Citing a ‘culture war,’ Senate panel advances bill to repeal gender-balance law

By: - January 18, 2023 5:23 pm

A Senate subcommittee advanced legislation to eliminate gender-balance requirements for state-created boards and commissions. (Photo by Katie Akin / Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A bill to eliminate a gender-balance requirement for government boards, committees and commissions advanced out of a legislative subcommittee Wednesday despite vocal opposition from almost all members of the public in attendance.

Sen. Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig, introduced Senate Study Bill 1037 last week. He has said the law is no longer necessary due to women being fully represented on Iowa boards and commissions, but he also said eliminating the requirement will help panels that can’t achieve gender balance.

“It’s time for the culture to change,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting of the State Government Subcommittee. “The law has to change along with the culture, which no long needs a quota system.”

His fellow Republican on the three-member subcommittee, Sen. Cherielynn Westrich of Ottumwa, said she was supporting the bill in order to “move the conversation forward.”

Sen. Pam Jochum is a Democrat from Dubuque. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Sen. Pam Jochum, a Dubuque Democrat, opposed the bill. “Quite frankly, I think we’re turning the clock back when we do legislation like this,” she said. “I can’t believe this is the solution to whatever problem it is that we’re trying to solve.”

The gender-balance law has been in effect for state boards and commissions since 1986, when it was signed into law by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. It was expanded in 2009, effective Jan. 1, 2012, to include local boards and commissions.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Schultz said the law now appears to be part of a liberal agenda.

“I don’t know, it seems like the left is driving a culture war to try to separate people and I’d like to move us away from that,” he said. “So, I’m going to go ahead and sign this and we will move it to committee.”

He said he expects the issue will be picked up by the full State Government Committee in about a week and a half.

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Although no one attending the meeting spoke in favor of the legislation, a representative of the Iowa League of Cities noted that rural communities have a hard time finding people to serve on some committees. The organization is registered as undecided on the bill.

Maureen White of the Iowa chapter of the American Association of University Women. (Screenshot from Iowa Legislature live feed)

Maureen White of the Iowa chapter of the American Association of University Women said the bill would represent a “huge step backward” for Iowa.

“Laws reflect our values,” White said. “So I want you to ask yourselves as members of this subcommittee, ‘Would repealing all gender-balance requirements be in the public interest, and does that build a better and more fair government? Or does it tell half our population that we don’t care whether they have a seat at the table?’”

Threase Harms, a lobbyist for the American Massage Therapy Association and the Iowa Environmental Council, said both organizations are opposed to the bill. The Iowa Board of Massage Therapy, she noted, often deals with cases involving female clients victimized by male massage therapists and so gender balance on the licensing board that hears those complaints is essential.

The Iowa Environmental Council, she said, supports the current law since it includes an exemption for boards or commissions that have made a good-faith effort to comply with the requirement over the course of at least three months.

Keenan Crow of the organization One Iowa said the law has successfully improved the gender balance on local boards and commissions but stressed that there is still room for improvement.

“Right now, the percentage of gender-balanced county boards is 61.24%, so not quite two-thirds,” he said. “For municipal boards, it’s 62.26%. Women hold only 25.67% of county board chair positions, so still could improve in that area”

Crow said only eight Iowa counties have achieved gender balance on their boards and commissions, as have 12 Iowa cities.

State Sen. Jason Schultz is a Republican from Schleswig. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

Also speaking against the bill were the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, the League of Women Voters of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

Of the organizations that have registered to lobby state lawmakers on the issue, the opponents include the Iowa State Education Association, Iowa Federation of Labor and Common Good Iowa. No organizations are registered in support of the bill.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Schultz said he continues to believe the current law is short-sighted.

“I’ve had enough people come to me — men and women, CEOs, board chairs — just talking about this makes things more difficult on Main Street, Iowa,” he said. “The idea that we would have a quota system in Iowa just seems short-sighted and the wrong direction to go. Looking for the best, most qualified people is a better way to go.”

Schultz has declined to say who has raised the issue with him and asked for repeal of the gender-balance law, saying he doesn’t “want to draw attention to them.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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