DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers took their cue from Saturday’s crosstown Drake Relays and finished in marathon fashion.
This year’s 104-day session ended after a week of long hours of closed-door negotiations and floor debates peppered with partisan acrimony as Republicans used their 32-18 majority in the Iowa Senate and 53-47 edge in the Iowa House to push through a conservative agenda and shape a $7.644 billion budget for fiscal 2020.
Saturday’s waning hours featured hard-edge battles over issues that surfaced late in the process — limiting Medicaid-funded transgender surgeries and barring abortion providers from receiving government sex-education grants. But it also featured last-minute compromises on revamping Iowa’s judicial nominating process, expanding medical cannabis options, setting registration fees for electric vehicles and other issues that have languished on debate calendars for months.
“Overall, I think it has been a pretty decent year,” said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel. “It’s different dynamics than it’s been the last couple of years, but overall I think we’ve been successful. I think we’ve built on the progress we’ve made over the past two years. Of course some of us would like to see even more done than what we were able to accomplish, but that’s the legislative process.”
Majority Republicans hailed successes in discouraging higher property-tax bills at the local levels, taking steps to aid rural Iowa with more housing, broadband and industrial hemp opportunities while scoring bipartisan progress in legalizing sports betting, launching a statewide children’s mental-health system and assisting caregivers faced with post-hospitalization challenges to keep loved ones in their homes.
“It’s probably exceeded my expectations because I thought I was going to come here and be really frustrated by the partisan politics and the inability to get things done, but I’ve seen a lot more collaboration than I was expecting,” said Sen. Chris Cournoyer, a first-year Republican from LeClair. “It’s been an interesting process.’
For minority Democrats, 2019 was a mixed bag — but better than the two previous sessions under GOP control that brought conservative approaches to tax cuts, abortion, voting, immigration and gun-rights policies and restrictions on public sector unions and workers’ comp.
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But they relished the knowledge they were able to stop what they considered to be bad bills this session after narrowing the House margin in the 2018 election and picking up a seat to make it a 53-47 split after Anamosa Rep. Andy McKean joined their ranks in a party-switch this month.
“It’s hard to even think about how much bad has been done,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo. “I think we’ve set Iowa back about 10 years in being a progressive state.”
From underfunding education to taking “half steps” in bolstering Iowa’s economy, he said, he was hard-pressed to point to places where the state hasn’t been moving backward under continued Republican control.
“I’ve never been through a session that has done so many things to undermine where Iowa was in my point of view,” said Dotzler. “As a whole, this has been one of the most-disappointing sessions that I’ve been through in about 20 years. We’re underfunding so many different needs of Iowans that it’s frustrating.”
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said she entered the 2019 session with a list of priorities Iowans had told her they wanted to see addressed: making rural Iowa is a priority, improving health care for Iowans, slowing the growth of property taxes and passing a responsible state budget.
“I am proud to say that we took action on each of this issues,” Upmeyer told colleagues. “The people of Iowa sent us here to continue moving forward with a common-sense agenda — smaller government that respects the hardworking taxpayers. Promises made. Promises kept.”
Reynolds issued a statement after the Iowa House adjourned at 2:14 p.m. and the Iowa Senate followed suit 11 minutes later, calling the 2019 session “a win for Iowans.”
“Earlier this year in my Condition of the State address, I said now is the time to deliver on the promises we made to Iowans looking for a way up,” she said in a statement. “Through collaboration and compromise, those Iowans will be better off today than they were before.”
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She applauded lawmakers for enacting a conservative budget and bolstering policy areas of education, workforce, property tax reform, judicial nominating, criminal justice, children’ mental health and welfare, flood recovery and protecting agriculture and rural Iowa,
But the GOP governor also listed some unfinished business for the 2020 session as the part-time legislators were packing their boxes.
“While a lot was accomplished, we’re not finished yet,” Reynolds said. ”Next year, I will push again for a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights and work to expand access to contraception. We will also continue our focus on growing the economy as well as create opportunities to attract top talent to Iowa by sharing our story as a vibrant, affordable, and welcoming state.”
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