Iowa's legislative session gets under way today
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa lawmakers will convene this morning for the 2014 legislative assembly with modest expectations, given that it’s an election year and the schedule calls for a short session.
Still, there are some policy proposals on the table, a budget must be approved and some political posturing is expected.
Here are five things to know about the session:
The sessions that occur in even-numbered years are designed to be shorter and tend to deal more with budget basics and less with sweeping policy debates.
This year there are just 100 days scheduled, compared with 110 days in odd-numbered years. And leaders have already moved up a number of procedural deadlines to help speed the process and perhaps conclude before April 22, when lawmakers stop receiving daily expense payments.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, of Council Bluffs, said the calendar is designed that way for a reason.
“When they created that timeline, they always presumed that the election year would be shorter than the non-election year,” Gronstal said.
Modest policy goals
Gov. Terry Branstad has laid out a series of small policy priorities that the legislative leaders seem inclined to support. They include an expansion of Internet access, a crackdown on school bullying, job training efforts and a program supporting veterans.
More substantive work is not expected, especially given that the Legislature accomplished some big policy efforts last year, with agreements on a property tax cut, new education spending and low-income health care expansion. And some ongoing issues — such as the debate over increasing the state fuel tax to pay for road repairs — seem unlikely to advance.
“The legislature has only so much energy and they exhausted a good share of it last year,” said Republican political consultant Doug Gross.
Even in a speedy session, legislators still must approve a state budget.
One key issue will be how to manage the state’s projected budget surplus of nearly $900 million. But while Democrats will likely seek some new spending and Republicans may float tax cuts, Branstad is cautioning that most of that funding is needed to pay for the tax cut and education spending approved last year.
“We wanted to make sure it was sustainable for the whole five years,” Branstad said of those plans. “That’s the reason you cannot spend the ending balance.”
Despite those realities, lawmakers will likely raise some items more for political reasons than with any real legislative intent.
All the House members and half the Senate are up for re-election. In addition, a number of members are seeking higher office, such as Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, who is running for governor, or Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, who is seeking the open U.S. Senate seat. That means they all want stuff to brag about out on the campaign trail.
So Democrats running the state Senate are likely to talk about boosting the minimum wage, while Republicans ruling the House may pitch tax cuts. But neither issue is likely to advance.
Amid the campaign talk is a lot of chatter about how these elections will impact the makeup of the legislature for 2015. Currently the Democrats hold a 26-24 majority in the Senate, while Republicans enjoy a 53-47 edge in the state House. Both parties are hoping to pick up seats in the 2014 elections as there will be some vacancies in both chambers.
Should the Republicans take over the Senate and hold the House, the Legislature might pursue a far more conservative agenda in 2015, perhaps seeking further restrictions on abortion and a referendum on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Republicans have proposed such legislation in the past, but it has been stalled by Democrats in the Senate.