By Emily Blobaum, Fearless contributing editor
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, I’ve selected a few key issues that are considered by many to be issues that women in particular care about.
I’m turning to Kathie Obradovich, who is the editor of the Iowa Capital Dispatch and has covered Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, to walk through some of the biggest women’s issues on the docket. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with COVID-19. In 2020 Iowa had one of the worst rates of COVID-19 infection in the country, and the pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have said that it’s their No. 1 priority. What are lawmakers likely to address in terms of COVID relief?
Background: A lot of what Iowa has done in terms of COVID relief has come from federal aid. There’s been criticism from Democrats that Republicans haven’t dipped into Iowa’s “rainy day fund” or budget surplus for pandemic-related relief.
Obradovich: “Even in the budgeting process, I really don’t see lawmakers jumping in with aid for unemployment or business relief. What I do potentially see is a line coming out the Statehouse door of businesses asking for some sort of regulatory benefit that might be couched in pandemic relief. A good example of that would be the grocers with the bottle bill [which gave Iowa grocers a reprieve from accepting empty beverage cans and bottles from customers that they hope to make permanent]. They couched that as a pandemic relief issue, but really they’ve wanted it for decades. We might see more of that kind of thing as opposed to big budget initiatives, at least at the beginning of the year. If we get to March and federal money has run out and there are big needs, it is possible that they’ll dip into reserves and do something, but I don’t think it’s obvious what that might be.”
What about COVID restrictions?
Background: In March, lawmakers approved legislation that gave Gov. Kim Reynolds broad authority to run the state government. She first issued a set of restrictions after enacting a state of emergency in March but was lax on issuing a statewide mask mandate until November, when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were skyrocketing.
Obradovich: “I have heard that there may be some legislators who want to assert more oversight over that. I think it’s an open question as to whether they want that authority back or if they like having somebody else be in charge of it.”
Staying on the topic of health care, Gov. Reynolds is a big proponent of mental health. Iowa consistently ranks as one of the worst states for mental health care. What’s the status of where the Legislature is on that issue?
Background: In her Condition of the State address in 2020, Reynolds unveiled her Invest in Iowa Act, which would increase the sales tax by 1%, with $80 million earmarked to help fund mental health care. The proposal faced bipartisan opposition, although Republicans did like the idea of substituting state funding for some of the property tax dollars going to mental health. Reynolds told reporters Jan. 7 that she won’t reintroduce the Invest in Iowa Act this session.
Obradovich: “One of the big unfinished agenda items from 2020 was mental health funding. Mental health remains a priority of the governor and it was a bipartisan priority in 2020, pre-pandemic. In 2018 and 2019 they created expanded frameworks for adult and children’s mental health systems and put a little bit of money into the system for 2020, but other than the Invest In Iowa Act, they have not identified any alternative, sustainable sources of money for either system. So they need to start over. With the new Legislature, there’s going to be a lot of new legislators who need to be taken through the process of where they are from here. It may take a while. Clearly the pandemic has exacerbated the need for an adequate mental health system. But it hasn’t made any more money available. So we’ll have to see where they go with that.”
Child care is a massive issue in Iowa. Where did the Legislature leave off in 2020? What are they expected to address in this session?
Background: Before the session was paused in March, the House passed five bills in one day that dealt with child care availability and affordability. Only one of them made it through the Senate and was signed into law. Business groups, such as the Iowa Business Council, have made it one of their highest legislative priorities.
Obradovich: “Child care is something that the business community is very interested in. They’re identifying it as a workforce issue. It’s also a COVID issue because people recognized that if kids are learning from home, parents can’t go to work. Whether lawmakers think they have money to put into the system, that’s the question. Are you going to be able to actually put money into making sure that the child care system is affordable and child care providers can make an adequate living? I don’t know what the feeling is about setting priorities beyond getting a status quo budget done and out of Dodge. There was legislation introduced about the child care cliff. They wanted to ramp down the assistance so as you earn more money, your child care assistance would ramp down but not drop off the cliff. It’s possible that they just ran out of time to work through that. I think that will probably be back this year and part of the overall child care discussion.”
Women left the workforce in record numbers as a result of the pandemic. Can the Legislature do anything to bring them back?
Background: In September, women dropped out of the U.S. workforce at four times the rate of men. While this was mostly due to COVID, a Lean In report found that of 40,000 women surveyed across corporate America between May and August, 1 in 4 was contemplating resigning or downshifting her career, hinting that larger issues may be at play.
Obradovich: “There are overall workforce initiatives that started before the pandemic, like the Future Ready Iowa program. There’s nothing specifically aimed at women because Iowa’s workforce issue is broader than that. They want to get everyone into the workforce. I don’t think that we’re going to see work specifically aimed at women except to the extent of the child care issue, if you see that as something that affects women more than men.”
There are a lot of issues in the realm of education that have been affected by COVID-19, including in-person learning, drops in college and university enrollment and broadband access. Let’s talk about that.
Background reading: Gov. Kim Reynolds set guidelines that required schools to hold 50% of instruction in person, unless they are granted a waiver. In the higher education realm, enrollment across Iowa’s public, private and community colleges this fall dropped 4.7% from a year ago, which has raised concerns about funding.
Obradovich: “The Legislature could forgive schools that were in violation of the governor’s emergency order, or they could say, ‘We’re going to provide a little extra money for districts that have to add to their school year because of the pandemic.’ But realistically, I would be surprised if that happened.
“The Board of Regents decide whether to raise tuition. So the regents can put it on the Legislature by saying, ‘Well, if you don’t support us to the level that we need, we’re going to have to raise tuition.’ I think the regents have another tough couple of years coming and that their best bet for aid will be at the federal government level.
“Broadband is definitely a high priority. I think again, the question is where you get the money. They’ve had lots of strategies and lots of policy. My guess is that first the state is going to look at how best they can leverage the federal dollars that they have coming in for broadband. Unless something really weird happens, I definitely would expect something to happen with broadband.
Republican lawmakers have made anti-abortion legislation a priority in recent years. To catch people up, what did the Legislature and Gov. Reynolds accomplish last year, and what do they hope to accomplish in 2021?
Background: In an overnight debate in June 2020, the Legislature passed a bill approving a 24-hour waiting period to get an abortion. Immediately after, a judge temporarily blocked the enforcement of the law.
Obradovich: “The big prize for Republicans is advancing a proposed constitutional amendment that says there’s no right to abortion in the state constitution. They have been unable to advance that, but I have no doubt they will try again. One of the most successful ways that they have tried to restrict abortions is by targeting Planned Parenthood directly, shutting off money for abortion providers and women’s health care. Some of the news has shown that it has coincided with an actual increase in abortions because it shuts off access to birth control. So one of the other initiatives that the governor announced was an effort to allow birth control pills to be purchased over the counter. That did not make it through the Legislature last year. She may come back and try that again.”
Are there any other issues that aren’t necessarily considered priorities but are still being looked at?
Obradovich: “I would definitely expect further discussion of social justice issues. The governor’s criminal justice task force came up with a set of recommendations addressing racial profiling and pretextual traffic stops. Some of those issues were definitely priorities for those at the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer but ones the Legislature did not address in June. Because this was a high-profile task force and the recommendations are coming forward from a group that included law enforcement, the NAACP, the prison system and other activists, this will have a significant amount of the governor’s juice behind it. I can’t predict how lawmakers will receive it, but I do think that will be something that we see as a priority coming out of the governor’s office this year.
“Housing initiatives are going to be really expensive and money is the problem. Do they try to make progress by setting up some sort of program and then that program sits until there’s money available, or do they wait and see what might be coming in terms of federal aid? Both the state and the federal government are playing in this field. What we’re likely to see is maybe they try to consolidate some programs and try to focus the impact. But I haven’t heard someone come out with a grand house plan at this point.
“There was a bill last year that would have expanded the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. That one didn’t make it to the finish line, but it’s possible that some of those issues might come back.
“In terms of an LGBTQ-related bill, the one that has had the most traction over the past few years is billed as a religious freedom bill, where you have concern about some business owners who end up getting sued because they don’t want to bake wedding cakes for gay couples, or things like that. That bill comes up pretty often in the Senate. National employers including Principal, Amazon and Google show up and say, ‘Don’t do this, this will affect our workforce,’ and so far the Senate has listened to them and so the bills basically die in committee. I think the business community tends to rally in favor of the LGBTQ constituency because they view that having a state that doesn’t put restrictions on those folks is a workforce issue. Lawmakers are predisposed to listen to the business community, but they especially are now, coming out of the pandemic.”