Tax cuts, education changes among GOP legislative priorities
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Legislature begins the 2022 session Monday with nearly $2 billion in the bank and a strong urge by Republican legislative leaders and the governor to cut taxes.
There will be pushback from Democrats and others who will call for spending some of the excess cash on priority areas such as public schools and improved child care, and leaders from both parties acknowledge Iowa should deal with a lack of workers to fill open jobs.
Controversial social issues also are likely to surface as Republicans are urged by some of their strongest supporters to outlaw abortion and limit access to books some view as too salacious for school libraries.
The 150 lawmakers and staff will return to the Capitol with no mask, vaccine or test requirements as COVID-19 continues rapid spread throughout the state.
Here are some issues expected to be priorities this session:
With Republicans in control of legislative leadership and the governor’s office, the popular political promise of tax cuts is on the agenda. Iowa and many other states experienced a one-time boost from federal COVID-19 aid, which fueled an increase in consumer spending that pushed tax collections and state revenue higher. The challenge is to determine what happens to state revenue when the impact of federal funding wanes, although Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican legislative leaders say it is their stewardship of the Iowa economy that has contributed most to the cash surplus. Iowa has more than $2 billion in excess cash. Reynolds and Republican legislative leaders say they plan to propose significant tax cuts. Democrats maintain that any tax cuts should be targeted at middle- to lower-income Iowans and smaller businesses, and go toward programs to help working Iowans, including job training, paid family leave, child care and housing.
Iowa has a serious shortage of workers. Reynolds said she will propose a comprehensive bill that includes proposed changes to unemployment benefits. “The unemployment code was written a long, long time ago when we were in a much different position and today we need to incentivize work, not pay people to stay home,” she said. Democrats blame the labor shortage in part on Republican-backed policies on socially divisive issues such as abortion limits, restricting voting rights and ignoring a call for action on civil rights. “Over the last five years of Republican control, these culture war tactics have made it even more difficult to keep current workers in Iowa or to recruit and attract new workers to Iowa,” Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls said.
Instead of taking action to further discourage COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Reynolds and GOP legislative leaders said it’s best to wait until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Biden administration policies. Reynolds is opposing Biden’s proposed vaccine mandates in federal court cases. Some lawmakers want to ban businesses from requiring the shots. Last year, Reynolds signed a Republican-passed law that allows employees to opt out of vaccine requirements for health or religious reasons and makes workers eligible for unemployment benefits if they are fired for refusing the vaccine. House Speaker Pat Grassley said he agrees, but the legislature should stand ready to act if courts allow mandates to stand.
Republican lawmakers opposed to abortion rights are eager to push for abortion restrictions, which could include a proposal similar to a Texas law that has halted abortions but is now challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision, it would return abortion policy to each state. Reynolds and Grassley said they’re inclined to wait for court rulings before taking further action.
Republicans appear ready to change laws regarding control of books in school libraries. Reynolds said parents need more transparency in what their children experience in schools. “Parents need to know what books are in the library to give them a chance to weigh in,” she said. Amy Sinclair, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said her highest priority “is to talk about a parents bill of rights,” which may include oversight of which books are available to children and what’s taught in classrooms. Democratic Rep. Jennifer Konfrst said Republican rhetoric about schools, including discussion of removing library books, has contributed to a teacher shortage.
Reynolds said she plans to propose legislation that would help curb racial profiling in Iowa after signing a bill last year that disappointed many civil rights activists. The bill Reynolds signed into law heightened criminal penalties for certain protest activities and offered protections for law enforcement, ignoring her promised racial profiling language. Her proposal likely will be based on recommendations of a task force chaired by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, which focused on a Nebraska law that automatically collects data about the race of individuals stopped by police.