Iowa lawmakers advance misguided proposals, ignore big problems

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and can be reached at

These days, with political campaigns that seem to go on forever, Iowans may not recognize the significance of what occurred at polling places across the state on November 5, 1968.

Voters approved an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that day, ending the legislature’s practice of meeting only every other year. Biennial sessions had been a fact of civic life in Iowa since statehood 122 years earlier. 

Advocates for the amendment argued that lawmakers needed to be in session each year to deal with the growing complexity of challenges and the pressing demands facing Iowa.

In recent years, however, leaders like Governor Kim Reynolds and her allies in the legislature often talk about government overreach and the need to rein in the size and scope of state and local governments. 

Maybe they are correct. Maybe voters should be asked to undo the 55-year-old constitutional amendment and return the legislature to meeting every other year. Maybe that would give lawmakers and the governor time to thoughtfully study these complex challenges and pressing demands — so they do not go into hurry-up mode whenever they spot some perceived need for a new law. 

You may disagree with the idea that legislating has gotten out of control in Iowa lately. But consider:

House Study Bill 587 would require every student and every teacher in every Iowa public school district to stand and sing the national anthem every school day. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1943 that government schools cannot compel students and staff to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem.

You do not make Iowa kids more patriotic by demanding they sing the national anthem. This proposal is what we would expect from the dictators in North Korea or Russia. This is not something a state should be pushing in the Land of the Free.

If that were the only example of a misguided proposal coming before the legislature, Iowans would be forgiving. But it is not.

Another bill, Senate Study Bill 3092 and its companion House File 2073, would allow school districts to hire or recruit volunteer “chaplains” to help children with their mental health needs. The legislation does not require these people to be trained or certified to work with children, or to have any training, for that matter. Republican lawmakers have advanced the bill from subcommittees in both chambers.

One of the bill’s sponsors, State Representative Helena Hayes, said the chaplains would provide kids with “spiritual guidance” — although it seems that should be left to churches, not to our public schools. 

Senate Study Bill 3103 would prohibit the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from accepting and investigating anonymous complaints about potential violations of regulations governing animal feeding operations, waterway pollution and illegal waste disposal.

A year ago, in contrast, the legislature changed Iowa law to make all citizen complaints confidential about the books people want to remove from public school libraries and classrooms—leaving Iowans to figure out why anonymous complaints of one variety are good, but anonymous complaints of another are bad. 

The concern should not be aimed just at the topics consuming the time of Iowa’s lawmakers. The concern should be that complex, thorny problems are getting precious little discussion and study from state lawmakers.

Iowans of all partisan affiliations have been scrambling to convey to their senators and representatives, and to the governor, their anxiety over the significant changes Reynolds wants to make in the operation of Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies. The AEAs provide a wide array of specialized services most school districts cannot afford on their own — services provided by AEA psychologists, social workers, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and behavior specialists.

Instead of convening a public study of ways to strengthen these services and make AEAs more efficient, Reynolds, instead, turned to an out-of-state consultant to work outside of public view. And instead of making the report public when she announced her AEA plans, Reynolds slow-walked Iowans’ requests for copies of the report. (Editor’s note from Laura Belin: The governor’s office provided a copy of the report on January 29, thirteen days after I asked for it, even though it was a public record requiring no redaction.)

The governor refused to accept federal food assistance that would have provided an extra $40 per month per child for low-income families’ food purchases this summer while school is out. Nonprofit food pantries have been scrambling to keep up with higher-than-expected demand from low-income families. But the legislature has spent no time discussing ways to make a more ample food supply available for our poor friends and neighbors.

The governor said the federal summertime food aid was not sustainable long-term. But an existing state program has serious long-term sustainability questions, which state lawmakers have yet to address. The new “school choice” program provides families with $7,600 annual vouchers for each of their children to attend private schools. 

In its first year, funding these Education Savings Accounts will cost the state at least $127 million. That is $20 million more than originally expected. More Iowans will become eligible for the vouchers in the next few years, and the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency projects the cost to the state treasury will climb to $345 million per year by 2027. 

But the legislature has not spent time talking about how that cost can be sustained. 

Nor has the legislature spent any time talking about strategies for dealing with troubling findings from a University of Iowa cancer study last year. Fifty years of data show Iowa has the second-highest cancer incidence rate among the 50 states and is the only state whose rate is rising.

Republican leaders at the statehouse would be wise to think about remarks Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower once offered. The supreme allied commander during World War II and two-term president in the 1950s knew something about leadership.

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head,” Eisenhower observed. “Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault,’ not ‘leadership.’ I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion and conciliation, education and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work.”

About the Author(s)

Randy Evans

  • Amen!

    Good piece . . . great ending

  • Randy Evans, thank you for including the (awful!) anonymous DNR complaint bill in your list.

    As a long-ago urban resident, I would not have understood the significance of the anonymous-report bill. But now I’ve spent a few decades amid rowcrops, and I understand the significance and potential impact all too well.

    It is already much too easy for rural Iowa environmental offenders to get away with misdeeds. And there are real social and economic pressures in rural Iowa to keep quiet.

    When there are a limited number of Iowans in a rural area who would be suspected as likely sources of anonymous reports, it can already take courage to report anonymously, If this bill became law, it would be far more likely that serious offenses would just go unreported. I’d bet money that is the real purpose of the bill.