The 2021 Iowa Legislature convened this week during a dark moment in American history.
COVID-19, which cut last year’s Iowa legislative session short, continues to infect and kill Iowans, claiming more than 4,200 lives to date. Meanwhile, the nation anxiously awaits the inauguration of a new president after supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol last week in a failed attempt to disrupt the democratic process.
At her Condition of the State address on Tuesday night, Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke to our trying times. She recognized those killed by the virus, the invaluable contributions of our health care workforce, the devastating impact of extreme weather in Eastern Iowa and the detestable violence in Washington, D.C.
“2020 left its mark on everyone, but not evenly. There are people across this state who are still hurting. Many lost their job or their business or even their home,” Reynolds said.
At moments, it was an appropriately solemn address at a time when people are suffering.
Nevertheless, we worry Reynolds’ 2021 policy agenda as outlined in her speech does not rise to this historic occasion. She acknowledged our ongoing challenges and touted the state’s solid fiscal position, but she didn’t call for significant new investments in the kinds of programs that would offer immediate support to Iowans who urgently need it.
Reynolds is pitching some nice remodeling projects, but our house is on fire.
A day earlier, Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature delivered opening remarks that painted a much rosier picture of our state’s outlook. Reynolds’ allies made little direct reference to the deadly coronavirus pandemic or recent political violence.
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The message from the top Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate was clear: They’re proud of their past legislative achievements and OK with Iowa’s handling of the pandemic. They plan to double down, offering no indication that the historic crises of 2020 and 2021 would necessitate any change of course.
Yes, Republicans grew their ranks in the Legislature through last November’s elections, but that should be not taken as a license to look away from the grave problems facing the state.
Now the question arises: Will Reynolds use her stature as governor to keep lawmakers focused on what matters?
Even where we don’t fully endorse her plans, we found plenty of agreement with many of the priorities Reynolds outlined:
• Rural broadband expansion
• Child care accessibility
• Workforce development
• Affordable housing
• A ban on racial profiling by police
• Rural health care
• Mental health funding
As always, the details are crucial, and Reynolds did not go into much detail on some of her plans. Still, the list provides a good starting point for legislative negotiations.
Conversely, we have serious concerns about a few of Reynolds’ agenda items.
Reynolds called on the Legislature to pass a bill requiring school districts to offer 100 percent in-person learning. Her administration this year upheld limits on local school officials’ ability to offer virtual instruction in light of skyrocketing local infection rates. Reynolds’ effort would be better spent building up online learning capacity than on limiting local control.
The governor also is proposing to increase penalties for people who engage in rioting or attacks on police officers. Our current laws against those activities are adequate. With this, Reynolds is diverting attention away from the more pressing issue of police accountability — it is too hard to root out police who commit misconduct.
Most concerning was what’s missing from the Reynolds agenda. We hoped she would introduce an ambitious plan to confront the public health and economic disasters brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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But Reynolds did not answer legislative Democrats’ call to direct a small portion of state reserve funds to hunger relief, nor did she announce a state-sponsored eviction prevention plan or a supplement to the meager federal stimulus. She did not give new details about vaccine distribution or about how the state will facilitate administration.
The condition of our state is not strong. It can’t be while COVID-19 is racking up hundreds of new cases and double-digit deaths each day.
The state government is under one-party control, but every Iowan is living through a historic crisis and Reynolds must be a uniter. She must be a governor for all Iowans — not just the quarter of the population who are registered Republicans, and not just for 90 Republicans serving in Des Moines.
In Reynolds’ own words, “If we can do that — if we can work with and for each other — then we will do great things.”
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