Government

Adjournment in sight for 2018 legislative session

Democrats' decry "nuclear option" on GOP tax bill

The State Capitol is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The State Capitol is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Republicans who run the Iowa Legislature hope to cap off another landmark year Saturday with a $2.86 billion, multiyear state income tax cut package that they see as the crown jewel of a session that has produced major abortion restrictions, water quality improvements and new efforts to deal with opioid addictions and mental health care.

Senate Majority Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, was cautiously optimistic that the 118th day of an overtime session would be the last.

But legislators face lengthy floor debates to finalize pieces of a $7.48 billion state budget plan for fiscal 2019 and a partisan battle over a tax plan Republicans say will return more money to Iowans but Democrats say is tilted to the wealthy and corporations.

“If those (debates) all go well, hopefully, it will be tomorrow,” Whitver said on Friday. “It will probably be a long day.”

The closing week of the 2108 session has been a blur of long days as debates have spilled into the nighttime or early morning hours as caucus-weary legislators tackled some of the year’s most vexing, complex and politically charged issues, knowing a tumultuous midterm election awaits them when they go home.

“We’ve very pleased with the results we’ve been able to achieve, and they’re excited about getting back out on the campaign trail and talk about them,” said House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights.

‘Not Democracy’

However, minority Democrats, like Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, aren’t pleased.

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They worry Republicans are setting up the state for tight budgets plagued by structural deficits because they’re giving up hundreds of millions in revenue in a poorly constructed, costly and “not well-thought-out” tax cut plan when the already-struggling farm economy faces more uncertainty due to federal trade and energy policies.

“It’s clearly going to have an impact on how well-funded programs can be, and it’s also clearly going to have an impact in binding legislators for years to come to a lean budget — if we’re able to keep our budget in the black at all,” said Hall, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee,

On the eve of the tax-cut debate, the Legislative Services Agency issued a fiscal note that indicated the individual income tax cuts in the GOP plan add up to about $2.86 billion over six years, with a general fund impact of about $2.16 billion.

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, took to the Senate floor at the end of Friday’s debates and called out Republicans for planning to invoke “the nuclear option” by “double-barreling” the bill with “strike-after” amendments to effectively cut off any Democratic amendments.

“The tax bill was written behind closed doors,” Jochum said. “The Democrats had no input into this legislation and now we are also going to be prohibited from filing any kind of amendments to the bill tomorrow in our attempt to perfect it or to at least offer some alternative ideas to a major overhaul of a tax bill.

“This is not called good governing. This is not what democracy is supposed to look like.”

tax cut and budget

A House GOP state budget analysis issued Friday indicated the proposed $7.48 billion budget was predicated on a $188 million windfall to the state treasury from the federal tax cut due to Iowa’s federal deductibility feature but the state tax cut will return more than $93 million of that to Iowa taxpayers next year.

The GOP-authored state budget would boost funding for government programs by 3.1 percent and leave a $166 million balance June 30, 2019, with a share of that expected to be used to pay administration costs to for-profit private companies that are managing Iowa’s Medicaid program.

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“We’re trying to do the tax bill in a very thoughtful way,” Whitver said. “But we also want to make significant tax reform and tax reduction so we’re phasing that in over a couple of years to where we still have our cash reserves full, we’re only spending about 98 percent of our revenue for the year.

“So we’re doing it in a very fiscally responsible way but also getting aggressive on reform and reduction.”

human services

Much of Friday’s floor debate time was spent hammering out the details of a $1.8 billion health & human services budget bill that majority Republicans say funds many vital services and provided a $55 million increase for Medicaid services.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, charged the budget was “throwing the most-vulnerable Iowans under the bus.”

“We will bust this state with the tax cut you will pass tomorrow and vulnerable Iowans are the collateral damage,” McCoy said before senators passed the budget on a 27-20 party-line vote.

After a barrage of criticism, House Republicans stripped out language that would have barred any organization that provides abortion from participating in three sex education and pregnancy prevention programs that repeatedly have awarded grants to Planned Parenthood.

Democrats called it ironic Republicans wanted to prevent Planned Parenthood from providing age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education after the GOP voted to ban abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy.

“The people who were interested in the amendment wanted to make sure the funding was available to a broader number of people, not just Planned Parenthood,” Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said. The contracts aren’t due until later next year.

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“I think we’ve made huge advances for life this year, so we can discuss this when we get back” next year, she said.

‘starvation diet’

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Friday was a continuation of a parade of GOP budget subcommittee chairs that lamented the fact they were given spending targets they did not believe would meet the needs of the agencies, programs and services funded in their budget areas.

He said modest growth was given to K-12 schools, regent universities and community colleges, health programs, public safety, the courts, environmental and infrastructure areas that could have better addressed had Republicans not put state government on “a starvation diet” and “blown a massive hole” in the budget to make room for the state income tax cuts, the sales tax expansion and the shifts to property taxpayers associated with this year’s session.

“The state’s broke, the budget’s in crisis,” Bolkcom said. “We’ve had to cut or borrow $300 million in the last 15 months. Common sense says we should take a much more cautious approach to the revenue side of the budget because it was not easy for Republicans to make the cuts they made.”

child care

Among the highlights of the Health and Human Services budget, according to subcommittee Chairman Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, was an increase in reimbursements for the child care assistance program. The plan is to increase the lowest rates to get them up to the 50th percentile of a 2014 market survey, he said.

“As many of you know, we have been working off slight increases to the 2004 market rate survey, this increase will be a substantial improvement to access child care for our working families,” Heaton said.

It also includes Medicaid oversight legislation and requirements for managed care organizations (MCOs) related to provider processes and procedures, member services and processes, and Medicaid review and oversight. It provides a $55 million increase for Medicaid. It also resumes funding the medical-residency program to increase the number of physical and mental health professionals in Iowa.

House Democrats tried to expand the number of conditions that could be treated with medical cannabis. Those amendments were ruled not germane.

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“Our leadership and a lot of our members don’t want to address this until the (advisory board) that we created last year gives us their recommendations,” Heaton said. “We’re waiting for the ones who really have the expertise and scientific knowledge to tell us how to proceed rather than going forward on emotions.

“I’m as anxious as they are,” he said about families who have been lobbying for broader use of medical cannabis, “but I would like to proceed in a scientifically based way.”

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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