There’s no doubt Iowa’s 2017 legislative session has yielded plenty of news, sparked loud protests and stirred strong emotions. But will it be seen years from now as a session of historic consequence?
If you’re a Democrat or any other Iowan who believes public employees should have a broad right to collectively bargain, our minimum wage should be raised once in a while, a microscopic risk of fraud shouldn’t lead to big changes in our voting, water should be clean and women’s access to health care shouldn’t be restricted, this hasn’t been your year. Maybe you think it’s the worst legislative session you can remember, or ever.
If you’re a Republican or no-party conservative who supports the flip side of those issues and others, and have been waiting years for the GOP to take over the Statehouse, this may be your favorite session ever.
Worst of times. Best of times. And speaking of time, I know we’ve got several weeks left to go. But already I’m hearing lawmakers speculate on how the session will be remembered. Bold strokes or big mistakes?
Every legislative session is consequential in some ways. It’s rare when lawmakers don’t pass at least one or two major pieces of legislation with broad effects. But when I think about truly historic consequential sessions, two jump to mind.
One is 1989, which I had the privilege of witnessing as a high school-aged page in the Iowa House. Democrats ran the House and Senate, while some guy named Terry Branstad, a Republican I believe, served as governor.
All lawmakers did that year was launch riverboat gambling, rewrite the state’s K-12 school funding formula, rewrite the Road Use Tax Fund formula, raise the minimum wage, create the first open enrollment law, move to fund underground storage tank cleanups, pass clean water legislation and set limits on waste flowing into landfills.
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The House passed a bill adding sexual orientation to the state civil rights code, but the measure died in the Senate. Turns out it was nearly 20 years ahead of its time. Lawmakers battled over expanding rights for home schoolers, filling the Capitol with families demanding changes. They tangled unsuccessfully with complex interstate banking regulations.
But even all of that can’t hold a candle to the 1965 legislative session, when Democrats rode the mother of all Iowa political waves to gain control of the Legislature and hold the governor’s office. Court-ordered redistricting and landslide wins for Gov. Harold Hughes and President Lyndon Johnson added up to a remarkable surge.
Democrats who went into the 1964 election with 29 House seats emerged with a 101-23 majority. Democrats took the Senate 34-25. One-hundred new lawmakers took office.
“There were a lot of candidates who got elected in ‘64 that only signed an affidavit and got their name on the ballot. They never knocked on one door. They never raised one dollar,” former Senate President Jack Kibbie told me in an interview back in 2006. He was first elected in 1964. “Hell, there was a couple who even thought they got elected to go to Washington.”
Lawmakers opened secret legislative committee meetings, kicked lobbyists off the House and Senate floor during debate and ended the Senate’s practice of going into closed session to debate gubernatorial appointees. They pushed forward constitutional changes mandating annual legislative sessions, a four-year term for governors and merit selection of judges.
Legislators repealed the death penalty, created a one-cent gas tax to pay for roads, reorganized and consolidated the state’s school districts, created the community college system, passed the Iowa Civil Rights Act and approved the use of daylight saving time. They also found time to ban drag racing and require the installation of seat belts.
By the time they adjourned on June 4, 1965, even Hughes was urging them to wrap things up. But he praised their work product, much of which he had proposed and pushed to pass.
“No Iowa Legislature in this century has had the courage to tackle such a broad range of important and difficult public interest problems as you have undertaken,” Hughes said in a letter to lawmakers.
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In 1966, Republicans regrouped and assailed Democrats for property tax increases spawned by school reorganization and other new requirements. The GOP regained control of the General Assembly in 1967.
So will 2017 join that pantheon of consequence? I have my doubts.
For one thing, there were bipartisan fingerprints on some of the big stuff. The Civil Rights Act received nary a no vote in either chamber. Community colleges and the death penalty repeal each passed with some Republican votes. Everything the 1989 Legislature accomplished carried Branstad’s signature.
So far in 2017, the big stuff has been passed sharply along party-lines. It’s the kind of stuff that will have less staying power if the pendulum ever swings in the Democrats’ direction. History suggests it will.
Also, history smiles on legislatures that focus on real problems and offer solutions that actually work. Community colleges have proved their worth. Gambling, blemishes and all, did spark economic development in river towns smacked by the farm crisis. Does anyone miss legal drag racing?
So much of the current legislative agenda smacks of embellished problems attacked through political payback. A handful of voter fraud cases necessitates requiring every voter to show an ID. The biggest problem facing our schools is, apparently, teachers’ too generous pay raises. Dirty water isn’t a problem, but the Des Moines Water Works sure is.
And hey, if it costs the other side a few votes, breaks public unions as a political force and makes that pesky water quality lawsuit go away, all the better. I’m not sure history will agree.
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