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Iowa Democratic leaders discuss priorities for 2015 legislative session
DES MOINES - Top legislative Democrats said Monday they hope they can forge consensus on issues that will help middle-class Iowans as they prepare to convene the 86th Iowa General Assembly next week, where they again will share control with Republicans who hold sway in the Iowa House and governor's office.
Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, told a Statehouse news conference that Democrats, who hold a 26-24 majority in the Iowa Senate, have 'set our sights on big goals” that would aid working families and middle-class Iowans who have been left out as Iowa's economy continues to recover from a difficult recession.
Included among Democrats' priorities were boosting funding for public education at all levels to improve student achievement and teacher quality; freezing tuition for in-state students at state universities for a third straight year; expanding opportunities for worker training; giving Iowa companies preference for state contracts; encouraging more production and use of renewable energy; expanding access to broadband, especially in rural and underserved areas; and balancing the state budget without raising taxes.
'We plan to work together for the next two years to make sure that we can address urgent issues and move Iowa forward. We simply have to,” said Jochum, who noted Republicans likely will hold a 57-43 edge in the Iowa House and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad will start his sixth, four-year term Jan. 16. 'Any ideas need to have bipartisan support if it's going to become law. There are simply no other options.”
House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown said legislative Democrats will push to spend more money on education at all levels from preschool programs, to K-12 schools, to community colleges and regent universities.
'The foundation of our economy and the middle class rests on education and a highly skilled workforce,” Smith said. 'We'll work together to expand job training opportunities at Iowa community colleges and make sure every Iowa child graduates with the skills necessary to land a good job or continue education after high school.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said Democrats have settled on a proposed increase in state supplemental aid to K-12 schools for 2016 and 2017, but he expressed concern that Iowa's 338 districts 'have been neglected” when it comes to adequate funding. He said state support for education 'has been lagging,” noting that Iowa ranks 37th nationally among states for per-pupil funding.
'We think we should work toward getting us to the national average,” Gronstal said, but noted achieving that goal would take several years. Iowa is working to get back to world-class status in education, which is something 'you can't do that on the cheap.”
Gronstal did not rule out a Senate push to increase the state's minimum wage during the 2015 session, but said an effort only would be mounted if there was an indication the issue would get favorable treatment by House Republicans and Branstad.
'Many of us think it's time to do that, but we understand the political reality, 'he said.
Gronstal said he expected the Senate again would attempt to crack down on Iowa companies that fail to pay employees for work that's been done by passing wage theft legislation. He said the 'vast majority” of Iowa companies are doing right by their employees, but a 2012 Iowa Public Policy study indicated that a minority of Iowa businesses are failing to pay as much as $600 million in wages is each year.