DES MOINES — Lawmakers return to Des Moines today after a shorter-than-typical break, one that was made possible by last year’s legislative stalemates.
But the partisan acrimony that extended the 2011 session to record length and threatened to grind state government to a halt last year is all in the past, House and Senate leaders say.
They’ve promised to work together to pass a property tax relief package and work through education and mental health reform in the coming months.
There were 38 new lawmakers coming into office at this time last year. Those new representatives and senators shifted the balance of power to the Republicans in the House and narrowed the margin of control in the Senate to a single seat.
It’s a different time now. Most of the faces are the same, but it’s a different feel going into 2012.
“I think we know each other a little better,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said of his relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. “That helps.”
Although head counts remain the same — 60-40 in favor of Republicans in the House and 26-24 in favor of Democrats in the Senate — there is one new lawmaker.
Liz Mathis, a Democrat and former news anchor, defeated Republican Cindy Golding in a special election in Linn County on Nov. 7 to replace Swati Dandekar of Cedar Rapids.
Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, appointed Dandekar, a Democrat, to a spot on the Iowa Utilities Board in the summer, paving the way for a special election in which the political parties spent a combined $1 million on their candidates.
The election also acted as a catalyst of sorts for another change in the Senate. Sen. Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, stepped down from his leadership post after Golding’s loss.
McKinley was taking heat from Republicans that he wasn’t working hard enough for the party and Golding in particular. McKinley was out of the country when Sen. Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, called for a caucus before Nov. 7 and told his colleagues he intended to challenge McKinley for the leadership post.
But Dix ended up not going to his own caucus.
When the Republicans met later, after the election, McKinley stepped down and Sen. Jerry Behn, a farmer from Boone, was put in the minority leadership post.
Meanwhile, the House appeared to avoid much of the between-session politics of the Senate.
Still, there are six significant additions to the lower chamber this year: cameras.
Paulsen had cameras installed over the speaker’s chair and the main entrance to the chamber, which will allow people to watch live streaming video of the House when it is in session online.
The setup cost $130,000, but $100,000 of that was covered by a grant to make government more accessible to the public. Paulsen said the cameras will be activated during floor debate.
Gronstal said there are no plans to outfit the Senate with similar cameras this year.
There’s also no plan, the senator said, for another extended session.
“May and June,” Gronstal said, “aren’t on my legislative calendar.”
Perhaps that’s because Gronstal and the 149 other members of the General Assembly are up for election this year in new districts that were drawn after the 2010 census.
Precisely how that fact affects the debate this year remains to be seen.