes a loan repayment program for social workers, mental health counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals who agree to practice in Iowa for five years or up to seven years if working part time.
  • Fertility fraud: Senate File 529 creates a cause of action for a lawsuit and a criminal sexual abuse charge for fertility fraud. In cases around the country related to fertility assistance, fraud has been discovered when a DNA test showed that the physician or someone else had fathered the child instead of the agreed-upon sperm donor. 
  • Opioid medication fund: Under House File 2573, first responders and school employees will be equipped with opioid antagonist medication to save Iowans experiencing an opioid overdose. The bill creates an opioid settlement fund, which is expected to collect about $174 million in settlement funds with pharmaceutical companies, to combat the state opioid crisis. 
  • Prescription drug prices: This bipartisan legislation takes a first step toward the regulation of pharmacy benefit managers, whose role as middlemen between pharmacies and insurers has drawn national attention. Senate File 2231 allows copayments for prescription drugs to apply to deductibles. It also prevents pharmacy benefit managers from reimbursing pharmacies less than the average drug cost, while requiring pharmacy benefit managers to reimburse a dispensing fee no less than the Iowa Medicaid rate. The bill gives the state insurance commissioner enforcement powers for violation of this law.

Mobile home resident protections: Tenants of mobile home parks will get an additional month’s notice before evictions or increases to their rent and utility fees. The governor signed House File 2562 into law on May 17. 

Public radio: Republican lawmakers defunded Iowa Public Radio, imposing a cut of about $345,000 as compared to the current year. The network, which also relies on donor contributions, is no longer part of the university system and will receive no state money in fiscal year 2023. 

Tax cuts 

All Iowans will pay a flat income tax rate of 3.9%. This is paired with cuts to corporate taxes and the elimination of the state retirement income tax. These reductions were key goals to the governor’s agenda, passing through the Republican trifecta back in March. 

Lawmakers approved legislation to overhaul the sales tax collection process. House File 2385 eliminates the sales tax on diapers and feminine hygiene products such as tampons. Businesses would see a variety of changes. Banks, which currently pay a 5% franchise fee, would have that rate cut to 3.5% over five years. The bill would also exempt from state taxation the $1,000 bonuses paid to teachers and other educators through the governor’s appropriation of federal stimulus funds.

Transgender girls sports: Reynolds signed House File 2416, which prohibits transgender girls and women from playing on women’s teams at K-12 schools, community colleges and public universities that are members of the NCAA.

Unemployment: Iowans who lose their jobs without cause will have less time to collect unemployment insurance benefits. House File 2355, approved by both the House and Senate, is awaiting the governor’s signature. It shortens the period of eligibility for jobless benefits from the current 26 weeks to 16 weeks. The bill also changes the definition of a “suitable job” to one that pays less than the person’s previous position, allowing benefits to be cut off sooner if the recipient refuses an offer of a “suitable” job.

Failed

Here are a few of the bills considered this year that didn’t pass:

Private school vouchers and parents’ rights: Reynolds’ proposal to provide public money for students wanting to attend private schools passed the Senate but failed to receive enough votes from the House. House File 2369 and Senate File 2205 also would have required public school teachers to post lesson plan material for parental review. 

“Obscene” school books: Senate File 2198 would have created a criminal penalty for teachers or school officials who provide “obscene material” or “hard-core pornography” in school libraries or require such materials to be used in class.

Eminent domain restrictions: After the Senate killed a bill that would have blocked the use of eminent domain by private companies building liquid-carbon pipelines, the House voted to put a temporary moratorium on the use of eminent domain into a budget bill. The Senate stripped out the language from the final bill.

Medical malpractice and trucker liability: The governor, in her Condition of the State message, proposed increased liability protections for trucking companies and medical facilities. The House took up trucker liability in March, but the proposal failed on the floor.

Medical freedom bill: House File 2545 would have prohibited businesses from requiring any vaccines, inquiring about vaccination status, or mandating masks. Anti-mandate and anti-vaccination groups rallied around the proposal, which never made it to the House floor.

Written consent before vaccination: Senate File 2335 would require the written consent of a parent or guardian before a child receives a vaccination. Opponents of the bill said medical providers already must obtain verbal consent, and a written form would be unnecessarily complicated. 

Child sex-abuse statute of limitations: Democrats tried several times to advance legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations for civil cases brought by the survivors of childhood sexual abuse. 

Permanent daylight saving time: Lawmakers again considered a bill to transition Iowa to daylight saving time year-round – if the federal government approves the idea and border states also make the switch. 

Iowa PBS public records: House File 2488 would allow people to request and use public records from Iowa PBS to create new projects. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Insurance appraisal changes: House File 2299 would have changed the insurance appraisal process. It advanced through the House on a unanimous vote, but senators halted consideration of the bill after a series of tornadoes swept through Iowa and destroyed several homes. 

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Kate Kealey
Kate Kealey

Katherine Kealey is a senior majoring in journalism and political science at Iowa State University. Before interning at the Iowa Capital Dispatch, she interned at the Carroll Times Herald. She will serve as the editor-in-chief of the Iowa State Daily in the fall.

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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.

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