DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers Thursday were closing out a historic session actually packed with fireworks that produced stark changes in policies dealing with the rights of workers, women, gun owners and drivers as a new Republican majority put its conservative stamp on Iowa law.
The GOP-run General Assembly spent its 102nd calendar day finalizing major pieces of a $7.245 billion state general fund budget for fiscal 2018 and negotiating a handful of policy issues that stood in the way of adjourning a session that was politically contentious from start to finish. Leaders were hopeful the Legislature's 2017 work would wrap up Friday.
“This was a historic session that we are going to see benefits and paybacks from for a generation,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, who played an instrumental role in a major rewrite of Iowa’s collective bargaining law governing public employees.
“In my time here, this is probably No. 1 by a factor of 1,000 — easily,” Schultz said in assessing the 2017 work product. “The rest of them were only preparation for this and can’t even rank second. Historically, I can’t see how even the opponents couldn’t conceded that this would be among the top three in Iowa’s history, just in the boldness and the change in directions whether you agree with it or not.”
Republicans who hold a 59-41 edge in the House and a captured a 29-20-1 majority in the Senate last election made the most of their trifecta of control with GOP Gov. Terry Branstad by passing sweeping changes to gun laws, workplace rules, abortion restrictions and rules of the road by toughening anti-texting prohibitions and cracking down on repeat drunken drivers.
Branstad gave his fellow Republicans high marks, saying much was accomplished in what likely is his last session as America’s longest-serving governor ever.
“When I look back at this session,” he told reporters, “I think it will go down as one of the most significant and productive sessions that I’ve had the honor of presiding over as governor.”
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Minority Democrats were less enamored by the sharp right philosophical turn at the Statehouse, calling this one of the most anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-family, anti-senior agenda in recent memory. The take-away for Iowans is that elections matter, they added, contending that much of the GOP work this session was unilateral, secretive and guided by special interests with little input from the public.
“In my opinion, this session has been the most miserable session of causing misery in every walk of life in the state of Iowa,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines. “People who are employed have been hurt, people who are injured have been hurt, women’s health care has been hurt — it’s just gone on and on, week by week. I don’t think this was a good session. It sure wasn’t for Iowans. It was for large contributions outside of this state who bought the agenda, and they ran the table on it.”
House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown said he expected Republicans would promote an agenda they didn’t run on when they campaigned in 2016 and “indeed, what we thought was going to happen has happened.
“There have not been opportunities afforded to us to work on these issues,” he said Thursday. “Major issues like collective bargaining and workers’ comp, those were ones they decided and went forward with and there was not input from Democrats except to vote against them and speak against them.”
Senate Republicans said they arrived at the Statehouse in charge with a mandate from voters to “kick in the door” of state government and make “big, bold reforms” to empower taxpayers, job creators and Iowans looking to improve their lives in an economy focused on good-paying careers.
“We’ve done several pieces of legislation that in any other year would be considered a landmark piece, and we’ve probably done 10 or 15 of those,” said Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny. “So I think people are going to look back at this year and think this is one of the most productive and historic sessions we’ve ever had. I was hopeful we could get a lot of this stuff done. I didn’t know that we could get this much done in the first year. It probably has exceeded even my expectations.”
Bisignano agreed the session was “very historic,” but in a bad way. “To go back 40 years or longer on some issues that have worked well for this state and basically repeal them, that’s historic. To take away the local control as they have on so many issues, yes, that’s historic. To say it was bold, of course, it was bold, it was hurtful, mean-spirited.”
Legislators spent Thursday working on two measures that represented $5.5 billion of next year’s spending plan in the standings and health and human service budget bills, and setting up a process of paying back the $131 million temporarily borrowed from the cash reserve to balance out the current year.
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Dealt a bad budget hand, Republicans said they chose to get the most of the bad choices out of the way now in hopes of creating a better outlook to fund priorities and beginning a major tax revision next year.
“We haven’t been able to accomplish everything, but we’ll come back next year and we’ll continue to push forward on those issues that we told constituents we were going to work on,” said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel.
Among the major changes enacted this year, lawmakers legalized the sale and use of consumer-grade fireworks on a limited basis.
The law, awaiting the governor’s signature, would allow licensed retailers or community groups to sell fireworks out of permanent structures to adults between June 1 and July 8, and between Dec. 10 and Jan. 3, and out of tents and other temporary structures from June 13 through July 8 each year.
The bill puts time restrictions on igniting the fireworks — mostly from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on days around those holidays, but a slightly extended period on and near the holidays. Sales or purchases involving minors are barred, and counties or cities that do not want to legalize fireworks are allowed to limit or opt out of their use — but not their sale.
One of the most contentious and acrimonious periods of the 2017 session came when majority Republicans revamped a 1974 collective bargaining law to scale back the rights of public-sector workers in negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions. Public employee unions have gone to court challenging the new law that covers employment matters including collective bargaining, educator employment, personnel records and settlement agreements, city civil service requirements and health insurance.
Separately, the GOP-led Legislature rewrote a 1913 workers’ compensation law that sets up new standards for how workers who get injured on the job are treated.
A major rewrite of Iowa’s gun laws included a controversial “stand your ground” provision that states a law-abiding citizen does not have a duty to retreat in a public place before using deadly force when confronted with danger to life or property. The wide-ranging bill also allows children under 14 to handle pistols or revolvers under the supervision of an adult parent, guardian or instructor, pre-empts local ordinances restricting gun rights; creates a uniform permit to carry weapons; provides for five-year permits to acquire handguns rather than single-year permits and immediately creates confidentiality for those with permits; legalizes short-barreled rifles and shotguns; and allows those with permits to carry handguns in the Iowa Capitol and other public buildings.
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Republicans passed legislation that would ban abortions once a pregnancy reaches 20 weeks and establish a three-day waiting period for women seeking any abortion. They also set aside $3 million to fund women’s health care clinics that do not offer abortions — rejecting federal dollars to avoid funding services at Planned Parenthood.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed to ban texting while driving and allow tougher steps for curtailing drunken and drugged driving in Iowa.
The Legislature did not adopt an outright ban on using hand-held devices while driving, but did make texting while driving a primary offense and establish the option of making drivers arrested for or convicted of impaired driving to participate in twice-daily sobriety monitoring — and requiring them to install ignition interlocks — as a way to change driving behaviors.
Republicans sent Branstad legislation to shorten the voting period and set new verification procedures for voters.
The bill shortens the “early” voting window in Iowa from 40 days to 29. In addition, precinct workers will be required to check a prospective voter’s signature on a driver’s license or voter ID card to confirm the person is eligible.
Proponents said the safeguards will deter voting fraud; critics said the ID requirements will suppress turnout and are unnecessary.
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