Democratic state lawmakers representing the Iowa Quad-Cities condemned legislation by the Republican-majority Iowa Legislature they argue will erode support and funding for the state's public schools, elections and the unemployed.
The Davenport branches of the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens hosted a virtual forum Saturday with local state lawmakers to discuss legislation working its way through the Iowa statehouse.
All Iowa state representatives and senators representing the Quad-Cities were invited to attend. No Republicans chose to participate. Instead, local Republicans held separate events with constituents Saturday morning in LeClaire and Blue Grass.
Saturday's public event was part of a series of scheduled forums with local Iowa legislators hosted by a collection of local labor, civil rights, education and other groups.
State Sen. Jim Lykam, D-Davenport, and state Reps. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport; Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf; and Monica Kurth, D-Davenport, chastised House and Senate Republicans for pushing "extreme" legislation this session they claim will make it harder for Iowans to vote, delay unemployment benefits for out of work Iowans during a pandemic and erode funding for public K-12 education in favor of private schools.
The Democratic state lawmakers took aim at a series of GOP-backed bills they claim undermine public education. Those include Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' school choice bill, which includes the creation of a private school voucher program and elimination of voluntary diversity plans in Iowa.
The lawmakers said the legislation would weaken public schools by diverting taxpayer dollars from already underfunded public schools. Republicans contend the legislation would provide more educational options for Iowa students and families, particularly in schools that are underperforming. Education experts say the research on school voucher and educational savings account programs across the country has shown mixed results.
"We know we've got some problems with our public education system, but you don't tear it down like this," Lykam said.
Davenport is one of five districts across the state with a diversity plan that allows districts to reject open-enrollment applications in order to maintain diversity in the student population. Elimination of that diversity plan "would potentially finance a cycle that would lead to segregation of Iowa schools," Davenport NAACP President Michael Guster said.
"Allowing the wealthiest families to flee public schools for a less diverse charter or private school, and reducing funds for poor and minority students," Guster said. "This would take Iowa backward."
Thede and other lawmakers agreed.
"You are creating haves and have nots," Thede said. "You are creating a system where the wealthiest will have the best."
State lawmakers passed a $36.5 million increase in state supplemental aid for Iowa's K-12 public school districts next year that is on its way to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for her signature.
Democrats opposed the bill because declining school enrollments — resulting from parents keeping more than 6,000 young children home out of COVID-19 safety concerns — means the new funding level won’t cover about $71 million that will be needed when those kids return this fall.
The bill, Winckler said, represents a $7.5 million cut to preschools.
Under the bill, 137 Iowa school districts will receive less state funding than they did this year, meaning they will have to rely on a "budget guarantee" that supplements lower state aid with local property taxes in those districts, Winckler said.
"They say more funding is coming, but we haven’t seen it yet," she said.
Lawmakers also took issue with Iowa GOP bills sponsored by state Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, and Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, that would make sweeping changes to Iowa elections, claiming they would lead to voter suppression.
The bill would make the state’s early voting time frame one of the shortest in the country, constrain county elections officials’ ability to add drop boxes for completed absentee ballots and establish satellite early voting locations, create stronger punishments for county elections officials that violate state law, and more.
Smith and Kaufmann have said the shortened early voting period is an attempt to prevent voters who from casting an early vote they later regret, reduce the length of campaigns for weary voters, and shore up public confidence in Iowa elections after former President Donald Trump and his allies, absent any evidence, spread debunked and baseless claims casting the 2020 election as fraudulent.
Kurth and lawmakers also criticized a House bill that cleared a labor subcommittee that would make substantial changes in Iowa's unemployment insurance program.
The changes would delay unemployment benefits for a week, make changes in eligibility for benefits, cut the number of dependents in an unemployed person’s household and change how unemployed workers are treated when their employer goes out of business.
Kurth questioned the need for the changes at a time when Iowa has the healthiest unemployment trust fund in the nation and Gov. Kim Reynolds pumped $490 million of federal CARES Act money into it to avoid any solvency issues.
"We have plenty of unemployment funds. We are not in trouble," Kurth said. "This is nothing more than, somehow, a bill that is punishing working people who happen to be unemployed. Bad bill."
Lykam and Thede called the bill more "radical" and "mean-spirited" legislation by statehouse Republicans.
"I don’t understand this mantra. I don't understand, ‘taking away and taking away and taking away,'" Thede said. "We have to divorce ourselves from all of this bad legislation. ... They really are hurting the very fabric of the Iowa citizen. I don't know if they realize that. I don't know if they even care. But, we can’t keep hurting Iowa citizens. That's not a good look."