Sen. Zach Wahls’ Opening Day Speech for the 2023 Legislative Session

Remarks as Delivered Madam President, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, staff, members of the press, and my fellow Iowans: welcome to the 2023 legislative session.  I’d like to start first by thanking my family, my wife Chloe, my sister Zeb, for all your love and support. Thank you. I ...

Remarks as Delivered

Madam President, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, staff, members of the press, and my fellow Iowans: welcome to the 2023 legislative session. 

I’d like to start first by thanking my family, my wife Chloe, my sister Zeb, for all your love and support. Thank you. I also want to welcome all the new members of the Senate, including five new Democratic senators, who bring a rich and diverse range of experiences to the important work we do in this chamber. I also welcome our new Republican senators, and I look forward to getting to know each of you better and working together for our great state. 

I also want to take a moment to thank our staff of the Democratic caucus. The work that each of you do makes this building work, and I’m grateful to have each and every one of you on our team. Thank you. 

And, before I begin, Madam President, I also want to recognize the Iowa workers of UAW Local 807 in Burlington and BCTGM Local 100-G in Cedar Rapids, who are on strike this morning for fair wages and working conditions. From food to heavy machinery and everything in between, Iowa workers produce the goods our society needs to thrive, and they deserve a living wage and livable benefits for doing it.  

Every session opens with a fresh opportunity to make Iowa better – more welcoming, vibrant and successful. In 2023, Iowa Senate Democrats are ready to seize that opportunity by taking action on the single biggest challenge facing Iowa.

As former Iowa state Senator Tom Vilsack used to say, “We need more Iowans, younger Iowans, and better paid Iowans.” It’s been called a brain drain and a workforce crisis, but really this challenge is bigger than that. What we face is a people crisis — an exodus from the state of Iowa. Whether it’s growing waitlists for child care, bigger class sizes in our public schools, or the shuttering of labor and delivery units in hospitals across our state, this crisis threatens the future of Iowa and is holding us back every single day.

And so, Madam President, everything we do this session should be focused on this crisis.

Iowans see this reality everywhere we go, in every aspect of our daily lives. 

Over the last few years, we have lost one third of our childcare providers. The state has 350,000 more kids than we have open childcare spots, and nearly one quarter of the state lives in a childcare desert – in large part because providers can’t hire enough staff to meet demand. 

350,000 kids potentially missing out on safe, fun, enriching, early education that prepares them for a brighter future. One quarter of Iowa parents without the childcare they need to rejoin the labor force, to start a new job, or accept a promotion. 

And the crisis does not get better once kids get to school. Iowa schools started the current academic year with 5,000 open jobs, including 1,000 full-time teaching positions. The Department of Education website lists 21 separate teaching areas facing shortages, from pre-K to physical education to high-school math, science, and industrial technology. 

Right now, kids in every corner of our state are missing out on the individual attention they need to become confident readers. They’re missing out on STEM opportunities that would inspire great careers. They’re missing out on the help they need to learn English and thrive. 

And it’s not just our kids. The business community has been sounding the alarm for years. Unfilled manufacturing jobs were up 227 percent this past August compared to before the Covid-19 pandemic. That is simply unacceptable.

Health care providers will tell you about a nursing shortage that has been going on for years. Iowans feel the shortage in understaffed doctor’s offices, longer waits for care, and exhausted, overworked critical care providers. Our nursing crisis was worsened by the pandemic, but it was happening before Covid-19, and it will only get worse unless this chamber does something serious to fix it. 

Jobs like these – nursing, teaching, and manufacturing – these are the foundation of Iowa’s middle-class. They provide stable incomes for families, they anchor communities, and they make our state work. And without the people to fill these jobs, our economic foundation is crumbling, which makes our challenges even worse. 

That’s why Iowa’s economic environment now ranks 32nd in the country – and behind five of our six neighbors. When it comes to economic performance, we currently rank sixth out of nine Midwestern states. 

Since 2010, 50,000 Iowans in their prime working years have left our state — for better opportunities, more welcoming communities, or because they aged out of the workforce, with no younger generation there to replace them – because the younger generations are leaving, too. 

We need only think of our own communities, our own circles of friends. How many people do we know who have left? How many peoples’ kids left for a job or to serve in the military or go to college out of state and never came home? 

This is a crushing, long-term problem that will only be solved with real, meaningful action, and Iowa Senate Democrats are ready. We want to be part of the solution. We want to make Iowa a destination for hard-working newcomers and young families. We want to make Iowa a lifelong home for the next generation. And the question is whether Republicans are serious about joining us. 

Every priority announced by Republican leadership today and in the days ahead must pass a simple test: Will it reverse the Iowa Exodus? Will it make Iowa a more appealing place to earn a living and raise a family?

The governor and Republicans in the House and Senate are talking a lot about private school vouchers. This unpopular scheme will send public money – your taxpayer dollars – to unaccountable private schools. But will it help reverse Iowa’s people crisis? No. 

In fact, it stands to make the problem worse. The Republican voucher scheme threatens to defund local schools. It will increase the teacher shortage in public education. It will magnify inequality. And it will hit rural communities the hardest, forcing more school consolidation and driving more families away from our small towns. Private school vouchers are wrong for Iowa students, and wrong for Iowa communities.

Republican politicians are also promising more attacks on Iowans’ personal freedom, human dignity, and our God-given, constitutionally-protected right to privacy. 

Republican politicians want to ban abortion – any way they can and no matter what a majority of Iowans actually want. They’re continuing their attacks on LGBTQ Iowans, using the power of the state to bully them into hiding – or leaving. This is what happens when Republicans ban books and force more government censorship over what Iowans read and think. 

Will these tired culture war attacks solve Iowa’s people crisis and stop the Iowa Exodus? No.

The answer to slow growth and population decline is not to push Iowans away. To regain the ground we’ve lost, keep the next generation of Iowans here at home and win the competition for newcomers, we must make Iowa a more welcoming state. And our biggest employers are saying the same thing: this crisis will only be solved by welcoming more folks to build a life here in Iowa, and stay here in Iowa. 

We’re also hearing a lot about property tax reform, and I want to be very clear: Senate Democrats will gladly work with Republicans on a plan to ease property tax burdens on middle-class families and those with fixed incomes to make sure Iowa is a better place to call home. We want to be part of a solution that helps Iowa families and can attract more people to our state. 

But Republicans need to prove they’re serious about helping middle-class Iowans. Iowa can’t afford another tax giveaway to the ultra rich that shortchanges our families and communities. Senate Democrats will work with anyone on common-sense property tax reform, but we are not interested in tax giveaways that overwhelmingly benefit the ultrarich and big corporations. 

Every legislative session opens with a fresh opportunity to make Iowa a better place – a thriving state with more Iowans, younger Iowans, and better paid Iowans. 

In 2023, we must seize this opportunity, because right now, too many people are leaving. Factories, offices, schools, and hospitals can’t find enough workers. And every day Republicans spend fighting with each other about banning abortion and defunding public schools, this crisis gets worse, not better. 

Another rural labor and delivery unit closes. Another small town watches its housing stock crumble. Another kid goes on a waitlist for daycare. Another plant moves out of state. Another family of four moves to Minneapolis or Denver. We’ve all seen it and we all know it’s true. 

The Iowa Exodus is strangling our state and robbing us of our future.

Madam President, Iowa’s people crisis is not only a Democrat or Republican problem. It’s not only an urban or rural problem. It’s not only a blue-collar or white-collar problem. This crisis is affecting every single Iowan, and we can only fix it by working together. So, let’s fix it. 

Scripture tells us that when there is no vision, the people perish. Let’s come together to create that vision. Let’s set aside the culture wars and ideological agendas and give our people hope. Let’s skip the special interest giveaways this year. Let’s listen to Iowans and listen to each other. Let’s get to work on ending our people crisis, the biggest issue threatening our state. 

Senate Democrats are ready to do our part, and we invite our colleagues to join us.

Thank you, Madam President.