In Condition of the State speech, Gov. Reynolds boldly pushes for changes unpopular with most Iowans

Video still from the Iowa PBS stream of Gov. Kim Reynolds delivering her Condition of the State Speech, Jan. 10, 2023.

During her Condition of the State Speech on Tuesday night, Gov. Kim Reynolds called on the newly expanded Republican majorities in both houses of the Iowa Legislature to ignore critics, including the media and “so-called experts,” and push to eliminate state regulations and agencies she considers unnecessary, increase protection for doctors sued for malpractice and reduce expenses for their insurance companies, and divert tax money from public schools to private schools.

Reynolds listed the change to school funding as her primary goal.

“Our first priority in this legislative session — and what I will be focusing on over the next four years — is making sure that every child is provided with a quality education that fits their needs,” the governor told lawmakers gathered in the Iowa House chamber.

The centerpiece of the governor’s proposed changes to education is an “education savings account” (ESA) program. ESAs, where state education funds are diverted from public schools to parents who can then use them to pay for private school tuition, are the form of school vouchers currently most popular with advocacy groups promoting the use of tax dollars to pay private school fees.

During the last two sessions of the Iowa Legislature, the governor’s ESA proposals passed the Iowa Senate but died in the Iowa House. Republican lawmakers from rural areas worried about the impact of vouchers on their local schools joined House Democrats in opposition to Reynolds’ plans. In response, Reynolds took the unprecedented step of actively campaigning against five Republican House members who had opposed her school voucher push. All five lost their primaries to candidates who supported Reynolds’ plans.

The proposal the governor outlined in her speech on Tuesday goes further than the ones she has previously proposed. Last year, Reynolds proposed diverting most of the state’s per-pupil funding in K-12 schools, or $5,500/student, to ESAs for families earning 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or $111,000 for a family of four, and capping the program at 10,000 participants per year. The new proposal would increase the amount the state diverts to ESAs to $7,598, the full amount of the state’s per-pupil funding for public school students. Income restrictions would only apply during the first two years of the program, and then be eliminated. The cap on the number of participants would also be eliminated, allowing for an unlimited number of ESAs available to students currently at public schools as well as those already enrolled in private schools.

The governor’s office estimates that in the first year of the program, when family incomes are limited to those earning 300 percent of the FRL (or $83,250 for a family of four), 14,000 students would be eligible for an ESA and the program would cost the state $106.9 million. In addition to the funds deposited in an ESA and administrative costs, that figure also includes a $1,200 payment to public school districts for each student in that district that receives an ESA.

Iowa Poll results from 2021 and 2022 showed a majority of Iowans oppose the governor’s ESA plans. To create support for her new plan, Reynolds is appearing in a new television ad promoting her plan under the heading of parental choice.

“The new ad is part of a six-figure campaign by Priorities for Iowa, Inc., a conservative organization based in Des Moines,” Iowa News Now reported on Monday.

Also on Monday, Reynolds reminded her fellow Republicans that advancing policies opposed by the majority of her constituents — polling shows most Iowans oppose the severe restrictions on abortions backed by Republican leaders, for example — has not been an election liability.

“We ran as unapologetic conservatives and not only did Iowans approve of the job that we’re doing, they gave us a mandate to continue to be bold and to continue to be decisive,” the governor said at a Republican Party fundraiser in Des Moines on Monday morning.

Reynolds also proposed taking an unapologetic conservative approach to Iowa’s severe lack of OB-GYN specialists. According to a report presented by a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics executive to the Iowa Board of Regents in November, Iowa ranks last in the country in OB-GYNs per capita. According to data compiled by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 66 of Iowa’s 99 counties lack OB-GYN and birth services.

Reynolds did not link this doctor shortage to the wider issues that make it difficult for Iowa to retain college graduates and high-skilled workers. Instead, the governor said the problem is juries in Iowa award victims of medical malpractice too much money. (Doctors found liable for malpractice almost never pay the awards themselves, the companies that sell them malpractice insurance do, but jury verdicts can lead to increased insurance premiums.)

According to the governor, “out-of-control verdicts” are “driving our OB-GYN clinics out of business and medical school graduates out of state,” and should be controlled with tort reform. Reynolds wants to change state law to limit jury awards in medical malpractice cases for all medical professionals, not just OB-GYNs, to $1 million for non-economic damages, including pain and suffering.

Healthcare workers and reproductive rights advocates gather for the Do No Harm Rally for Reproductive Justice at the Iowa State Capitol on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. — Eva Long/Little Village

Reynolds did not address how her push for a six-week abortion ban will impact decisions by OB-GYNs about whether to practice in Iowa. At a rally in October at the Iowa State Capitol, Margaret Fuller, an MD/Ph.D. candidate at UI Carver College of Medicine and one of the co-founders of the school’s chapter of Medical Students for Choice, explained how extreme anti-abortion laws like the six-week ban affect healthcare professionals.

“We are the future of healthcare, and we have concerns about entering the practice of medicine in this changing environment, where physicians are being asked to carry out the acts of the legislators in a way that’s harmful to patients,” she said.

Fuller said Iowa will lose doctors and other healthcare workers if draconian anti-abortion laws are enacted.

“We’re going to lose people who don’t have it in them to tell patients what legislators are asking us to tell them. Which is ‘I can’t do this really easy, safe procedure and save your life, I have to watch you get sicker and sicker, until you have a risk of dying. That’s when I can actually perform the procedure that I know how to do and would be safer to do now, but they’re making me wait until you’re really at risk of dying.’”

Compared to previous Condition of the State speeches, Reynolds was relatively restrained on the issue of abortion. The governor referred to her appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, asking the justices to dissolve the 2019 permanent injunction against the six-week ban, but did not mention the anti-abortion amendment to the Iowa Constitution she supports. The amendment was passed by Republicans on party-line votes in 2021, and will have to pass again in 2023 or 2024, before going to the voters in 2024.

Instead, the governor focused on proposal to provide more state money to “crisis pregnancy centers” that discourage people from accessing abortion services, and fund programs “to promote paternal involvement and address the needs of fathers” as another way of discouraging abortion.

“This new funding would allow us to provide nonprofit grants to assist at-risk dads, as well as mentorship for school-age males,” Reynolds said.

Although the governor referenced, as she often does, a March 2021 magazine article that ranked Iowa as the number one state for “opportunity,” she also said the number of regulations and administrative agencies is a serious impediment to opportunity in Iowa. Reynolds called for a comprehensive review of state regulation with an eye towards repealing as many as possible, and for a massive reduction in the number of executive branch agencies, from 37 to 16. Reynolds did not specify which agencies she wants eliminated or merged in her speech, but an accompanying document prepared by the governor’s office named nine potential mergers.

Just as she did in her 2022 Condition of the State Speech, Reynolds ignored the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, except to boast about what excellent job she believes her administration has done handling it. According to the weekly update issued on Wednesday, 10,508 Iowans have died from the virus. When Reynolds gave her 2022 speech, the state’s official COVID-19 death toll stood at 8,201.

Gov. Kim Reynolds shouts out her husband Kevin Reynolds for helping dye her hair near the end of her Condition of the State Speech, Jan. 10, 2023.

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