Iowa’s 2023 legislative session is proving remarkable in terms of the speed and volume of conservative legislation being advanced, according to numerous political observers on both sides of the political aisle.
Emboldened by six years of conservative reforms under their belts and multiple elections that expanded their majorities in the House and Senate, Iowa Republicans have felt empowered to push a more conservative agenda this session, one focused on parental rights, school choice and banning gender-affirming care for minors.
It’s an agenda being driven by both local and national politics, and which coincides with the 2024 GOP race for president, softening the ground for candidates to campaign on the same themes, said Donna Hoffman, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.
“It’s remarkable the uptick in the speed of bills being brought up, debated and passed very quickly, sometimes without a lot of citizen input,” Hoffman said.
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Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds used those larger majorities to double down on and expand her push for school choice legislation.
Within the first three weeks of the session, lawmakers fast-tracked and Reynolds signed into law a new $345 million private school financial aid package dramatically more expansive than previous proposals, including one that failed to pass the House last year, when at least a dozen Republicans, many from rural areas, refused to support the measure. Many were concerned about the effect the policy would have had on schools in their area.
Reynolds last summer took the rare measure of endorsing primary challengers to several fellow Republicans who opposed her prior proposal, ultimately leading to the loss of several incumbents.
The results were a caucus more supportive of the governor’s plan.
Since then, Republican state lawmakers have advanced a host of legislation addressing gender policies and curricula in schools, mirroring efforts in other GOP-led states.
'Laser-focused on LGBTQ Iowans’
Three months into 2023, the Human Rights Campaign — the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization — said it is already tracking 410 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in statehouses across the country. Of those, 175 would specifically restrict the rights of transgender people, the highest number of bills targeting transgender people in a single year to date.
A review from the Human Rights Campaign found that fewer than one in 10 of last year’s 315 “anti-equality” bills became law.
Corinne Green, policy and legislative strategist at Equality Federation — an LGBTQ+ rights nonprofit — said she has witnessed an increase in the variety and “novelty” of such legislation being introduced in state legislatures, including Iowa.
“This year, there are more than seven or eight strains, or genres, of anti-trans attacks that we’ve seen blanket the county this year,” Green said. “And Iowa is a state that has received many of the kind of new versions of these bills that we’ve seen cover the country,” with similar language.
In Iowa, a record 29 unique pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation were introduced already this year, said Keenan Crow, a lobbyist with LGBTQ activist group One Iowa. That, they said, compares to 28 LGBTQ-related bills introduced during the two-year General Assembly from 2021-2022.
“We also had more bills go through subcommittees this year than have ever been introduced in previous years,” Crow said. “To say that this session is laser-focused on LGBTQ Iowans, I think that is even an understatement.”
State lawmakers last week passed a ban headed to Reynolds for her expected signature that would prohibit Iowa doctors from prescribing puberty blockers or hormone therapy to transgender children under the age of 18. It would also prohibit any surgeries on minors intended to affirm a gender that does not match up with their sex at birth.
In the weeks before Iowa lawmakers passed the bill, Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee all enacted similar bans.
Other bills that have cleared the Iowa House or Senate would prohibit transgender students from using school bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity and a ban on instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through sixth grade. It has drawn comparisons to Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law.
Lawmakers last week also advanced restrictions on library books, prohibiting school libraries from including books that are not “age-appropriate” and that contain sexual content, as well as a measure requiring parental consent to accommodate a student’s gender transition.
A group of about a dozen Ankeny businesses this week released a statement opposing the GOP-backed legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ population. The group of businesses said the “hateful and discriminatory legislation will directly impact our businesses’ ability to find and retain employees (and customers) and to thrive in our state.”
Kyle Krause, whose family owns the convenience store chain Kum & Go, tweeted Thursday: “Bills like these aren't just an attack on LGBTQ+ Iowans, they're an attack on all of us.”
Megan Goldberg, a professor of political science at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, said it was “mind-blowing to see how identical the policies are” from state to state.
“GOP-led states are picking up the same pieces of legislation at exactly the same time, but what’s also remarkable is the messaging is not even different,” Goldberg said.
“Republicans are moving the location of policymaking away from the federal government and to the states to counter what’s happening federally,” she said, noting the same thing occurred during Republican former President Donald Trump’s administration.
“We see this resurgence of state power to exert a national agenda, not state-level preferences,“ Goldberg said, as national conservatives hold Iowa and Florida up as a model to be exported ”everywhere else.“
Iowa and Florida are two states that saw a statewide red wave in the November midterm elections, bucking the trend seen in other states where the GOP fell short of expectations.
“The big thing that is causing Iowa, Florida and other states to deal with these issues result from the pandemic,” which forced parents “into dealing with students’ school work more directly, and a lot of times the parents didn’t like what they were seeing,” said Tim Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “Now, all of the sudden, we’re seeing a result of that.”
'America needs to be more like Iowa’
Candidates actively pursuing or considering campaigns for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination are already picking up on such themes as they visit the leadoff presidential caucus state.
Trump is scheduled to stop in Davenport Monday for an event billed as an education policy speech likely to touch on parental rights.
Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence also picked up on the parental rights theme during a rally in Cedar Rapids last month.
Republican South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott visited a Catholic school in Des Moines with Reynolds, where he applauded the governor for her leadership in passing a private school funding bill that creates state-funded scholarships that Iowa families could use to send their children to private schools.
“Seeing the power of school choice, knowing that these kids have an unlimited future to the extent that we can capsulize that and share it and spread it, it’s good news for the country,” Scott told reporters during his visit.
Republican presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley penned an op-ed stating “America needs to be more like Iowa.”
“Iowa is strong and proud because of its education leadership,” Haley wrote. “When Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Education Savings Accounts into law earlier this year, she gave families the freedom to choose the school that’s right for their children. I fought for that same freedom as governor (of South Carolina), and I’ll deliver it nationwide as president. And I’ll make sure no politician can close our schools ever again.”
And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been successful promoting or passing many of these same policies, held events Friday in Davenport and Des Moines with Gov. Reynolds.
Reynolds, during a Q&A with DeSantis in Davenport Friday, acknowledged Republican governors are competitive with each other, and said Iowa lawmakers have passed or are working on many of the policies Florida has enacted.
Democrats have argued they’ve seen a ramping up of hyper-partisan legislation this year, and the agenda being proposed is out of a “national playbook” rather than responding to the needs of the state.
“They’re answering to the far right. They’re answering to their base, and they’re answering to special interests,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, told reporters Thursday. “And, frankly, I believe they’ve gone too far this year, and it’s our job to hold them accountable for that this year and … into election season.”
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, echoed Konfrst.
“This is obviously a disappointing and dispiriting week in the Legislature,” Wahls said of the passage of “divisive, mean-spirited bills over the objections of concerned Iowans.”
“These are not bills that are going to help Iowans or strengthen our state,” Wahls said. “It’s all about scoring political points, settling political scores and punching down on” vulnerable Iowans.
“It definitely won’t make our state a more welcoming and attractive place to live by attacking and marginalizing people for being different, or going after health care providers who are trying to help prevent kids from killing themselves,” Wahls said.
Iowa Senate Republicans last week also advanced a roughly 1,600-page government reorganization bill filed by Reynolds that would shrink the number of state agencies and create more agency leaders who are appointed by the governor and subject to Iowa Senate confirmation, rather than being elected by state boards or commissions.
Democrats called the bill a “power grab” by the governor, arguing on the Senate floor the bill will reduce government oversight and hurt the quality of government services for some Iowans.
Reynolds has said she's not trying to accumulate power, and that the move is intended to reduce the size and cost of government and increase efficiency.
The conservative trend of the current crop of Republicans can be traced back, in part, to the June 2022 primary, said Chuck Hurley, vice president of the conservative Christian organization The Family Leader.
“I don’t think you can overstate June 7 and the importance, but the governor played a big role — in some cases a precipitous role — in the primaries,” Hurley said.
Republican success later last year on election night — sweeping congressional offices, growing majorities in the Legislature and nearly sweeping statewide offices — also gave Reynolds strength going into this session to lay out a more conservative agenda.
“She came into this (session) with a lot of momentum and a lot of influence,” Hurley said. “A lot of gravitas. And so I would say the governor is probably the main reason things are more conservative.”
With 64 Republicans in the House and 34 in the Senate, the party also has a cushion to lose votes from its more moderate members on major votes. Nine Republicans broke with the majority party on a vote creating the expansive private school assistance bill in January, and six Republicans voted against a measure to ban gender-affirming care for minors last week.
“There’s not, apparently, an appetite within the Republican Party to push back on the governor’s priorities,” said Hoffman, the UNI political science professor. “Last session saw some successful attempts at advancing a social agenda” passing laws in 2021 and 2022 prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” in Iowa public schools related to racism and sexism and prohibiting transgender females from participating in girls high school sports and women’s college athletics.
“There was an intervening election. The voters of Iowa didn’t push back on those things Republicans want,” Hoffman said. “They’re going all in on that agenda.”
A promise to voters
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley said Republicans were open about their agenda in their campaigns and have followed through on the things voters elected them to do. Private school assistance was a major part of Reynolds’ and other Republicans’ election campaigns.
“We feel as long as we’re being transparent and the things we're really campaigning on and they know are part of the things that we want to focus on, that we have to follow through with the commitments that we made,” Grassley said. “So I wouldn’t necessarily look at that as the caucus became significantly more conservative, but we had a lot of members that did run on an issue like (school choice.)”
Iowa voters in November elected the first super majority in the Iowa Senate in 50 years.
“The Senate has consistently implemented policies to empower parents in their children’s education over the last six years, but this year we made the most significant achievement to date to reach that goal by passing school choice,“ Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, said.
“This session has had and will continue to have many more major successes on conservative, pro-growth, pro-children policies like the previous six sessions.”