DES MOINES — Majority Republicans spent Friday ironing out differences on a nearly $7.8 billion spending plan for fiscal 2021 and finalizing a shrinking list of policy priorities in hopes of wrapping up the elongated session this weekend.
“I think that we’re getting very close on almost everything that we need to close down session, so hopefully we can get done tomorrow,” Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said, “and we can wrap up what turned out to be an unpredictable but very successful session.”
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said Republicans — who hold majorities of 32-18 in the Iowa Senate and 53-47 in the Iowa House — and Gov. Kim Reynolds were eyeing a budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that would have a $300 million surplus ending balance and more than $800 million in reserves.
That cushion is needed due to the economic uncertainty caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that already has shaved state tax collections by $500 million since March and could have more financial havoc in store.
“From the standpoint of House Republicans, the way we’ve budgeted is making sure we leave ourselves in a position for some uncertainty, and, obviously, we are in some uncertain times,” Grassley said as legislators began their push toward adjournment on Friday.
Grassley was reluctant to set up an adjournment expectation, saying only “we’re making a run at getting done as soon as possible.”
DEMS FAULT BUDGET
Minority Democrats questioned whether it was advisable for Republicans to push for more state tax cuts given the need to already pare next year’s state funding to a “status quo” budget with selected increases for K-12 schools, Medicaid, children’s health insurance and a few other program areas.
They also worried the compressed GOP budget, approved 52-45 by the House late Friday night, gives too much authority to the governor and her administrators without adequate transparency or legislative checks and oversight.
“Like the pandemic, our revenues are really uncertain and can change on a dime just like the virus that, quite frankly, is surging in dozens of state right now as I speak,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque.
However, Whitver said he expected GOP negotiators to approve a tax-policy compromise that ensured individuals and businesses would not face state taxation on federal stimulus checks and grants and provide other breaks at a time when many Iowans are facing financial challenges.
“There are Democrats on both sides that are saying that we need to get in and get out in one day, and then there are some that say we need to run 10 budget bills,” Whitver said. “Our job is to get it done efficiently and effectively, so putting it into one budget is sufficient to me.”
Reynolds issued a revised spending plan Friday that included the 2.3 percent state aid increase to K-12 schools, more Medicaid funding and other targeted program raises, while paring her initial fiscal 2021 budget blueprint by about $300 million to slightly under $7.8 billion, with many line items at status-quo levels.
The dwindling list of unfinished business for legislators included bills seeking to reform Iowa’s system of issuing occupational licenses and setting fees; revisions to the state elections law and the role of the secretary of state as commissioner of elections; tougher penalties for crimes of animal cruelty; and two separate constitutional amendments dealing with abortion rights and the restoration of voting rights for felons.
Whitver said he expected agreements could be reached between the two chambers on most of the remaining policy priorities.
But he said the future of the felon voting rights amendment might depend on whether Reynolds chooses to address that by issuing an executive order.
On the potential for a protracted debate on the abortion amendment, Grassley said, “We’re going to continue to have that conversation with our caucus and see if there’s a path in which we can try to take a pro-life vote yet this session.”
Legislators spent Friday listening to farewell speeches from retiring and departing colleagues — a sure sign that adjournment is near — and huddling in closed-door caucuses before shipping bills to the governor dealing with Future Ready funding, driving licensure changes in farm situations and providing immunity to minors for some alcohol-related offenses when emergency assistance is sought.
“Iowa’s greatest opportunity for economic growth is to build a workforce that’s nimble and highly skilled,” Reynolds said in issuing a statement on House passage 97-0 of House File 2629.
“Future Ready Iowa helps Iowans looking for a way up by connecting them to the skills and education needed for a lifelong career,” she said. “I appreciate the Iowa Legislature working with me to continue this program that has already changed the lives of so many Iowans.”
The House worked past 10 p.m. to approve an occupational licensure bill that supporters said will reduce barriers for people — including Iowans coming out of prison — entering a variety of professional and trade crafts. It also approved spending $66.6 million from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund and Technology Fund on infrastructure projects, a decrease of $25 million from the current due to declining revenues, and a $394 million budget transportation budget with $342.5 million for the primary road fund and $5.51 million for the Road Use Tax Fund.
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The 2020 legislative session was one for the record books as lawmakers called an unprecedented 11-week “pause” in mid-March as part of a statewide effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic that showed up in Iowa on March 8.
Lawmakers twice extended the delay before reopening the Capitol building May 18 and reconvening their 2020 work under a number of public health and social-distancing guidelines intended to allow lawmakers to function in their chambers with limited access for staff, lobbyists and the public.
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