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New Iowa Senate Minority Leader Sets Out Priorities For 2021 Session

John Pemble
IPR file
New Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls says Senate Democrats will prioritize financial assistance for Iowans affected by the pandemic.

The new Iowa Senate Minority Leader says one of Senate Democrats’ top priorities for the next legislative session is to call on the Republican majority to spend state money on a pandemic relief package.

Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said some of the state’s $305 million budget surplus and $770 million reserve or “rainy day” funds should go to essential workers, food assistance and small business relief.

Wahls said this is the time to use rainy day funds. He said it’s not just a rainy day; it’s a thunderstorm.

“Families across our state are hurting. They’re sick, their communities are being devastated, and for us to just sit on our hands is completely unacceptable,” Wahls said. “Republicans need to start using these rainy day funds because we’re in the middle of a thunderstorm.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican legislative leaders have relied almost entirely on money from the federal government to provide pandemic-related assistance to Iowans.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he understands people are hurting and said he wants to help. But on Friday, he said Senate Republicans had not yet discussed whether they will spend some of the budget surplus on relief programs.

“We have to be smart about our funding,” Whitver said. “I look at it as a balance of trying to provide the assistance where it’s needed, with not just raiding every rainy day fund we have.”

Wahls said Senate Democrats are also calling for an independent commission to investigate pandemic-related issues, including the governor’s misuse of CARES Act money and how nursing homes and meatpacking plants have handled COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We need an independent body that has subpoena power and is able to compel testimony from people to get to the bottom of these questions, and to help the people of Iowa understand what has happened during this crisis,” Wahls said.

He added the commission should be nonpartisan and made up of people with experience in areas like government accountability, law, and workplace safety.

Senate Democrats also want to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are free for Iowans. The federal government has indicated the vaccines will be free for everyone, but questions remain about whether that will truly be the case in all situations. Expanding access to child care, preschool, and broadband also top their list for the 2021 legislative session.

Wahls said the Iowa Legislature should do more to help schools with PPE and contact tracing, and to provide more support to school districts that have higher populations of more vulnerable students likely to be seriously impacted by disruptions throughout this school year.

He said funding the children’s mental health system is an important part of that.

“Knowing the challenges that are going to be out there in terms of the mental health experience for children—kind of being in this socially distant experience for over a year, it’s a very traumatic experience for young people—making sure we have that full support for the mental health system is very important,” Wahls said.

Reynolds is asking lawmakers to approve funding in 2021 for a new state human resources software system that is already in the works. She allocated federal pandemic relief money for the project, but then had to return it.

Wahls said he believes the state has more urgent priorities that need to be funded.

Reynolds is also expected to propose anti-racial profiling legislation. Wahls said he thinks that would be a step in the right direction, and he would also like to see lawmakers address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

The 2021 legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 11.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter