Republicans capitalize on opportunity, now take historic agenda to voters

DES MOINES ? The opportunity was not wasted.

For the past two years, Iowa Republicans had complete control of the state lawmaking process for the first time in 20 years, and they took complete advantage.

Swept into unfettered power by the 2010 and 2016 elections, Republicans during the 2017 and 2018 sessions of the Iowa Legislature passed at least a half-dozen significant laws that never would have seen the light of day under a Democratic or even split-control state government.

Abortion regulations, tax policy, gun rights, and union negotiating rights received dramatic reforms in the conservative mold.

Whether the new laws will be good for Iowans remains to be seen. More certain is that Iowa Republicans, given the once-in-a-generation opportunity, reshaped state policies in ways that are significant and will test their brand with voters in this fall?s elections.

?They obviously were extremely aggressive with the fear that any election cycle you could lose any one of the three legs of the stool (of state government control),? said Brent Siegrist, who has the Iowa House Majority Leader in 1997 and 1998, the last time Republicans had full state lawmaking control. ?From their viewpoint, they probably view it as an extremely productive two years. ...

?I think overall they?ll view it was a home run, if not a grand slam.?

State issues figure to play a prominent role in the upcoming campaign season. There will be competitive Congressional races in eastern and central Iowa, but with neither U.S. Senate seat open this fall, the race for governor is poised to take center stage as the top statewide race.

Republican Kim Reynolds became governor in May of 2017 when former Gov. Terry Branstad was named U.S. ambassador to China. She does not face a challenge in the June 5 party primary election.

Six Democrats are vying for the party?s nomination to face Reynolds in the November 6 general election.

Iowa Republicans will have some legislative accomplishments to tout that received bipartisan support in the legislature and are popular with voters: they expanded and reshaped mental health care access, added measures designed to curtail opioid addiction, and created new funding for programs designed to improve Iowa?s water quality.

But they also passed at least a half-dozen laws that created partisan firestorms.

Republicans approved what experts say is the most restrictive abortion law in the entire country: it bans abortions after the fetus? heartbeat can be detected, around six weeks, often before the woman knows she is pregnant. They also require women to wait three days to receive an abortion. Both laws are being challenged in court.

They stripped most state funding to women?s health care providers like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions.

They approved a so-called stand your ground law, which permits Iowans to use lethal force if they feel threatened, and allowed children under the age of 14 to handle guns under parental supervision. And they created language that would enshrine gun ownership rights into the state Constitution; that must also be approved in a separate legislative session and then by Iowa voters.

They curtailed most elements for which public employee unions can collectively bargain, and limited the amount of compensation payments that injured workers can seek.

And their overhaul of the state?s tax code projects to create nearly $3 billion in income tax relief over the course of five years, but also increases some sales taxes and will siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state budget each year.

?Republicans have very definitely had, from the fiscal side and from the religious side, a very distinct agenda and they have not wasted any time in trying to take maximum advantage of the unified control they have right now,? said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University.

They earned the opportunity through a series of electoral victories and maximized the opportunity these past two years. Now Iowa Republicans must return to the campaign trail and convince voters, especially those who do not claim allegiance to a political party, that those conservative reforms were in Iowans? best interests.

?There were some bold proposals put through, and if we stop right now and rest on our laurels, then it may be all for naught,? said Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa?s state chairman and a former state legislator. ?There?s one thing the Democrats aren?t hiding: that is they want to undo most of what has been done. So we cannot be complacent ... because we have to now go out and sell this to Iowans.?

Kaufmann acknowledged Republicans will have to defend some of their conservative reforms.

?If you?re actually going to call yourself bold and be bold in your legislating, in your lawmaking, then you?re going to make some people angry. And what (Republicans) have to do is be prepared,? Kaufmann said. ?Now they have to explain themselves.?

In their session-ending speeches, Republicans expressed confidence in the choices they made over the past two years.

?The message the voters sent (in 2016) was clear: they wanted smaller, smarter and conservative government. House Republicans have responded, and the days of the status quo government are over,? Republican House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow said. He said the two-year General Assembly ?will long be remembered as one that charted a new course for the state of Iowa.?



The top conservative reforms enacted during the 87th Iowa General Assembly:

ABORTION: After years of attempting to restrict access to abortion, the GOP majorities in the House and Senate in 2017 approved a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Attempts to enact personhood or life at conception language failed, but Senate File 471 also requires a three-day waiting period between the time that a woman meets with her doctor and obtaining an abortion. It allows an exception to protect the life of the mother, but there are no exemptions for rape, incest or fetal anomaly. The three-day waiting period was challenged in court; supporters say the bill was crafted to withstand the court challenge, but others say it is too narrowly drawn to pass constitutional muster. Republicans also in 2017 stripped most state funding for women?s reproductive health care clinics like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions. In 2018, they passed a law banning abortions after the fetus? heartbeat can be detected, which typically occurs at six weeks, often before the woman knows she is pregnant. That law, the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, also is headed for the courts, which have struck down similar laws in the past. Republicans hope the changing makeup of federal courts will give this law a chance to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court and possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 high court ruling that protected a woman?s right to an abortion in most cases.

INCOME TAX REDUCTION/REFORM: Iowans would be in line to receive the largest income tax cut in state history under a bill awaiting Gov. Kim Reynolds? expected signature. GOP legislators this year approved a $2.86 billion multi-year state income tax cut/reform package that would take six years to fully implement and have a general fund impact of about $2.16 billion over that same span. Taxpayers will see an average cut of 10 percent totaling $300 million in the first year and builds annually until full implementation in 2023 when federal deductibility is eliminated, brackets are compressed and rates reduced but only if the state economy meets certain ?triggers? that include a 4 percent growth rate. The corporate rate also is reduced and breaks are provided to farmers and small business owners.

LABOR: Significant, conservative legislation was passed throughout the 2017 session, but the collective bargaining bill may go down as the session?s signature issue. Thousands of people came to the Capitol over a three-day span to speak at hearings and participate in rallies --- most to protest the bill that stripped most public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. Republicans say the new law provided a needed update to a 40-year-old law that they say grew to favor workers over employers and tied the hands of public employers crafting wage and benefits packages. Republicans also passed a new law limiting some damages in workers compensation lawsuits, another measure that GOP lawmakers said will make the system more fair and balanced and Democrats in opposition said is unfair to workers.

GUN RIGHTS: Saying they were advancing Iowans? freedoms, lawmakers in 2017 approved the most comprehensive piece of gun rights legislation in state history, including allowing Iowans to use deadly force if they believe their life is threatened. In addition to an expansion of Iowa?s ?stand-your-ground? law, House File 517, which was passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate, allows parents to supervise the use of handguns by children younger than 14 and Iowans to carry handguns in most public buildings and space, including the Capitol. Opponents warned of a surge of shooting by people claiming self-defense as well as accidental shootings involving children. In 2018, lawmakers passed language for an amendment to include gun ownership rights in the state Constitution. In order to become enshrined in the Constitution, the language must be approved a second time by a new General Assembly, and then approved by Iowa voters.