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Iowa Senate Majority Leader Talks Priorities For 2021 Legislative Session

Joyce Russell
IPR file
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said conservative budgeting, mental health funding and tax changes will be priorities in 2021.

The top lawmaker in the Iowa Senate says conservative budgeting, funding the state’s mental health system and tax changes are top priorities for the 2021 legislative session that begins Jan. 11.

Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly called for a more sustainable funding stream for adult mental health services, which are currently funded by local property taxes, but they have yet to take action.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Senate Republicans want to shift the funding from local property tax revenue to state tax revenue. He says lawmakers will have to be creative and make tough decisions in 2021 to make it happen.

“I do know that mental health has been a major issue in the state of Iowa for a while, but now it’s even accelerated with the pandemic and what that has done to mental health for some people,” Whitver said. “So that is a priority to try to get done this year.”

Iowa lawmakers also created a framework for a children’s mental health system in 2019, but they haven’t funded it yet. Both parties said that was a priority for the 2020 session, which was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitver said Senate Republicans have not yet determined what specific tax policies they may pursue during the next legislative session. But he said he would be very interested in removing the revenue growth threshold that, under the 2018 tax changes, would need to be met for the next round of income tax cuts to kick in. The Revenue Estimating Conference is predicting revenue growth will be slightly below that threshold.

“So I think, whether we do it or not, it might hit anyway,” Whitver said. “And so I think in order to add predictability to the whole revenue picture, if we just said yes we’re going to trigger it, that gives us complete predictability on what our revenues will be next year.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said House Republicans have been “fairly reluctant” to consider removing the triggers, because they want to ensure they can still fund state programs.

As for spending state money on assistance for families and businesses affected by the pandemic, Whitver said Friday that Senate Republicans have not discussed whether they would spend any of the $305 million budget surplus on that. House Republicans are considering that, and Democrats think the Iowa Legislature should spend on pandemic relief programs when lawmakers return to the Statehouse in January.

When the 2020 legislative session ended in June, Senate Republicans did not advance a proposed constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions, setting the process back at least two years. Then Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order to restore voting rights in the meantime.

“That took a lot of momentum out of that bill, and I’m not sure if the momentum has come back or not,” Whitver said.

He said Senate Republicans will discuss that when they meet in January.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter