Iowa Legislature continues trend of passing fewer bills

'It was sort of a calmer session for us'

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

DES MOINES — The split-control Legislature continued its trend of slowing the growth of the Iowa Code this year.

For the fourth straight year, Iowa lawmakers passed fewer than 150 measures during the session that ended after 108 calendar days May 1 in the Iowa House but stretched one more day in the Iowa Senate as senators wrangled over a measure to give its Oversight Committee subpoena power through the interim.

In the end, Republicans in the Iowa House and Democrats in the Iowa Senate who hold controlling majorities in their respective chambers managed to agree on 143 bills and joint resolutions that passed both bodies in the same forms this year. That compared with 146 last year, 138 in 2011 and 142 in 2012 – all years when control of the Legislature was split between the two political parties.

“It was sort of a calmer session for us,” said Richard Johnson of the Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan office that drafts bill requests from individual legislators, committee and legislative leaders, the governor’s office and executive branch agencies as well as handling much of the session’s administration and coordination.

While bill draft requests were up from a comparable session in 2012, they were down from most previous years and the number of bills and resolutions that actually got introduced was the lowest in at least a decade. The number of amendments requested and actually filed also was low in a session where Legislative Services employees logged fewer overtime hours, Johnson noted.

Legislative leaders opened the year with plans to shorten the expected 100-day session by a week or so with earlier-than-normal deadlines for moving bills through the committee process and the rare action of agreeing to joint state budget targets at the start of the appropriations process. However, progress on key measures and budget pieces slowed at the end and lawmakers ended up working for more than a week after their daily expense money ran out.

Johnson said the 85th General Assembly tackled some complex issues that narrowed the focus and held down the bill count. Also, the split-control nature of the process relegated a number of issues to the sidelines because consensus could not be reached, others noted. Republicans hold a 53-47 edge in the House and Democrats narrowly control the Senate with a 26-24 majority heading into an election cycle that could reshape the balance of power.

“If you look at total number of bills, I suspect that it was probably down,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “I would guess by most measures we probably didn’t have as much work product, but I think the product that we did have was pretty good.

“I still think this General Assembly, the 85th General Assembly, easily was one of the best general assemblies in the history of Iowa,” he added. “It definitely was the most productive General Assembly in my tenure.”

Much of the focus during last year’s session was on reform efforts in education, property taxes, mental health and medical assistance expansion areas. The recently completed session focused on balancing those new multiyear commitments with other spending needs and addressing a limited number of priority issues.

“The number of bills sometimes is not a good reflection of the work they’ve done. A bill can be very simple changing one fee or it can be very complex like a government reorganization bill that could be hundreds of pages long or a huge appropriations bill which does a variety of things including appropriating for one or more years and then also including some substantive legislation,” Johnson said.

“The numbers look as though there’s been a decrease. Certainly the pages of acts that have been produced in the last few years have been fewer in number than in previous years,” he added.

Prior to these past four sessions, the lowest number of enrolled bills and joint resolutions approved by Legislatures in recent years was 184 during the second session of the 79th General Assembly in 1999, the first session of the 81st General Assembly in 2005, and again during the first session of the 83rd General Assembly in 2009.

By contrast, the 73rd General Assembly sent then-Gov. Terry Branstad a combined 602 bills during its 1989 and 1990 sessions. Since then, lawmakers gradually have lowered their legislative output to where the annual bill total has exceeded 200 only twice in the past 12 years.

Branstad has one more week to finish work on policy and budget bills sent to him during the session.

About 10 of the bills Branstad must consider are spending measures that make up large portions of the state’s $6.97 billion budget. They include funding for education, health and human services, justice systems, agriculture and natural resources, economic development, transportation, infrastructure, administration and regulation, and various standing appropriations for state government.