Iowa Legislature

Rep. Eddie Andrews, R-Johnston, left, talks with Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, right, during the opening day of the Iowa Legislature, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Des Moines.

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DES MOINES — How can Iowa persuade more people to move here, live here and work here?

That is one of the top questions that Republican and Democratic state lawmakers alike pledged to address during the 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature, which began Monday at the Iowa Capitol.

But that bipartisan agreement may not have much staying power.

Judging by the opening-day remarks delivered Monday by legislative leaders, the two parties have decidedly different views about how to attract more workers and people to Iowa, whose population has been more or less stagnant for a decade.

Iowa grew by 4.7% from 2010 to 2020, which was well below the national average of 7.1% but better than the Midwest region as a whole, which grew just 3.1% in that time, according to U.S. census data.

In November 2021, the last month for which state workforce data is available, there were still 85,600 fewer Iowans in the workforce than in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the share of Iowans working was down more than 3 percentage points, to 66.8%.

Republicans, who hold majorities in both chambers and thus set the legislative agenda, insist the best way to persuade more people to live in Iowa is to reduce state income taxes, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the tax altogether.

“Implementing pro-growth tax policy to make Iowa one of the fastest growing states in the country is policy that makes a generational difference,” Jack Whitver, the Republican Senate majority leader from Ankeny, said in his opening-day remarks.

Eliminating the state income tax would lessen the tax burden on Iowans but also would eliminate half the revenue that funds the state’s $8 billion budget.

Democrats said the best way to persuade more people to move to Iowa was for Republican state lawmakers to stop pushing polarizing social legislation on subjects like abortion and K-12 education.

Jennifer Konfrst, the Democratic House minority leader from Windsor Heights — who teaches journalism at Drake University and is the daughter of a longtime statehouse reporter — said lawmakers had the opportunity to tell a story about Iowa.

“We can tell a story that sets Iowa apart and helps our state grow again,’ Konfrst said, by increasing access to health care and child care, quality public schools and affordable housing.

“Or will we send them the message that only certain types of families are welcome here? Will we send the message that we prioritize more public money for private schools, statewide solutions to local problems and a divisive agenda that’s rife with unintended consequences that make Iowa less welcoming?”

One message that Democrats have argued makes Iowa less welcoming has been warnings from some Republican senators that teachers and librarians should be jailed for distributing to students books that a few senators deem to be obscene.

While the books vary, they often feature LGBTQ characters or authors and include passages describing sexual encounters.

“It has become increasingly evident that we live in a world in which many, including our media, wish to confuse, misguide and deceive us, calling good evil and evil good. One doesn’t have to look far to see the sinister agenda occurring right before our eyes,” Jake Chapman, the Republican Senate president from Adel, said in his remarks. “Those who wish to normalize sexually deviant behavior against our children, including pedophilia and incest, are pushing this movement more than ever before. Our children should be safe and free from this atrocious assault.”

Zach Wahls, the Democratic Senate minority leader from Coralville, said lawmakers should be “laser-focused” on solving the state’s worker shortage, not engaging in what he called “culture wars.”

“We all know there is a labor shortage in America — but the problem is significantly worse in Iowa. Why is that? As Republican leaders gladly tell us, they have been in full control of our state government since 2017. And Republicans are now promising us more of the same that hasn’t worked,” Wahls said. “We’ve been told it will be more of the GOP greatest hits this session: more attacks on LGBTQ Iowans, more gasoline on the culture war fire and more attacks on the First Amendment.”

Wahls’ comment on the First Amendment was a reference to the decision by Senate Republican leadership to move reporters out of the media work spaces on the chamber floor and into the public gallery upstairs. Statehouse reporters have been working from the media stations on the chamber floor for more than a century. The Republican-controlled House still credentials some media to report from the chamber floor there.

Similarly to the workforce issue, Republicans and Democrats both talked about reducing Iowans’ taxes. But Democrats are calling for cuts that target middle-class workers, while Republicans are proposing across-the-board cuts.

According to the state’s nonpartisan fiscal services agency, there is projected to be more than $1 billion in the state’s taxpayer relief fund, and the general budget fund is projected to contain an excess of $1.2 billion. In addition, the state’s reserve funds are flush with more than $800 million.

“When we look at rightfully returning tax surplus dollars to Iowans, will they see that middle-class Iowans will finally benefit from tax cuts?” Konfrst asked.

Whitver said, “The tax code should not punish Iowans for wanting more in life, trying to provide more for your family or getting a promotion at work.”

Pat Grassley, the Republican House speaker from New Hartford, provided an update on his family farm operation and his three children before taking a victory lap by arguing the state budget is in good health because of the budget work employed by majority Republicans over the past five years.

“Because of responsible budgeting practices and the decision to keep the state as open as possible, Iowa’s economy is strong,” Grassley asserted.

There were few direct references in the opening remarks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Republicans pledged to resist mandates from the Democratic Biden administration.

Grassley said those federal mandates “infringe on the rights of individual Iowans, parents and businesses. We cannot let that happen here in Iowa, we must push back.”

Matt Windschitl, the Republican House majority leader from Missouri Valley, said that instead of more mandates telling Iowans “what they have to do or employers what they must do, we have to trust in the individual Iowan to make the best choice for themselves. We have to let Iowans make the decisions for themselves, we have to let them make the choices that's right for them and their families as we move through this pandemic.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds will deliver her annual Condition of the State address on Tuesday. The speech is scheduled to be broadcast live at 6 p.m. on Iowa PBS.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen will deliver the Condition of the Judiciary address Wednesday, and Gen. Ben Corell will deliver the Condition of the Iowa Guard address Thursday.

This article originally ran on qctimes.com.

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