116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When the Iowa Legislature convened in January, this editorial board laid out our hopes and expectations for the year. We were focused on the pandemic at the time, as Iowa was suffering a deadly winter with COVID-19.
We implored state policy to take the crisis seriously by bolstering the public health response and offering robust support for Iowans negatively affected by the pandemic.
But even back then, there were signs that the Legislature would not rise to this historic challenge. Republicans who control the House and Senate were delivering their usual pre-session talking points about tax cuts and freedom, scantly mentioning the pandemic at all.
Sadly, that inkling turned out to be correct. Almost 2,000 more Iowans have died of COVID-19 since we wrote our editorial previewing the 2021 legislative session.
The Iowa Legislature this year demonstrated the opposite of a sensible plan to mitigate the virus. They started on it right away by not requiring masks in the Capitol and with one chamber offering no way for the public to participate in hearings remotely.
Legislators passed laws requiring schools to offer in-person schooling, banning vaccine verification systems even if they are implemented by private actors, and tossing out school districts’ and local governments’ mask mandates. Whatever your thoughts on mask mandates, this was not the right way to do it — they passed and signed a law in the middle of the night, effective immediately, leaving school administrators scrambling to revise policies before class the following morning.
Members of the majority party evidently were satisfied with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ fend-for-yourself pandemic plan and they showed little interest in providing oversight, even when two different presidential administrations called us out for our lax response and when the state got in trouble for misusing federal money.
The Legislature offered no significant new support for testing and tracing or local virus control efforts. Iowa Republican lawmakers cheered Reynolds on when she acted unilaterally to end statewide mask requirements, turned down millions in federal funding that would have bolstered virus surveillance and cut off supplemental federal aid that was helping unemployed Iowans make ends meet.
While Iowa’s governor and federal representatives actively campaigned to promote vaccine uptake, top legislative leaders couldn’t be bothered to help. Shamefully, a few lawmakers even made statements casting doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccination.
Despite their poor handling of the pandemic, state policymakers did make notable progress on a few of the bipartisan issues we highlighted at the beginning of the year.
The Legislature established a new grant program to expand broadband internet with an emphasis on rural access and funded it with $100 million in the budget.
Legislators approved legislation to benefit families with children, including additional child care tax credits and a diminishing the “cliff effect” for those receiving assistance.
They also provided additional support for affordable housing, another of Reynolds’ priorities, although the tax credits they approved were far less than their friend on Terrace Hill requested.
Progress for Iowans was overshadowed by a series of disappointing setbacks.
In the early weeks of the session, the GOP majority passed a bill to limit early and absentee voting. Even though Iowa had record-setting election turnout last year with no evidence of fraud, legislators perpetuated former President Donald Trump’s soundly disproved theories of a rigged election.
The Legislature passed a “Back the Blue” bill that further skews the balance of power between police and the public. The legislation threatens cutting off state aid to cities that shake up their police departments and shields officers from accountability when they violate the law.
They even undercut one of their own accomplishments, affordable housing funding, by passing a law to ban local governments from requiring landlords to accept federal housing vouchers, as Iowa City and Marion do.
Repeatedly this year, Iowa Republicans chipped away at the ability of cities and counties to manage their unique challenges and respond to local conditions. Given the opportunity to promote innovative policymaking, they instead chose to double down on divisive culture war issues. Iowans are worse off for it.
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