Iowa legislators aren’t doing their job; now's the time for Gov. Reynolds to do her job

One of the first things I learned when I started covering the Iowa Legislature almost 30 years ago was the only work lawmakers really have to do is pass a budget. Everything else is optional.

And yet, we are starting what should be the final week of the 2021 session without a single budget bill having passed both chambers. Worse, the bills that the Republican-majority House and Senate have moved out of their committees are far apart on both money and policy.

For example, the House has proposed a $20 million increase for state prisons, where overcrowding and understaffing is back in the public eye after last month’s fatal attack on a guard and a nurse at the Anamosa penitentiary. The Senate has proposed an increase of just over $6 million, with some lawmakers trying to argue that they have to wait for an investigation to know whether understaffing was a factor in the tragedy.

The House, where some Republican lawmakers can’t let go of their vindictive, partisan outrage over perceived discrimination against conservative viewpoints, has proposed zero increase and a tuition freeze for state universities. The Senate has at least grudgingly offered to replace the $8 million cut they received last year and eliminate the tuition freeze that would truly strangle institutions that contribute enormously to the state economy.

The House wants more action on needed child-care policy and an important telehealth parity bill that Senate leaders oppose. The Senate wants significant tax cuts despite obvious reservations in the House about moving too fast on revenue reductions while spending hundreds of millions on broadband expansion.

This is despite the fact that lawmakers have been relieved, for now, of the only exception to the must-do rule: Work on redistricting has been delayed by the U.S. Census Bureau’s failure to deliver data on time. We still don’t know if the Iowa Supreme Court plans to take up the task of redrawing legislative districts or send the job back to the Legislature this fall. Congressional redistricting, which does not have a deadline in the state constitution, will likely require a special legislative session this fall.

Legislative leaders have also been mum so far on any plans to engage in deciding how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars the state is expected the receive from the latest federal COVID-19 relief program. They keep muttering about talking to the governor’s office about it and suggesting they have to wait for more guidance from the feds on how the money can be spent.

Following the rules is, of course, important. But lawmakers could have laid out broad spending goals and an oversight program that was sorely lacking with the first two rounds of federal coronavirus aid. Instead, they’ve done bupkis and will likely end up tossing everything to the governor on the way out the door, just like last year.

Taxpayers may be happy to know that legislators don’t get paid their per diem for session days after April 30. However, lawmakers still get other expense payments and it costs Iowans tens of thousands of dollars extra for each day the session runs into overtime.

Those taxpayers would be justified in concluding they’ve paid some lawmakers too much already. The Senate GOP majority decided not to engage in even the most basic of work on the state budget by skipping joint appropriations subcommittee meetings with the House. They claimed COVID as the reason, and yet neither chamber instituted even basic infection-prevention protocols to keep their own members and the public safe.

It is now up to Gov. Kim Reynolds to show some leadership. If her party’s legislative leaders are squabbling like children, she has to be the grownup. Instead, she’s been hiding behind the tired, old Terry Branstad dodge of refusing to comment on legislation that hasn’t reached her desk. (Even Branstad ditched that policy when it suited him to try nudging public opinion toward the outcome he preferred.)

She’s fluttered around on the sidelines as her party has spent months nursing election grudges, kneecapping local governments and elected officials, and indulging partisan fantasies. Now, it’s time for her, on behalf of all Iowans, to insist lawmakers do the job they’re getting paid for and get the heck out of town.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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