NEWS

Iowa Legislature on brink of adjournment

'We should be done tomorrow'

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers passed major pieces of their fiscal 2016 budget compromise with hope growing they could end their overtime session as early as Thursday if the final agreements fell into place.

“We should be done tomorrow,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said Wednesday as House and Senate spent the day approving conference committee settlements on health & human services, higher education and justice system spending that will fund state universities, community colleges, public safety agencies, state prisons, workforce training and social service programs for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“I feel like we’re making good progress,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.

Much of Wednesday’s discussion was taking place behind closed doors as conference committees for various budget areas met in private to divvy up the available funds within their spending targets and bring them to the House and Senate for quick consideration by rank-and-file legislators who had limited say in the process.

The marathon 2015 session’s 143rd day produced an agreement on a controversial $1.84 billion health & human services bill (Senate File 505) that awaited House and Senate consideration, but talks were continuing on a “standings” appropriation bill that funded K-12 schools and included several policy provisions dealing with anti-bullying efforts in schools, gun-law expansions and illegal drug penalties.

“There is some policy language in it and there will be some that comes out,” Paulsen said. “When we have it in final form, we’ll be ready to share.”

Legislators close to the negotiations on S.F. 505 said House-Senate human services conferees agreed to include language sought by pro-life Republicans for doctors who provide abortion services to offer an opportunity for a pregnant woman to view an ultrasound image of her unborn fetus before performing the procedure. Also included in the fiscal 2016 budget bill is $3 million for status-quo family planning services sought by legislative Democrats.

The legislative compromise keeps in tact a 2013 provision that delegates to the governor decisions on whether Iowa’s Medicaid program should pay for individual abortion – a role Gov. Terry Branstad had sought to end. Currently, gubernatorial approval is required before the publicly financed insurance program would pay for any abortions.

In other budget action Wednesday, Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, said the $561.2 million earmarked for justice system functions was short of what majority Democrats wanted, but the $4.3 million over current-year spending approved on a 26-24 party-line vote would bolster corrections and public safety operations while maintaining a status-quo budget for other covered agencies. The House later approved the bill 56-36 and sent it to the governor.

“We’re short-changing our prison system and we’re asking for trouble,” said Sen. Rich Taylor, a Mount Pleasant Democrat who worked in corrections fore 27 years before retiring. “We need to try to do better to fund these prisons before we have a disaster. It’s not a matter of if we’re going to have a disaster, it’s a matter of when,” he said in urging his colleagues to “see if we can’t do better in the future.”

Senators also followed the House lead by approving a $992.2 million education budget that proposes a $6.1 million increase beginning on July 1. Regent universities also were in line to receive more than $6 million in one-time appropriations in a separate bill that would translate into an overall increase of 1.25 percent.

Senate File 658 included $40 million for workforce training and $49 million for teacher leadership education reforms but fell $48 million short of what Senate Democrats wanted. The bill went to Gov. Terry Branstad on a 28-22 vote. It is part of an overall budget compromise that spends $7.17 billion from the general fund in fiscal 2016 plus $125 million in one-time spread over state government this fiscal year and next.

One policy piece still in limbo in the Senate has lawmakers march toward adjournment was a House-passed measure seeking to legalize the sale, possession and use of consumer-grade fireworks in Iowa beginning Dec. 1. Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, said a final decision had not been made whether House File 614 would see action yet this session.

“Fireworks is still a live round as far as I’m concerned,” said Danielson, who noted that the bill gives communities “extensive local control” on fireworks policies as a “limited, responsible” approach to address deficiencies in current law which is loosely enforced, doesn’t work and “is silly on its face.”

If approved and sent to Gov. Terry Branstad for his consideration, Danielson said “we will likely sell fireworks in Iowa but you will still see a multitude of restrictions on the use because of the local control. So the net effect is we probably won’t export $35 million to surrounding states and we still won’t see full and unfettered use of fireworks 24 hours a day, every day which seems to be the scare tactics.”

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The governor has been noncommittal, saying he would reserve judgment on the fireworks issue until a bill makes it to his desk and he has a chance to review its provisions.

The issue has touched off a debate between advocates who see it as a liberty issue with proper safety precautions built into any move to legalization that also would bring an economic benefit via legal sales, while opponent argue it would increase safety risks, violate citizens’ right to peace and enjoyment, and cause problems for people dealing with traumatic stress events in their lives.

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