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COVID-19, school choice hang over Iowa lawmakers as they gavel in Spring legislative session

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DES MOINES, Iowa (KWWL) -- Iowa state lawmakers returned to the capitol Monday to start the 2021 legislative session with a long agenda of issues hanging over them. Chief among them is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic fallout left in its wake.

Republicans have a majority in both the state House and Senate. During the November election, they gained seats in both chambers, which Republican leaders said is a further mandate and affirmation of their agenda.

COVID-19 Relief

On COVID-19 relief, Republicans are waiting for what they hope is more aid from the federal government.

"We are going to work with the governor as far as federal funds coming in to make investments or help where needed," State Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny said.

Democrats are calling for a pandemic relief package for Iowans. The state currently has a $305 million budget surplus and $770 million in reserve or "rainy day" funds. They believe some of that money should go to essential workers, food assistance, and small business relief.

"If this isn't a rainy day, I don't know what a rainy day is," State Sen. Eric Giddens, D-Waterloo, said. "We need to use that money to support people that are struggling."

In their opening speeches on Monday, Democratic leaders called on for lawmakers to do more to get the state back on track.

"We are living in tumultuous times and the pandemic has added to the challenge we have already faced in Iowa with a shortage of good-paying jobs, inadequate access to health care and low public school funding," House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said. "We need a robust recovery package focused on long-term recovery efforts to help our economy."

"We can help our cities and towns, which have borne the brunt of this crisis," New Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said. "We can give food banks the aid they so desperately need because, since last March, the number of Iowa families with children experiencing food insecurity has tripled."

Whitver said he is opposed to the plan because of what happened when he said Democrats tried to do something similar during the 2008/2009 recession. He said it took the state almost a decade to recover and led to property tax increases and big cuts to education.

"That is not an avenue we have been willing to take over the past few years," he said.

Republican lawmakers will likely focus on school choice, giving the parents the option to send their kids to school in-person 100% of the time as the pandemic continues. Whitver said he expects there to be a quick and healthy discussion on how to do that as quickly as possible.

"We need to do everything we can to get those kids back in school, in a classroom where they learn best," Whitver said. "We cannot afford as a state, as a society, to let an entire generation of kids fall behind. and yet that is what we see across the state in many schools."

Child care & voting laws

One issue likely to draw support from both sides of the aisle this session is the need to increase access to safe and affordable child care. It was an issue lawmakers wanted to tackle before the pandemic but fell short in last year's shortened session.

"Our state was facing a child care crisis before COVID-19 even began. Often, families are hesitant or outright reject a pay raise because it could result in the loss of their child care assistance," House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford said Monday. "This is the cliff effect, and it must be addressed because it is holding our workforce and our families back. It is incumbent upon the Legislature to provide an off-ramp from government assistance when it comes to child care."

Democrats like State Sen. Giddens, D-Waterloo are also on board.

"We need to continue to do whatever we can as a state to support a more inclusive workforce and give more equitable opportunities for people to participate in our workforce fully and our economy," he said.

Lawmakers are also interested in making changes to some voting rules, specifically absentee ballots. Several county auditors got in trouble in the fall for sending out pre-filled absentee ballots. A constitutional amendment to ensure the right to bear arms and criminal justice reform could also come up.

Attack on the U.S. Capitol

The leaders of both parties in the Iowa House addressed last week's deadly attack on the U.S. capitol Monday morning.

“This session, let’s show Iowans and the rest of the country that we can express our disagreements passionately, unequivocally without resorting to violence, aggression or contempt,” Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley said.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard called out his Republican colleagues. He said they had a role in creating the environment that led to the attack.

“As an elected leader, I am disgusted at the reaction, or rather the inaction, of some and many of my Republican colleagues here in Iowa,” Prichard said. “For too long, politicians have not only enabled but served as a willing partner in the spread of misinformation about election fraud.”

The new legislative session runs 110 days through April.

Anti-mask protest

During Monday's session, lawmakers were met by hundreds of protesters calling for the state to ease its mask requirements.

They chanted "Freedom" and many held signs that said "Coercion is not consent" and "Mandates belong in socialist countries."

Under the current Public Health Disaster proclamation, face masks are required when people are in an indoor public space, and unable to social distance for 15 minutes or longer.

This comes as Iowa Democrats were concerned of the session being a 'superspreader' event with few COVID-19 restrictions in place at the Capitol.

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Daniel Perreault

Reporter

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