I am 100% the product of public education—all the way from kindergarten through engineering school and law school—and for the past twenty years, I have worked in public education as a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. I am a strong believer in the transformative power of education because I have seen it in myself and in my students. I was the first one in my family to go to college—neither of my parents graduated from high school. My father was a construction worker who worked long hours in dangerous conditions and still struggled to pay for the necessities of life and the trailer we lived in. Fortunately for me, public education was very affordable then, and I was able to work my way through engineering school and then law school at a flagship public university.
Iowa has to live up to its legacy as a champion of education. We have been disinvesting in education over the past couple of decades with legislative funding that has not even kept up with inflation. As a result, many kids are unable or unprepared to go to college, or they graduate with massive debt. This lack of support in our children’s education will likely have serious detrimental effects to our economy and society as a whole.
Often, political debates are about whether to prioritize the economy or social justice. The amazing thing about investing in education is that it advances both. Providing affordable and high-quality public education for all results in creativity, scientific innovation, and a skilled and productive workforce. At the same time, it provides people of all backgrounds—like me—the opportunity for a better life through financial security and social mobility. We should reinvest in education at all levels, from pre-kindergarten all the way through college and graduate/professional education. I believe that every dollar invested in education will yield rewards to the State many times over.
There is no question that Iowa’s privatization of Medicaid has been a disaster and has left thousands of Iowans without access to affordable health care. We have to do better. I believe that health care is a basic human right for all. It is also a broader social concern—it is difficult for families to be productive in their workplaces and communities when they are struggling with health problems and don’t have adequate care.
Mental health care is also at a crisis point in the state. Governor Branstad closed two state psychiatric institutes in his last years as governor. Now, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, Iowa has only two state psychiatric beds per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 12. And this is not a Midwestern thing or a rural thing–Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota are all above average with about 15 each. In fact, Iowa now ranks dead last in the country on the number of state psychiatric beds relative to population.
We have to stop treating mental illness differently than other kinds of illnesses, and we need to stop thinking about it a fringe problem that other people face. We must reverse Iowa’s alarming trend and invest in more mental health treatment facilities in the state.
In addition, the State should allow Medicaid funding to pay for gender confirmation surgery for transgender individuals whose doctors have approved it. The Iowa Supreme Court held in early 2019 that refusing such funding for transgender individuals violates the Iowa Civil Rights Act, because transgender individuals are a protected class. A few months later, Governor Reynolds signed into law a bill that overrode the Court’s decision by “clarifying” that the state’s Civil Rights Act does not require government health care programs to cover gender confirmation surgery. Reynolds’ explanation for the law was just that this has been the state’s position “for a long, long time.”
This is both a medical issue and a human rights issue. It is a medical issue because transgender individuals face high levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies associated with gender dysphoria. It is a human rights issue because -- before we are male, female, transgender, nonbinary, or another gender -- we are all human beings, and we are entitled to be treated equally. Moreover, there are few worse justifications for a law than that “it has always been this way.” This kind of reasoning could be used to return the country to any number of unjust and outdated practices.
Living wage, workers’ rights, and the two-sided economy
As someone who has written a book about innovation, business competition, and economic growth, I believe that businesses – particularly small businesses – are an important part of our economy and our communities. They provide employment and useful products, and they can be forces for social good through innovation and support of local causes. Their legitimate interests should be part of any conversation about the economy.
But over the past several years, our legislature and governor have engaged in lopsided thinking that considers only the business side of the equation. It is critical that we balance business interests with other important interests, like rewarding hard work with a decent wage. We also must recognize the two-sided nature of economies. In the labor market, both public and private employers need good workers. In goods and services markets, sellers need buyers.
Iowa’s wages have been stagnant for some time, and its minimum wage is a dismal $7.25 per hour. Yet, the federal poverty guidelines for 2019 show that a family of four must make $25,570 per year, or $12.38 per hour for a single wage-earner, just to get up to the poverty line. When four counties, including Johnson County, passed a higher local minimum wage, the Republican-led legislature invalidated it by passing a state law preventing local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the State’s. Apparently, Republicans are strong advocates for local control until that principle clashes with big business interests in Iowa.
The legislature also recently eviscerated collective-bargaining rights for public employees, making it much more difficult to form and maintain unions and severely limiting the workplace issues over which employers and workers can collectively bargain. For example, state law now says that public employers and collective-bargaining units can no longer negotiate over essential health benefits, even if they want to. In one fell swoop, the legislature dismantled the careful economic balance that has served Iowa well for many decades.
I believe that Iowa should move toward a $15 minimum wage and restore collective-bargaining rights. We must build the economy from the ground up, and we can’t do that if people can’t afford decent housing or are one illness away from bankruptcy. If we build a strong work force and a solid middle class with money to spend, I am confident that businesses would be happy to locate here.
Threats to democratic governance
The right to vote, and to have your vote count the same as everyone else’s, are cornerstones of our democracy. Every one of the political issues that people care so much about – from abortion to climate change to tax policy – depends on the right to vote. In a diverse and pluralistic society, where we passionately disagree on many issues, it is crucial that we are able to resolve our differences through peaceful means. In a democracy, that means legitimate elections. When we lose on an issue about which we are passionate, we can say, well, at least it was a fair fight.
But our democracy is as vulnerable as it is precious, and some current practices call into question the integrity and fairness of our elections. Today, there are numerous threats to democracy in our state as well as in our country.
Iowa’s Voter ID law
Iowa, like many states, recently passed a “Voter ID” law. The reasons given for this law, as with other such laws around the country, are to reduce fraud, ensure the integrity of elections, and instill public confidence in the system. The problem with this reasoning is that any alleged voter fraud is minimal to non-existent. The Washington Post reported that there were only four confirmed cases of voter fraud in the entire country in the 2016 presidential election. That is 0.000002 percent of the 135 million votes cast. And none of them involved one voter impersonating another, which is the only kind of fraud that a voter ID requirement would prevent.
What really undermines the integrity of elections and public confidence is voter disenfranchisement. Voter ID laws could result in fewer people voting – those who forget to bring their IDs when they go to vote, or those do not have government-issued IDs (which are more often people from marginalized groups).
Unfortunately, an Iowa court recently upheld the law. Until it can be repealed, we must focus on raising public awareness about the law and making sure that people get the proper ID to be able to vote.
The law requires voters to present a government-issued ID before they can vote. A voter can use any of the following: an Iowa driver’s license, an Iowa non-operator identification card, a U.S. Passport, a U.S. military card or veteran’s identification card, or the newly implemented “voter identification card.” The Iowa Secretary of State’s office has said that all registered voters without another state-issued ID should receive a voter identification card in the mail. If you need a voter ID card and would like help to get one, please contact my team at email@example.com.
Voting rights for people with a felony conviction
Iowa has one of the most severe laws regarding taking voting rights away from people who have been convicted of a felony. It is one of only 12 states in the country that do not automatically restore voting rights after release and completion of other requirements of the sentence (parole, probation, payment of debts). I think basic fairness dictates that once people pay their debt to society, their rights should be restored. In addition, I don’t know how we can expect people to ever become upstanding members of society if we permanently treat them like they aren’t.
In the recent case Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court opened the door to partisan gerrymandering in state political districting. By refusing to provide a remedy to partisan gerrymandering, the US Supreme Court abdicated its constitutional responsibility. Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, made one of the saddest statements I have ever read in a Supreme Court opinion. He said “the fact that . . . gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles . . . does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary.” But there is nothing more central to the Court’s role than ensuring our democratic form of government and protecting our most fundamental constitutional right – the right to vote. The Court seemed concerned about “injecting itself into heated partisan issues” without “especially clear standards.” But the fact is, going all the way back to Marbury v. Madison, the Court has injected itself into political fights even more fraught than this one in order to protect our democracy and the rule of law. In the dissenting opinion, other justices showed that there are judicially manageable standards to evaluate gerrymandering. What we have here is not a lack of judicial standards but a lack of judicial courage. History will not look kindly on this decision.
In Iowa, districting is done by a nonpartisan commission and the Legislative Services Agency, and Iowa law says that districting may not be done for partisan advantage or take partisan information into account. But if the legislature twice rejects a nonpartisan plan, the legislature can amend it the third time around “in the same way that it amends any other bill.” This could open the door for the legislature to engage in partisan gerrymandering if it has a mind to. Governor Reynolds has said that the Republicans will not pursue gerrymandering. I hope they stick to that, because the political conditions are right for it: the Iowa House, Senate, and governorship are all controlled by the Republican party. Although Democrats in some other states have sometimes engaged in partisan gerrymandering (and shame on our party when they have), Republicans have been much more aggressive about it when they have complete control of the state government. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for the Democrats to take back control of the Iowa legislature.
Climate change and the environment
Climate change is the defining issue of our time. It is an existential threat to our generation and all future generations. As a state and as a nation, we must take bold and decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reverse the effects of climate change.
As a former Environmental Engineer, I believe in evidence-based decision-making. And overwhelming evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that climate change is real and its effects will be devastating. Iowa is experiencing some of the worst effects of any state in the country, and we must do our part to stop it.
According to the Iowa Policy Project, the Midwest region is already feeling the adverse effects of climate change, and Iowa in particular is seeing some of the clearest impacts in the country. We are already experiencing historic flooding and hotter temperatures, but these impacts are minor compared with projections for the next few decades. Without drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, Iowa is likely to see a new normal of severe flooding, extreme heat, and other volatile weather patterns.
We must make the case for urgent climate action to our state and federal legislators, and we must join global efforts to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. Rather than suffering the worst consequences of climate change, Iowa can lead the way in preventing it. All around the state, we see windmills and solar panels – evidence that Iowa is ready and willing to develop innovative solutions to global problems. Our legislature and governor just need to develop good policies to encourage what people already want and know how to do. We can adopt policies to help farmers to store carbon, incentivize people to use energy-efficient transportation, and encourage builders to engage in sustainable development. All of these strategies can help to curb climate change and grow Iowa’s economy at the same time.
From suicides to group warfare to mass shootings, there can be no denying that we have a serious gun violence problem in this country. It is killing our loved ones and destroying our communities.
There is an urgent need and widespread support for common-sense gun safety legislation. Background checks and red-flag laws, which create a process for removing guns from those who are a danger to themselves or others, would be a good place to start.
Shockingly, instead of passing gun safety legislation, the Iowa legislature has taken the first step toward passing a state constitutional amendment even stronger than the Second Amendment to the United States Consitution.
The proposed Iowa amendment says:
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”
The term “strict scrutiny” is a term of art in the law. It is used to denote the highest and most stringent level of judicial review that will be applied to determine the constitutionality of a particular law, such as a gun safety law. There is a high burden on the government to show that its law or regulation survives strict scrutiny.
To begin with, Iowa does not need to provide any state protection for gun rights, because the Second Amendment to the US Constitution already provides all the protection that is needed. And clearly, providing additional state protection for gun rights–let alone a strict scrutiny amendment–can only make it more difficult to pass gun reform legislation in Iowa. The strict scrutiny amendment could even invalidate existing limits on gun rights in Iowa, such as the rule that persons who have been convicted of felonies or domestic-violence misdemeanors should not be issued a permit. It is worth noting that Missouri experienced a dramatic increase in gun violence after passage of a similar strict scrutiny gun amendment in 2014. This is one upward trend that Iowa does not want to follow.
At my campaign kickoff event, I talked about this issue. Here is what I said:
Iowa also used to be a place where people felt safe. But Iowa is not
immune to the gun violence problem in this country, and Iowa is headed in
the wrong direction on gun safety. Despite mass shootings and high gun
suicide rates, the Iowa legislature has completed the first step in passing a
state constitutional amendment that the NRA describes as an “iron wall”
around gun rights. Missouri passed a very similar law in 2014, and it has
seen a dramatic increase in gun violence since then. This proposed “strict
scrutiny” amendment could make it very difficult to pass common-sense
gun laws like background checks and “red flag” laws, even though around
90% of Americans support them. We need to use some common sense,
exercise some independence, and resist the NRA’s influence in Iowa.
Less than an hour later, our team received some disturbing news. My sister, Barbara, who is an assistant principal at a public school in Virginia, had flown in for the kickoff. As we were all cleaning up after the event, Barbara started to receive numerous texts that a student in her school had posted a video threatening to shoot up her school the following morning. Fortunately, the crisis seems to have been averted.
The very next morning, however, the news broke about the school shooting in Santa Clarita, California, yet another senseless and preventable tragedy. My heart breaks for all of the families and communities who have been – and will be – affected by gun violence until we act.
This has to stop. The bottom line is that we must defeat the proposed strict scrutiny gun amendment, and we must advocate for common-sense gun safety legislation to stem the tide of gun violence in Iowa and in the country.