Staff Columnist

A moment in the sun yields to dark arts at Iowa's Statehouse

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds  recognizes state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad,. D-des Moines, rioght, duringthe Friday,June 12, 2020, si
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recognizes state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad,. D-des Moines, rioght, duringthe Friday,June 12, 2020, signing ceremonmey of the historic police reform bill on the stpoes of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

If only the 2020 Iowa legislative session had ended on the sunny steps of the Statehouse last Friday, with Gov. Kim Reynolds capping a dramatic, encouraging 24 hours by signing a series of police reforms.

She was surrounded by lawmakers and Black Lives Matter activists who had filled the streets and marched through Capitol hallways demanding real change in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. Their loud, clear voices pushed the Republican controlled Legislature to, at last, move swiftly on a package of meaningful measures Thursday night without a dissenting vote.

The bill Reynolds signed would place limits on the use of chokeholds by law officers, permits the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute officers whose actions result in death and prohibits the rehiring of officers convicted of felonies or fired for serious misconduct. It would change officer training, with more emphasis on implicit bias and non-confrontational methods.

Reynolds made a rare appearance on the House and Senate floors as the bill was debated and passed. In the House, Black lawmakers delivered stirring speeches. In the gallery, young activists and organizers watched a victory they made happen, emboldened to see what they could accomplish next. Reynolds said this week she will sign a long-overdue executive order restoring felon voting rights, a demand also sought by activists. What the order will include and when it will happen are guesswork at this point.

So it could have been a satisfying ending. A Legislature that usually surprises us by lowering the public policy bar more than we thought possible surprised us instead by doing the right thing and listening to constituents beyond their base and donors. Lawmakers and Reynolds deserve credit for becoming part of the solution, with much tougher work still to be done in pulling us toward racial justice.

But, unfortunately, the session didn’t end there.

Instead, the GOP General Assembly went back inside and spent the better part of the next two days reminding us of the bulldozer lawmaking that we’ve come to expect from the Golden Dome of Wisdom, under current management.

They couldn’t shove a constitutional amendment forward erasing Iowa women’s right to an abortion, so they passed a paternalistic, constitutionally dubious gem forcing women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion. Republicans did not give Iowans 24 hours’ notice of their plan,


Lawmakers threw up a new, unnecessary procedural hurdle for the secretary of state to send out absentee ballot request forms to all voters, as he did before the record-setting June 2 primary. But that wasn’t enough, so they threw up a new hurdle for voters by passing an ID requirement for absentee requests that will undoubtedly disenfranchise Iowans on a technicality.

It’s true, few Legislatures drape themselves in glory during the chaotic final hours of a session. But our current Republican leaders have mastered the demolition exit, dropping surprise legislative bombs and escaping the Statehouse before the smoke and dust settles and Iowans figure out exactly what they did.

Two years ago it was a massive series of tax cuts, along with a sales tax increase, swiftly passed before Iowans figured out its costs and how its benefits mostly went to wealthy Iowans.

Last year, lawmakers voted to bar transgender Iowans from accessing needed care through public insurance, altered the system for selecting Iowa Supreme Court justices and barred the Democratic attorney general from joining lawsuits that make the president look bad, as if he needs help.

With so many pressing problems now, amid a pandemic and economic downturn, the Legislature instead used its power, in the end, to play petty politics and target the rights of Iowans. We could have had sunshine, but we got dark arts instead.

Now they’ll run substance-free fall campaigns about nothing. But don’t forget, how they run the Capitol is really something.

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