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86th General Assembly Day 1: Iowa House of Representatives

The Iowa House of Representatives opened the 86th General Assembly on Monday morning.

The Iowa House of Representatives opened the 86th General Assembly on Monday morning.

During the opening ceremony of the 86th Iowa General Assembly today, Republicans and Democrats unveiled their plans for the next several weeks. Republicans said they sought to “do less” and to “do it well,” while Democrats repeated many of the same themes Senate Democrats expressed in their opening remarks on the other side of the Statehouse.

Speaker Kraig Paulsen took the occasion of his opening remarks to remind his colleagues of the loss of Rep. Dwayne Alons, who passed away in December. He asked them to remember the Hull Republican’s dedication to serving Iowa. He then issued a challenge.

“While others bring forward their laundry list of funding opportunities, spending priorities, or flashy government programs, I challenge this General Assembly to ensure that government do less and do it better,” he said. “Government continues to meddle in Iowans’ lives and seems incapable of doing even the smallest jobs correctly. Today we must meet the challenge of stopping this intrusion.”

The Hiawatha Republican said he has been contacted by interest groups, lobbyists, and government agencies that are asking for more money, usually just to maintain what they are currently doing. He rhetorically asked the House if its members ever asked themselves if government needs to be involved in those activities.

“Government could do better if it wasn’t trying to do too much,” he said. “What if we asked government to do less but do it much better?”

Paulsen noted the most recent revenue projections, which show a $200 million surplus in the coming fiscal year. He said the state should be able to fund Iowans’ priorities with that additional revenue. If not, he suggested the state had a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

“Instead of more programs and endless expenses, let’s ask government to do less,” he said. “Let’s instead create opportunities to make family life more affordable, upward mobility more likely and employment easier to find.  We need to ensure the programs currently on the books are doing consequential things that improve Iowans’ lives and are worth the taxpayers’ investment.”

He laid out four requirements for the Fiscal Year 2016 budget:

• it must not spend more money than the state takes in,

• it must not use one-time money to pay for ongoing expenses,

• it must not intentionally underfund entitlement programs to balance the overall state budget, and

• it must return unused tax dollars back to the taxpayers of the state.

“Iowans work hard to earn their money, so they, not us, can invest it for retirement, spend it on necessities and save it for priorities that they deem important,” he said. “Let’s make sure government operates well in what we’ve asked it to do.”

Paulsen also used his opening remarks as an opportunity to demand an investigation into the long-delayed opening of the new maximum-security Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. Flaws in a geothermal heating and cooling system and the prison’s fire detection system have delayed certification of the facility by more than a year.

The Speaker charged Rep. Bobby Kaufmann with investigating the delay. The Wilton Republican is chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee.

He concluded his speech with a reminder that public trust in large institutions such as government “was not just waning, it was plummeting.” He said Iowans believed their state and local governments functioned better than those in Washington, DC, and that to live up to those expectations, the House must do things differently, make Iowans’ priorities their own, and both parties must work together.

“First, if we are truly going to be different then we need to act differently.  Passing one more government program without examining the multitude of programs which already exist is more of the same.  Passing another tax credit without examining the millions of dollars already invested in tax credits is more of the same.  Putting even more money into education while test scores and other measurements continue to decline is more of the same.  Offering up solutions to problems that have already been solved is pandering and more of the same.  We need to identify and solve problems differently.

“Second, Iowans’ priorities need to be our priorities.  Iowans want their government more efficient and they want it to be serious about protecting every tax dollar.  They don’t want more obstacles and more government intrusion into their lives.  Most simply want to be left alone to raise their families and enjoy their communities.  So we need to continue to spend less than we take in, continue to pay off debt and focus investments on key areas with broad support.

“Third, we need to work with each other.  Blustering, ranting and drawing lines in the sand accomplishes very little.  We must not be afraid to work with people with whom we disagree.  Iowans don’t want us to fight the same tired battles that ultimately end in a stalemate; instead they want results.  We have shown that we can accomplish this, without compromising our core principles.”

Speaker Pro Tempore Matt Windschitl spoke briefly to the House members, as well. He reminded the members that “our time in this chamber is finite and the seats in which we sit are borrowed.” The Missouri Valley Republican said Iowans expected their legislators to work “in a timely fashion and in a bipartisan way.”

“Let us all keep open minds to new ideas and be willing to listen to diverse opinions,” he said.

Windschitl said each new session bring new challenges and new opportunities, and that he hoped the General Assembly would be able to look back on its 86th session with pride for its accomplishments. He urged members of the House to “work together to make Iowa the best place to live, where taxes are low, jobs are abundant, education is top of the line, innocent life is protected and Second Amendment rights are fully embraced.”

House Minority Leader Mark Smith represented his party’s agenda during the opening ceremony. The Marshalltown Democrat pledged his party’s support if legislation passes a two-part test: will it strengthen Iowa’s middle class or re-vitalize rural Iowa?

Echoing the sentiments of Senate Democrats, Smith said the foundation of Iowa’s economy is a strong middle class. He then laid out an agenda that included more spending for education and jobs training, expansion of the Skilled Iowa program and early childhood education programs, and raising the state’s minimum wage for the first time since 2007.

“Over the last 50 years, many rural communities have experienced a significant decline in population,” he added. “House Democrats believe there is more the state must do to stop the decline and capitalize on the strengths of rural communities. Our ideas to re-vitalize rural Iowa this year aren’t based on partisanship or ideology. They are common sense ideas that will benefit rural communities across the state.”

Smith said Democrats will also work to encourage more renewable energy production and use, and expanded rural access to broadband and Wi-Fi for homes, schools, and businesses. He said Democrats will push for more efforts to improve water quality and to expand the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, as well as rural access to “quality, affordable health care, including mental health services.”

“If this body can work together this year and focus our efforts on a strong middle class and vibrant rural economy, we’ll be able to call the 2015 session a success,” he said. “I acknowledge that the voters selected a bipartisan approach to legislation this year with a Democratic-led Senate and a Republican-led House. Compromise and working together will be to our credit.”

House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer also spoke during the opening ceremony, taking the opportunity to discuss the “unsustainable growth” of Medicaid in Iowa. The Clear Lake Republican shared that year-over-year growth in the federally mandated, but state funded, program was 7.6 percent while state revenue growth was only 4.9 percent. Over the past 10 years, those growth numbers have averaged 11.7 and 4.1 percent, respectively.

“This is not sustainable,” she said. “Each year Medicaid’s piece of the budget increases and it takes away our opportunities to put resources into other initiatives. We are well on our way to being forced to choose between providing medical services or education for our kids.”

Upmeyer said priorities, such as tax relief for Iowans, investment in education and job training, infrastructure needs, school choice, and renewable energy, were being “taken away” from the state due to Medicaid, which she called “an inflexible federal program whose growth outpaces revenue.” But, she noted, challenges always present new opportunities.

“We need to find ways to be more efficient and effective with the resources we have,” he said. “We need to review our procedures for documentation, waivers, and grant applications. We need to focus on processes that eliminate fraud and tear down silos. This will allow the administration of services to be as efficient as possible so that more of the resources dedicated to those in need get there.”