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Iowa Governor Talks Priorities Ahead Of 2020 Legislative Session

kim reynolds
John Pemble
Gov. Kim Reynolds sits for a photograph in her office Thursday, December 19, 2019.

The Iowa Legislature is set to gavel in January 13, kicking off the third legislative session with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds leading the state.

She wants to focus on policies that will help Iowans getting out of prison successfully re-enter the community. And a criminal justice reform committee appointed by Reynolds recently announced recommendations for that.

“We’re still working through that right now,” Reynolds said. “But I thought the list of recommendations that they proposed were a really good start.”

Iowa Public Radio asked Reynolds if she would support the recommendation to enact a “ban the box” law for public employers. The state already does this in practice, but a law would expand it to cities and counties.

“I am definitely willing to take a look at that,” Reynolds said.

As part of what she calls her “second chance initiatives,” Reynolds plans to continue pushing for passage of a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions when they complete their sentence.

Iowa is now the only state in the nation that permanently disenfranchises all people with felony convictions unless they petition the governor for voting rights restoration. The House of Representatives passed the amendment during the 2019 session, so Reynolds has to convince Senate Republicans to do the same.

“I don’t know if we’re there yet, but we’re going to continue to work on it,” Reynolds said. “I believe that we need a permanent solution—that going back and forth, I don’t think that helps anybody. It adds to the confusion.”

Voting rights advocates have been calling on Reynolds to take executive action to immediately restore voting rights, but she has declined, saying it could be overturned by a future governor. She also dismissed the idea that an executive order could help solve the problems with Iowa’s flawed system for tracking who is barred from voting.

Asked if her personal struggle with alcoholism and drinking and driving convictions from 2000 inspired her focus on these issues, Reynolds said that plays a role.

“I’ve hit bottom, and I’ve seen that if you have the right support system of family, people that care, you can turn your life around and things can be so much better,” Reynolds said.

Governor responds to federal investigation of facilities for disabled Iowans

Federal authorities are investigating two state-run residential facilities for Iowans with disabilities, a development first reported by the Des Moines Register. Some Democratic lawmakers say the facilities are underfunded and understaffed.

Asked if she will propose more funding for these facilities, Reynolds said the state is still “in fact-finding mode.”

“[Department of Human Services] Director [Kelly] Garcia is putting together an external team to come in and take a look at all of the policies and procedures and make recommendations to us on what we need to do moving forward,” Reynolds said. “We’re hoping to start that at the first of the year.”

Reynolds said the situation is “not adequate” and “not acceptable.” She said one change the state is already making is creating a new position to focus on oversight of the state-run residential health facilities.

Mental health funding

In the past two legislative sessions, the state has directed regional systems to develop new mental health services for adults and children.

Mental health services are largely funded through county property taxes, and many stakeholders have concerns about whether that will still work a few years from now. Lawmakers from both parties say it will be a priority in 2020 to ensure sustainable funding for mental health services, but there are a lot of different ideas about how to make that happen.

Reynolds has said she still wants property taxes to be involved. Asked if the state should add to that, she said the state has put money into mental health.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t put more—I’m sure we do need to add some additional revenue to the system—but we need to look at that holistically, find out where the gaps are and where we can be most impactful,” Reynolds said.

Tax policy

Reynolds said her team is still researching potential tax policy changes and how they might affect revenue coming into state coffers.

She said, the legislature decides to raise the sales tax to fund water quality and outdoor recreation, it would have to come with tax cuts in other areas.

“It’s easier said than done,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds also noted that the funding allocation formula for the natural resources trust fund would have to be changed in order for lawmakers to pass the sales tax increase.

Business and taxpayer interest groups want the state to speed up implementation of the 2018 income tax cuts. Further tax cuts will take effect in a few years if state revenue grows a certain amount. Reynolds said she “would love to do that,” but she has concerns about covering the budget in the future.

“I just have to make sure that it’s sustainable,” Reynolds said. “Revenue is looking up, so that’s really good news. But we still have a lot of economic headwinds ahead of us.”

Governor responds to Senate proposals to change public assistance requirements

Senate Republicans say they want to add more eligibility requirements for food and health care assistance programs, which they say will help with the state’s workforce shortage.

Reynolds said she is “willing to take a look at it.” She said she is already trying to tackle the state’s workforce shortage with her Future Ready Iowa initiative to train people for high-demand jobs. And she said more child care access and assistance could also help get people into the workforce.

“But the truth of the matter is, I can’t pay able-bodied adults to stay home anymore,” Reynolds said. “We have jobs looking for people—it is one of the biggest barriers to economic development. And it really is about them. There is dignity in work and being able to take care of yourself and your family.”

She said she is willing to invest in people using public assistance, but she expects them to “step up and participate.”

Critics of public assistance work requirements say that most people who get government assistance are already working and still can’t afford necessities. Medicaid work reporting requirements—a policy passed in the Senate last session—have been struck down by courts in other states.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter