Iowa – The speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives says House Republicans are prioritizing keeping the state budget in check, expanding child care access, and giving families more choice in education during the 2021 legislative session.
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said the House GOP is discussing potentially using some of the state’s $305 million budget surplus for pandemic-related relief.
Some Democrats have criticized Republican leaders for relying almost entirely on the federal government to pay for assistance for Iowans, and are calling on them to spend the surplus and some of the $770 million in reserves.
Grassley said House Republicans are looking at what needs exist and how those might be met with some of the surplus money without tapping the rainy day funds, which would have to be paid back.
“If we were to do any one-time business infusions or something for the schools, or whatever it would be, that would be the route we would feel more comfortable going,” Grassley said.
House Democratic leaders say they’d also support using the budget surplus for pandemic assistance. Senate Republicans have not yet discussed whether they would want to use surplus money, according to Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver.
Grassley said promoting “parental choice in education” could include policies related to the pandemic and more general school choice proposals. He said the House GOP wants to ensure students have the option of going to school 100 percent in person if that’s what their families want.
In July, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds directed schools to provide the option of majority in-person learning during the pandemic unless they get a waiver from the state, and used a new state law to make that determination. But recently she said kids should be able to be in school full-time and said lawmakers may have to take action to get some districts to offer that.
“I think if the parents and the student make the decision that they think it’s best for their education to be in person, I think that’s the decision they should be making,” Grassley said.
House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said everyone wants to get kids back in school, but leaders should be focused on making it safe for schools to open.
“Do things in a way that protects safety, that protects people, and slows the transmission of COVID down,” Prichard said. “And then if we do that, that’s the fastest way, the most efficient way, to get back to normal.”
For many weeks, test positivity rates in most counties have been far higher than what public health experts say is safe for returning to school.
As for other school choice policies, Republicans have repeatedly considered vouchers that would divert some public school funds to private schools, but they haven’t passed.
House Republicans also advanced several child care policies during the 2020 session, but Senate Republicans did not take those up before the session was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Grassley said he believes there will be enough momentum on this issue in 2021 for lawmakers to find a path forward.
Some Republican lawmakers have called for changes to the governor’s powers during a public health emergency, as some have disagreed with the limited restrictions Reynolds put in place in November.
Grassley said he thinks Reynolds has done “a tremendous job” handling the pandemic. And he said any such changes would have to be made very carefully, and in consultation with Reynolds’ office, as she would ultimately have to sign the bill into law.
“I’m sure there’s some things that everyone wishes could’ve been handled differently—from the legislature’s perspective, from school districts, everyone—but it’s hard to just think you can correct all those while it’s still just so fresh, and still ongoing as it is right now,” Grassley said. “So I would just caution the legislature that this isn’t something that just happens overnight.”