Iowa lawmakers address immigration, religious freedom and taxes in 2024 session

DES MOINES, Iowa — After a marathon day that stretched into the early hours of Saturday, Iowa lawmakers wrapped up a four-month legislative session that focused on reforming the way special education is administered and accelerating tax cuts. The Republican-led General Assembly also delved into issues of immigration and religious freedom, which are at the heart of the party’s 2024 campaign message.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, has pushed many priorities through the Legislature after filing 18 bill requests, more than any other year of her term and any other governor since 2006, publicly available records show.

Here’s a look at the issues that made headlines:

Education was a top issue for Reynolds this session, including a proposal to overhaul the state’s education system for students with disabilities that captured lawmakers’ attention.

Reynolds wanted school districts to be able to choose how to use their special education dollars. For decades, these funds have gone directly to cooperatives known as Area Education Agencies (AEAs) that provide special education services.

A compromise will allow schools to choose from 2025 how to spend 10% of their funding for special education. But that approach, along with other changes in the final bill, still leaves many disability advocates and AEA staff concerned that institutions and special education will suffer.

Lawmakers also approved an increased minimum salary for teachers in Iowa. In the coming school year, teachers with less than 12 years of experience will earn at least $47,500, up from $33,500. The minimum salary for more experienced teachers will increase to $60,000. Both figures will rise again the following school year.

The law also targeted unpaid teachers and staff, allocating $14 million to help schools increase supplemental teacher pay.

In the final days of the session, lawmakers passed provisions to limit diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs at the state’s public universities, joining a wave of Republican-led states moving on the initiatives weighed. The bill prohibits staff positions and offices engaged in creating or promoting DEI policy, programming, or training, unless otherwise required by federal regulations.

Iowa Republicans followed in Texas’ footsteps by passing a bill that would make it a state crime for someone to be in Iowa if they have previously been denied entry into the United States or if they have been removed from the United States. Reynolds signed it into law on April 10.

In Iowa and across the country, Republican leaders have accused President Joe Biden of neglecting his responsibilities in enforcing federal immigration law.

The Iowa law, which takes effect July 1, has raised concerns among Iowa’s immigrant communities and raised questions among legal experts and law enforcement about how it will be enforced. It mirrors part of a Texas law currently blocked in court. The Justice Department has argued that such state laws are a clear violation of federal authority.

A bill passed this year updated an existing program that funds nonprofits known as crisis pregnancy centers, usually non-medical institutions that counsel clients against undergoing abortions, and charged the state health department with implementing it after it had problems had to find an external manager.

A separate budget bill provides an additional $1 million in funding for the program.

Lawmakers, at Reynolds’ recommendation, also expanded maternity leave from 60 days to 12 months for the state’s lowest-income mothers on Medicaid.

Iowa Democrats, who have proposed expanded Medicaid maternity leave in the past, said the bill would eliminate benefits for certain mothers who don’t meet the lower income threshold.

Iowa joined about two dozen other states in echoing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that said the government could not “substantially burden” a person’s constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Republicans argued that religious freedom is under attack and so the state code should further enshrine those rights, while Democrats said some people’s religious beliefs could justify discrimination.

Republican lawmakers have voted to speed up income tax cuts in 2022, instituting a flat 3.8% income tax rate starting next year.

Republicans have also taken the first steps toward two tax-related constitutional amendments to go before Iowa voters. One would enshrine the state’s use of a single rate for income taxes, and the other would require a two-thirds majority of lawmakers to change the tax code. In order to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, Iowa lawmakers must approve it in two consecutive sessions, so both resolutions would have to be passed again in 2025 or 2026 to come to a vote.

Lawmakers rejected a bill that would have removed gender identity from the state’s civil rights law and another that would have narrowly defined male and female. The latter, at Reynolds’ request, would require a transgender person’s gender assigned at birth to be listed on their birth certificate in addition to their gender identity.

House Republicans have failed to advance a Senate-approved bill from chemical giant Bayer that would have given the company legal protection against claims that it failed to warn that the popular pesticide Roundup causes cancer, if the company continues to comply with federal regulations. One House Republican, a farmer, said he will put his name on it next year to try to pass it.

Iowa lawmakers also have not advanced a ballot initiative declaring that there is no constitutional right to abortion in the state — after initially bringing the measure forward to 2021. Reynolds has said she will let the issue move through the courts rather than push for a vote. Iowa’s current law, which bans most abortions after about six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant, was passed in July but halted by a judge shortly afterwards. The state Supreme Court will hear the case in June.

A bill that would have made changes to Iowa’s fetal homicide law was shelved after a Senate Republican joined Democrats in raising concerns about the potential impact on in vitro fertilization following an Alabama court ruling that frozen embryos can be considered children. Iowa law currently provides penalties for terminating or seriously injuring a “human pregnancy.” The House-passed bill would have changed that language to apply to the death of, or serious injury to, an “unborn person” from conception through live birth.