DES MOINES — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she will not force state lawmakers to remain in session until late June while holding out hope they will approve her proposal to shift taxpayer funding for public schools to private school tuition scholarships.
But Reynolds also said she is not yet ready to give up on the possibility of Republican lawmakers passing the bill and sending it to her desk. Thus, the Iowa Legislature will continue its work this week, with virtually all other policy issues decided.
The legislative session is already past the 100-day mark, when legislators’ compensation for housing and meals expenses expired. But that is more of a carrot to entire legislators to finish their work than a hard deadline.
The state budget year ends June 30; legislators must pass a new, $8.2 billion state budget before then in order to keep state government funded and operating.
Speaking to reporters last week, Reynolds said she continues to meet with Republican lawmakers who have expressed opposition to her proposal, and that she continues to entertain tweaks and concessions in hopes of securing enough votes to pass it through the Iowa House, where it is stalled for a second consecutive year.
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“We’re still working on it. We’re still talking to legislators,” Reynolds told reporters in West Des Moines. “There’s no way I’m giving up on it. They’re still in session. I’m still working.”
But she also said she would not keep lawmakers around so long that the next budget year’s funding becomes a potential issue.
“I’m not going to shut down (state government) if that’s what you’re asking me. … We’re not going to do that,” Reynolds said. “I’m going to give it every effort. I feel I still have some opportunity. … But at some point you’ve got to just figure out you’re at an impasse. If we get there, then we take a look at the budget, and then we go home and I continue to work on it over the interim. I’ll be back next year with it, if I don’t get it through. I believe that strongly in what I’m working on.”
The proposal, as passed by Senate Republicans, would allow up to 10,000 students from families at or below 400 percent of the federal poverty level to receive a scholarship of roughly $5,500 to attend a private school. The money would come from the state funding that was dedicated to the public school that the student would have attended, which is roughly $7,700 per student. A portion of the remaining per-pupil funding would go into a state account to help small, rural schools that may lose multiple students and thus a significant percentage of their funding.
The proposal, Senate File 2369, passed the Iowa Senate on a 31-18 vote with only Republican support. It has not been debated in the Iowa House because not enough of the 60 House Republicans are willing to vote for it. It would need 51 votes to pass in the 100-member House.
The provision that would set aside funding for small, rural schools was one concession Reynolds made after last year’s proposal failed to pass largely because of opposition from House Republicans who represent rural districts with small schools. Another possible compromise being floated this year would set a baseline enrollment level for which schools would be eligible. Such a provision would, theoretically, make the state’s smallest schools ineligible for the program and, supporters hope, make it a more palatable “yes” vote for some House Republicans.
“I’m willing to listen to a lot of suggestions that maybe (House Republican holdouts) have in order to get this through and to start a pilot program,” Reynolds said.
Democrats have remained united in their opposition to the proposal, no matter its form. No Democrat voted for the Senate bill, and there has been no indication any would in the House.
Democrats say the proposal would put public schools in danger by the way it diverts state funding to the private school scholarships.
“It’s clear and important to point out that the reason that Republicans are having so much trouble getting votes on vouchers, besides the fact that vouchers are bad for Iowa kids and Iowa communities, is the fact that Democrats stand united against school vouchers,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, leader of the minority House Democrats from Windsor Heights. “They’re having to fish within the Republican caucus because not one Democrat will support school vouchers, because we know they’re bad for Iowa kids.”
Some House Republicans are already facing political pressure over their stance on the legislation.
Rep. Jon Thorup, a Republican from Knoxville, roughly a week ago said in a statement to The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau that he would vote against the bill because of uncertainty in Iowa and around the world, and that a new state law will significantly reduce state income taxes and potentially impact future state revenues.
Then the prominent and politically active conservative political action organization Americans for Prosperity announced a round of endorsements for statehouse races, and among them was its endorsement of Barb Kniff-McCulla, a Republican candidate who is challenging Thorup in the primary election.
In a news release, Americans for Prosperity specifically cited the candidate’s support for the governor’s private school tuition assistance proposal.
When asked whether she would use her political capital or resources to work against the election of Republicans who will not vote for the bill, Reynolds said she is spending her time advocating for the bill.
“I’m out there advocating for a priority of mine, and this is a priority of mine,” Reynolds said. “I’m going to, of course, look for candidates that support some of the priorities that I do, and I don’t think that that’s unreasonable.”