Legislature

Republicans vow 'chapter 2' of conservative agenda for Iowa

100-day legislative sessions kicks off today

The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Majority Republicans return today to the Statehouse ready to deliver “chapter two” of a conservative agenda that Senate leader Bill Dix said would “change Iowa for the best” by creating an environment with tax cuts and other enticements for more investment and growth.

The first year of the 87th Iowa General Assembly saw the GOP enact significant changes in workplace rules, possession of firearms and fireworks, election laws, abortion restrictions and public safety. Dix, a Shell Rock Republican, assured his backers “we are not done” as the new session convenes.

“We need to keep the momentum going in 2018,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, as Republicans who hold majorities of 58-41 in the Iowa House and 29-20-1 in the Iowa Senate continue to push “common-sense conservative legislation” during a two-year run that began when they took control of the Statehouse in the 2016 election. “What a difference one election can make,” she noted.

Iowans saw a change in command at the top of state government during the interim when former Gov. Terry Branstad stepped down in May to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to China and his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds, was sworn as Iowa’s first female governor.

Reynolds has indicated her priorities for the upcoming session will include making the state’s tax code simpler, fairer and more competitive; training Iowans so they have the skills needed for successful careers; educating the state’s children to meet the demands of modern employment; and further developing the state’s energy plan to continue to maximize renewable energy sources such as wind and biofuels.

Legislative Republicans say much of their focus will be on tax relief and reform and dealing with a current budget shortfall projected at more than $36 million before formulating a new fiscal 2019 spending plan.

Other issues that could get attention this session, scheduled for 199 days, include expanding school choice for parents, further restricting access to abortion, reinstating the death penalty and requiring local authorities to cooperate with federal officials on immigration laws.

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Democrats who are in the minority in both legislative chambers say they are bracing for another volatile session.

“I don’t know how it could get more politically charged or more politically divisive or polarized than last year,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines. “What you saw last year will continue on into this year and I think you’re going to see very deep polarization and I think you’re going to see very strong ideological positions on both the left and the right, and I think that very little is going to be accomplished that’s in a bipartisan, consensus manner.”

The fact that Republicans are calling 2018 “chapter two” of the General Assembly’s biennium “makes me very nervous,” McCoy added.

“But, frankly, I think that kind of kicking the door in on government is going to backfire on them because I think Iowans were pretty disgusted with what happened in the last legislative session,” he said, “and I think if they repeat that before an election, I think that that’s a bad move on their part.”

Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, sees it very differently.

He said Republicans are very proud of what they accomplished last year — calling it the most historic and productive session in decades — and he believes they are energized “to keep pushing forward” this year.

“So we expect to have some bold ideas and continue to do big things,” he noted.

One change took place over the interim: Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson, left the Iowa Senate to take a full-time job leading the Cherokee County economic development effort, and was replaced in a special Senate District 3 election by Rep. James Carlin, R-Sioux City. A special election is slated Jan. 16 in House District 6 to fill the seat vacated when Carlin moved across the Statehouse rotunda from the House to the Senate.

Top issues facing Iowa lawmakers

DES MOINES — New laws and spending will be crafted over the next four months as lawmakers convene today for the 2018 session of the Iowa Legislature.

Here are a half-dozen key issues facing them:

Tax rewrite

Enacting some kind of income tax change, or tax cuts, remains one of the top priorities for Republicans who gained unfettered lawmaking control after the 2016 election. Senate President Jack Whitver, a Republican from Ankeny, called it a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

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Federal tax changes will provide the state with some extra revenue: an estimated $106 million in the fiscal 2019 state budget that will be crafted during the session, plus another $138 million in the ensuing budget year.

Multiple top Statehouse Republicans have said that extra money should go back to state taxpayers in some form of tax relief. Although Rep. Pat Grassley, who leads the House’s budget committee, cautioned against treating the windfall like the state has “won the lottery.”

Republicans have given few details about what their tax plan will look like, but they promised one is coming.

“In my opinion, this won’t be a successful session unless we have a significant tax bill get accomplished,” said Bill Dix, leader of the Senate Republicans.

One key challenge facing Republicans is a tight state budget. According to numbers produced by Grassley, the state has little new money for the next state budget, and most of that already has been spoken for in automatic increases and department requests, although those can be tweaked or rejected.

Democrats in the minority say they are willing to support tax cuts, but not at the expense of busting the budget or if the proposal benefits wealthy wage-earners more than middle-class and low-income workers.

“Their tax packages that we have seen in the past have not been beneficial to everyday Iowans,” said Janet Petersen, leader of the Senate Democrats. “With the budget our state is facing, knowing that all of us will be coming back and Republicans will have to fix the budget mess we’re in, it seems like this is not a wise time to be cutting taxes when they’re busy cutting essential services that Iowans count on and our public education system.”

State budget

Revenue coming into the state continues to increase but at a rate lower than projected. As a result, for a second year, the governor and lawmakers must make spending cuts in the middle of the budget year.

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More than $30 million in adjustments must be made to the current state budget year, which runs through June 30.

And the state is already on the hook for more than $100 million to repay to its reserve accounts funds that were used to close a budget hole in the previous year.

“I’m expecting another tight year,” said Charles Schneider, a Republican who leads the Senate Budget Committee.

Health care

Few issues facing the state are more polarizing than the privatized management of the state’s Medicaid program for low-income Iowans and those with severe disabilities. Providers have complained they are not being reimbursed sufficiently or in a timely fashion, and patients and caregivers say some services have been reduced or eliminated.

Republican leaders, including Gov. Kim Reynolds and House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said they are open to legislative solutions to improve the managed care program. But Reynolds is steadfast that the program not return to state management.

“We’ve made mistakes. The rollout was not perfect. But it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “While mistakes have been made, I believe we can work with the Legislature and I look forward to working with the legislature.”

Medicaid reimbursement also figures into mental health care access, another issue Statehouse leaders hope to address during the session.

“The problem is that in many areas in the state, there are no services in the community to support their needs,” said Rep. David Heaton, who leads the House’s health care budget committee. “There’s no housing, there’s no community services available.”

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The governor and a panel of lawmakers during the interim conducted separate examinations into how to address opioid addiction, a growing issue in Iowa. During the session, they will consider such measures as requiring physicians and prescribers to check a database to prevent addicts from getting addictive painkillers from multiple places, and a “good Samaritan” law that protects anyone who seeks help for an addict in crisis.

Public education

Another bleak budget year likely means a small increase in state funding for public K-through-12 school districts, if any increase at all.

K-12 public school funding increased by 3 percent or more just six times in the first 38 years under the state’s current funding formula; it has increased by that much only once in the past eight years.

Despite that, Iowa is bucking a national trend: only three states increased public school funding by a higher rate between 2008 and 2015, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Last year’s increase was 1.1 percent.

“We’re hearing everything from a 0 to 2 percent increase. I’m anticipating more toward the zero end because of what we’re dealing with the budget,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, a Democrat from Iowa City who serves on the House education committee.

Water quality

Legislators have spent the past few sessions trying to find new or redirected funding for programs and projects designed to improve the quality of the state’s rivers and lakes. Iowa is one of the biggest contributors of pollutants flowing down the Mississippi River and killing marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Senate and House each approved their own proposals in 2017, and leaders have pitched their chamber’s as the best. Whether the two sides, both Republican-led, can agree on a compromise remains to be seen. And Reynolds, also a Republican, said she does not plan to say which plan she prefers.

The Senate version would have appropriated $744 million split among several pots for water quality, nutrient reduction and water and wastewater treatment. The House plan called for $513 million and included a bonding feature designed to expand funding opportunities.

Workforce

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Boosting the credentials of Iowa’s workers remains a top priority for Reynolds and legislative leaders as they continue efforts to address the state’s skills gap: half of the jobs in Iowa require “middle skills,” but only a third of workers possess them, according to a 2012 state report.

Reynolds continues to promote her Future Ready Iowa program, which has the goal of 70 percent of the state’s workforce having post-high school education or training by 2025. She hopes to propose new funding for the program to support grants and apprenticeships, and promote more partnerships between educational institutions and businesses in need of workers.

The governor’s goal has bipartisan support, although the parties must find common ground in supporting programs designed to achieve the goal.

“One of the things that Iowans are asking for is the ability to help them move their skill set up to the next level, to be able to build their career and increase their earning capacity for themselves and their families,” Petersen said.

— Compiled by Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

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

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