SHELDON—The coronavirus pandemic did not give candidates many chances to campaign for the Iowa House of Representatives, but first-term state Rep. Dennis Bush (R-Cleghorn) got his chance Feb. 19 to face his constituents and an arsenal of policy inquiries during a forum at Pizza Ranch in Sheldon.
Bush kicked off with an update on his first five weeks in state-level office. The former Cherokee County supervisor said there was a lot of “pomp and circumstance” at the start of the legislative session and that he’s still “learning the ropes” in Des Moines.
He mentioned a range of issues in his remarks before fielding questions from the crowd of about 20.
Bush began by voicing his support for the two amendments that passed the House in January — one that would ban abortion by recognizing a “right to life,” and another that would essentially add the federal Second Amendment to the state law.
Before being codified, the two measures — both of which have long been on the GOP wish list — must be approved by a majority of Iowa voters. The abortion amendment must be repassed by the next General Assembly for a possible vote in 2024, while the bear-arms ballot measure could be live as early as the 2022 election.
Bush mentioned the debate over the “strict scrutiny” clause in the gun rights amendment. The Republican move makes the amendment as ironclad as constitutionally possible, making future gun-control measures much more difficult to hold up in state court, but the state representative said it wouldn’t be as dramatic a shift as it might seem, positing that judges tend to put precedent over legalese.
“It will move the needle,” Bush said. “But it’s not a giant step.”
The forum ran through myriad parental topics, including school choice and family support.
“My wife and I worked on open enrollment back in the ’80s as a parent,” Bush said. “I’ve always been a strong supporter of open enrollment and choice of parents to cite which school district best fits the needs of their kids.”
That said, he discounted the chances of Iowa enacting Senate File 159. The bill, which passed the upper chamber in late January, would provide state funding for private-education enrollment in struggling public school districts.
“I don’t believe the vouchers is going anywhere,” Bush said. “There was significant resistance even within the Republican Caucus to that program. I personally have a problem with it. One of the founding principles of this nation was the separation of church and state, and I have a problem getting past taking public tax dollars . . . and taking that to a private, religious school.”
The lawmaker also touted the tweaks to state code that expanded tax credits to large families in the name of making child care more affordable.
The 1619 Project
O’Brien County Democrats chair Karen Sterk attended the event and asked about a bill by Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Orange City) that would effectively ban the 1619 Project, which centers African Americans as the protagonist of U.S. history.
Bush did not say whether he supported the bill or not. He said he has not “followed it real closely” as none of his committee assignments overlap with the issue.
“Until it’s on the calendar to be debated on the floor, I pretty much have my plate full,” he said.
After the event, Bush told The Mail-Sun that he is “uneasy” with state government wading into specific curriculum as Wheeler’s bill does, but that he would have to review the legislation after it’s passed the House Education Committee.
Sterk said such aggressively conservative social policy brands the state as an unwelcoming place to be.
“It makes Iowa look crappy, I’m sorry,” she said.
Besides the state constitutional amendment, the Iowa House also is looking at ways to discourage abortion in House File 515. The bill would create a “targeting digital marketing” program to “employ specific scripting strategies to create a conversation with these pregnant women to encourage them to choose an alternative to an abortion by increasing awareness of services and removing obstacles to care.”
Sterk likened the bill to state surveillance and called it a “concern.”
“There’s a lot of good stuff in it,” the Democrat said. “I’d hate for it to get bogged down with stupid stuff like that.”
“I don’t think that’s hit my radar yet,” Bush replied.
The Republican representative went on to say that the amendment process exists, in part, to weed out overreaching policies, although he did not condemn the House File 515 itself.
Bush received several questions in regards to Iowa’s energy and fuel policies.
A farmer by trade, Bush said he wants to see Iowa expand the use of biofuels. He noted that other states such as Minnesota have long held similar policies and said there have been no major hiccups.
On the topic of renewable power, he said he would not call himself a “huge supporter” but that it “has its place.”
“I would support, probably, the expansion of solar credits. I don’t know exactly how I would. I guess I would have to see what comes through Ways and Means,” he said before pivoting back to his support of biofuels.
‘Very unusual’ time
Throughout the event, Bush mused about the shaky nature of lawmaking during a pandemic. He said he is unsure if the session will be cut short because of a spike in cases. In light of the volatility, he said, the General Assembly is working faster than usual to get through priority legislation.
“Leadership is pushing the bills that are priorities and trying to get them through early,” Bush said. “There’s a push for those running subcommittee meetings to get them scheduled and get them done.”
The first-term representative also said that he does not have a frame of reference, which has led him to keep his aforementioned focus on the bills in his committees.
“We’re trying to push a lot of stuff through,” he said. “I don’t have any previous experience to know how much is different, but the ones who have been down there said it’s very unusual.”