Common Good Iowa

2023 legislative recap

There is no getting around it. The just-completed legislative session was surely the worst in memory for all who recognize the potential of public policy to lift up and offer opportunity to all Iowans.

Among the lowlights:

  • A full embrace of vouchers to subsidize private, religious education at the expense of public schools and other services. Vouchers will divert public dollars from our public schools that have a responsibility to serve all students, no matter their race, religion, income, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Taxpayers will subsidize rising tuition costs in religious schools for families already able to send their children there, from a state General Fund that is scheduled to shrink sharply because of tax cuts passed in 2022. 

  • A voluminous slate of anti-LGBTQ+, and particularly anti-trans, policies that set up for harassment and loss of needed health care a group of Iowans who are simply asking for the freedom to live their authentic lives.

  • Extra administrative hurdles for struggling families who need food and health-care assistance. New red tape for SNAP, Medicaid and Hawki will take food, doctor’s visits, and medications from thousands of Iowans, even those eligible to receive benefits.

  • New threats to children’ safety in the workplace. Incredible advocacy by labor leaders and allies made the child labor bill less terrible than the original, but it will still put more children in dangerous work conditions.

Even steps forward were tempered. Legislators approved an overdue boost to Child Care Assistance, raising the family eligibility level from 145% to 160% of the federal poverty level and increasing reimbursement paid to participating child care providers. We can and should do more, but it’s a decent start.

But in the spirit of “two steps forward and one step back,” lawmakers also ratcheted up the number of hours parents are required to work to get the help, from an average of 28 to an average of 32 hours a week. As many low-wage jobs are part time and challenging to juggle amidst the demands of parenting, and it is easy to see how this expansion of work requirements will be counterproductive.

Meanwhile, lawmakers did nothing to address the scourge of wage theft, left Iowa’s minimum wage at a paltry $7.25 an hour, and declined to join the vast majority of states that have extended Medicaid postpartum coverage from six weeks to one year to assure continuity of care during a vulnerable time.

The overarching theme: Lawmakers put special interests and privilege ahead of the common good, using cultural wedge issues to fan the flames of division in Iowa. They squandered a chance to offer opportunity and bring people together.

Lawmakers continue budgeting for tax cuts

Lawmakers again this session passed a budget that intentionally drives down funding for education and other critical public services – not just for the near term but long into the future. Over the last three years they have effectively created a separate budget category for long-term tax cuts.

Here’s how it happened. While Iowa has a 99 percent spending limit, lawmakers have set a budget using only 82 percent of available revenue. In other words, they budgeted only about $4 of every $5 available.

The other dollar? They're holding that back for future tax cuts. Not budgeted for services nor needed for already full reserve funds, hundreds of millions of dollars will go to the so-called “Taxpayer Relief Fund” to be used for tax cuts that will disproportionately privilege the already privileged few.

Meanwhile, they pit services against one another as those tax cuts shrink the budget pie.

>> Read our fact sheet, “Budgeting for the Bathtub

Legislative leaders did not advance their radical proposal to fully phase out the state income tax this session, but they and the Governor have made it clear it’s still a priority. The income tax generates half of all revenue for the state’s general fund. Imagine cutting half of all funding for schools, Medicaid, public safety or the judicial system!

We must be on guard against new attempts next year to systematically dismantle the commitments we have made over decades to guard Iowans’ health, safety and opportunity and make our state attractive to all families and good businesses that provide good jobs.

Property tax cuts bring uncertainty

Lawmakers passed a bill they say will cut local property taxes by $100 million. But they have avoided the question of what services may be cut as a result.

On average, low- and moderate-income people tend to pay a higher share of their income in property taxes compared with high-income households, but how those cuts play out in equity terms demands further analysis, along with how services are affected. In addition, targeting cuts to specific groups of Iowans, like older Iowans or veterans, as opposed to basing them on ability to pay — is a missed opportunity to seek better fairness in our property tax system.

As we look ahead to the 2024 session, the balance of funding services will demand more scrutiny, and persistent questions from Iowans that go beyond the tax-cut pandering that has become common from legislators.

What comes next?

From the ashes of the 2023 session are some bright spots. Those bright spots included a committed group of Iowans from varied constituencies who banded together to fight attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, and who stood firmly for respect and empathy for communities of color and others who have been marginalized by history and its legacy. All Iowans, no matter their race, gender, age, or ZIP code deserve equal opportunity and a place at the policymaking table.

A more transparent and inclusive approach to governing than we saw in 2023 offers hope that the priorities of all Iowans will be recognized, in civic discussion and in our state budget, in 2024 and beyond. Opportunity and health of our people, our businesses and our communities depend on it.

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