School choice, property tax legislation top of leaders’ minds entering 2023 session

By: - January 9, 2023 4:10 pm

Members of the Iowa House are sworn into office on the first day of the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 9, 2023 at the State Capitol in Des Moines. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Republicans on Monday kicked off their seventh straight year of holding a trifecta in the Iowa Statehouse, with leaders promising action on property tax policy and “school choice” legislation during the 2023 session.

Leaders of the majority party had reason to celebrate as the Iowa House and Senate assembled Monday: Republicans gained a supermajority in the Senate and won four more seats in the House, in addition to keeping hold of the governorship. Other Republican victors, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and U.S. Reps. Zach Nunn and Mariannette Miller-Meeks joined the newest class of legislators on the House floor as they were sworn in.

“Let’s not lose track of what we’ve done that got us here: That we worked together to pass historic tax cuts to rein in spending and to raise our national profile,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said during a GOP breakfast before the legislative session began. “We have protected life and our Second Amendment. We’ve kept our promises to Iowans.”

As GOP legislative leaders addressed their colleagues in opening-day speeches, they also cited policy wins from previous years, from the return to in-person teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic to income tax cuts.

They also laid out priority agenda items for the upcoming legislative session: education reform, property tax cuts and steps to address Iowa’s workforce shortage.

Republicans call for more parental rights in education

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said in addition to continuing the Legislature’s trend of tax cuts, Republicans will focus on education and workforce policy.

In his address to the Senate, Whitver said parents deserve to have a larger say in their children’s education, including which schools their children attend and what they’re being taught.

The Iowa Senate twice passed legislation backed by Reynolds that would put public funds toward private school scholarships for Iowa students. The bill died in the House in both 2021 and 2022 because of insufficient support among Republicans. Some conservatives representing rural areas said the legislation would not help educational opportunities for students in their districts, which often do not have any private schools.

“If it is good to have a choice in preschools, and community colleges, and apprenticeships, and four-year colleges and universities, then Iowa K-12 parents and students should have the choice to choose the school best for their family,” Whitver said.

Senate President Amy Sinclair addresses the Iowa Senate as it convenes for the 2023 legislative session Monday, Jan. 9. (Photo by Luke Clausen/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Senate President Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said Iowa’s budget shows that Republicans prioritize education. Sinclair, who formerly served as chair of the Senate Education Committee, said Republicans have continuously invested in and improved K-12 education in Iowa. In 2022, Republicans will continue their work on the “Parental Bill of Rights” and making sure alternatives to public schools are available to families regardless of income.

“All our families should have the opportunity to send their children to the school that best meets their needs and reflects their family’s values and moral fiber,” Sinclair said. “This should not be exclusive to families with the financial means to pay for tuition or transportation, or for those whose families can afford to move to a better ZIP code.”

In the House, Speaker Pat Grassley and Majority Leader Matt Windschitl spent less time talking about education reform than their Senate counterparts, but reaffirmed their commitment to taking action this year. The House formed an Education Reform Committee, separate from the Education Committee, which plans to take up “school choice” legislation.

“While (private school scholarships) are an important part of that discussion, we believe is just a part of the much broader reforms that we will see with a variety of policy ideas, some of which will look familiar to last session,” Grassley said.

Tackling workforce shortages

Both Grassley and Whitver said their caucuses plan to pursue legislation to help address Iowa’s workforce shortages. This could mean further changes to Iowa’s unemployment system: the Legislature cut unemployment benefits by 10 weeks in 2022, as well as lowering the benefits’ salary threshold to compel Iowans to accept a new position or lose benefits sooner.

According to the most recent Iowa Workforce Development report, Iowa has almost 79,000 open jobs as of November, with Iowa’s unemployment rate at 3.1%.

Whitver said Republicans will continue to work on changes to Iowa’s tax and unemployment systems.

“We will continue to work on reforms to get more Iowans into the workforce,” Whitver said. “A tax code that incentivizes work, equipping Iowans with skills they need for those opportunities, and ensuring public assistance programs focus on those Iowans most in need are all policy goals we will continue to pursue.”

But Democrats say the workforce shortage can only be addressed through more investment in public services, not cuts. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said problems like the state’s lack of child care and health care providers keep Iowans out of the workforce, and Iowa needs to do more to attract people to the state.

“Our biggest employers are saying the same thing: this crisis will only be solved by welcoming more folks to build a life here in Iowa, and stay here in Iowa,” Wahls said.

Property tax reform to come

At the legislative breakfast, Republican leaders also cited “historic” tax cuts as a reason for their midterm victories. Last session, the Legislature passed a plan which gradually decreases the income tax to 3.9% by the tax year 2026, and which eliminates retirement income tax in tax year 2023.

This year, GOP legislators say their attention will be on property taxes. The Legislature does not have control over property tax rates — those are set by local entities. What Iowa legislators can change are the rules surrounding property taxes. Grassley said the House will look at ways to put “the taxpayer in the driver’s seat.”

“We need more common sense accountability for Iowans’ tax dollars,” Grassley said. “We can pass several reforms to ensure the dollars we allocate in the state’s budget are actually making it to where they’re intended to go.”

While Democrats said they want to provide relief to middle- and low-income Iowans struggling with high property taxes, some expressed concerns that these cuts could take away funding from needed local services. But Whitver said local entities should look to the Iowa state government for an example of how to manage their budgets with less taxpayer funds.

“We have shown over the last several years that it is possible to fund priorities in a responsible manner, budget sustainably, and still pass historic tax reforms,” Whitver said. “This example should be a model for local governments on how to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and invest in our state and its people.”

Condition of the state

The governor will present her own policy goals for the upcoming session in her Condition of the State address at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Iowa PBS will broadcast the speech on the statewide station, in addition to hosting livestreams on its website and social media pages. Following Reynolds’ remarks, Wahls and House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst will provide a Democratic response.

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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.