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:

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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2021

The Iowa House opened its 2021 session on January 11 with 59 Republicans and 41 Democrats, a big improvement for the GOP from last year’s 53-47 split.

The House members include 69 men and 31 women (21 Democrats and ten Republicans), down from a record 34 women in 2019 and 33 women last year.

Six African Americans (Democrats Ako Abdul-Samad, Ruth Ann Gaines, Ras Smith, Phyllis Thede, and Ross Wilburn, and Republican Eddie Andrews) will serve in the legislature’s lower chamber. Republican Mark Cisneros is the first Latino elected to the Iowa legislature, and Republican Henry Stone is only the second Asian American to serve in the House. The other 92 state representatives are white.

Democrat Liz Bennett is the only out LGBTQ member of the Iowa House. To my knowledge, Abdul-Samad (who is Muslim) is the only lawmaker in either chamber to practice a religion other than Christianity.

I’ve posted details below on the Iowa House majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing House committees. Where relevant, I’ve noted changes since last year.

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How many Iowa candidates "won" under rules Republicans forced on unions?

Sixth in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2020 state and federal elections.

Republican lawmakers and Governor Terry Branstad set out to cripple public sector unions in 2017 by enacting a law that eviscerated bargaining rights and established new barriers to union representation. Under that law, public employees must vote to recertify their union in each contract period (in most cases, every two or three years). Anyone not participating in the election is considered to have voted against the union. So a successful recertification requires yes votes from a majority of all employees in the bargaining unit.

The law hasn’t accomplished its goal of destroying large unions that typically support Democratic candidates. The vast majority of bargaining units have voted to recertify in each of the past four years. This fall, all 64 locals affiliated with the Iowa State Education Association voted to keep having that union negotiate their contracts. AFSCME Council 61, which represents most Iowa state and local government workers, was nearly as successful, with 64 out of 67 units voting to recertify.

I decided to return to a question Bleeding Heartland first pondered in 2017: how many candidates for other Iowa offices could declare victory under the system Republicans forced on labor unions?

I found that even after Iowa’s highest-turnout election in decades, our state would have no representation in Congress if contenders needed a majority vote among all constituents. “Winners” could be declared in about a third of state legislative races.

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U.S. census delay should not derail Iowa redistricting

The U.S. Census Bureau is unlikely to deliver state population totals on its usual timetable, Michael Wines and Emily Bazelon reported for the New York Times on November 19. The news was encouraging for those who support an accurate, complete census, because a delay beyond January 20 would stop the Trump administration’s unconstitutional plan “to remove unauthorized immigrants from the count for the first time in history, leaving an older and whiter population as the basis for divvying up [U.S.] House seats […].”

I wondered how an adjusted timetable could affect Iowa’s redistricting. Could Republicans who retained control of the Iowa House and Senate use a delay as a pretext for bypassing our state’s current nonpartisan process?

Not without changing state law.

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Iowa GOP lawmaker seeks review of governor's emergency powers

Republican State Representative Steven Holt plans to review possible changes to the governor’s emergency powers, “including requiring legislative approval for declared emergencies lasting over a certain period of time,” he posted on Facebook November 17. Holt has been a vocal critic of business closures to reduce spread of COVID-19 and is unhappy with several aspects of Governor Kim Reynolds’ latest emergency proclamation.

First elected to the legislature in 2014, Holt has chaired the House Judiciary Committee since 2019. Republican leaders have not yet announced committee assignments for the 2021 session, when their majority will grow to 59-41.

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