Six themes from the Iowa legislature's opening day in 2021

The Iowa legislature’s 2021 session began on January 11 with the usual appeals to work together for the good of Iowans. But potential for bipartisan work on high-profile issues appears limited, as the Republicans who enjoy large majorities in the state House and Senate have quite different priorities from their Democratic counterparts.

At the end of this post, I’ve posted the substantive portions of all opening remarks from legislative leaders, as prepared for delivery. The speakers focused on the following matters:

COVID-19

While every speaker alluded to COVID-19, top Republicans devoted little time to matters related to pandemic response. Rather, they alluded to “challenges and uncertainty” lawmakers faced last year, or cited the hardship in the context of Iowans’ resilience. House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver spoke more about reducing school closures than about slowing the spread of the virus.

In contrast, Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls devoted most of his speech to the pandemic. He began by asking those assembled to rise and bow their heads “for a moment of silence or prayer in remembrance of the one million nine hundred forty-four thousand, eight hundred and thirty eight people around the world, including three hundred and eighty three thousand, two hundred and seventy five Americans and four thousand one hundred and thirty eight Iowans who have lost their lives to COVID-19.”

He hailed the “life-saving work of scientists,” including at Iowa’s state universities, “made possible because of public investment in public health.” He spoke about a beloved constituent who had died of the virus. And he appealed to fellow lawmakers to take precautions: “As Leaders, we have the responsibility of following the best available public health guidance, and leading by example so Iowans are not forced to choose between life and liberty or safety and happiness.”

Wahls called for using federal funds as well as the state’s budget surplus and emergency funds to address the pandemic: compensating health care workers, expanding access to testing and contact tracing, purchasing more personal protective equipment, supporting small businesses as well as local governments and food banks.

Finally, the Senate’s top Democrat called for creating an independent, nonpartisan commission “with full investigatory powers” to review “state government mistakes and failures, investigate negligence or profiteering in the private sector, and prepare a report for the Legislature about what steps we must take to ensure we are better prepared when the next pandemic strikes.”

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard also pleaded for legislative action to address COVID-19.

The first priority this session must be working to get the pandemic under control. A failure of leadership at both the federal and state level has already left over 4,000 Iowans dead and our state’s response has been greatly inadequate.

Next, we need a robust COVID package focused on long-term recovery efforts to help our economy. We need aggressive plans to help families recover, get kids back in school safely, reopen small businesses, and support our dedicated health care workers who are the front line of this pandemic.

EDUCATION

Under a state law enacted last June, Iowa schools must offer at least 50 percent of instruction in person. But in recent weeks, Governor Kim Reynolds and top GOP lawmakers have vowed to require schools to shift further away from online learning. Grassley commented,

One final thing I know many of our members heard as they talked with constituents was the absolute necessity to get our children back in the classroom. Some schools have taken every effort to provide in-person learning. But in some areas of the state, parents and students who wanted to be back in school were met with at best a lack of responsiveness and at worst outright contempt.

Students are being trapped in situations that aren’t what’s best for them. It’s time for parents to take back control in deciding what’s best for their child. Let’s be clear, getting our kids back in the classroom is critical to their mental health and well-being. This should be one of this legislature’s top priorities – to ensure that every family that wants 100 percent in-person learning has access to it.

Whitver echoed the call.

Each year I say we need to look not just to the next year but to the next generation. In my opinion the biggest concern for the next generation is educating students in our public schools. Despite the pandemic, we must not sacrifice the future of our children. We cannot let a generation of kids fall behind in school. Kids learn better when they are in school, in classrooms, in person, instead of in front of a screen. The longer they are out of school, the more their skills deteriorate and the further they fall behind. Test scores this fall showed the negative impacts of students not being in school regularly. At midterm this fall, 37 percent of students in Iowa City schools were failing at least one class, a number nearly double previous years. A similar decline has occurred in other districts around the state and across the country.

By any rational standard this performance is unacceptable. The futures of Iowa students are built on the education they receive today and if we continue to erode that foundation, none of us should be surprised when their opportunities begin to crumble.

Our focus will be on giving parents an option to send their children to school safely. Students need to prepare for whatever lies ahead of them, to recover the ground they have lost over the last 9 months and to restore their future career opportunities.

Senate President Jake Chapman endorsed “a renewed effort to tear down the barriers that prevent parents from choosing where to send their children for education.” That’s code language for a voucher program, sometimes called “education savings accounts,” which would divert public funding away from public schools.

STATE BUDGET/TAXES

Republican leaders indicated they are not willing to dip into the state’s surplus or reserve funds to address pandemic-related needs. Rather, they want to keep spending levels as low as possible, to allow for more tax cuts. From Whitver’s opening remarks:

Tax relief is always going to be a priority for me and a priority for this caucus. We have been working to make our state and our tax climate more competitive with other states. While we have made some progress these last few years, we want to continue relieving some of that tax burden on Iowans. Even with our historic tax cuts, Iowa still has some of the highest tax rates in the country. I think, especially right now, it would be hard to find an Iowan who wouldn’t like a little more money in their pocket and a little more savings to fall back on if they need it. Achieving this goal means conservative state spending is just as important as it has been these last four years.

Because of the budgets Republicans have passed since 2017, Iowa was ready and prepared for uncertain economic times. Our state was recognized as one of the most resilient when it comes to our budget. This does not mean we start raiding the surplus and recklessly spending what we have so carefully built up – it means we are prepared if revenues dip again and not enough money is available to keep the promises we made to public safety, health care and education last year. When Iowans face financial struggles, they tighten their belts and live within their means. They expect their government to do the same.

Likewise, Chapman declared, “Let us recognize that sound fiscal policies of budgetary restraint have insulated Iowa in our weathering of COVID, and that continued conservatism will prepare us for the inevitable trials of the future. Now is the time for us to take bold, unwavering measures to reduce and perhaps even eliminate some of the tax burdens many Iowans are facing.”

Grassley touched on the same theme, with less emphasis on tax cuts.

In a time of so much uncertainty, Iowans know that they can trust the same consistent, responsible leadership they’ve come to expect from House Republicans. Because of that leadership, Iowa was ranked the most fiscally sound, and most resilient state in the country in terms of our budget’s ability to handle the pandemic. Our reserve accounts are full, we have a healthy ending balance, and our commitments were fulfilled. For that reason, we are bouncing back quicker than other states.

As we address the budget for Fiscal Year ‘21, we must continue to provide the same level of disciplined budgeting that set us up for success in years past. We will fund Iowans’ priorities, meet our commitments to the taxpayer, and we will do it in a responsible way. It will be an even bigger task than ever before. But it is our responsibility to use the same common-sense approach everyday Iowans use when they maintain their own budgets back home.

On a related note, Reynolds told reporters on January 7 that she will not reintroduce last year’s “Invest in Iowa Act,” which called for raising the sales tax by a penny to help pay for cutting a wide range of taxes. She will announce her key legislative proposals during her Condition of the State address on the evening of January 12.

ABORTION

For much of the last decade, Republican leaders said little about social issues on the legislature’s opening day. House leaders stuck with that program this year: Grassley didn’t mention abortion at all, while House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl referred to “protecting the unborn” only in passing.

But the new Senate president is among the legislature’s most dedicated opponents of reproductive rights. Chapman highlighted the majority’s plan to revive a state constitutional amendment designed to lay the groundwork for future abortion bans. This passage came near the end of his remarks:

And let us remember the quote found near the USS Iowa on the first floor of this magnificent building by Daniel O’ Connell, a great abolitionist, when he said, “nothing is politically right that is morally wrong.” Today there is little that can be argued as more horrendous, more objectionable, and more morally wrong than to take innocent life. The assault on the defenseless has silenced over 60 million Americans since 1973 and that number mounts every day. This legislative body has stood courageously for the life of the unborn. Regrettably, five unelected judges, with the stroke of a pen fabricated a constitutional right to an abortion under Iowa’s constitution. This egregious usurpation of power will not be left unchecked. It is our responsibility, it is our oath-bound duty, to rightfully propose to the people of Iowa a constitutional amendment to correct this judicial over-reach.

Last year, Senate Republicans approved that amendment, but Republicans didn’t have 51 votes for it in the House. With a 59 to 41 majority in the lower chamber, the GOP should have no trouble passing the amendment, especially since one of the three holdouts from last year retired.

ATTEMPTED COUP AT THE U.S. CAPITOL

The Republicans said nothing about the unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol, but the events of January 6 loomed large in the Democratic speeches. Prichard devoted the bulk of his time to the unrest.

Like many of you, I am deeply disturbed by the riots at our nation’s capital and around the country. It epitomizes a lack of respect for our democratic institutions, traditions, and rule of law. Rioters have been motivated by lies contrived for political purposes. Those responsible for the riots, have crossed a line that no American, Democrat or Republican, should ever cross. This breech insults and threatens the very fabric of our democracy.

The riot in DC reminded me of El Salvador after their civil war. Early in my army career, I was stationed there. I witnessed a country torn apart by hate, violence, and mis-trust. Their society was broken and crime was rampant. There were two competing police forces, one loyal to the former regime and one dominated by former rebels. What I remember most vividly are the stories of the atrocities, and the pain from years of war and loss. It is up to us, the newly sworn leaders, to protect our country from a fate of further division.

As a 25 year army veteran, I was outraged by the contempt shown for the ideals I have spent my adult life trying to protect. I spent a tour in Iraq, and I know an insurgency when I see one. On Wednesday, a Confederate flag, a BANNER OF OPPRESSION and TREASON, was paraded through our nation’s Capitol. Explosive devices were placed at both the Democratic and Republican Party headquarters. People were killed, needlessly, including a police officer.

As an elected leader, I am disgusted at the reaction, or rather, the inaction, of many of my Republican colleagues in Iowa. For too long, politicians have not only enabled, but served as a willing partner, in the spread of misinformation about election fraud.

Silence is deafening. If you can’t condemn this violence against our democracy, what will you condemn? Until you have committed yourself to truth and democratic ideals, you lose any moral high ground that you may try to claim.

Prichard argued that “When the Governor defends those who question the legitimacy of our elections, a crack develops in the pillar of TRUTH.” Alluding to Republican State Representative Dean Fisher, he added, “When a member of this chamber peddles election fraud conspiracy theories, and has written that Republicans will prevail because, in his words, ‘our side has the guns,’ there is another crack to the pillar of TRUTH.”

The top House Democrats implored colleagues to help “mend the wounds of a fractured country” by being “the leader the moment requires. Put country and state before party politics, be true patriots. Be honest to constituents. Deal in truth, not the politics of fear and internet conspiracies.”

Speaking after Prichard, Windschitl deviated from his prepared remarks to say,

Leader Prichard, violence and anarchy of any kind is unacceptable. Doesn’t matter what the political ideology is. So let me as the majority leader of the Iowa House stand here today and say I denounce it. Whether it was what happened in DC or the riots that happened over the summer. So you’ve got a leader standing here to say it’s not ok. [applause]

During the Senate proceedings, Wahls connected the dots between the “insurrection and attack on the American democratic process” and President Donald Trump’s incitement. He called for every Iowa lawmaker “to publicly affirm our shared commitment to our democratic republic and to repudiate the lies used by this president to undermine faith in American elections.”

CHILD CARE

Little came of last year’s calls for state action on child care. The House approved some bills in March, but those were left on the cutting room floor when lawmakers returned from the COVID-19 hiatus in June. Wahls urged Senate Republicans to ” take up legislation passed with strong bipartisan support in the House to assist child care providers, who were already struggling before the pandemic began.”

Grassley indicated that this will be a priority for the House GOP.

As I’ve prepared for session, I can tell you almost every meeting I’ve had, regardless of what part of the state they were from or what political party they may affiliate with, the need to increase access to safe and affordable child care is a priority. Any sense of normalcy for our state during and after this pandemic depends on it.

But on this issue, we can’t just return to the status quo. Our state was facing a child care crisis before COVID-19 even began. Often times, families are hesitant or outright reject a pay raise because it could result in the loss of their child care assistance.

This is the cliff effect, and it must be addressed because it is holding our workforce and our families back. It is incumbent upon the Legislature to provide an off-ramp from government assistance when it comes to child care.

The Iowa Policy Project has been urging state lawmakers to address “cliff effects” for more than a decade. This 2014 report laid out a road map for addressing the phenomenon in Iowa’s child care assistance program.

If any important bipartisan work happens in 2021, it will probably be in this area.

FINAL NOTE: THE DOGS THAT DIDN’T BARK

None of the Republicans discussed their plans to further restrict voting in Iowa, though that will probably be among the most contentious issues debated this year.

Windschitl and House Speaker Pro Tem John Wills briefly mentioned “Second Amendment rights,” signaling they will move ahead on a constitutional amendment that would undermine any attempt to regulate gun ownership or possession in Iowa. The House and Senate approved that amendment in 2019. Under Iowa’s procedure for changing the constitution, both chambers must pass the identical text again this year or in 2022 in order to put the measure on a statewide ballot for voter approval in the next midterm.

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Appendix: Prepared remarks from Iowa legislative leaders on January 11

Grassley didn’t deviate much from the prepared text. You can watch the video here. Key excerpts:

[…] Minority Leader Pritchard [sic] and all of my Democratic colleagues, before all the inevitable disagreements that are sure to come this session, let’s start by remembering all that we have in common. Like, for starters, our agreement that Iowa is the greatest state in the greatest nation in the world.

While it’s the disagreements that will grab the headlines and the controversies that will captivate social media, we know that much of the work we do in this building is bipartisan. That we can work together for the people of Iowa. This session, let’s show Iowans and the rest of the country that we can express our disagreements passionately and unequivocally without resorting to violence, aggression or contempt. […]

Last session was unprecedented. Nobody had a perfect playbook for all the challenges and uncertainty we faced. Despite that, we were still able to pass a responsible budget, accomplish historic criminal justice reform that served as an example for Washington DC and other Legislatures across the country, and provide essential protections for churches, schools, and small businesses so they can remain open during this pandemic. And lastly, the actions this Legislature has taken ensured that our state was able to hold a safe and secure election with record turnout.

We are entering this session more prepared. Iowans expect us to be here to do the job we’ve promised to do. And ensuring transparency in the process was top of mind as we prepared to begin the 2021 session. We are able to build on what worked when we gaveled in last June while introducing new technology and better utilizing our largest spaces to ensure that we can do the jobs Iowans elected us to do safely and responsibly.

In a time of so much uncertainty, Iowans know that they can trust the same consistent, responsible leadership they’ve come to expect from House Republicans. Because of that leadership, Iowa was ranked the most fiscally sound, and most resilient state in the country in terms of our budget’s ability to handle the pandemic. Our reserve accounts are full, we have a healthy ending balance, and our commitments were fulfilled. For that reason, we are bouncing back quicker than other states.

As we address the budget for Fiscal Year ‘21, we must continue to provide the same level of disciplined budgeting that set us up for success in years past. We will fund Iowans’ priorities, meet our commitments to the taxpayer, and we will do it in a responsible way. It will be an even bigger task than ever before. But it is our responsibility to use the same common-sense approach everyday Iowans use when they maintain their own budgets back home.

As I’ve prepared for session, I can tell you almost every meeting I’ve had, regardless of what part of the state they were from or what political party they may affiliate with, the need to increase access to safe and affordable child care is a priority. Any sense of normalcy for our state during and after this pandemic depends on it.

But on this issue, we can’t just return to the status quo. Our state was facing a child care crisis before COVID-19 even began. Often times, families are hesitant or outright reject a pay raise because it could result in the loss of their child care assistance.

This is the cliff effect, and it must be addressed because it is holding our workforce and our families back. It is incumbent upon the Legislature to provide an off-ramp from government assistance when it comes to child care.

One final thing I know many of our members heard as they talked with constituents was the absolute necessity to get our children back in the classroom. Some schools have taken every effort to provide in-person learning. But in some areas of the state, parents and students who wanted to be back in school were met with at best a lack of responsiveness and at worst outright contempt.

Students are being trapped in situations that aren’t what’s best for them. It’s time for parents to take back control in deciding what’s best for their child. Let’s be clear, getting our kids back in the classroom is critical to their mental health and well-being. This should be one of this legislature’s top priorities – to ensure that every family that wants 100% in-person learning has access to it.

I’m eager to get back to work with all of you. Time doesn’t stand still during COVID-19. Just like the people we serve, we have a job to do.

So I say to both the Republican and Democratic members… Let’s get to work.

Key points from Minority Leader Todd Prichard’s remarks (after welcoming and congratulating the newly elected legislators):

We are living in tumultuous times and the pandemic has added to the challenges we already faced in Iowa from a shortage of good paying jobs, inadequate access to health care, low public school funding, and ignored environmental issues.

The first priority this session must be working to get the pandemic under control. A failure of leadership at both the federal and state level has already left over 4,000 Iowans dead and our state’s response has been greatly inadequate.

Next, we need a robust COVID package focused on long-term recovery efforts to help our economy. We need aggressive plans to help families recover, get kids back in school safely, reopen small businesses, and support our dedicated health care workers who are the front line of this pandemic.

If you look at history, we are not in uncharted waters. Similar cycles have been met by our country in the past. We can COMPETENTLY address the pandemic. We can BUILD our economy, FIX our healthcare system, and PROTECT civil rights. We have the ABILITY and the RESOURCES to solve environmental problems and address climate change. Solutions are within reach. What is needed is leadership. We in this chamber need to acknowledge and address the difficulties that Iowans are facing.

Like many of you, I am deeply disturbed by the riots at our nation’s capital and around the country. It epitomizes a lack of respect for our democratic institutions, traditions, and rule of law. Rioters have been motivated by lies contrived for political purposes. Those responsible for the riots, have crossed a line that no American, Democrat or Republican, should ever cross. This breech insults and threatens the very fabric of our democracy.

The riot in DC reminded me of El Salvador after their civil war. Early in my army career, I was stationed there. I witnessed a country torn apart by hate, violence, and mis-trust. Their society was broken and crime was rampant. There were two competing police forces, one loyal to the former regime and one dominated by former rebels. What I remember most vividly are the stories of the atrocities, and the pain from years of war and loss. It is up to us, the newly sworn leaders, to protect our country from a fate of further division.

As a 25 year army veteran, I was outraged by the contempt shown for the ideals I have spent my adult life trying to protect. I spent a tour in Iraq, and I know an insurgency when I see one. On Wednesday, a Confederate flag, a BANNER OF OPPRESSION and TREASON, was paraded through our nation’s Capitol. Explosive devices were placed at both the Democratic and Republican Party headquarters. People were killed, needlessly, including a police officer.

As an elected leader, I am disgusted at the reaction, or rather, the inaction, of many of my Republican colleagues in Iowa. For too long, politicians have not only enabled, but served as a willing partner, in the spread of misinformation about election fraud.

Silence is deafening. If you can’t condemn this violence against our democracy, what will you condemn? Until you have committed yourself to truth and democratic ideals, you lose any moral high ground that you may try to claim.

I believe that truth and justice are the pillars of our democracy. As leaders in this great state and nation, I also believe it’s a fundamental responsibility to strengthen, not weaken, those pillars.

But the insurrection has exposed deep cracks in those pillars that can’t be fixed without change from our leaders.

  • When the QAnon conspiracy is held out as truth and leaders claim that COVID-19 hasn’t killed anyone, truth is the victim and more Iowans die.
  • When the Governor defends those who question the legitimacy of our elections, a crack develops in the pillar of TRUTH.
  • When a member of this chamber peddles election fraud conspiracy theories, and has written that Republicans will prevail because, in his words, “our side has the guns,” there is another crack to the pillar of TRUTH.
  • This behavior threatens our democracy and our society. It must stop.

    Now, in a new year and a new term, it is time to mend the wounds of a fractured country. We are the leaders who must work together to restore faith and hope in our future. We can do this together. We must for the sake of our democracy heal this country.

    I challenge each one of us in this chamber to be the leader the moment requires. Put country and state before party politics, be true patriots. Be honest to constituents. Deal in truth, not the politics of fear and internet conspiracies. Help turn the tide. Do your part to strengthen our democracy. I look forward to serving with you.

    House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl (following a few words thanking family and colleagues):

    Leader Prichard, violence and anarchy of any kind is unacceptable. Doesn’t matter what the political ideology is. So let me as the majority leader of the Iowa House stand here today and say I denounce it. Whether it was what happened in DC or the riots that happened over the summer. So you’ve got a leader standing here to say it’s not ok. [applause] […]

    Our great country and state are going through extremely unprecedented times right now, and it is incumbent on all of us, as leaders throughout our state, to come together and embrace our shared values. We must lead by example and show Iowans that despite political differences we can work together for the betterment of those we serve. We have all witnessed the dysfunction that often comes out of Washington D.C., let us endeavor to not fall into the same partisan gridlock. When we see injustices let us all call them out together, put partisan ideologies aside, and move forward towards a solution.

    We have a great deal of work ahead of us and I look forward to working with all of you to accomplish good public policy for all Iowans. Over the past ten years House Republicans have demonstrated to Iowans that we know how to responsibly budget and govern, this year will be no different. We have worked through many challenging issues over the years, some more difficult than others, including a global pandemic. At the end of the day we have proven that we know how to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

    This last November, Iowans sent a clear and resounding message to their elected officials. They want less government, not more. They want more freedom and less restrictions. They want their tax dollars to work for them, not against them. As we move forward this session let us strive to advance policies and budgets that restore Iowan’s freedoms and gets government off of their backs. The election proves that Iowans believe in the policies that House Republicans have pushed forward. Policies like lowering taxes, providing resources to our educational institutions, restoring Second Amendment freedoms, protecting the unborn, balancing the budget, and so much more. House Republicans have received the message loud and clear and we will continue to provide Iowans with the governance they deserve.

    Speaker Grassley, Leader Prichard, I look forward to working with you both. House Republicans stand ready, willing and able to advance Iowans priorities. May God guide us in all that we do for the people of Iowa.

    The work is before us, let us get to it. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

    House Speaker Pro-Tem John Wills:

    The campaign of 2020 along with the many challenges of 2020 are behind us now. Here in Iowa for the year 2020 we had COVID, Derecho, rioting, and drought and we move from that in 2021 to unity to pull through these challenges. We must set aside our differences to do what is right for Iowan’s [sic].

    Each of us in this chamber have different priorities and desires that both we and our constituents feel are important. I look forward to working with each one of you to accomplish these priorities in a way that makes Iowan’s and each of our constituents be the priority. There will be times that we don’t agree with one another, but we all understand that our shared goal is to make the lives of our fellow Iowans better. My hope is that we are able serve the people of Iowa with a government that is smaller and smarter.

    Regardless where you stand on many of the issues that we will address this session, we move through those issues to govern our state for our citizens. My goal as a legislator, as is many of you, is to wisely spend the taxpayer’s dollar, provide efficiency of government services, advance our freedoms and liberties like the 2nd Amendment and life, and ensure our government works for the people, not the other way around.

    Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver:

    Our country was founded on the principles of limited government and individual liberty. Those ideas led to the concept of the American Dream. Since I have been the Majority Leader in the Senate, this chamber has enacted policies to make the American Dream more attainable in Iowa, bring more opportunities for Iowans, and make this state a great place to call home.

    For four years now, Republicans have held the majority in the Iowa Senate, giving us the ability to implement an agenda to bring more jobs and more people to our state. We passed historic tax reform for Iowa families, eliminated burdensome rules and regulations for job creators, and put in place responsible budgets setting our state on a sustainable path.

    We know the legislation we passed had been working for Iowa and for Iowans. Prior to the pandemic, wages were rising, our state had record low unemployment, and more job openings than Iowans looking for work.

    For years we have been saying we need to be responsible and budget conservatively so we can prepare our state for hard times. Last year, our state saw what ‘hard times’ really means. We experienced a virus that threatened the lives and livelihoods of Iowans and their families. We watched some of our favorite businesses in our communities close their doors forever. We went months without seeing loved ones in hopes of keeping them safe. And then, in the midst of already unprecedented times, we watched a massive storm tear through the middle of our state, giving Iowans one more burden to bear.

    Despite facing all of these challenges, Iowans never stopped helping each other. Many ate at their favorite local restaurants to support them, and local restaurants helped feed struggling families. Our neighbors volunteered their time to help those in need, whether it was making supplies for health care workers or cleaning up a neighbor’s yard after the storm.

    This year we are focused on putting our state back on a path of success and prosperity after all these challenges. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: the best recovery plan is a job. This recovery plan means sticking to those same principles guiding us for the last several years. It means freedom to work. It means continuing our work on tax reform, and putting more money back into the pockets of Iowans. It means ensuring the best education for Iowa students, in the classroom, where they learn best.

    Tax relief is always going to be a priority for me and a priority for this caucus. We have been working to make our state and our tax climate more competitive with other states. While we have made some progress these last few years, we want to continue relieving some of that tax burden on Iowans. Even with our historic tax cuts, Iowa still has some of the highest tax rates in the country. I think, especially right now, it would be hard to find an Iowan who wouldn’t like a little more money in their pocket and a little more savings to fall back on if they need it. Achieving this goal means conservative state spending is just as important as it has been these last four years.

    Because of the budgets Republicans have passed since 2017, Iowa was ready and prepared for uncertain economic times. Our state was recognized as one of the most resilient when it comes to our budget. This does not mean we start raiding the surplus and recklessly spending what we have so carefully built up – it means we are prepared if revenues dip again and not enough money is available to keep the promises we made to public safety, health care and education last year. When Iowans face financial struggles, they tighten their belts and live within their means. They expect their government to do the same.

    Each year I say we need to look not just to the next year but to the next generation. In my opinion the biggest concern for the next generation is educating students in our public schools. Despite the pandemic, we must not sacrifice the future of our children. We cannot let a generation of kids fall behind in school. Kids learn better when they are in school, in classrooms, in person, instead of in front of a screen. The longer they are out of school, the more their skills deteriorate and the further they fall behind. Test scores this fall showed the negative impacts of students not being in school regularly. At midterm this fall, 37% of students in Iowa City schools were failing at least one class, a number nearly double previous years. A similar decline has occurred in other districts around the state and across the country. By any rationale standard this performance is unacceptable. The futures of Iowa students are built on the education they receive today and if we continue to erode that foundation, none of us should be surprised when their opportunities begin to crumble.

    Our focus will be on giving parents an option to send their children to school safely. Students need to prepare for whatever lies ahead of them, to recover the ground they have lost over the last 9 months and to restore their future career opportunities.

    2020 was extraordinary by any measure. The pandemic and the natural disasters tested Iowans like never before. Challenging times call for strong, principled leadership and the Iowa Senate will continue to deliver results for Iowans. I believe our state is ready to look towards the future, start moving forward, and start our recovery. Now, let’s get to work!

    Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls:

    Good morning everyone, and welcome to the first day of the 2021 session.

    Before I begin, I ask all Senators in the Chamber, as well as staff, lobbyists, and other members of the public, to rise as you are able and bow your heads for a moment of silence or prayer in remembrance of the one million nine hundred forty-four thousand, eight hundred and thirty eight people around the world, including three hundred and eighty three thousand, two hundred and seventy five Americans and four thousand one hundred and thirty eight Iowans who have lost their lives to COVID-19. Please rise. (Beat 30 seconds) Thank you.

    I congratulate every member of this body who was elected in 2020. To our freshman members — we are glad to have you join us and we cherish your new ideas and energy. It is an honor to serve the People of Iowa in difficult times, and our constituents have placed their trust in us during a time of global crisis. We are fortunate to all have incredible staff, both partisan and nonpartisan, who have accommodated changes to how we operate, which has involved working long days and weekends. We are all grateful to you for making our work, and the people’s work, possible. Thank you.

    The last time the Iowa General Assembly convened for a full legislative session during a global pandemic was 100 years ago, amid the outbreak of the 1918 Influenza. Today, we face a similar challenge: the novel coronavirus.

    Scientists know a lot more today about viruses than they did in 1918, because in the century since 1918, our government — by, of, and for the people — has invested taxpayer dollars into public health research. We funded the greatest research universities in the world. That’s why in a matter of months, we were able to develop therapeutics like Remdesivier, which was piloted and tested at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. It’s why we were able to shatter the record for developing vaccines to help us defeat COVID-19, including one that was also piloted and tested at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and new nanovaccines that are being developed at Iowa State University. This life-saving work of scientists around the world — and right here in Iowa — is an inspiring testament to what humanity can accomplish when we work together and follow the facts. And all of this was made possible because of public investment in public health.

    Without these incredible advancements, the death toll from the coronavirus would have been incalculably greater. But unfortunately, when disaster struck, we missed our opportunity to stop the spread. As a result, the virus is tearing through our state, and thousands of Iowans are dead. Some of us have lost family and loved ones. Many of us have lost friends and neighbors. All of us have lost constituents.

    One of my constituents who died from COVID was a beloved mail man from Coralville named Mel Stahmer who worked for the United States Postal Service for thirty-five years. He was a public employee and a proud union man who performed an essential service — delivering medications, ballots, and correspondence that connected people across our state and our country. As our local newspaper put it: “Mel was the kind of mail man who knew everyone on his route.” He helped make our community feel like a small town. His son Jon was a classmate of mine in high school. When he was out on his route, Mel would often notice when the people along his way needed help — and he and his family were always ready with a soup or a casserole, a helping hand, or a listening ear. Mel was the kind of neighbor who took care of his neighbors.

    And when Mel died, our community mourned. We honored him with a driving procession, including his friends in our own cars and his colleagues in mail trucks. When the procession drove by his home, a bottle of beer and a peanut butter sandwich, two of his favorite things, were on a table in the front lawn. For months afterward, signs honoring Mel’s life were displayed in the windows of the mail trucks in our community.

    We all have stories just like this one in the communities we represent. We will all carry the scars of this pandemic with us for the rest of our lives and as we get back to work for the people of this great state.

    In the weeks and months ahead, we will balance our legislative responsibilities and our leadership responsibilities. As Legislators, we have the responsibility of faithfully discharging the duties of Senator and upholding the Iowa Constitution. The first sentence of the Iowa Bill of Rights, reads quote: “All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights — among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.” end-quote. As Leaders, we have the responsibility of following the best available public health guidance, and leading by example so Iowans are not forced to choose between life and liberty or safety and happiness.

    That is why we must do everything in our power to speedily deliver a safe, effective, and free vaccine. With this vaccine, we will be able to safely see our extended family and friends, safely send our children back to school, and safely visit the elderly and infirm who have despaired as the coronavirus spread unchecked in Iowa.

    We must help those who are hurting by using federal monies, our budget surplus, and the economic emergency fund to help everyday Iowans. We can give frontline healthcare workers a raise, even if they can’t take a day off. We can ensure other essential workers have access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and PPE. We can continue to support struggling small businesses on Main Street. We can help our cities and towns, which have borne the brunt of this crisis. We can give food banks the aid they so desperately need, because since last March, the number of Iowa families with children experiencing food insecurity has tripled.

    Together, we must lay the rock upon which we will build back better. We must take up legislation passed with strong bipartisan support in the House to assist child care providers, who were already struggling before the pandemic began. We must make the necessary changes to ensure every Iowan has access to high speed broadband internet. We must continue the work we began last summer to address racial inequities in our society. And we must enact legislation to expand access to and build more affordable housing to help family budgets and protect Iowans from predatory landlords. The Iowa Senate has addressed each of these issues with a bipartisan approach in the past — and that must guide our work this session.

    And — with courage — we can ensure our state learns the difficult and painful lessons of this pandemic. Republicans and Democrats should come together to create an independent and nonpartisan Blue Ribbon COVID Commission with full investigatory powers. The COVID Commission should help us understand state government mistakes and failures, investigate negligence or profiteering in the private sector, and prepare a report for the Legislature about what steps we must take to ensure we are better prepared when the next pandemic strikes.

    Finally, we must not ignore last week’s events in our nation’s capital. Last week’s insurrection and attack on the American democratic process was the direct result of a President who encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol. He launched his campaign for president and said that he could get away with shooting a man on Fifth Avenue in New York. He ended his time as president by instructing his supporters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. This resulted in the deaths of at least five people, including a at least one Capitol police officer who died in the line of duty, and whose death is the reason our flags outside the Capitol are flying at half-mast today. We should all be proud the Congress was undaunted by the attack and continued the peaceful transition of power. This is truly a moment for all patriotic Americans and for every member of this General Assembly to publicly affirm our shared commitment to our democratic republic and to repudiate the lies used by this President to undermine faith in American elections.

    As President-elect Joe Biden said last week, “Democracy beats deep in the heart of America.” End-quote. I know we will endure, and as said by America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln: “This government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

    This is an incredibly difficult time. And while it may get worse before it gets better, there is a deep understanding across this state, and across this country, that we are in this challenge together. We are counting on each other, and we are working side-by-socially-distanced-side to endure this pandemic. We have learned that “social distancing” and wearing face masks are not just actions we take for ourselves — we do these things for each other — for our friends, for our colleagues, for our neighbors, and for people we don’t even know. We are counting on each other to take these responsibilities seriously, so that we may protect the people we love. And, like the late, beloved mailman from Coralville, Mel Stahmer, we can all be the kinds of neighbors who take care of our neighbors.

    Thank you, Mr. President.

    Senate President Jake Chapman:

    Friends, family, colleagues, returning and newly-elected members, – It is my humble honor and privilege to welcome you to the 89th General Assembly. As we prepare to tackle the issues and challenges of today may we take a quick moment to reflect on our past. This year, we will celebrate 175 years of Iowa’s statehood.

    In 1844 Iowa Territory voters approved Governor Lucas and a governing body to request official statehood status. The State Constitution was then drafted and submitted to Congress for their approval. Included in the Constitution were the proposed state boundaries; Congress approved all of the request but suggested a western border roughly 80 miles east of the Missouri River. Had that requested been agreed to, many western Iowans would now be Nebraskans. Wisely, Iowa voters knew better than Congress, they submitted a second request, and the borders we now know today were approved. May we always remember and maintain our rights as a state against an ever increasingly centralization of power exerted by the federal government.

    In our early days, Iowa welcomed well over 70,000 pioneers who trekked through our rolling prairies with an eye set on the west. While many of the pioneers and early settlers continued westward, others ultimately and quite unexpectedly decided to stay in Iowa. One such individual was Edwin Guiberson. Like those in whose wagon trails followed, he had his sights on the gold rush in California. However, upon finding the beauty of Madison County he planted his roots, raised a large family, served in community and government positions, and eventually served in the Iowa House of Representatives in the 3rd and 7th General Assembly. I am proud to be a descendent of this great man and his family; Edwin’s brother, Nathaniel, is my 3rd great-grandfather. I am honored to continue the legacy of our family working towards a greater state.

    Iowans have always been willing to sacrifice for current and future generations to have the opportunity to embody our state motto: our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.

    When the US entered World War 1, Martin Treptow was an everyday Iowan and a barber from Cherokee. Martin enlisted in the army and by December 1917, his regiment was sent to France to fight in the trenches of the western front.

    In July of 1918, a message needed to be delivered during an intense battle against the Germans. Treptow took the message and delivered it to his platoon leader. Exposing himself to enemy fire, he was killed by a German machine gun. His diary was discovered with his personal belongings. On the fly leaf were the words he had written just months earlier as his New Year’s Resolution, titled, My Pledge, he wrote, “America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.” Martin like so many others, willingly made the ultimate sacrifice for the preservation of freedom, may his memory and his pledge always endure.

    Another Iowan worth highlighting is Alexander Clark. Clark came to Iowa as a teenager and resided in Muscatine. As he entered his adult years, Alexander became an activist for the black suffrage movement. As part of his efforts to support the Civil War, Clark recruited blacks for the First Iowa Volunteers of African descent, which was later designated the 60th Regiment Infantry. Following the Civil War, Clarke took on the fight for suffrage and rightfully proclaimed, “He who is worthy to be trusted with the musket can and ought to be trusted with the ballot.” The record reads as follows; Following Clarke’s call for full citizenship rights of blacks, the Iowa Republicans responded with a provision in their platform to enfranchise black males. Democrats firmly opposed black suffrage. In 1868 voters considered a referendum to strike the word “white” from the voting clause of Iowa’s constitution. The amendment passed. Clarke’s unyielding stand for equality helped Iowa become the first Northern state to extend suffrage to black men after the Civil War in a referendum where voters knew exactly what they were voting for or against.

    The truth remains that while these moments of history and these Iowans deserve our admiration and respect, our state isn’t great because of a singular act of bravery, steadfastness, or service. Iowa is great because behind every Martin Treptow, or Edwin Guiberson, or Alexander Clarke, there are Iowans who also selflessly sacrifice for the next generation. They are every day Iowans you see working hard to provide for their families. They are the men and women who over this past year have been at the frontlines fighting a global viral enemy.

    “Back to normal” has been the finish line frequently proclaimed in the midst of our universal disruption. But today we have a choice; today we can choose to go back to life as normal, or we can choose to work, sacrifice, and endure for a better life, a better tomorrow, a better Iowa. My hope is that this chamber does not wish for life to return to normal, but that we set our sights on the brighter tomorrow.

    Let that brighter tomorrow include a renewed effort to tear down the barriers that prevent parents from choosing where to send their children for education. Let us recognize that sound fiscal policies of budgetary restraint have insulated Iowa in our weathering of Covid, and that continued conservatism will prepare us for the inevitable trials of the future. Now is the time for us to take bold, unwavering measures to reduce and perhaps even eliminate some of the tax burdens many Iowans are facing.

    And let us remember the quote found near the USS Iowa on the first floor of this magnificent building by Daniel Oconnell, a great abolitionist, when he said, “nothing is politically right that is morally wrong.” Today there is little that can be argued as more horrendous, more objectionable, and more morally wrong than to take innocent life. The assault on the defenseless has silenced over 60 million Americans since 1973 and that number mounts every day. This legislative body has stood courageously for the life of the unborn. Regrettably, 5 unelected judges, with the stroke of a pen fabricated a constitutional right to an abortion under Iowa’s constitution. This egregious usurpation of power will not be left unchecked. It is our responsibility, it is our oath-bound duty, to rightfully propose to the people of Iowa a constitutional amendment to correct this judicial over-reach.

    Just as the founders of this great state called upon our supreme being for protection and blessings, may we renew our devotion in seeking those blessings. I echo the words of Iowa’s United State Senator James Harlan, who in 1863 in his proposed resolution to the United States Congress stated the following: “Let us strive to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.”

    God bless each and everyone of you and may he continue to bless this great state and her people. Thank you.

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