Government

Time running out as major issues remain on Iowa's legislative agenda

Legislature may go past target April 17 adjournment

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 control the Statehouse plan to finalize Chapter 2 of the 87th Iowa General Assembly as they work through a period of writers’ block in drafting their state budget and income tax cut plans.

GOP leaders insist they are getting close to issuing their spending targets for the 2019 state fiscal year that starts July 1, as well as finding common ground on how best to reduce and reform the state’s income tax system — including how much they can afford to cut over a phased-in period of years.

Democrats, who are in the Statehouse minority, are skeptical over how the state can afford to cut revenue and still meet its funding priorities, given the backdrop of fiscal troubles brought on by tax collections consistently coming in lower than expectations and new economic concerns posed by a brewing international trade war that could hit Iowa farmers and manufacturers.

Democrats already were disappointed with the 1 percent growth in K-12 funding for next school year — a $32 million increase that was the first piece of the state’s fiscal 2019 budget.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she shares those concerns and is trying to temper the aggressive approach to tax cuts being pushed by Senate Republicans in favor of a multiyear plan that includes triggers to slow or delay the revenue reductions if certain growth thresholds aren’t met.

“It’s positive that our revenue is still growing, it’s just not as robust as the Revenue Estimating Conference had projected,” the Republican governor said. “We’ll continue to monitor it and look for opportunities within the state to provide pro-growth policies that encourage business and industry to expand and grow.”

Republicans in the House and Senate continue to winnow the list of “must-do” bills on their debate calendars in a session that increasingly looks like it will require overtime days beyond the April 17 adjournment target. The process and paperwork required to produce a balanced-budget plan usually requires a couple of weeks.

That said, Reynolds told reporters recently she believes the 2018 session — her first as governor after being sworn-in last May when Terry Branstad resigned to accept an ambassadorship — already has produced “a pretty darn good record” since opening Jan. 9.

“Whether it’s water quality, whether it’s comprehensive mental health reform, whether it’s suicide prevention, whether it’s Future Ready Iowa — I think we demonstrate that you listen to ideas, you find where there is common ground, where there isn’t common ground, and then you put the bill together,” she said. “We’ve had a really great, great year I think and significant accomplishments for some significant bills.”

Other bills either already signed or awaiting gubernatorial action deal with unregulated health plans for uninsured Iowans, immigration enforcement, “dramshop” liability related to drunken driving and other topics.

Still unresolved are the issues of banning or regulating automated traffic-enforcement cameras, toughening abortion restrictions, providing state money to parents who want to send their children to private schools, revamping energy efficiency and utilities regulations, addressing Iowa’s opioid epidemic and fledgling medical cannabis program, and legalizing sports betting in Iowa if the U.S. Supreme Court allows the possibility.

Some lawmakers, like Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, are concerned the “heartbeat” bill barring abortions after six weeks into a pregnancy, legislation to fund education savings accounts or vouchers with state money, and significant tax cuts will be pushed to the sidelines in the march to adjournment by what he called “a cowardly group of Republican placeholders in the Iowa House.”

“Everyday Iowans and Americans are tired of soft Republican lip service, and it’s time for action,” Bertrand wrote in an opinion column. “If certain Republicans are not comfortable with these issues, then let’s flush them out for the voters because I guarantee these same ‘Republicans’ will be back on your doorstep this fall selling conservatism, asking for your money and promising you votes.”

In an interview, Bertrand — who is not seeking re-election this year — likened the internal GOP differences to a family spat rather than a potential civil war, but he added “I think there is a group of us that are prepared to sit here until July 1,” beyond the target adjournment.

“These opportunities don’t come often and the lack of urgency that is here in this building really blows my mind,” he said. “There is a historic opportunity for major legislation and if some of us don’t step up and make that push, it’s just not going to happen.”

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

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