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Iowa Senate Majority Leader Sets Out Priorities For 2020

jack whitver
John Pemble
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver

The top Republican in the Iowa Senate says cutting taxes and addressing the state’s workforce shortage will be major priorities when lawmakers convene for the 2020 legislative session January 13.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, has the authority to set the lawmaking agenda in the 50-person chamber.

“We still have a very uncompetitive tax system,” Whitver said Wednesday in an interview with Iowa Public Radio. “Although we’ve passed significant tax reform, we still have a ways to go as far as our tax environment here in the state of Iowa. And probably the biggest challenge that we face as a state is our workforce.”

In terms of tax changes, Whitver has been talking about a potential plan to raise the statewide sales tax one cent, and use part of the proceeds for a voter-approved natural resources trust fund, and the rest to support income tax cuts.

Republicans enacted sweeping income tax cuts in 2018, but they have not been fully phased in yet. State revenue will have to hit certain growth levels for additional tax cuts to kick in.

Still, Whitver said Senate Republicans will not pass a new tax package in 2020 unless it is effectively a net tax reduction.

Whitver has indicated property taxes and the “backfill”—state dollars paid to communities to make up for commercial property tax cuts—may also be part of the tax conversation in the Senate, especially in relation to paying for mental health services.

“I think one of the biggest priorities we’ll have this year is to address our mental health funding,” Whitver said. “We need to find a reliable, stable, consistent source of funding for that. And right now, that’s paid for on property taxes, and we’re not going to raise property taxes on anybody.”

The top Democrats in the legislature said they are concerned that raising the sales tax and cutting income taxes will negatively affect low-income families, and that it could limit lawmakers’ ability to fund state programs for education and health care.

Whitver said he is still working with House Republicans and the governor to find a path forward on tax changes. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she was considering using part of a sales tax increase to fund mental health.

Public assistance changes

Whitver said changing eligibility requirements for public assistance programs like Medicaid and SNAP (food assistance) will also be a priority.

He said adding work reporting requirements for Medicaid would help fill the state’s workforce needs. And he said the state should try to root out waste and fraud.

Republican senators in 2019 passed bills to add work reporting requirements for Medicaid, and to require the Iowa Department of Human Services to check recipients’ eligibility more often. DHS officials informed lawmakers that this would be very expensive. House Republicans did not vote on these proposals in 2019.

Asked about the potential costs of such policies, Whitver said he disputes past fiscal estimates from DHS.

“I’m not asking them to change the fiscal note,” Whitver said. “What I’m asking is to get good, accurate information. And I believe, after meeting with the new director, that we will be able to get better information.”

Kelly Garcia of Texas recently became the Iowa Department of Human Services director.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said Whitver’s comments about the cost of those policies are “suspect.”

Whitver also acknowledged Medicaid work requirements have been struck down by courts in other states, but he noted the Trump administration is still encouraging states to pursue them.

Responding to governor's criminal justice reform proposals

A governor-appointed criminal justice reform committee is recommending that Iowa pass a “ban the box” law for public employers in Iowa.

It would prevent state, county and city government entities from asking about an applicant’s criminal history before offering an interview, with some exceptions. State entities already do this in practice, but it’s not the law.

Whitver said Senate Republicans have looked at similar legislation before, but it didn’t have the support to pass. 

“Certainly if the governor comes out with a priority on criminal justice reform, we’re going to work with her on that,” Whitver said. “I do have concerns when you tell employers they can’t ask about who they’re hiring, but we want to make sure whatever we do, we’re putting Iowans in a safe position and employers, I think, have a right to know who they’re hiring.”

It’s not clear if Reynolds will make this specific policy a priority, but members of her task force said it would be a good step in helping people get a job after being in prison. 

In April, Senate Republicans blocked Reynolds’ proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions after they complete their sentence.

Whitver said they are still trying to decide on more restrictions for felon voting rights, such as permanently barring people convicted of violent crimes from voting.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter