Iowa’s historically small legislative session

Iowa Capital Dispatch
May 8, 2023

We heard from Republican lawmakers that the recently completed legislative session was “historic.” It sure was — historically small.

With a few exceptions, the major GOP priorities of the legislative session will benefit relatively small numbers of Iowans, in some cases at a gigantic cost to the most vulnerable among us.

Private schools

The prime example is Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private-school subsidy scheme. Rarely has more political capital been squandered for legislation that will benefit so few.  The GOP majority in the House didn’t pass it over the past two years, so Reynolds had to bully lawmakers by supporting primary opponents against some of the holdouts.

The plan calls for nearly $1 billion in taxpayer spending over the next four years in anticipation of serving the whopping 1% of public-school students who are expected to transfer to private schools.  Meanwhile, the potential pool of taxpayer money for public schools just got $1 billion smaller.

And if that weren’t damaging enough, GOP lawmakers gave an extra kick to special education students on their way out the door. The Area Education Agencies pointed out that they are obligated to serve all special-needs students, but they only get paid for those in the public-school funding formula. So AEAs are not paid for services they provide to 1,000 special-needs students already in private schools – nor will they be paid for the ones who transfer to take advantage of Reynolds’ educational savings accounts.

The result is that services for special-needs students will have to come from a shrinking pot of money. The majority party decided not to do anything about that this year.

Don’t say gay – or sex

Then there’s Reynolds’ puritan package of anti-LGBTQ and anti-public school teacher legislation: the ban on even age-appropriate, gender-related instruction and mentions of sex in school books; restrictions on the use of school bathrooms and other facilities by trans students; requirements that parents be informed of requests for gender-affirming accommodations; and the ban on gender-affirming health care for minors.

These issues consumed a giant amount of legislative attention, and for what? The perceived benefit is a false sense of security for a small number of fear-driven, politically active parents whose kids will eventually find out the truth of the world, perhaps in a far less safe setting. Meanwhile, the greatest harm is to the less than 2% of Iowa youth who identify as LGBTQ, whose vulnerability to suicide is disproportionately huge. Meanwhile, Iowa joins states with a reputation for bigotry and hatred, with consequences to its workforce needs.

Public assistance hurdles

Speaking of punching down on vulnerable Iowans, GOP lawmakers finally approved the new red tape and hurdles they have long desired for public assistance programs. The stated goal is to eliminate the insignificant amount of fraud and abuse in the program, at a cost of millions to set up and oversee the program, and an estimated $42 million in federal aid. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the estimated $8 million a year in savings would come out of the mouths of needy families who qualify for aid but can’t navigate the paperwork.

More special-interest goodies

Wealthy medical practices and trucking companies will be shielded from some of the liability for the pain and suffering of Iowans who are victimized by their negligence and incompetence. The average Iowan will not pay less for health care nor for the cost of transporting goods.

Teenagers will get to work longer hours at more dangerous jobs than they could in the past. Supporters of the bill say they are not doing it to address Iowa’s workforce shortage. So taking kids away from their school work and exposing them to more workplace hazards is for what? Reynolds says it’s good for kids to work – but they can do that now. Working a few extra hours on a school night offers little additional benefit while there’s plenty of potential harm from squeezing out school work and extracurriculars.


I mentioned a few exceptions to the small thinking in the 2023 session. One is certainly the bipartisan property tax overhaul, which supporters say will save Iowans $100 million. About half the savings comes from new homestead exemptions for seniors and military veterans. While it remains to be seen how local governments will pay for services that residents want and need, there’s no question that property taxes are the least popular way to do it. The new law should make the process slightly more transparent.

Reynolds’ government reorganization was also historically ambitious and promises to save $214 million over four years. That’s big. So is the increased power consolidated in the governor’s office, and the potential for unanticipated consequences from legislation that was rushed through without sufficient public input.

Problems left unsolved

Among many disappointments of this legislative session was the squandered potential to address the state’s biggest problems. Lawmakers could have made historic investments in public education, health care, affordable housing, the environment and more — and still cut property taxes.

Instead, they nibbled around the edges of health care access. They ignored the state’s water-quality problem – and set out to make it worse by eliminating a requirement to fund an essential water-quality monitoring system. They put more money into various workforce grant programs but underfunded public universities. They likely accelerated the slide of public-school quality while sending a loud-and-clear “keep out” message to people who care about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Why? So they can come back next year and approve another historic income-tax cut for the wealthiest Iowans.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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