DES MOINES — Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer says she wants the 2019 legislative session to end in a month that starts with an A — which either means lawmakers wrap things up in the next nine days or they’re in it until August.
The smart money is on April. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver even is pushing to finish this year’s session work by Friday.
“It’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take some major policy pieces falling into place as well,” Whitver said Thursday. “But if those policy bills fall into place and we don’t have any hiccups in the next 24 hours, I think we can make a run at next week.”
This year’s legislative session began nearly 14 weeks ago on Jan. 15. Among the major policy bills still awaiting agreement are efforts by majority Republicans to slow the growth of property taxes collected by local elected officials; plans by Gov. Kim Reynolds to empower rural Iowa in areas of broadband and housing and make Iowa’s workforce “Future Ready;” and bipartisan measures to legalize sports wagering and extend school infrastructure funding to 2051.
Republicans who hold majority margins of 32-18 in the Senate and 54-46 in the House also expect to complete work on a $7.643 billion budget plan that boosts overall state spending by about $197 million in the 2020 fiscal year starting July 1.
They already have passed the governor’s policy language to commence a statewide children’s mental health system, and plan to earmark $15 million yet this fiscal year to aid flood victims in western Iowa.
Upmeyer, a Clear Lake Republican, said there is a short list of “must-do” bills that remain to be passed, but other issues lacking the votes needed for passage or in need of further work and debate may have to wait until the second year of this General Assembly’s biennium to get done.
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“I think we’ve accomplished the things that were on the caucus’ list based on what they heard at the door and I think that’s a good thing,” Upmeyer said.
“There certainly are bills that some members would like us to continue work on and the caucus will decide which ones they think they just need to discuss a little more and fine tune and we can do them, and others that will get more work over the interim,” she said.
“That’s the good thing about being in the first year of a General Assembly, I think, is that we know that every single bill is still available to us next year when we come back,” Upmeyer added. “So if there are things people want to study more, get more information, we really can get that work done over the interim and be ready to come back in January and February and pass those bills.”
Some issues this year have won support in one chamber but so far have stalled in the other, such as restoring voting rights for felons, banning traffic enforcement cameras, imposing work requirements for welfare recipients, revamping the way judges are selected and seeking to criminalize the nonconsensual termination of a pregnancy.
Legislators still hold out hope that measures to legalize production of industrial hemp, bolster the state’s medical cannabis program and toughen penalties for animal cruelty still will get adopted as the session winds down.
Bills to prohibit private buyers from using a state low-interest loan program to buy farmland and to allow utility companies to impose a fee on solar energy users also remain on the agenda.
If legislators do adjourn still this month, that will beat the May 3 deadline for their daily expense money ending — a 110-day milestone that usually signals the end.
Other issues such as amending the Iowa Constitution to spell out there is no right to an abortion or state funding for an abortion, protecting religious freedoms, reinstating the death penalty, raising the legal age to use tobacco products to 21 and banning cellphone use while driving likely will wait another year.
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“It’s really been somewhat disappointing because there are so many bills that the Senate sent over to the House that were not taken up. But to be fair the jury is still out,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee. “Compared to the last couple of years, it certainly hasn’t been as active as it has been” he added. “There’s a lot of pent-up energy no matter who’s in charge. I know back when the Democrats took over, they were very active for a couple of years and then it kind of started leveling off and I think that’s exactly what’s going on with this year. We got the big stuff out of the way. I think it’s just natural that you’re not going to have as exciting a session as we’ve had the last couple of years.”
Whitver said the previous General Assembly was a hard act to follow after Republicans took control of the Iowa Legislature in 2016. With GOP Govs. Terry Branstad and Reynolds, they made major changes in areas of tax policy, workplace rules and abortion restrictions that pointed state government in a conservative direction.
“We made more progress in two years than most Legislatures do in two decades,” said Whitver. “And so now we get into a position where I think it’s more of a typical legislative session. It’s not as unified because the issues haven’t been built up for 15 or 20 years and so the governor got several of her priorities accomplished, we got some of ours done, the House is going to get some of theirs. I think it’s a little bit more of a normal process compared to those first two years.”
Minority Democrats said narrowing the party split in the House in the last election has enabled them to achieve some bipartisan consensus on the school infrastructure, voting rights and children’s mental health issues. But they hope they can head off changes to the judicial nominating system and impact the sports-wagering outcome this year.
“In their first couple of years, I think Republicans may have overreached on some of the things that deal with job safety and bargaining rights for organized labor within the state,” said House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City. “With the tightening of the numbers, I think they’ve found that they need to work together.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the state’s switch to privately managed Medicaid is “still a mess” and he remains concerned that Republicans continue to underfund education, provide tax breaks “for the big shots and the 1 percenters” while issues like water quality, environmental protections and public safety go wanting for more funding.
“It’s been kind of a rocky session in that regard,” he said. “Where’s the fix to the worst medical cannabis program in the country? There’s no real movement to try to help suffering Iowans that need our help. We still see really no meaningful action on a flood recovery plan for southwest Iowa. People need help right now.
“We have a group here that’s good at dismantling things but they’re not really very good at creating things. It’s not in their DNA to think that government has a role to help people,” said Bolkcom. “They’ve managed to bust up a lot of stuff. If you want a demolition crew, these are the folks.”
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Upmeyer said she believes Republicans did a good job this year in boosting funding for schools and training for teachers to identify potential mental-health issues in young people and make family referrals where appropriate.
“I’m really satisfied” with lawmakers’ 2019 work product, she said.
Whitver said majority Republicans are taking a responsible approach to budgeting, given the uncertainty in the economy, continued pressures on agriculture due to trade disputes and a still-developing disaster assessment and recovery situation in areas of Iowa hard hit by flooding.
“We just want to be very cautious so that we’re not coming back in January making de-appropriations again,” said Whitver. “It’s never good when we make promises to line items and then we have to take it back. We wanted to be cautious and I think that this budget that we’re passing now will allow us to keep all of those promises.”
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