More than 4,200 Iowans have died from COVID-19, and food insecurity in the state has been pushed to it highest level in living memory by economic damage from the pandemic. Still, Gov. Kim Reynolds told the Iowa Legislature at the beginning of her Condition of the State speech on Tuesday night that “the condition of our state has never been stronger.”
According to Reynolds, that’s because “we’ve met every challenge with bravery and outright grit.” The governor cited COVID-19, the protests over the summer, the state’s drought conditions and the Aug. 10 derecho as the challenges Iowa has faced over the past year.
“2020 left its mark on everyone, but not evenly,” Reynolds said later in her 45-minute speech. “There are people across this state who are still hurting. Many lost their job or their business or even their home.”
Despite that acknowledgement, the governor did not propose any new programs to assist those trying to cope with the pandemic, even though the rate of new cases remains high. On Wednesday at 10 a.m., the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 1,845 Iowans had tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the state since March 8 to 299,910.
Iowa finished fiscal year 2020 with a budget surplus of $305.5 million and cash reserves of more than $770 million. But during a Dec. 1 news conference, Reynolds made it clear she was not willing to use any of that money to provide COVID relief. She said “unfortunately there’s just not enough state funding to make everybody whole,” so she wouldn’t take any action on it, and it was up to the federal government to provide further relief to individuals and businesses.
In her speech on Tuesday, the governor did prioritize action related to the pandemic in one area: education. Reynolds called on the legislature to further limit the control local school boards have over the schools in their districts, and to allow tax dollars that support public school to be diverted to private schools.
Schools can currently offer a hybrid model of instruction, with at least 50 percent in-person instruction being supplemented with online instruction to limit the number of people in school buildings if school boards and local public health officials believe that will help limit the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
Reynolds said it is unfair that not all districts offer 100 percent in-person instruction to any parent who wants that for their children.
“We need to fix that,” the governor said.
Reynolds said she wants “the legislature to immediately send a bill to my desk that gives parents the choice to send their child back to school full time” regardless of the impact school boards or public health agencies believe that will have on virus activity in a community.
Both the WHO and the CDC recommend that in-person instruction not resume in schools until an area has a 14-day average positivity in its COVID-19 tests of 5 percent or lower. On Wednesday, no county in Iowa had a 14-day average that low, and only 11 of the 99 counties had 14-day averages below 10 percent.
Under the heading of making “choice an option for everyone” Reynolds also wants the legislature to pass a law creating “education savings accounts” (ESAs).
ESAs have replaced school vouchers among those who want to divert funds from public schools to private schools as the preferred method to accomplish that goal. Some state school voucher programs ran afoul of laws restricting the use of public funds at religious schools, so ESAs provide the equivalent of what a state would spend on a student in a public school to the student’s parents, instead of directly to a private school. The parent can then choose to spend the money on tuition at a private school, a workaround courts have found acceptable.
Reynolds said ESAs are “for students who are trapped in a failing school,” which proponents of using public funds for private school tuition have said since vouchers were first introduced in the 1990s. The governor also declared “it’s imperative that we have a strong public school system,” as she pushed for the creation of ESAs. That is something else advocates of school vouchers have said since the ’90s, as they have tried to diminish the role played by public schools in states around the country.
Other priorities Reynolds outlined in her speech on Tuesday predate the pandemic.
The governor once again called for the expansion of broadband internet access in the state, as she has in her previous Condition of the State speeches.
“This is the time for bold action and leadership,” Reynolds said. She proposed spending $450 million over the next four years in a major effort to make high-quality and affordable broadband available throughout the state.
Speaking after the governor’s address, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said members of the Senate may not support spending the $450 million.
“We have kept conservative budgeting practices for the last four years,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do that. But certainly we know there has to be an investment in broadband.”
Whitver did support Reynolds’ proposal to abandon conservative budgeting practices in order to cut taxes.
Changes to state taxes passed in 2018 delayed some tax cuts until the state met certain revenue levels. In her speech, Reynolds called those revenue thresholds “unnecessary” and called on lawmakers to eliminate them and allow pending tax cuts to take effect.
Although Whitver supports the governor’s proposal to eliminate the revenue thresholds, Speaker of Iowa House Pat Grassley seemed less convinced.
“We want to continue to look for opportunities,” Grassley said after the governor’s speech. “But again, that was something that has been very important to our caucus, and when the tax bill was passed, that was one of the pieces of it.”
Another change to state taxes Reynolds proposed on Tuesday was an expansion of tax credit as a way of encouraging the creation of affordable housing in the state. The governor said it was important to address “a growing mismatch between where job opportunities are thriving and where people can find affordable places to live” in order to improve the state’s economy.
A lack of affordable, quality childcare — another longtime problem in Iowa — also needs to addressed to promote economic growth, Reynolds said. She proposed allocating $3 million for the Child Care Challenge Fund, which was created last year to encourage public-private partnerships to create new childcare options, as well as “using $25 million of child care development block grants to further promote child care startups.”
Reynolds also asked the legislature to address one aspect of systemic racism in Iowa’s justice system, although that was not how she phrased it.
Responding to the protests against police violence and racism that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, the legislature passed the More Perfect Union Act in a little more than two hours on June 11. And while that legislation contained important changes intended to limit violent behavior by police, it did not address the persistent problem of racial profiling. In her speech, Reynolds called for a ban on racial profiling.
The governor proposed that ban be included in a bill that also “protects law enforcement.” The bill “will make clear” that anyone who attacks a law enforcement officer “will be punished.”
It is, of course, already illegal in Iowa to attack police officers, but Reynolds told the story of an attack on three Davenport police officers this summer as way of illustrating why she believes extra protection is needed.
The truck the officers were driving was struck by 32 bullets as they were patrolling the city during a night of unrest. The governor did not propose that any action be taken to limit access to guns, Instead, the bill she proposed would increase the penalties for assaulting a police officer, and allow officers to sue civilians who have injured them.
One thing noticeably absent from this year’s Condition of the State speech was a call for a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to people convicted of a felony. During her previous Condition of the State speeches, Reynolds cited passing such an amendment as a top priority. But the governor has never been able to persuade the Republican majority in the state Senate to support the change.
Responding to pressure from civil rights leaders and protesters in cities throughout Iowa, Reynolds signed an executive order in August restoring voting rights to most people convicted of felonies. The governor had previously refused to issue such an order, saying she would wait for the legislature and the voters to approve amending the state constitution.
When she signed the executive order, Reynolds said she was still committed to amending the constitution.
“I’m hoping that that same passion with which people have called for this executive order will now be directed at getting the constitutional amendment passed,” Reynolds said near the end of the signing ceremony in August.
Condition of the State speeches are traditionally given at 10 a.m. on the second day of a legislative session, but the governor chose to deliver Tuesday’s speech at 6 p.m. instead. She said she was doing so in order to “speak directly to Iowans.”
The only other time Gov. Reynolds has given a televised speech at 6 p.m. was Nov. 16, when she introduced a series of new COVID-19 restrictions, following several weeks in which the state saw its biggest surge of virus activity.