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Education, taxation, safety issues paramount for 2021 Iowa legislature

DES MOINES — The 2021 Iowa legislative session is scheduled to begin today, with Republicans who control the debate agenda predicting significant action on education and taxation.

Senate Republican Leader Jack Whitver of Ankeny said there’s no consensus yet, though.

“The tax conversation and tax changes don’t happen in a bill filed day one in the legislature, usually,” Whitver said this weekend during an appearance on Iowa PBS. “What I know is as long as I’m majority leader and as long as we’re in the majority, we want to improve the tax climate in the state of Iowa.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford, said legislators will get the next detailed report on state tax revenue in March.

“We’re seeing higher than expected revenue growth,” Grassley said on Iowa PBS. “If we have those opportunities to return dollars back to the hard-working Iowans, we want to do that.”

House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City said tax cuts should be targeted to make things like housing and child care more affordable.

“If we’re going to talk tax cuts, let’s talk tax cuts for working Iowans,” Prichard said during a forum sponsored by the Iowa Capitol Press Association, “not just for those at the top.”

Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville said the legislature’s primary focus should be on the pandemic.

“This is the event that has turned all of our lives upside down,” Wahls said at the ICPA forum, “…so looking at things that’ll help our front-line health care workers, other essential workers, small businesses, community agencies like food banks. We know that food insecurity has tripled since the start of the pandemic.”

Last Thursday, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds hit “pause” again on her “Invest in Iowa” proposal to both lower income taxes and raise sales taxes, due to the pandemic.

Republican legislators say their education plans will revolve around ensuring parental choice. Grassley said it was an issue in the November election, as some parents grew frustrated that their children were not back in the classroom full time.

“I think Iowans spoke loud and clear that that’s their expectation,” Grassley said, “and in fact I think it affected a lot of races.”

Both Grassley and Senator Whitver say everything is on the table when it comes to education policy, including giving parents state money to cover the costs of private school tuition.

“When you talk about parental choice, there’s a lot of different things that go into that…Can you transfer out of Des Moines Public Schools or not? Are your kids in five days a week or are they all virtual? It’s public-private,” Whitver said. “…Education is going to probably be the biggest conversation of this entire session.”

Democrats say spending state tax dollars at private schools diverts scarce resources at a time when Iowa’s public schools need more assistance.

The 2021 legislative session is convening in the middle of a pandemic. While the Republicans in charge of the legislature are “strongly encouraging” people in the Capitol to wear face coverings, they will not be required. Legislators and others who work in the building are expected to report to a superior if they have Covid, but not required to do so.

Grassley, the top Republican in the House, said the state constitution does not give him “special power” to prevent duly elected legislators from come onto the House floor without a mask.

“People are going to have to use their best judgement and their personal responsibility,” Grassley said.

Whitver, the top Republican in the Senate, said those who don’t wear a mask or socially distance run the risk of having to quarantine or forcing the entire session to be shut down.

“The big picture is we have an agenda,” Whitver said. “We made promises, we need to keep those and we need to be able to stay in session as long as possible.”

Democrats are requiring face masks in their private meetings. Today, some Democrats will take their oaths of office in another location in the Capitol rather than on the House floor. Prichard, the Democratic leader in the House, said the coronavirus is still very active in the general population.

“I’m concerned and want to avoid turning the legislature into a super spreader event,” Prichard said.

Wahls, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said the lack of a mask mandate inside the statehouse is disappointing.

“It’s not safe for legislators. It’s not safe for staff,” Wahls said. “It’s not safe for the press and it’s not safe the public.”

Wahls said he’s also concerned a group that opposes the governor’s proclamation requiring face masks in some public places will be holding a rally at the Capitol today. Some legislators and staff have expressed concerns about statehouse safety after last Wednesday’s attack at the U.S. Capitol. Whitver says there’s been heightened security at the Capitol in Des Moines since last spring’s protests over racial injustice.

“We’ve had protests for the last four years at the Capitol. We’ve some very active debates, some lively debates, some lively protests,” Whitver said. “We’ve had riots outside the Capitol. We have beefed up security over the last few years.”

The 100 members of the Iowa House are scheduled to take their oaths of office, beginning at 10 a.m. Twenty-five newly-elected members of the Iowa Senate will be sworn in as well, with one senate seat vacant. Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa resigned her Ottumwa-area state senate seat shortly before she was sworn in as a member of the U.S. House. A special election to fill that state senate seat is scheduled for late this month.

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