With Iowa budget cuts done, legislative activity starting to pick up

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DES MOINES — The first few weeks of the 2017 legislative session at the Iowa Capitol have been atypically slow, but that likely is about to change.

State lawmakers — leaders, in particular — have been bogged down with searching for roughly $110 million to cut out of the current fiscal year’s spending, a move made necessary by lower-than-expected tax revenue.

With leaders pouring much of their time and energy into that bill — they wanted to tackle the spending cuts as quickly as possible because there are only five months remaining in the fiscal year — activity on other bills has been slower than usual.

But last week, Gov. Terry Branstad signed the budget cut bill into law, clearing that cumbersome item off the top of the legislative agenda.

Let the legislation flow.

Knowing the budget cut bill was on the fast track to completion last week, two more big bills started working their way to floor debate. The Senate on Thursday debated bills that would set school funding for the next school year and stop state funding of women’s health care providers that perform abortions.

Statehouse Republicans have proposed increasing K-12 school funding by 1.1 percent; that’s less than the 2 percent proposed by Branstad and the 4 percent sought by school officials and legislative Democrats.

The bill also contains a mechanism that would eliminate the requirement that the state set school funding levels more than a year in advance of the school budget year.

The next big bill on the horizon may be collective bargaining legislation. Whispers around the Capitol suggest that bill may be unveiled this week.

Republicans have made no secret of their desire to change the way the state’s public employees — state troopers, corrections facility staff, teachers, etc. — collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

What Republicans have been far less forthcoming with are details, so not much is known about what will be in their collective bargaining bill.

Branstad has said in recent months he is intrigued by the idea of a master contract for all public employees’ health insurance. In the past, House Republicans passed legislation that would give dispute mediators the option of choosing a midpoint for negotiations, rather than being required to choose between two offers.

Whether those measures — or others — will be in Republicans’ collective bargaining bill remains unknown. But we should find out soon.

Partisan shenanigans at Capitol

Democrats and Republicans engaged in some political gamesmanship last week before and during a hearing on legislation that would stop all state funding to women’s health care providers that perform abortions.

Democratic Iowa Sen. Janet Peterson reserved the committee room for the two hours before Tuesday’s hearing on a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. That allowed Peterson to fill the room with supporters of Planned Parenthood and opponents of the legislation and left most of the dozens of supporters of the bill stuck outside the packed hearing room.

Not to be outmaneuvered, Senate Republicans called for a caucus shortly into the hearing. A caucus is a closed-door meeting of legislators to discuss the bills at hand, and the Republicans said they would conduct their caucus in the hearing room. That meant everybody else had to leave the room.

So the room was cleared out, and when the hearing resumed, both supporters and opponents of the bill re-entered.

Touché.

l Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and state government for Lee Enterprises. Comments; erin.murphy@lee.net

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