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

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — After a marathon day that stretched into Saturday’s early hours, Iowa lawmakers wrapped up a four-month legislative session that focused on reforming the way special education is managed and speeding up tax cuts. The Republican-led General Assembly also waded into issues like immigration and religious freedom, which have proven core to the party’s 2024 campaign message.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, pushed many priorities through the Legislature after submitting 18 requests for bill drafts, more than any other year of her tenure and any other governor since 2006, publicly available data shows.

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

REYNOLDS’ PRIORITIES DOMINATE SESSION

Education was a key issue for Reynolds this session, including one proposal to revise the state’s education system for students with disabilities that consumed lawmakers’ attention.

Reynolds wanted school districts to be able to choose how to use their special education dollars. For decades, those funds have gone directly to cooperatives known as area education agencies, or AEAs, that provide special education services.

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

MORE ON EDUCATION

Lawmakers also approved an increased minimum salary for Iowa teachers. In the upcoming 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 rises to $60,000. Both figures will increase again in the following school year.

The law also addressed non-salaried teachers and staff, allocating $14 million to help schools raise supplemental teacher pay.

In the final days of the session, lawmakers passed provisions to restrict programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, at the state’s public universities, joining a wave of Republican-led states weighing in on the initiatives. The bill prohibits staff positions and offices dedicated to creating or promoting DEI policies, programming or training, except as otherwise required by federal regulations.

IMMIGRATION LAW

Iowa Republicans followed Texas’ footsteps by passing a bill making it a state crime for a person to be in Iowa if previously denied admission to or 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 to enforce federal immigration law.

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

PREGNANCY BILLS

A bill passed this year updated an existing program that funds nonprofits known as crisis pregnancy centers, typically nonmedical facilities that counsel clients against having an abortion, charging the state’s health agency with implementation after it had difficulty finding a third-party administrator.

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

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

Iowa Democrats, who have proposed expanded Medicaid maternity leave in the past, said the bill would remove benefits for certain mothers who did not meet the lower income threshold.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Iowa joined about two dozen other states by enacting an echo of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that said government would not be able to “substantially burden” someone’s constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Republicans argued that religious freedom is under attack, so the state’s code needed to further enshrine those rights, while Democrats said it would allow some people’s religious beliefs to justify discrimination.

TAX CUTS

Republican lawmakers voted to speed up the state’s 2022 income tax cuts, instituting a 3.8% flat income tax rate beginning next year.

Republicans also took the first steps toward two tax-related constitutional amendments to put 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. To put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, Iowa lawmakers have to approve it in two consecutive sessions, so both resolutions would have to pass again in 2025 or 2026 to make the ballot.

WHAT DIDN’T SUCCEED

Lawmakers rejected one bill that would have removed gender identity from the state’s civil right law and another that would have narrowly defined male and female. The latter, requested by Reynolds, would have required a transgender person’s assigned sex at birth to be listed alongside their gender identity on their birth certificate.

House Republicans failed to advance a Senate-approved bill proposed by chemical giant Bayer that would have given the company legal protections against claims it failed to warn that its popular pesticide Roundup causes cancer, if the company is otherwise in compliance with federal regulations. One House Republican, a farmer, said he’ll put his name on it next year to try to see it through.

Iowa lawmakers also did not put forth a ballot initiative declaring there is no constitutional right to abortion in the state — after initially advancing the measure in 2021. Reynolds has said she’ll let the issue move through the courts rather than push for a vote. Iowa’s current law banning most abortions after roughly six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant, was enacted in July but paused by a judge soon after. The state Supreme Court will weigh in on 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 voicing concerns about the potential impact on in vitro fertilization following an Alabama court ruling that frozen embryos can be considered children. Iowa’s law currently outlines penalties for terminating or seriously injuring a “human pregnancy.” The House-approved bill would have changed that language to apply to the death of, or serious injury to, an “unborn person” from fertilization to live birth.

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