116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — The 2021 session was a tale of two parties: for majority Republicans, it was the best of times; for minority Democrats, it was the worst of times.
Most importantly, according to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, “it’s such a big year for Iowans.”
The governor, expected to run for re-election next year, has reason to be pleased. Lawmakers approved many of her “foundational priorities,” including tax relief, expanding access to child care, more resources for workforce housing and training, and extending broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved areas.
“What a huge win,” she told reporters Wednesday after signing House File 813, her proposal to increase opportunities for charter schools.
But for Democrats, the good news was that the session is ending.
Outnumbered 18-34 in the Senate and 41-59 in the House, Democrats came into the session “ready to work together and provide balanced and responsible leadership that Iowans deserve,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said later Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Reynolds and Iowa Republicans have chosen to work for special interests instead of Iowans,” he said. “They've largely ignored the challenges that our state is facing, that our small businesses are still struggling with. It was politics as usual from Iowa Republicans, division over unity and partisanship over common sense.”
Nineteen days after the scheduled adjournment, the end came at 11:41 p.m. in the Senate and 11:45 in the House.
‘Good day for Iowa’
For Republicans, the overtime days were well-spent as they hammered out a compromise on a wide-range of issues they say will deliver $400 million in tax relief even as they fund an $8.118 billion general fund budget representing a $318 million increase from the current year.
“We got that generational tax bill done. That's a really good day for Iowa. It's a really good day for our Legislature to show that we can work together,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, told Radio Iowa, referring to Senate File 619.
Although Democrats largely opposed the tax plan, it received bipartisan support.
Whitver credited Reynolds’ leadership for getting cautious House Republicans to get behind the plan.
“It's about bringing people together,” Reynolds told reporters.
Democrats frozen out
That didn’t include Democrats, who said that although they represent 1.3 million Iowa voters, they were frozen out of negotiations on SF 619 and many of legislators’ shared priorities.
“We don't even get a return phone call in response to inquiries,” House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said
“I met with the governor's chief of staff several times, but not with the governor directly,” added Wahls.
For Democrats, it was another session of missed opportunities, such as the lack of legislative action to help the state recover from the health, educational and economic impact of the pandemic.
Throughout the session, Prichard and Wahls hammered Republicans for their lack of attention to the pandemic and the toll it has taken — and still is taking — on Iowans. Since the Legislature gaveled in Jan. 11, about 1,800 Iowans have died of COVID-19 related causes, he said.
“What did this administration do? It played politics with the pandemic,” Prichard said as representatives instead debated a ban on local governments, including schools, enforcing mask mandates.
A measure to would ban school districts, cities and counties from enacting face mask requirements that go farther than the state’s policy was approved in the 11th hour Wednesday night.
The amendment to House File 847, passed on party-line votes in both chambers will essentially ban all face mask requirements in Iowa, since there is currently no face mask requirement at the state level.
Reynolds signed the ban on face mask mandates into law immediately after adjournment, making it state law by the start of the school day on Thursday.
Millions from feds
Whitver, however, pointed to the “billions of dollars that have been pumped into our economy from the federal government.” Republicans targeted “certain areas that we think need investment from a state perspective.”
The crowning achievement of the session for Republicans was SF 619 that includes eliminating the 2018 state income tax “triggers,” compressing brackets and reducing rates, having the state take over mental-health funding from property taxpayers while phasing out the “backfill” aid to local governments.
The mammoth bill also phases out the state’s inheritance tax, exempts from taxation COVID-19 assistance and incorporates various issues dealing with housing, energy infrastructure, child care tax credits, telehealth parity and more.
Property tax caution
Democrats warned that the $100 million property tax relief Republicans projected from the state takeover of mental health finding would be more than offset by a $153 million property tax increase to make up for the loss of the “backfill.”
The backfill is funding legislators promised cities, counties and schools in 2013 when lawmakers, in a bipartisan tax package, lowered the commercial and industrial property tax rate.
The backfill, which Republicans say amounts to less than 2 percent of local government budgets, will be phased out over the next five to eight years.
But Democrats said the fact Republicans were making a promise as they broke another should worry Iowans, especially property taxpayers and those who depend on mental health services.
Democrats also hit the GOP for what Prichard labeled a “most unwelcoming agenda targeting transgender kids, the LGBTQ community and people of color. Disrespecting their civil rights is not the way to attract and retain the workforce Iowa businesses needs.”
“I think virtually every major bill they've introduced has made Iowa a less attractive place for new employers, for young Iowans, and for young families,” Wahls said.
The GOP attacked major employers like Google, which has invested millions in the state, with threats to censor “big tech,” and attacked higher education with a lack of funding and threats to end tenure.
Republicans pushed “radical cultural agenda that's aimed at pouring gasoline on the flames of division,” Wahls said. “Rather than working with Democrats to try and turn the temperature down, Republicans have turned the thermostat way, way up.”
So they were pleased that talked-about ban on transgender students participating in girls’ athletics didn’t pop up in the final hours of the session. Reynolds had called for a ban and GOP leaders said there was some interest, but it never materialized.
If there was anything for Democrats to feel good about it was the moments of bipartisan cooperation, Wahls said. Democrats and Republicans supported the unexpected elimination of the statute of limitation on criminal actions involving sexual abuse of minors.
Both chambers unanimously approved a $100 million state commitment to expanding broadband to underserved or unserved parts of Iowa. Although less than the $450 million over three years that Reynolds sought, the state will be able to leverage private investment and federal funds.
Lawmakers on Wednesday also unanimously approved a bill to provide funding for small meat processors to expand to meet the growing demand from consumers to buy meat locally.
Unfortunately, Wahls said, on “most of the big ticket items, we did not see that kind of cooperation.”
Lawmakers likely will be back for a special session to deal with the once-in-a-decade redistricting process. The next regular session will begin the second Monday of January 2022.
Comments: (319) 398-8375; email@example.com