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General Assembly wraps 2015 session

Iowa Capitol 1By Bob Eschliman
Editor

 

And in a flurry of activity Friday morning and afternoon, the Iowa General Assembly concluded its 2015 session after five weeks of “unpaid overtime.” The House of Representatives adjourned at 3:38 p.m., and the Senate followed suit 10 minutes later, at 3:48 p.m.

The House began its workday at 8:30 a.m., the Senate at 9 a.m., with both chambers alternating between floor debate and caucuses as new bills were ready for consideration. In total, 12 bills were adopted by the two chambers, including:

  • House File 616 – an act to amend Iowa Code relating to property tax provisions; adopted on a 91-0 vote in the House, and a 46-4 vote in the Senate.
  • House File 632 – the Insurance Division omnibus bill, amended and approved by the House on Thursday; adopted on a 44-6 vote in the Senate.
  • House File 645 – an act to amend Iowa Code relating to renewable energy tax credits; adopted on a 88-4 vote in the House, and a 49-1 vote in the Senate.
  • House File 651 – an act to authorize expenditures from the E911 Emergency Communications Fund, amended and approved by the Senate on Thursday; adopted on a 92-0 vote in the House.
  • House File 652 – an act to amend Iowa Code as it relates to the underground storage tanks replacement program; adopted on an 86-6 vote in the House, and a 31-19 vote in the Senate.
  • House File 666 – a broad-ranging debt reduction and appropriations bill; adopted on an 87-4 vote in the House, and a 27-23 vote in the Senate.
  • Senate File 171 – the conference committee report on state percentage growth for supplemental state aid to local school districts; adopted on a 53-36 vote in the House, and a 45-5 vote in the Senate.
  • Senate File 172 – the conference committee report on the categorical state percentage of growth for supplemental state aid to local school districts; adopted on a 53-36 vote in the House, and a 46-4 vote in the Senate.
  • Senate File 485 – an act to allow school districts to exceed the statutory physical plant and equipment levy rate limit following the refunding or refinancing of loan agreements approved by the Senate earlier this week; adopted on an 88-0 vote in the House.
  • Senate File 510 – the conference committee report on the standing appropriations bill; adopted on a 87-2 vote in the House, and a 26-24 vote in the Senate.

Traditionally, the standing appropriations bill is the last piece of work for legislators, but continued disagreement on the transportation omnibus bill led to House File 635 being the final piece of actual legislation considered. The sticking point was over policy provisions related to uninsured motorists and online transportation companies such as Uber and Lyft.

The first conference committee dissolved without coming to a consensus on Thursday. A second conference committee brought its report to the legislature Friday morning; the House adopted it on a 53-35 vote, while the Senate rejected it.

With leadership of both chambers directly involved, a third conference committee removed all of the policy provisions, effectively returning to the original bill as adopted by the House several weeks earlier. The House passed the bill on an 87-0 vote, while the Senate approved it by a 49-0 margin.

Gov. Terry Branstad now has 30 days to consider the final pieces of legislation. Iowa governors have line-item veto authority. With the adoption of the stopgap funding bill by both chambers, essential state functions will continue, even if he has not signed all of the budget into law prior to the July 1 start of the 2016 fiscal year.

He issued the following statement upon the conclusion of the legislative session:

The dawn of the 2015 legislative session offered hope that leaders of both parties would be able to come together to build Iowa for the future. The Battelle 2.0 study offered state leaders a roadmap for ensuring Iowa continues to move forward and is positioned to continue growing, bringing business and jobs to the state and increasing family incomes. As the study simply states, sound infrastructure is a prerequisite for economic development.

Together, leaders acted to support the investment of $3.2 billion over five years in Iowa’s roads and bridges. These key improvements will elevate the state’s ability to attract economic development and job creators. Since 2011, our unemployment rate has been slashed by over 33 percent, more Iowans are working than ever before and our jobless rate is the lowest it has been in over seven years. To continue this growth, we needed to not only make strategic investments in our roads and bridges, but also in 21st century infrastructure.

Time and again, Lieutenant Governor Reynolds and I heard from businesses across the state that the lack of high-speed internet is slowing – or worse, preventing – growth of Iowa small businesses. With the passage of this broadband bill, Iowa can begin stretching high-speed fiber across the state to give farmers the technology they need to fully utilize modern agriculture equipment, schools access to abundant resources available online and local small businesses the ability to connect with the global marketplace.

With progress, however, comes disappointment. On the second day of the legislative session, I presented a budget that funded Iowa’s schools for two years. It provided school officials the certainty and predictability they need to budget. It would prevent the seemingly endless cycle of uncertainty for our schools due to legislative gridlock.

After five months, the Legislature went home without reaching consensus on a two-year education budget that would provide budget certainty to our schools this year and next. Now, the only certainty that the Iowa Legislature provided to schools is that they’ll be back next year having the same old, tired fight about school funding – in an election year no less. That action – or lack thereof – is par for the course in Washington, D.C., but it’s a disservice to Iowans, our schools and most importantly our children.

Perhaps more disappointing was the inability of the Legislature to come together to pass a bill that protects our children from bullying in schools. Every child deserves a safe and respectful learning environment. In 2014, both chambers passed an anti-bullying bill. Yet with nearly identical language this year, the bill to protect our children from the relentless bullying kids can face in the classroom and online through social media languished. First Lady Chris Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Reynolds and I will not stop working to end bullying in Iowa.

Over the next thirty days, Lieutenant Governor Reynolds and I will carefully review the bills sent to my desk by the Iowa Legislature. We’ll review the bills in the same lens as we always do – the budget must balance in the biennium, fit within our five-year budgeting projections, and honor the commitments we’ve made in the past to the Teacher Leadership and Compensation System and the property tax relief.

With farm incomes expected to decrease by 32 percent this year, farmland values already down 15 percent and expected to continue to decline this year, commodity prices down 40-50 percent since 2012 and an avian flu virus outbreak affecting nearly 30 million birds across the state, we must adhere to our conservative budgeting principles and resist the desire of using bad budgeting practices that in the past led to reckless across the board cuts.

The leadership of both chambers made the closing statements during the day, as well.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) said:

Legislating is about finding common ground.

This year, common ground was hard to find, especially on two issues that matter most to Iowans—the education of our children and the future of our economy.

Senate Democrats argued that, after several lean years for local schools, Iowa’s improving economy makes it possible to reinvest in Iowa’s next generation.

Republicans said the state of Iowa couldn’t afford to do more.  Next fall, there will be hundreds of fewer teachers in Iowa’s local schools as a result.

That issue is not going away.

During the next several months, Iowa parents, educators, community leaders and students will make their case for doing more for education.  I hope next session’s results will be different.

People need to know that the prolonged stalemate over education funding is NOT how most issues are addressed at the statehouse.

Here’s an example of how the Legislature works best: the “Safe at Home” program.

This is an effort to better protect victims of domestic violence by preserving their confidentiality when they are dealing with government agencies.

This idea was first proposed by Brad Anderson, the 2014 Democratic candidate for Secretary of State.

Brad’s Republican opponent, Paul Pate, embraced the idea after the election and worked with Democratic and Republican legislators on legislation to enact it.

“Safe at Home” was approved by large, bipartisan majorities in the Iowa House and Senate, and then signed into law by Governor Branstad.

A good idea was proposed and Iowa’s leaders worked together to make it a reality.

Here’s another example: Thanks to the cooperative work by members of both chambers and the Board of Regents, the tuition freeze for Iowa students at our public universities will continue.

Finally, I want to draw attention to the agreement worked out to keep the Mental Health Institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda available to serve Iowa families dealing with several mental health issues.

Two Henry County legislators — State Senator Rich Taylor, a Democrat, and State Representative David Heaton, a Republican — worked with Senator Amanda Ragan  throughout the session to craft a bipartisan response to Governor Branstad’s abrupt announcement that he intended to close these two important institutions, both of which serve crucial roles in our state’s mental health and public safety networks.

I urge Governor Branstad to support this bipartisan compromise.

There were a number of overwhelmingly bipartisan ideas approved by the Senate which did not receive a vote in the Iowa House.

These ideas will be there next January, waiting for the House to consider them.  They include:

The anti-bullying initiative: All students have a right to a safe and supportive place to learn. Iowa law currently requires schools to have anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, help for bullied children, and the collection of data on bullying incidents.

Senate File 345, which takes steps to make sure those existing protections will actually make a day-to-day difference for our students, was approved by a vote of 43 to 7.  I hope it will be approved by the House early in the 2016 session.

Senate File 447, approved by the Senate on a vote of 50 to 0, extends the statute of limitations on the sexual abuse of children.

If it is passed by the Iowa House and signed by the Governor, no one who sexually abuses a child in Iowa will ever have the security of knowing they got away with it.

It is shocking to think that between 2001 and 2013, Iowa drivers distracted by a phone or other device, caused more than 8,600 crashes. That’s why the Senate voted 44 to 6 for Senate File 391, which would make texting while driving a primary offense.

That legislation will also be on the House’s calendar in 2016.

In almost every Iowa murder involving domestic violence, the victim was previously stalked by their assailant.

The Iowa Senate voted unanimously for Senate Files 395 and 416.  They expand the definition of stalking to include conduct that causes reasonable people to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated or threatened.

Human trafficking is the buying and selling of human beings, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.

The Senate unanimously approved Senate File 450.  It would make human trafficking a forcible felony, sending persons convicted of human trafficking, straight to prison.  There would be no deferred judgments, no deferred sentences and no suspended sentences.

All this legislation will be there, waiting for the House to take up next session.

The Democratic and Republican members of the Senate have many reasons to be proud of our work this session, and to look forward to a productive session next year.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) said:

As I reflect upon the 2015 Legislative session I must admit there are disappointments.

Serious job creation measures were neglected. This should be a top priority, yet it was ignored.

We never had constructive conversations, let alone a vote on the Senate floor, on reducing the tax burdens on all Iowans.

When this session began, many of us agreed this would be a challenging budget year. Instead of tightening our belts, we watched the state budget reach historic levels, eclipsing the 7 billion dollar mark.

I have said this before and it bears repeating – there is a financial storm on the horizon. Yet, this warning was ignored. We had an opportunity to grow and expand our economy to help be better prepared to deal with this financial storm, but Senate Democrats chose to do nothing and kick the can down the road.

In the past several weeks, we have witnessed a deadly virus devastate Iowa’s poultry industry. The ag economy is not as strong as in recent years due to lagging livestock and commodity prices. This week we learned a survey conducted by Creighton University indicates the Midwest economy is weakening.

Colleagues, all of these factors impact Iowa’s economy and our state budget. Yet, state spending continues to grow significantly. 

When Senate Republicans stressed the importance of controlled spending, our counterparts in the Senate took this as an opportunity to politicize our calls for fiscal responsibility. Colleagues let me be clear – we cannot overpromise only to under deliver.

It was just five short years ago the severe impacts of Democrat budgeting practices were felt across Iowa. As a reminder, those reckless spending practices resulted in tens of millions of dollars in cuts and created serious financial hardships to schools, human services and every state department. Worse yet, it impacted Iowans who were saddled with property tax increases.

We can and must do even better. Iowans are counting on us to ease their burdens, not create more.

To govern is to choose. The burden of leadership is making tough choices that fly in the face of what some may want because it is the right thing to do. This legislative session we were given a choice when it came to fiscal responsibility. Senate Republicans demonstrated spending restraint because it was the right thing to do, and we held true to the vow we made on Day 1.

Legislators stressed the budget issues we faced going into this session. We used the word challenging quite often, but we did not meet the challenge. We only delayed it. As a result, when we return next January we likely will hear words such as troubling, disturbing, structural deficits and necessary cuts.

Good leadership requires vision. This vision must meet the needs of today while ensuring a structure is in place to address necessary demands in years to come. Those promises will be even harder to keep because we failed Iowans when it mattered most and such a vision was expected of us. 

Senate Republicans will continue to pursue our vision to create a legacy of opportunity for every Iowan and fight to end the continued war on the Iowa taxpayer.  After all, that is the government Iowans expect, the representation they deserve and the leadership they elected us to provide.

Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) said:

I know this took a little bit longer than all of us wanted, but we should be proud that rather than rushing to an end, we did quality work on behalf of Iowans.

I’d like to start by quickly thanking you, the members of the eighty-sixth general assembly for your hard work and willingness to come together to do what’s best for Iowans.  It is truly an honor to serve as your speaker.

Thanks to my page Aaron, you’ve been a tremendous help in our office this year.

To the House Republicans – you have shown willingness to do what is right and responsible for Iowa taxpayers, even in the face of great pressure to expand government just to hurry the process.  It’s an honor to be a part of your caucus.

To my wife, Cathy, and our children, thank you for your constant support and understanding.

I want to thank our great leadership team that I am honored to work with – Reps. Fry, Hagenow, Hein, Klein, Rogers, and – I appreciate your leadership and dedication to the Republican caucus.   To Speaker Pro Tem Matt Windschitl, your work on behalf of this chamber is significant.

To the Majority Leader, Linda Upmeyer, thank you for your unwavering commitment to our caucus and Iowans. I value your friendship and appreciate your tireless work.

To Leader Smith and the minority party, thank you for your efforts this year.

To our leadership staff:  Louis, Terri, Josie, Angie, and Tony.  And, in my opinion, the best caucus staff in the building – the House Republican Caucus staff: Jeff, Lew, Brad, Jason, Kristi, Carrie, Colin, Amanda, Dane and Brittany – you are not thanked enough for the work that you do and the service you provide.  We are very appreciative.

Chief Clerk Boal, thank you to you and your staff, the work you all do to make this chamber operate efficiently.   And LSA for all of your hard work, much of what you do is not seen but it does not go unnoticed.

And finally, thanks to Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds and their team for their willingness to once again work together to move Iowa forward.

For the fifth year in a row, the Iowa Legislature has made a serious commitment to Iowans to not spend more than the state takes in.  This is an incredibly significant accomplishment.

Why do House Republicans fight so hard to maintain our budget principles?  Because Iowans work so hard to earn that money and we have a responsibility to protect the taxpayers and families who go to work, play by the rules and pay their taxes.  Those Iowans expect to be treated with respect.  That is why House Republicans will stand up and protect their money every day.  Every dollar the Legislature spends that it doesn’t have puts the financial security of those taxpayers and families in jeopardy.  Responsible budgeting ensures Iowa’s most vulnerable citizens have resources they can depend on next year and the year after.  Keeping spending aligned with revenues will be our first priority of the 2016 session.

We are nearing a tipping point in the budget process where Medicaid is consuming resources that in the past have gone to education.  The work we did this year on the cost containment measures will be vital to the ongoing stability of our state’s resources.  But the challenge does not end there.

We must continue to find other ways to effectively manage state dollars.  We’ll be back next year to continue our work on giving school districts more flexibility and also on making the case that reform to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws protects Iowans’ money and helps critical dollars actually reach our kids.

This session we took a bold stand with Iowa landowners to fiercely protect their property.

And lastly, we added some of the most substantial pro-life language to Iowa law in over a decade.

Regrettably, this General Assembly could not come together to advance second amendment rights for Iowans and our law enforcement community.  It is something we will continue to push for next session.

This is no small checklist.  We took Iowans’ priorities and turned them into realities by working together and finding common ground.  We gave them results, and we’ll be back next year to fight for them again.

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake) said:

We started this session with a difficult budget situation on our hands.  Our growing obligations exceeded the amount of revenue coming in.

To some, this was yet another opportunity to return to the days of spending more than the state takes in.  It is far too easy to build the ending balance into the ongoing expenses.

Well… easy until it isn’t.  Easy until revenue drops and there isn’t anywhere to go but to cuts and broken promises.

The state has been down that path many times before.  Instead, this chamber chose a wiser path.  As we have for the previous four sessions, we have aligned ongoing expenses with ongoing revenue.

Not spending more than you take-in is something that has always made sense to Iowans.  They should be glad to know their legislators are doing that too.  Who knows, maybe someday the federal government might even pick up on the idea!

That might seem like a dream, but what isn’t a dream in the state of Iowa is the fact that Republicans and Democrats can come together and find common ground.  You might read about our differences in the paper, but if you take the time to watch the actions in this building you will see something different.

You will see bipartisan work, bipartisan friendship, and in the end, bipartisan results.

It is that kind of bipartisan work that is going to be needed to address one of our biggest budget challenges, the unsustainable growth of Medicaid.  In my opening speech I highlighted that over the last ten years the general fund has grown at an annual rate of 4.1 percent while Medicaid has grown at 11.7 percent. This year isn’t any better. We are spending $151 million additional dollars on Medicaid with this year’s budgets.

Medicaid is on a collision course with other priorities like education, workforce training, and a competitive tax climate.

Thankfully, this year we have taken steps to begin changing course. The Medicaid asset verification system will help ensure benefits are going to those intended. The new managed care system will help us deliver services more efficiently.

However, more reforms are needed. We can do a better job of reviewing eligibility of applicants to reduce fraud. We should review and revise our waivers to focus our efforts. Most importantly, we must push for meaningful reforms and flexibility from our federal government.

Ladies and gentlemen of the House, thank you for your hard work this session.

Thank you, Minority Leader Smith, the House Democrat caucus and your staff for coming to the table to work towards solutions.

Thank you Governor Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Reynolds and your team for your enthusiastic efforts to elevate our state.

To the hardworking custodial and facilities staff, thank you for your preservation of this beautiful building.

If you are like me, you are happy to be concluding this session. Thank you to the Chief Clerk’s office and LSA for making that possible.

Brad, Jeff, Lew, Jason, Amanda, Carrie, Colin, Kristi, Brittany, Dane, Terri, Louis, Josie, Tony and Angie, you are hands down the best around. Thank you!

To my caucus, we stand together and we can see the results. Thank you for the opportunity to serve with you as we work for a better and more prosperous Iowa.

To the leadership team: Chris, Matt, Jarad, Joel, Lee, and Walt, thank you for your support and counsel.

Mr. Speaker, thank you for your steadfast leadership and commitment to the honor of this chamber.

House Minority Leader Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown) said:

Today, we end the 2015 session of the Iowa General Assembly and return to our homes and to our communities.

Last January, I quoted Willa Cather in my opening remarks when she said, “Some things are learned in the calm and some things are learned in the storm.” This session has, as I predicted, had both learning experiences.

The main question on everyone’s mind at the end of every session is always: “what will this session be known for?”

The answer is simple: shortchanging our kids in the school funding crisis that carried on for 477 days.

For weeks, then months, the Republican majority in this chamber refused to resolve the school funding crisis.

Despite pleas from teachers, parents, administrators and even students, Republicans in the House stopped listening and refused to compromise time and time again on school funding.

You think the crisis has been resolved today, but the damage has already been done and it still isn’t over.

You frustrated superintendents trying to plan for the future and angered school board members who had their hands tied while you refused to compromise for over a year.

You’ve managed to demoralize a whole generation of educators now asking themselves, “Why did I do this?”

I fear you’ve also convinced the best and brightest young Iowans to avoid the education profession all together.

Given the gridlock and record low school funding despite our strong economy, Iowa educators no longer believe that this body values their work in public education.

It will take years to rebuild trust with our educators on the front lines every day.

I sincerely hope that Republicans in this chamber have learned something in the education “storm” that has hung over the capitol every day this session because it carries on next year.

When we meet again on January 11, 2016, you will already be 333 days late on school funding for the following year. We should immediately work to rebuild trust with our educators by passing a 4% increase in supplemental state aid for our schools.

When we began this session, Democrats promised to work together to strengthen Iowa’s working families and re-vitalize rural Iowa.

To that end, we made some modest progress.

We helped re-vitalize rural Iowa by expanding broadband to un-served areas and encouraged new development in rural communities. We also passed a bill to add more value to the crops of Iowa farmers and create renewable energy jobs.

More of Iowa’s working families will benefit from child care assistance and Iowa seniors in nursing homes will benefit from additional advocates to ensure they receive the best care possible. We also worked together to protect victim of domestic abuse and expanding training to stop human trafficking.

However, House Republicans also turned back several ideas offered by Democrats to help working families:

  • House Republicans denied 216,000 hardworking Iowans a raise by not raising the minimum wage
  • House Republicans withheld life changing medicine to sick Iowans by refusing to even debate medical cannabis
  • House Republicans didn’t protect workers from wage theft or develop a paid sick leave plan for workers
  • House Republicans refused to pass a bi-partisan anti-bullying bill offered by their own Republican Governor

In comparison to previous legislative sessions, this one does not measure up.

We will leave here today. Leave behind this beautiful chamber, our time honored desks, and we will leave an empty room for the next several months. I like the Jewish tradition of when to members of that faith meet, they say to each other: “Same time next year, in Jerusalem.” Meaning their hope that the Jewish people will return and be together.

As we leave here today, I say, “Same time next year, in Iowa.”