School choice, property tax and tort reform: What to expect in the 2023 legislative session

By: - January 9, 2023 5:30 am

The Iowa Capitol. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Legislature opens its 2023 legislative session Monday with a Republican agenda that includes a return to discussions about “school choice,” tort reform and pipeline legislation which did not move forward in previous years.

While Republicans already held the majority in both chambers of the Statehouse, the party won a supermajority in the Senate and gained four seats in the House in the 2022 midterm elections. House Speaker Pat Grassley said there were 24 new House Republicans this year, who are all coming into the session with new ideas.

Along with the issues leaders plan to bring back to the Legislature from previous sessions, the majority party has also discussed plans to advance new initiatives, including changes to property tax law and new gun rights legislation.

Here’s what what topics you can expect to hear more about as the 2023 legislative session kicks off:

Governor’s ‘school choice’ legislation to return

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds made her proposal for state-funded private school scholarships a priority in her reelection campaign, and weighed in on some Republican primaries against incumbents who opposed the measure. The Senate approved the proposal in the past two sessions, but the legislation died in the House.

This year, the House will have an Education Reform Committee which plans to take up the private school scholarship legislation. Grassley said the committee gives an opportunity for members of the GOP caucus to weigh in on school choice issues which the education committee did not provide.

Some conservative legislators in rural areas opposed the proposal because their school districts did not have any private schools. While Grassley said lawmakers have not finalized language for the scholarship program legislation this year, he said he believed Republicans can craft a proposal which will be “supportive of all forms of K-12 education.”

“When I talked to folks in my district, it isn’t that they’re opposed to more choice for parents in education, it’s ‘make sure that we can have as many opportunities to compete as possible,'” Grassley said. “And I think we can do some things that give more of that ability, and make sure that it’s competitive with public and private.”

Democrats said they will remain opposed to the governor’s proposal, saying it will harm public schools. House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said Democrats have not seen the latest proposal, but heard reports the governor will propose no income limits for the scholarships.

“If there are no income limits … a millionaire family from Des Moines can send their kid to private school on the taxpayer dime, while schools in rural Iowa are crumbling because money has been taken away,” she said.

The Education Reform Committee also plans to take up issues of “school transparency,” which could include legislation requiring teachers post their curriculum online. While the specifics of the legislation and logistics could change, Grassley said one of the major goals for the new committee was to give parents help engaging in their children’s education.

“The priority of us doing this has to be making sure that parents or guardians, whoever, would be have access to the information that the students are either seeing or being taught in school,” he said. “So we get that there needs to be some in the bills maybe some modifications to the implementation, nothing’s set in stone obviously at this point. But the end goal and the result that we want to see is making sure there’s as much access as possible.”

Lowering property taxes

After making major cuts to Iowa’s income taxes in 2021, Iowa Republicans are taking aim at property tax reform in the upcoming year.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver told reporters “everything’s on the table” for changes to Iowa’s property taxes, though he said it could be a while before the governor and Republicans in both chambers settle on a plan.

There is no specific way to provide property tax relief that Republicans have rallied around yet, though the group Iowans for Tax Relief asked Reynolds to consider a two-year property tax freeze in December. The state government does not control property tax rates, which are set at the local level by entities including the county, city and school district.

Grassley said he wants to see property tax  legislation that provides accountability for taxpayers on how their money is being spent, and transparency about why rates may increase.

“This session our focus in the House is going to be not only on providing relief, but changing the narrative from certainty always existing on the government, taxing authority, entity side and shifting that over to making sure there’s certainty for the taxpayer,” Grassley said.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said Democrats are also concerned about high property tax costs on middle-income Iowa families, and that they would be willing to work with Republicans on providing relief. But their concern is that those changes to property taxes will not benefit middle- or lower-income families, and could deprive essential services of funding, he said.

“What we don’t want is another tax giveaway to the ultra rich that leaves communities and middle- class families shortchanged,” Wahls said. “We’re gonna fight back against irresponsible tax experiments that will benefit the very richest families and corporations in our state, but do nothing or little for very middle-class or folks who are on a fixed income here in Iowa.”

Caps on certain lawsuit damages

Tort reform is another conversation that may resurface during the 2023 legislative session. Legislation limiting damages in lawsuits over commercial vehicle accidents failed on the House floor last year.

A bill limiting damages for medical malpractice lawsuits also failed, though a 2020 bill capping damages in these cases at $250,000 passed in 2020. That legislation could come up again, as Republican leaders say these changes could help address Iowa’s problems with rural health care shortages and workforce shortage.

The Iowa Business Council, which represents the state’s 20 largest employers, called for the Legislature to take up tort reform in 2023, saying it was a “workforce issue.”

Grassley said capping damages in these cases could help bring doctors to Iowa, helping ease the shortages in the state’s rural health care system.

“We want to make sure that Iowa is an attractive state to do business,” Grassley said. “And so you know, those types of ideas are obviously going to continue to be entertained, whether it’s on the commercial vehicle side, whether it’s on the medical side with the health care challenges that we face.”

New gun rights legislation?

Gun rights activists saw a major win in Iowa’s 2022 midterm elections when voters approved the “Right to Keep and Bear Arms” amendment. That change to the state constitution means laws restricting gun ownership and use must stand up to “strict scrutiny” in court, being narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

But the amendment was not the end of the road for pro-gun advocates. While leaders have not said what specific policies they plan to put forward in 2023, House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl told the Des Moines Register there are proposals under consideration to “restore freedoms” in Iowa.

Democratic leadership said they have not heard about what types of gun legislation Republicans hope to pass in the upcoming session, but that they plan to hold the majority party accountable in passing “common sense tests.” While voters approved the constitutional amendment, Konfrst said that Iowans want reasonable gun safety and gun reform laws.

“When we hear there will be more bills or legislation put forward around guns, we just want to make sure is it something that needs the common sense test?” Konfrst said. “Is it something that Iowans are asking for or is it a way to appease the special interests?”

Abortion, marijuana may stay off the table

Though the U.S. and Iowa supreme courts have ruled that abortion is not a constitutionally protected right, conservative legislative leaders have not shared any plans to further restrict the medical procedure.

Reynolds has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to reinstate a 2018 law that would restrict most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically after about six weeks of gestation.

Grassley, Whitver and Reynolds have all given statements to the media saying they do not have plans to move forward with new abortion legislation until the Iowa Supreme Court makes a decision on the “fetal heartbeat” law, which is currently blocked by an injunction.

A district court judge rejected Reynolds’ request to overturn the injunction in December, which the governor said she would appeal immediately.

But Democrats said they would not be surprised to see the Legislature take up abortion bills before the Iowa Supreme Court case makes a decision. Konfrst said Republicans are waiting until after the court’s decision to “take the spotlight off of them,” but said the party’s goal is to ban abortion in Iowa.

“I think we’re going to see legislation sooner than later, that does ban abortion in the state of Iowa and then we’re going to have to have a real conversation on the floor of the House about who they’re answering to and who they work for,” she said.

GOP leaders have also said that they do not expect to see changes to Iowa’s cannabis laws advance this year, though House Democrats laid out marijuana legalization as one of their top priorities for 2023. Iowa’s medical marijuana program launched in 2018. Recreational use remains illegal in Iowa, though neighboring states Illinois and now Missouri have fully legalized the substance.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.