Lawmakers end 2023 legislative session with most Republican priorities met
House Speaker Pat Grassley spoke in support of the property tax legislation the Iowa Legislature passed in the final days before the end of the 2023 session. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
The Iowa Legislature wrapped up the 2023 legislative session Thursday, meeting nearly all the goals Republican leaders put forward in January.
The House gaveled out for the last time this year at 12:33 p.m. Thursday. Lawmakers hugged and chatted as they gathered up the belongings and documents on their desks, taking selfies and announcing the end of their time in serving in the chamber until January 2024.
As legislators passed the final budget bills and last-minute policy changes, GOP leaders celebrated successfully passing bills from the governor’s private school scholarship program, property tax cuts, and liability limits for medical malpractice and trucking accident cases.
While many states saw Democrats hold or gain ground in the 2022 midterms, Iowa Republicans overwhelmingly won state and national races, bringing a GOP supermajority to the Senate and gaining seats in the House.
Senate President Amy Sinclair celebrated Republicans’ six years holding trifecta control at the Iowa Statehouse and agreed with her party colleagues’ assessment of a “historic” year.
“Several years ago, one of my friends and colleagues retired from the Iowa Senate. When I asked him why, part of his response was that he felt like Iowa Republicans had accomplished more Republican priorities since taking the majority in 2017 than most Republican legislators dream of accomplishing in their career,” Sinclair told lawmakers in her closing remarks. “While I can see why he thought that at the time based on past sessions, just wait until he looks at what we have done in the 2023 session.”
Democrats agreed that Republicans accomplished many of their goals but said the party pushed a national “culture war” agenda and passed legislation that will hurt Iowans.
“This session will go down in history as one of the most divisive and cruel ever seen in the history of the Iowa Legislature,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said.
House Speaker Pat Grassley said lawmakers focused on “pro-family” measures in 2023, citing bills like Reynolds’ private school scholarship program, legislation restricting books with depictions of sex and requiring schools to inform parents if their child seeks gender-related accommodations.
But House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst pointed to those same measures as actions hurting Iowa educators and families. She said other measures signed into law including bans on gender-affirming health care for minors and use of school restrooms different from their gender assigned at birth, make Iowa a less welcoming place for LGBTQ+ Iowans and struggling youth.
Konfrst asked LGBTQ+ Iowans and their families not to give up on the state because of Republicans’ actions this year.
“Stay. We need you,” she said. “We’re going to make it better. Don’t give up on this state because extremists in the Legislature are trying to legislate against who you are.”
The session ended on a higher note for minority party members, as House Republicans worked with Democrats to craft an amendment to the controversial child labor legislation. The final bill included changes like not allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to seek exceptions from the state to work in some potentially dangerous fields. This bill was an example of how the Legislature should operate, she said.
Reynolds said Iowa Republicans’ work on “school choice,” property tax cuts and government realignment this year raised Iowa’s national profile.
“Iowans will be able to look back upon our promises and know we delivered for them,” Reynolds said in a news release. “Our state is on a new path, one that was forged by our hard-working people, has their families at the forefront, and is a place where everyone has the freedom to flourish.”
Konfrst said many of the issues Reynolds and GOP leaders are celebrating passing legislation on are not issues Iowans care about. She said Iowa Republicans were catering to the national Republican Party by focusing on transgender youth and “school choice” legislation instead of pursuing bills that would help Iowans struggling with low wages, high housing costs and rising inflation.
“If I were a special interest, if I were part of a national group that wanted to advance a national agenda, I’d be pretty happy with this legislative session,” Konfrst said. “If I were an everyday Iowan, who just wanted my life to be a little easier, the Republican legislature let me down.”
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One of the final pieces of policy approved Thursday would require Iowa political parties to hold their caucuses in person on caucus night. House File 716 passed the Iowa Senate on a 33-16 vote. The measure may interfere with Iowa Democrats’ delegate selection plan, which was released in full Wednesday and includes a mail-in system for party members to declare their presidential preference. Republicans said the Democrats’ plan would force New Hampshire to move ahead of Iowa, as the process would be too similar to a primary contest.
Democratic legislative leaders said the Iowa Democratic Party was not consulted on the legislation introduced in April.
“Republicans were aware, of course, of our plans to move in this direction for well over a year, but then decided to drop this bill last minute, violating many decades of bipartisan cooperation and mutual respect to work together to protect the caucuses,” Wahls said. “Obviously, Republicans have decided to put politics before Iowa.”
Democrats also questioned whether the legislation was constitutional, echoing concerns from Scott Brennan, an Iowan on the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, that the bill could violate First Amendment rights. Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, argued the bill is necessary to ensure Iowa’s presidential nominating contests are caucuses.
“The whole idea of a caucus is that you meet in person. Face to face,” Taylor said. “You get together with your neighbors … to me, that’s a tradition that’s worth protecting.”
Lawmakers cut some public university spending
The legislative session ended with lawmakers approving $8.5 billion in spending, with more than 88% of the state funding allocated. Though Republicans hold a trifecta of power, House and Senate Republicans differed on their budget targets and spent much of April figuring out a compromise in closed door meetings.
Both chambers approved Senate File 560 Wednesday, funding the state’s public higher education system and educational agencies. For Iowa’s public universities, lawmakers approved a $7.1 million increase with funds dedicated to specific programs. The University of Iowa’s nursing program will get $2.8 million for hiring instructors. Iowa State University’s Future Ready Workforce Program will also receive $2.8 million to increase their computer science, technology, engineering and cybersecurity programs. The University of Northern Iowa will have $1.5 million put toward recruitment for the Educators for Iowa program.
These appropriations go toward specific workforce shortages in Iowa, but fall far below the Iowa Board of Regents’ ask of $32 million across the three institutions — including requests of $7 million for UI’s nursing program, $4 million for ISU’s Future Ready Workforce program and $4 million for UNI’s teacher program.
“I do want to reassure everyone, Republican or Democrat, that this budget is not starving anyone or anything,” Taylor, the bill’s floor manager in the Senate said. “It’s not defunding education, it’s actually an increase of what we do have.”
The bill also included language discussed earlier in the session requiring the public universities to conduct a study into the institutions’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and barring spending on DEI hires, programs and training. Board of Regents President Michael Richards announced in March that the board will conduct a comprehensive study and review of DEI programs, and that the programs’ funding would be paused until the study was completed.
While Democrats criticized Republicans’ targeting DEI programs, saying it will make Iowa less desirable to move to, Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel said existing DEI programs are “not very inclusive.”
“Look at a slideshow from the University of Iowa says, ‘What do you think gets in the way of us being fully inclusive?’ Flip to the next page, ‘merit and competition,'” Nordman said. “So if you’re good at your job, if you’re doing better than everyone else, regardless of race or religion, gender — it’s not very inclusive, if you ask me. That’s what we’re looking at.”
In the standings budget bill, funding for special education services through Iowa’s Area Education Agencies was reduced by $30 million, while costs for the governor’s education savings account program and associated non-public school transportation costs received roughly $116 million.
While Democrats said public school children and those with special needs were being “punished” by the budget, GOP House lawmakers said the decrease to AEA funding was one of the compromises made in light of the Legislature passing a 3% increase to state supplemental aid earlier this session.
Rep. Taylor Collins, R-Mediapolis, said House Republicans were fine with reducing AEA spending by a smaller amount, because the reduction will be offset by the $107 million increase to Iowa’s public school system overall.
“Much of this surrounded how we got to 3% SSA,” Collins said in a Wednesday appropriations meeting. “Which, I was proud of that amount, but obviously there’s there’s some consequences in the negotiations on that and reaching that number.”
What didn’t pass?
While Reynolds and Republican lawmakers agreed on most of the priorities set out at the beginning of the 2023 legislative session, they didn’t reach consensus on everything. Among measures that didn’t pass was the governor’s proposal to increase funding for non-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. She proposed an increase through the More Options for Maternal Health program from $500,000 to $2 million, expanding the program to funding supporting fathers. The original bill also allowed over-the-counter access to contraceptives, but Republican lawmakers removed the language.
Reynolds told reporters Thursday said she’s “not going to give up” on these goals.
“I want to talk about a fatherhood initiative, and I’m going to continue to talk about the importance of providing over-the-counter birth control,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s important. We’ll continue to work with the Legislature, I’ll work over the interim and you’ll probably see it again next year as part of my program.”
One of the most high-profile bills that did not clear the legislative process in 2023 was action on carbon dioxide pipelines. The House approved a bill restricting pipeline companies’ ability to use eminent domain, requiring they obtain voluntary easements for 90% of the land for their routes. The Senate did not take up the legislation.
Grassley said there are differing opinions on whether there’s opportunity for pipeline legislation to come up again in 2024.
“Everyone that’s immediately involved with things always think that the session before you is always the one,” Grassley said. “I’ve had other individuals with a level of knowledge on the situation that think that we still may have opportunities as we move forward. That being said, there still is a process in place. Just … because the Senate did not pass the bill doesn’t mean that the the pipelines are automatically approved. It’s just we were unable to reach the thresholds that we would have liked to have seen. But if this issue still is lingering out there, I know it’s important to our caucus, and we’ll want to engage in that again next year.”
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