DES MOINES — The opportunity was not wasted.
For the past two years, Iowa Republicans have had complete control of the state lawmaking process for the first time in 20 years, and they took full advantage.
Swept into unfettered power by the 2010 and 2016 elections, Republicans during the 2017 and 2018 sessions of the Iowa Legislature passed at least a half-dozen significant laws that never would have seen the light of day under a Democratic or even split-control state government.
Abortion regulations, tax policy, gun rights, and public union negotiating rights received dramatic reforms in the conservative mold.
Whether the new laws are good for Iowans remains to be seen. More certain is that Iowa Republicans, given the once-in-a-generation opportunity, reshaped state policies in major ways — and now their brand will be tested with voters in this fall’s elections.
“They obviously were extremely aggressive with the fear that any election cycle you could lose any one of the three legs of the stool” of state government control, said Brent Siegrist, who was the Iowa House majority leader in 1997 and 1998, the last time Republicans had full state lawmaking control. “From their viewpoint, they probably view it as an extremely productive two years. ... I think overall they’ll view it was a home run, if not a grand slam.”
State issues figure to play a prominent role in the upcoming campaign season. There will be competitive Congressional races in Eastern and Central Iowa, but with neither U.S. Senate seat open this fall, the race for governor is poised to take center stage as the top statewide race.
Republican Kim Reynolds became governor in May 2017 when former Gov. Terry Branstad was named ambassador to China. She does not face a challenge in the June 5 party primary election.
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Six Democrats are vying for the nomination to face Reynolds in the Nov. 6 general election.
Iowa Republicans will have some legislative accomplishments to tout that received bipartisan support and are popular with voters: they expanded and reshaped mental health care access, added measures designed to curtail opioid addiction and created new funding for programs designed to improve water quality.
But they also passed at least a half-dozen laws that created partisan firestorms.
Republicans approved what experts say is the most restrictive abortion law in the country: it bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, around six weeks, often before the woman knows she is pregnant. They also required women to wait three days to receive an abortion. Both laws are being challenged in court.
They stripped most state funding to women’s health care providers like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions.
They approved a stand your ground law, which permits Iowans to use lethal force without any obligation to retreat if they feel threatened, and allowed children under 14 to handle guns under parental supervision. And they created language that would enshrine gun ownership rights into the state constitution — which also must be approved in a separate legislative session and then by voters before taking effect.
They curtailed most elements for which public employee unions can collectively bargain, and limited the amount of compensation payments workers injured on the job can seek.
And their overhaul of the state’s tax code projects to create nearly $3 billion in income tax relief over five years, but also expands some sales taxes and siphons hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state budget each year as the judicial system, education and public safety — among others — say they already are vastly underfunded.
“Iowa has clearly headed in the wrong direction over the last two years,” said Rep. Chris Hall, a Sioux City Democrat and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I think it was a hard right and it was all about promises to their big donors and outside special interests. “This has been a monumental General Assembly and I think for the most part it does not reflect the priorities of most Iowans and it also has gone in an ideological direction that Iowa for many decades has been able to steer clear of.”
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He and other Democrats faulted Reynolds for not providing greater leadership to reach more bipartisan results.
“Republicans have very definitely had, from the fiscal side and from the religious side, a very distinct agenda and they have not wasted any time in trying to take maximum advantage of the unified control they have right now,” said Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University.
They earned the opportunity through a series of electoral victories and maximized the opportunity these past two years. Now Iowa Republicans must return to the campaign trail and persuade voters, especially those who do not claim allegiance to a political party, that those conservative reforms were in Iowans’ best interests.
“There were some bold proposals put through, and if we stop right now and rest on our laurels, then it may be all for naught,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa’s state chairman and a former legislator. “There’s one thing the Democrats aren’t hiding: that is they want to undo most of what has been done. So we cannot be complacent ... because we have to now go out and sell this to Iowans.”
Kaufmann acknowledged Republicans will have to defend some of their reforms.
“If you’re actually going to call yourself bold and be bold in your legislating, in your lawmaking, then you’re going to make some people angry. And what (Republicans) have to do is be prepared,” Kaufmann said. “Now they have to explain themselves.”
Kaufmann said while each politically-charged issue will be debated, Iowa Republicans will convey one central message: that they followed through on their campaign promises. He said Iowa Republicans spent two years checking off the list of conservative reforms they promised in previous campaigns.
“It’s kind of cliché-ish, but be true to yourself, speak from the heart and have statistics ready,” Kaufmann said. “I believe that we will have a unified message, and I believe that unified message will be based on keeping your campaign promises and making sure that Iowans know that, in the end, this will make the state better.”
In their session-ending speeches, Republicans expressed confidence in the choices they made over the past two years.
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“The message the voters sent (in 2016) was clear: they wanted smaller, smarter and conservative government. House Republicans have responded, and the days of the status quo government are over,” Republican House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow said. He said the two-year General Assembly “will long be remembered as one that charted a new course for the state of Iowa.”
Democratic House Minority Leader Mark Smith said the 2018 session was historic but for the wrong reasons: “for special interests, but not for everyday Iowans.”
Democrats will attempt to make the case that the new Republican-led laws will in fact make the state worse, state party Chairman Troy Price said. In addition to the aforementioned new laws, Democrats are poised to emphasize issues with privatized management of the state’s $5 billion Medicaid program — health care for low-income and disabled Iowans — and two years of midyear state budget cuts.
“Democrats are going to be out there talking about how it’s time for change. The reality is what we have seen here are a lot of bills that either didn’t go far enough or went way too far than where Iowans wanted to go,” Price said. “The state is not going in the right direction.”
Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.