As the Iowa Legislature opened for business on Monday, legislators talked about a number of issues they anticipate seeing move forward this session — for better or for worse.
Although House Minority Leader Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown) praised Republicans’ promise to provide supplemental aid to Iowa public schools within the first 30 days of the session, he and a number of Democrats in both chambers raised concerns about a proposed voucher system.
Although voucher systems can differ from state to state, essentially the voucher grants a certain amount of funding for each student in a community, and if a student decides to attend a private school, that money can transfer with them to the private school to help pay tuition.
The system is often framed as providing families with greater control over their kids’ education. Although he did not directly mention vouchers in his opening remarks, House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow (R-Windsor Heights) promised to focus on students and families and “remove barriers parents face in choosing their children’s education.”
However, Rep. Amy Nielsen (D-North Liberty) said she was “100 percent against vouchers,” and expressed concerns about the impact vouchers could have on the make-up of a student body.
“Public money goes to public schools and goes to public projects,” Nielsen said. “I just believe that it is a tool for segregating our schools — to put all of the wealthy kids in one school with all of the money and all of the resources, and the children at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are in another school with few resources. I don’t believe that is what Iowans believe in.”
Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, said she worried about the financial impact the measure could have on schools, especially in rural areas.
“In some of our rural communities, where enrollment is pretty small, pulling a small number of students out really has a significant impact on the school’s ability to deliver courses like art, the kinds of things that we know engage students and keep them there,” she said.
She said she was also concerned about whether any protections would be put into place to guarantee that students that switched out of a public school would receive the same quality of education, including requirements to make sure teachers are licensed and following the Iowa Core Curriculum.
Cobb spoke at a rally on the first floor of the capitol building following the opening session. She was joined by a variety of other activist groups, each voicing opposition to some of the Republican platforms.
Women’s Reproductive Healthcare
Echoing efforts across the country, Iowa Republicans have also voiced plans to take away funding from Planned Parenthood, something Rep. Liz Bennett (D-Cedar Rapids), for one, said she would fight.
“It was interesting to me today that several times people mentioned things like smaller government, letting people make their own decisions about things, but ironically one of the Republicans’ big stated priorities is restricting access to women’s healthcare,” she said.
Bennett said Republicans have discussed stripping funding from Planned Parenthood, which she noted not only provides healthcare needs such as birth control or abortion, but also services like cervical and breast cancer screenings.
“For many women, and even men, it is sometimes the only access to healthcare that they get,” she said. “It certainly seems, to borrow a phrase from the Raygun shirt, that the Republicans are committed to ‘creating government small enough to fit inside your vagina.’”
Nielsen, of North Liberty, said stripping Planned Parenthood clinics of state funding “would be a huge disservice to the people of Iowa.”
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland Public Affairs Director Erin Davison-Rippey, who spoke at the rally following the opening session, cited a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll from last year that showed 74 percent of Iowans supported continuing to pay Planned Parenthood for health services other than abortions.
“We are here and we will continue to be here every single day fighting on behalf of our patients and the majority of Iowans that support Planned Parenthood,” Davison-Rippey said. “Our hope is that Senator Dix, Speaker Upmeyer and other lawmakers abandon this dangerous agenda and finally listen to their constituents. Our hope is that they continue to protect access to healthcare for women, men and families in Iowa.”
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate announced proposed legislation last week that he said would work to ensure the integrity of Iowa’s elections by requiring things like voter ID at polling places. The move came under fire from Democrats and others who pointed to Iowa’s track record for election integrity.
“Voter fraud has been thoroughly investigated in the state of Iowa and we found that it’s really not a problem here,” Bennett said. “So, you really have to start questioning, why is it, if we really don’t have a problem, that you want to make it more difficult for people to vote?”
She added that she had a message for readers: “If you think it doesn’t matter if you vote, take a lot of time to think about why restricting access to voting for people who are underrepresented and sometimes systematically repressed is such a high priority for people in power.”
Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) called the issue a fake problem.
“Voting is a fundamental right. We need to help Iowans participate in the political process, not create government barriers to participation,” he said in his opening remarks.
Republicans have also spoken about plans to reduce the collective bargaining power of state employees, taking aim at measures that allow unions to negotiate things like health insurance and arguing that creating a more simplified system would save money.
But Hogg said collective bargaining is currently working well in Iowa, and has since the 1970s.
“We all benefit when labor and management can work together on fair wages and benefits,” he said.
Danny Homan, president of the AFSCME Iowa Council 61, spoke during the post-opening rally to urge Iowans to contact their legislators and attend legislative forums in a show of support for collective bargaining.
“It is my hope that when the legislators take their seats in the 2017 legislative session they will take caution and care to include the minority party and those citizens affected by any changes to these laws,” he said.
Cobb, of the Iowa State Education Association, said discussions about collective bargaining often make it sound like a measure that will only affect workers in state office buildings in Des Moines. She said people should keep in mind that the measures would also impact local public school teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
“It’s literally about people in every community in the state,” she said.
She said that states that removed collective bargaining rights for teachers saw increased instability in teacher employment.
“Districts that can afford to pay more, do,” she said. “They do hiring bonuses and they pull teachers away from other districts. You get teachers sometimes moving every year, and that kind of instability is not good for a district. And then that leaves some of the districts that can’t afford to pay as much with fewer teachers.”
She added that the ability for teachers to sit alongside administrators during collective bargaining discussions gives them a voice.
“Every contract in the state has two signatures, one that represents the district and one that represents the union,” she said. “Nothing is done to the districts; it’s done with them. Thinking that we somehow need to somehow eliminate that conversation and that joint decision that they are making at the local level is just not good for collegiality and collaboration in our schools.”
In a move that Gov. Terry Branstad praised as a way to save the state millions of dollars, three for-profit companies took over the management of the state Medicaid program in April of last year. The move — called Medicaid privatization by some and Medicaid modernization by others — has been controversial.
In his opening day remarks, Hogg called the current Medicaid situation a “mess” that is “in danger of financial failure.”
Sen. Liz Mathis (D-Robins) said she and other legislators hope to see improvements to some of the current issues, including payments to healthcare providers.
“For some of these problems around providers getting paid, we hope to see a smoothing out of that,” Mathis said. “And to do that, we’re going to have to dig in with [the Department of Human Services] and see what our margins are for change.”
She noted that many contracts have already been written under the current plan and the challenge will be figuring out how much can be changed. She added that some providers are already looking into some of the legal issues, so there may be action outside of the legislature as well.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Iowa Legislature spoke about improving water quality, but, in the past, the two parties have differed on the means of achieving cleaner water.
In his opening speech, House Majority Leader Hagenow pointed to a bill that passed the Iowa House last year. The bill proposed $477.9 million in state funding for water quality over the course of the next 13 years. But the plan would have taken the money out of the state infrastructure fund and some argued that it did not include sufficient reporting requirements.
“One of the great challenges we face is the ongoing work to improve the quality of our water,” Hagenow said. “Last year, this chamber passed a plan that would have devoted significant new resources to water quality efforts. Our work on this important issue should continue this session.”
Adam Mason, the state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, spoke at the first-floor rally following the opening session of the legislature. He said water quality initiatives need to stop pollution at the source and that the voluntary measures enacted thus far haven’t worked.
“We need new funds to clean up Iowa’s water quality,” Mason said.
Mathis said any water quality bill would need to present measurable metrics that could be monitored to ensure that initiatives are working and improving water quality and that funds are being used wisely.
“I won’t approve a water quality bill that’s been designed on a cocktail napkin, if someone thinks that they can put a water quality bill together in a week, or even a month,” Mathis said. “This has to be a well-thought-out policy.”
Both Democrats and Republicans pointed to increasing wages and creating jobs as key goals for the legislative session.
In his opening speech, as part of a metaphor about tying shoes, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) said Senate Republicans want to help Iowans thrive.
“We want to make sure Iowans can do more than just make ends meet, but even tie the ends a few times over, like a double knot, to ensure Iowa families feel secure,” Dix said. “We want to enable them to grow, move forward and succeed.”
Dix said that the solution to challenges such as stagnant wages are “growth, growth, growth,” and later in his speech pointed to “economic growth, personal growth, educational growth.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) also highlighted similar challenges: increasing peoples’ incomes and creating a skilled workforce. He said the solutions lie in supporting a strong public education system, affordable community colleges and public universities and programs providing workers with new skills.
Part of the wage debate has also circled around minimum wages. Four Iowa counties – Johnson, Linn, Wapello and Polk — have passed minimum wage ordinances that increased local minimum wages for workers. But Gov. Branstad and some Republican legislators have hinted that they might work to preempt those measures and create a uniform, statewide minimum.
“The passage of those local ordinances was in direct response to the failure of the state legislature to increase the state minimum wages,” Bolkcom said, adding that efforts to preempt county ordinances would, in effect, lower wages for those workers.
“People campaigned on prosperity and increasing jobs and wages, and one of the first things they are planning to do is lower people’s wages by reducing the minimum wage in those four counties; I think they are on the wrong track,” he said. “We are going to fight against the preemption. And if there’s an opportunity, we’re going to move to try to amend their bill to increase the minimum wage.”
Editor’s Note: Eleanore Taft contributed to reporting for this article.