2019 Legislative Recap

A summary of Iowa’s 2019 Legislative Session

Zach Wahls
May 26 · 9 min read
Looking back on the Iowa Capitol from my first night as a Senator on January 14, 2019.

Looking back and looking forward

The Iowa Senate adjourned about one month ago, and I feel like I am finally catching my breath and getting back into a good routine. A lot of life piled up over the past five months, and during the twelve months of campaigning before that. I am in total awe of people who manage to do this who have children and full-time work responsibilities.

Needless to say, I learned a lot about politics, power, persuasion, and more, which I wrote about separately and you can read here.

Here, I want to recap the legislative session—the bills that passed and the bills that didn’t pass, for both better and worse. Going forward, I’m hoping to host monthly town halls on Facebook, and I’m planning to hold a series of listening posts in the lead up to the legislative session this fall.

As always, if you have feedback, suggestions for legislation, or any questions about state services, please email me at zach.wahls@legis.iowa.gov or call my office at (319) 318–2094. I want to hear from you!

Committee Assignments

I was fortunate to earn terrific committee assignments as a freshman legislator:

  • Agriculture — our Ag Economy touches about 30% of Iowa’s economy and is the lifeblood of Iowa’s 800+ small towns. While I’m one generation removed from the farm, I loved serving on the Agriculture Committee, building lasting relationships, and learning more and more about Iowa agriculture.
  • Education—the Education Committee oversees nearly half of our state budget and sets spending on K-12 public schools. We also oversee the policy decisions relating to our entire education system, including higher education.
  • Ways and Means (Taxes)—the Ways and Means Committee writes our state’s tax laws. I learned a lot, and I still have a lot more to learn. Our tax laws are some of the most powerful ways public policy is set and they are some of the least understood.
  • Appropriations (Spending)—the Appropriations Committee oversees our state budget in totality. This committee is broken down into several subcommittees (see below) that set spending in each area. But as a member of the larger committee, I learned a lot about how Iowa’s budget is set.
  • Education Appropriations Subcommittee—I serve as “Ranking Member” on this committee, which basically means that I am the highest ranking member of the minority. As a result, I worked directly with the Chairman, Senator Tim Kraayenbrink, on this committee (which we refer to as the “Education Budget Sub” in the Senate) to set education spending on higher education, community colleges, and more. Basically, everything not specific to K-12.

Legislation I Supported

There are many bills that passed this year I’m excited to have helped support.

On education—I served on the subcommittee that dealt with equalizing transportation funding for our rural schools that have higher transportation costs. This was a big benefit to some of my rural communities in Cedar County. I hope we’re going to continue to grow that investment next year before tying its growth to overall state education spending growth.

We also funded the “Future Ready Iowa” initiative’s “Last Dollar Scholarship,” which will help students access higher education and job training programs across the state.

We also extended the “SAVE Penny” sales tax for school infrastructure, which was set to expire in 2029. This bill also contained billions of dollars in property tax relief over the next thirty-two years.

One of my biggest accomplishments came on the Education Budget Subcommittee.

During my campaign, I heard about the backlog in our community college’s Adult English as a Learning Language courses. Over and over, I heard from business leaders, members of our area’s large and growing immigrant community, and Kirkwood Community College that this backlog was a problem. And we weren’t alone.

I was proud to insert a new line-item into the education budget which will cut the Adult ELL backlog in half.

My team and I surveyed community colleges across the state, and it turns out that across Iowa, there are nearly 1,300 people who want to participate in an adult ELL class but who are stuck on a waiting list. Our community colleges estimated it would cost approximately $1.1 million to clear that backlog. I was able to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans to create a new line item that adds $500,000 of new money to our community colleges to cut that backlog in half. This educational opportunity is good for Iowans learning English, good for our employers, and good for our communities.

On health care—we took the first step to creating a children’s mental health system, although we still don’t have a dedicated funding source. I serve on the Iowa Mental Health Planning Council and this is going to be a major focus of our meetings before the next legislative session in 2020. We also implemented new protections for seniors and at-risk children, passed “Logan’s Law” which adds an organ donation box to hunting and fishing licenses, and carefully expanded our medical cannabidiol program to assist people with chronic pain. Unfortunately, Governor Reynolds vetoed this expansion to our state’s medical cannabidiol program. I am hopeful the legislature will override her veto next year. Finally, we also began to move the needle on prescription drug prices by taking a look at the role played by Pharmacy Benefit Managers.

On agriculture—I served on the bipartisan subcommittee tasked with writing the bill to legalize industrial hemp. That was one of my biggest legislative achievements of the year. Industrial hemp is a fiber with hundreds of commercial uses, and growing it will be good for our soil and water quality, farm incomes, and consumers. I also am responsible for a 40-acre limit for individual farm operations during the first few years of this new program. While this provision was a little controversial, I advocated for it because I believe this will help ensure that small family farms will benefit from this opportunity, instead of benefiting only a few exceptionally large producers. If this provision doesn’t work, we’ll be revisiting it in the near future.

We also expanded the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit, which is especially important for young farmers at this time given the ongoing policy volatility at the federal level.

Legislation I Opposed

I’m a Democrat, and we are very much in the minority in the Legislature. In the Senate, we are down 18–32, which means the majority had the ability to pass lots of bad bills without our ability to do much about it beyond raising public awareness. I’m especially concerned about four bills in particular, although there are many more about which I have concerns.

Judicial Nominating Changes—First, Republicans passed a bill that made changes to our judicial nominating system. I’m not opposed to revising our judicial nominating system, but any changes made should be bipartisan — unfortunately, that’s not what happened. And with her new powers under this bill, Governor Reynolds has already appointed a new member to the judicial nominating commission who had specifically written publicly about politicizing the courts. So that’s not a promising start.

Conservation Complications—Second, Republicans passed a bill that prohibits the use of state funds to acquire public lands for parks, bike trails, hunting, fishing, water quality projects, or flood mitigation projects. I heard from a lot of people about this topic and I was disappointed that it passed.

“Strict Scrutiny” Constitutional Amendment—Third, Republicans passed a bill that is going to begin the process of amending the Iowa Constitution to put second amendment language into the Iowa constitution with a “strict scrutiny” twist. I fully support putting the second amendment as it is written in the US constitution into the Iowa constitution, and, in fact, I voted to do so. The vast majority of states have done this in fact.

I’m highly concerned about this “strict scrutiny” language because it will create a new legal standard that may invalidate guns laws that we already have on the books — like background checks or handgun permits. The key point is that we don’t know what is going to happen because only three other states have this kind of language and it’s still very new.

The HHS Budget—Finally, the Health and Human Services budget that we passed in the final days of the session had some very nasty components, including the defunding of sex education programming for by Planned Parenthood, specifically because Planned Parenthood is also an abortion provider. Let me say that again. Republicans defunded a program to teach teenagers sexual education which includes how to use contraception and avoid unwanted pregnancies because Republicans believe abortions are bad.

Don’t think about that one too hard.

This budget bill also included a policy that targeted the use of taxpayer money to pay for the healthcare of transgender Iowans. It’s incredibly disappointing that the legislature would needlessly target a minority group that is already facing a lot of stigma and attacks at the federal level. If the legislature is so concerned with spending on Medicaid, we should be reversing Medicaid privatization, not going after trans people.

Finally, one of the biggest disappointments of this bill was how it was enacted, using a legislative maneuver that prevented Democrats from offering amendments. My colleagues told me this was unprecedented on a budget bill.

Failed Bills I Opposed

The good news is there are also a lot of bad bills that I opposed and that did not pass. Here’s just a selection of those bills:

  • Ban on tenure at our state universities and community colleges
  • A constitutional amendment to ban all abortions, including in cases of rape and incest
  • Reinstating the death penalty
  • Removing health screenings from public schools
  • Taxing solar installations
  • Private school vouchers
  • Eliminating the need to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon

Bills to Work On Next Year

There were also many bills I supported that failed to make it over the finish line this year that I will be working on next year.

Mobile Home Protections — One of the biggest, late-developing storylines of the legislative session was an out-of-state investment group named Havenpark Capital purchasing five mobile home communities across our state (including two in my district) and jacking up the rent. When this happened, I was shocked to learn just how few protections Iowa mobile home residents have in our state. In the closing days of the session, I worked overtime on this issue, successfully pushing through the Senate 48–0 a bill that included the largest expansion of rights for Iowa mobile home residents in decades. HF 638 would have enacted two key protections: a “good cause” protection and increasing the rent increase notice period from 60 to 180 days. This bill, unfortunately, died in the House, where lobbyists prevented it from going to the floor for a vote.

Our bill passed 48–0 in the Senate and would have been the single largest expansion of mobile home tenant’s rights in decades. Previous efforts had never come close.

Thankfully, Havenpark Capital (the out-of-state investment group) got the message, and they are walking back their rent increases. But I will be continuing to work on this issue next year.

Animal Welfare Protections—I was also surprised to learn during my campaign that Iowa has some of the weakest animal welfare laws in America. A bipartisan bill passed the Iowa House with massive majorities, but unfortunately, it was prevented from coming to the floor in the Senate. I had several people ask me how this could happen. Basically, the floor agenda is controlled by the leader of the chamber. If the Leader doesn’t want it to come up, it doesn’t come up. And in the Iowa Senate, Majority Leader Jack Whitver had a group (about 10–12) of his own GOP Senators who were strongly opposed to the bill. They threatened other parts of Leader Whitver’s agenda, so he decided to not put the Animal Welfare bill up for a vote. This was a huge disappointment and something I hope can be fixed next year.

Fully funding our children’s mental health system—As I mentioned earlier, the creation of the Children’s mental health system is an important step forward. But I have already heard from the people responsible for this implementation in my region that unless we actually fund this system, they will not be able to offer the programs and services our young people need.

Continuing to reform our health care system—There is so much to do in continuing to bring improvements to our health care system in Iowa. We desperately need to make changes to Iowa’s Medicaid system. We need more transparency in pricing. We need to bring down health insurance premiums for people in the marketplace. We need to guarantee protections for people with pre-existing conditions at the state level. And so much more.

It was a busy session — and yet it slipped by incredibly quickly. I’m already at work preparing for next year. And, as always, if you have feedback, ideas or suggestions for legislation, or any questions about state services, please email me at zach.wahls@legis.iowa.gov or call my office at (319) 318–2094. I want to hear from you!

Thank you for reading.

Zach Wahls

Written by

Iowa Senator

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