Divided Statehouse can bring opportunities

At our gilded Statehouse, where the Legislature returns Monday, division equals subtraction.

The House is still controlled by Republicans, though by a smaller margin than in 2012. Democrats still control the Senate by the slimmest of margins.

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad remains in office now, and perhaps, forever.

Those partisan divisions mean you can probably subtract a lot of issues from the legislative list of realistic possibilities.

There will be no action on reinstating the death penalty. In Iowa, the same-sex marriage issue is all over but the shouting, with the U.S. Supreme Court preparing to weigh in this year. Significant gun legislation, either to expand gun rights or further regulate gun ownership, is unlikely. Red-light cameras wonít be banned. The minimum wage will stay put. Collective bargaining rights wonít be weakened or strengthened.

Iím not saying nobodyís going to talk about those issues, hold a news conference or rail loudly for action in a dramatic floor speech. The place is still filled with politicians, after all. But if it canít clear both chambers, itís not going to happen.

Pity for us in the scribbling business who crave drama. But Iowa could benefit. This promises to be a session focused on some very big issues.

Property tax reform, education reform and Medicaid expansion are as big as state issues get. Toss in efforts to close the work force ďskills gapĒ facing our economy, a continuing mental health system revamp, tax relief for low-income Iowans and the possibility of the first real gas-tax debate in years, and youíve got a lot of meat, if not always a lot of headline-grabbing sizzle. It may end up being a dream session for policy wonks, who donít mind getting lost in the legislative weeds.

Will it all get done? Of course not. But a deal on any one or two or three of them could be historic. A property tax deal alone would be remarkable. And if itís like some sessions, the fates may deliver lawmakers a huge issue we donít even know about now.

Oh, yeah, thereís also that $800-million-and-growing budget surplus. Itís just sitting there, all golden and shiny, begging to be spent, or handed back to taxpayers, or both.

But letís hold on for a minute and think it through. Letís think about a dysfunctional Congress now facing a debt-ceiling debacle with the potential for serious economic damage, on top of all the other sizable obstacles to our sputtering recovery. There could be deep cuts in federal spending, which could have significant state budget implications.

Thereís also the small matter of a massive drought that may be stretching into its second year. And who knows what else Mother Nature might have in store for us.

That surplus puts Iowa in a very good position to deal with disasters of all sorts. Iím not saying to stick it all in the mattress. But it would be refreshing to see an Iowa legislature handle a surplus with a sense of long-term responsibility. That Iíve never seen.

So, really, all our legislators have to do is set aside the most divisive stuff, find their way to historic compromises, temper their ambitions with reasonable caution and think beyond the next election. Piece of cake. Just look at Congress and do the opposite.

If they pull it off, this session could really add up to something.

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