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GOP's state trifecta has its own challenges 'It's not all roses and sunshine,' recalls leader from 20 years ago

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

DES MOINES — It’s a Republican reunion, 20 years in the making.

In 2017 and 2018, at the least, the Iowa Capitol will be ruled by Republicans. After the Nov. 8 elections, the GOP took control of the state government trifecta — majorities in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate and a Republican in the governor’s office.

The last time Republicans had unfettered control of the state’s lawmaking agenda was 20 years earlier, in 1997 and 1998. Terry Branstad was governor then, too.

Republicans who were on the legislative front lines 20 years ago say there is much professional joy in being able to advance a policy agenda without political opposition, but that intraparty challenges remain.

“You can get some good things done, but it’s not all roses and sunshine,” said Brent Siegrist, the House majority leader then.

Democrats who were there in 1997 and 1998 say, unsurprisingly, there is little to enjoy being in the minority.

“It just is not a fun place to be,” said Don Shoultz, a former legislator from Waterloo who was an assistant minority leader in the Iowa House in 1997 and 1998. “If you like to set policy, if you like to be a policy person, it’s not fun to have to react all the time to the other guy.”

If history repeats itself, Republican lawmakers will be eager to pass legislation that for the past six years has been rebuffed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

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“We went into it kind of like they are going into it now: happy that we would be able to get some things done,” Siegrist said. “We just had some penned-up demand to do some things.”

Branstad has said he, too, looks forward to passing legislation that previously was halted by Democrats, although he gives few examples, such as legislation establishing funding for water-quality initiatives.

“I can assure you he’s very optimistic,” Bob Rafferty, Branstad’s chief of staff in 1997 and 1998, said of the governor. “I’ll defer to the governor and his current staff as far as what his key priorities will be, but I think there’s no question he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to accomplish some things he wasn’t able to before.”

Twenty years ago, Republicans took advantage of their trifecta by passing an across-the-board 10 percent income tax reduction in 1997 and an additional $85 million in tax reductions for various groups in 1998.

They also took on social issues, passing a ban on same-sex marriages — which was struck down by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2009 — a ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortions and a requirement for young women to notify a family member before having an abortion.

Since the Nov. 8 election, Republican Statehouse leaders have been tight-lipped on their agenda for the next two years. But any number of GOP-backed proposals could be on the table, including changes to collective bargaining laws for public employees, voter identification requirements and abortion regulations.

Republican leaders from 20 years ago said legislators now will have to avoid the temptation to do too much too soon, lest they risk voter backlash and lose their majorities.

House members are up for re-election every two years, and Senate members every four years. Branstad’s term ends in 2018.

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“You have to guard against it, and that’s kind of hard to do because, as I said, there’s that pent-up energy,” Siegrist said. “You have people that may have some ideas that maybe are a little too far right or left, depending on who’s in control. And you have to kind of manage that, too. ...”

Siegrist said how Republicans address collective bargaining laws in the next two years could be an indicator as to how far the party is willing to test drive its authority.

In recent sessions, House Republicans approved legislation that would allow an arbiter to choose a midpoint in negotiations between the state and public unions; current law allows for the arbiter to choose only one proposal.

Republicans could run that bill again or could pass more sweeping legislation, for example removing the unions’ ability to bargain for employee health insurance.

“We did look at (collective bargaining). We looked at making some changes at that time. Back then, we decided it wasn’t worth the fight, if you will, and we didn’t make any significant changes to (collective bargaining). That might be different this time,” Siegrist said. “That will be an example, kind of an idea to see where they may go. ... If they push to repeal (the collective bargaining law), then they’re going pretty hard at it.”

Rafferty said although it may seem like smooth legislative sailing for Republicans, everyone’s wish list will not be completely granted.

“The reality is you’re not going to get done as much as you’re going to want to. Even within the same party, there are a lot of different opinions and perspectives on what should get done. So just because you’re one party doesn’t mean you all have the same vision for how to move the state forward,” Rafferty said. “So there needs to be a healthy realization that there are going to be disagreements. They’re just going to be different disagreements than you’ve had in the past.”

Whatever the Republicans’ agenda, Democrats will be largely unable to stop it. Republicans hold enough votes to pass legislation without Democratic approval.

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Shoultz said he thinks Republicans now will be more aggressive than they were 20 years ago because of heightened party politics and the increase in money in elections, even at the state level.

“It was certainly a change for us, having had the majority for a long time and setting the agenda for a long time, to have to go into the minority,” Shoultz said. “It’s not a fun time, because you’re spending most of your time just trying to stop the agenda.”

Republicans 20 years ago lost their trifecta when Branstad declined to run for re-election and Democrat Tom Vilsack won the 1998 gubernatorial election. Still, the Iowa House and Senate remained controlled by Republicans for the first six of Vilsack’s eight years as governor.

Almost a decade after the Republicans’ two-year run, Democrats got their turn with full control of the Statehouse for all four years under one-term Gov. Chet Culver, from 2007 to 2010.

Siegrist said governing with complete partisan control comes with unique responsibilities and challenges, which he said Statehouse Republicans are about to learn.

“Those two years when we had the trifecta were some of the toughest, because you don’t have anybody to blame anymore,” Siegrist said. “So when you can’t get something done or get it done the way you want, you can’t blame it on the Democratic governor or the Democrats in the Senate or whatever. So that’s really a significant change. You’re solely responsible. ...

“The trifecta is great, but it’s not easy.”

IOWA STATEHOUSE PARTY CONTROL SINCE 1993

1993-96: Republican governor and House, Democratic Senate

1997-98: Republican governor, House and Senate

1999-2004: Democratic governor, Republican House and Senate

2005-06: Democratic governor, Republican House, tied Senate

2007-10: Democratic governor, House and Senate

2011-16: Republican governor and House, Democratic Senate

2017-18: Republican governor, House and Senate

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