By Emily Kestel, Fearless editor
Now that the latter half of the 89th Iowa General Assembly has officially been called into session, let’s take a look at what’s on the docket in the realm of women’s and gender issues.
To preface, it’s worth mentioning that every issue is a women’s issue. Women are not monoliths, and interests and what’s at stake differ for everyone. But for these purposes, we’ve selected a few key issues that are considered by many to be issues that disproportionately affect women and gender-nonconforming individuals.
This year’s legislative session is the second and last year of the 89th General Assembly, which means it’s an election year. That means both parties will likely be pushing contentious policies in order to gain party support.
Tackling the workforce and labor shortage is something that leaders have indicated will be a priority, though approaches differ between parties.
Background: In November 2021, Iowa’s unemployment rate was 3.7% with a labor force participation rate of 66.8%. Pre-pandemic, those rates were 2.8% and more than 70%, respectively.
In their opening remarks to the legislative session last Monday, both Republican and Democratic leaders emphasized the need to address the state’s workforce issues.
“Workforce is going to be the biggest push this year,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst told the Business Record ahead of the session. She added that workforce issues should be holistic and encompass other topics including education, affordable housing and child care.
“I do think that this workforce crisis is one that people are trying to address with a precision target when they need to see the big picture that workforce isn’t just one thing and it won’t be fixed with that one thing,” Konfrst said.
In her Condition of the State address, Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed major changes to the state’s unemployment system, shortening the limit to collect unemployment benefits to 16 weeks, and requiring unemployed Iowans to accept offers from “suitable” jobs. That’s on top of new unemployment rules that require claimants to do more to get jobs in order to get weekly payments that took effect last week.
Republicans have indicated that lowering income taxes is a high priority, arguing that it makes Iowa more competitive. Reynolds proposed a 4% flat income tax for all Iowans, phased in over three years.
In the realm of vaccine and mask mandates for businesses, House Speaker Pat Grassley said on Jan. 10 that Iowa needs to “hold the line” against the Biden administration’s COVID mitigation policies, saying that they infringe on Iowans’ freedoms. Additionally, two Republican lawmakers released a proposal that would prohibit businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated or wear masks.
Konfrst said she hopes the Legislature will address paid family leave, though she admitted it’s very difficult to address at the state level. Currently, 10 states have enacted paid family and medical leave policies.
Many Iowa business leaders have warned that certain bills that have circulated through the Legislature in recent years may be damaging Iowa’s efforts to retain and recruit top talent. Examples of those bills include those that would require transgender people to use restrooms of their assigned sex at birth and those that would ban tenure at the state’s regent universities.
In a Business Record panel on Jan. 11, Iowa Business Council Executive Director Joe Murphy said bills that don’t make Iowa an inclusive place are unhelpful to recruiting and retaining Iowa’s workforce.
“We need to make Iowa a welcoming and inclusive place for all,” Murphy said.
Stemming from workforce shortage conversations are ones about access to affordable child care.
Background: Iowa is in the midst of a child care crisis. About a quarter of the state’s population lives in a child care desert and the costs to send a child to a provider are increasing. Last year, Gov. Reynolds assembled her Child Care Task Force, which put forth 15 recommendations to address the issue. Many of them require legislative or executive action, and state leaders are hopeful that the Legislature will enact many of the recommendations.
Both parties have said that increasing access to child care is necessary to address the workforce crisis, and Republicans have promised the lack of child care options in the state will receive renewed attention.
Reynolds has already acted on the recommendations published in the Child Care Task Force report, including the implementation of the Best Place for Working Parents designation, creating a shared services model for child care providers and continuing the Child Care Challenge Fund.
The Legislature made progress on child care last session, facing pressure from many lobbyists and organizations that made child care a priority issue. Three child care bills passed in 2021: H.F. 302 addressed the child care cliff effect, H.F. 260 allowed unregulated in-home child care providers to care for up to six children instead of five, and S.F. 619 raised the upper income limit for those eligible for child care tax credits to $90,000, up from $45,000.
Konfrst would like to see the other end of the child care cliff addressed by increasing the maximum initial eligibility to 185% of the federal poverty level – $32,227 for a single parent with one child, or $49,025 for a family of four. Currently, it’s at 145% of the federal poverty level.
Konfrst also said she wants to address the workforce crisis within the child care industry by looking at wages and benefits – an issue that child care providers have clamored for.
Education is a hot-button topic likely to receive a lot of attention this session.
Background: If nothing else, the pandemic has shined a spotlight on education. Children’s lives have been upended nationally in terms of mental health, behavior problems, and reading and math levels. K-12 schools are currently facing severe staffing shortages. Additionally, talks of greater parental control in K-12 education are currently dominating headlines.
As reported in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, education has been a flash point in Iowa politics, sparking debates on mask wearing, book banning and charter schooling. Republicans have said there’s a need to give parents more choices and control in their children’s education.
Senate Majority Whip Amy Sinclair said creating a “parents’ bill of rights” would be a top priority for Republicans this session. Senate President Jake Chapman has said that teachers who give “obscene” material to students should be criminally prosecuted, and that he was drafting legislation that would make it a felony to do so.
Reynolds in her Condition of the State address touted “full transparency” for parents to know what their children are learning about. Under her proposed bill, schools would be required to post a list of required readings and books available in their libraries.
Lawmakers from both parties have also indicated that they’re focused on teacher and staff retention. Reynolds last week announced a plan to pay teachers a $1,000 retention bonus for continuing to teach through the pandemic, but Konfrst said on Iowa PBS that it’s not enough.
“I think it’s great that the governor wants to give $1,000 to teachers who stayed in place. That’s wonderful,” Konfrst said. “I’m not not sure that a $1,000 bonus is going to make them feel better or more welcome in the state when they’re already exhausted and weary from pandemic teaching and being demonized at the Capitol.”
Also likely to come up this session is the “voucher bill,” which allows for public money to be used for private schools. H.S.B. 243 calls for students attending one of 34 low-performing public schools to get a scholarship of more than $5,000 to attend another school — religious, private, charter or home-school – but did not pass last year.
Abortion was a contentious issue nationally in 2021, and will likely be in 2022, too.
Background: Iowa law currently bans most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Republican lawmakers in recent years have sought to limit abortion access even more. Iowa once had the nation’s strictest abortion law, which banned most abortions after a fetal heartbeat was detected, but it was quickly struck down by the courts, which declared it to be in violation of the Iowa Constitution. In 2021, lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment that says the constitution does not protect abortion rights. The Legislature still would need to approve the language of the amendment again in 2023 or 2024 before it could appear on the ballot in the 2024 election.
At the national level, all eyes are on the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court, which is likely to rule on a decision by this summer that has the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade, which declares that pregnant people have a constitutional right to abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb.
At the state level, the Iowa Supreme Court will rule in the state’s appeal of a district court decision that blocked a 2020 law that required a 24-hour waiting period before receiving an abortion.
Republicans have indicated they will wait and see what will happen in the state and federal courts before pursuing further action. Sinclair said at a pre-session press conference, “I think that, as a pro-life legislator, I’m standing ready to do what’s best for Iowans, but I also think that it’s incumbent upon us not to get ahead of ourselves in these conversations.”
Democrats, though, are wary of Republicans enacting a “trigger law” that would immediately make abortion illegal if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
Anti-LGBTQ bills are likely to arise again.
Background: Last year, the Legislature introduced more than a dozen bills that targeted LGBTQ rights, many of them dealing with trans issues. Fifteen anti-LGBTQ bills were killed by a funnel deadline.
Reynolds indicated last year that she would work with lawmakers to draft legislation that would restrict transgender girls from competing on girls’ athletic teams. That will very likely come up again this session.
“In terms of will there be a bill, I think that’s an 100% guarantee,” said Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa, in a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.
Health care is an evergreen issue that will receive attention this session.
Background: Dominating headlines in the realm of health care are COVID numbers and hospitalizations. Republicans have worked to create legislation to counter federal vaccine and mask mandates. Other topics under the health care umbrella include mental health and maternal health.
Last year, lawmakers worked to change the way Iowa’s regional mental health systems are funded through a tax cut law. Instead of funding mental health programs through property tax levies, they’re now funded through the state’s general fund. Advocates are pushing for an increase in mental health funding to address the gaps in availability of mental health services across the state.
Iowa’s maternal mortality rate is 9.4 per 100,000 births. At the state level, the Iowa Maternal Mortality Review Committee reviews all pregnancy-associated deaths and any deaths of women within one year following the end of a pregnancy, regardless of the cause. The latest report analyzed 39 deaths that occurred in a 2½-year period. More than half of the deaths reviewed were considered to be possibly preventable.
The maternal mortality rate has continued to climb both in Iowa and nationally. Meanwhile, access to maternal health care and birthing units in Iowa has declined. Maternal health advocates have pushed for a midwifery model of care, arguing that it would save the state money and improve outcomes.
Konfrst said she’d like the Legislature to look into incentivizing midwives and pre-maternal health care work. Midwife licensure “is a push I think we need to look at a little more,” she said.
Sexual assault and domestic violence are also evergreen topics.
Background: It’s estimated that 1 in 3 women in Iowa have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Furthermore, domestic violence deaths are on the rise. One advocate said domestic violence is “an epidemic” in the state and the COVID pandemic has only made it worse.
Last year, the Legislature passed several bills relating to sexual and domestic violence. One established a system that allows for survivors to track the status of rape evidence kits. Another created a sexual assault forensic examiner program that provides uniform training and resources to health care professionals.
Lawmakers also approved $5 million in funding for victim services, though advocates were hoping for more.
Editor’s note: Fearless reached out to two female Republican leaders – Sen. Amy Sinclair and Sen. Chris Cournoyer – for their insight on the legislative session, but did not hear back.
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