GOP lawmakers eager to push ahead on conservative goals
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Republicans have succeeded in enacting a wish list of conservative goals since winning a legislative majority in 2016, and as lawmakers return to the state Capitol for a new session Monday, the question is whether they will take a similar approach or back measures with a broader appeal.
In the last two sessions, Republicans used their sizable majorities in both chambers to approve bills prohibiting abortions when a fetal heartbeat could be detected, cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public workers, cutting taxes and banning local governments from raising the hourly minimum wage higher than the state-backed level.
This session, Republicans will consider a wide range of issues, from limiting property taxes to changing the judge-selection process, and it appears GOP leaders are eager to continue reshaping state government. Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she’s willing to at least consider many of the ideas.
“If there’s one word that I could use to describe the last two years it would be reform,” said Senate Republican leader Jack Whitver. “That’s really in general what we want to continue to do is change the way things are done in government, to look holistically at some of the ways we do business in the state of Iowa and try to find a better way.”
Democratic leaders said they were willing to work with Republicans but would fight back when they felt proposals would be harmful.
“I certainly hope it’s not as contentious as it has been over the past two years. I’d like to see more bipartisan atmosphere at the statehouse and civility,” said Senate Democratic leader Janet Petersen.
Here are some of the priorities leaders are discussing as the session begins:
Whitver says it’s a top priority to determine whether to retain all services paid for through property taxes. Local governments, including cities, counties, school districts and community colleges, rely on property taxes for revenue.
“We are a high property tax state and we haven’t taken a comprehensive look in a long time,” he said.
In 2016, Iowa ranked 13th in property taxes paid as a percentage of a homeowner’s home value. Iowans paid 1.44 percent, according to the Washington-based Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy nonprofit that used U.S. Census data to calculate the rankings.
Petersen said her biggest fear is that state money promised to local governments when commercial property taxes were cut in 2013 will be reversed by Republicans. Some Republicans have said that promise wasn’t intended to be forever and have proposed ending the so-called backfill payments.
Rep. Todd Prichard, the House Democratic leader, said the state shouldn’t micromanage cities, counties and schools. “We need to make sure local governments have resources,” he said.
Reynolds said she’s willing to consider changes.
Whitver said the state’s biggest challenge is finding enough workers for Iowa businesses. Solutions include recruiting more people to move to Iowa and retraining existing residents for jobs that need workers. A more controversial idea Whitver proposed was to move people “off the welfare safety net program into the workforce.”
Petersen said Democrats support workforce training initiatives, including Reynolds’ Future Ready Iowa policy approved last year with little funding. “We’re hoping the governor will match her interest in the policy by putting dollars behind it to give Iowans an opportunity to skill up and improve their ability to get high paying jobs,” Petersen said.
The state continues to pour money into the $5 billion health care program for disabled and poor Iowans. When Gov. Terry Branstad in 2016 placed the program under the control of for-profit companies, he argued the state would save millions of dollars, but it’s unclear if those promises have panned out. Lawmakers will consider putting another $140 million for the current fiscal year into the program. Besides the issue of state savings, critics have said hospitals and other health care providers aren’t getting paid and patients have complained of inadequate care.
“My goal as the governor is to make sure we have a sustainable system moving forward today, tomorrow and into the future and that we’re really getting the outcomes that I believe we can,” Reynolds said.
Prichard said one of his party’s priorities is to fix the Medicaid system which “left lot of chaos.”
Whitver said Republicans are interested in changing Iowa’s judge-selection process, which would likely include reducing the clout lawyers currently have in the nominating process.
Currently, eight members of the judicial nominating commission are chosen by the governor and eight are chosen by lawyers. Over the decades, Whitver said the courts have become “more and more activist,” prompting a need for “having more public input into the nomination than only attorneys.”
Whitver rejects assertions that it’s a politically motivated effort by conservatives to get a more favorable judiciary. Petersen said: “Iowa should not take a step backward in our process.”
Upmeyer said the House is willing to consider changes but Prichard said Iowa’s system is viewed as a model of a nonpartisan selection system. “The worst thing you can do is politicize our judiciary,” he said.
Reynolds said it makes sense to look at the issue.
Other top topics will likely include further limits on abortion, expansion of gun rights, water quality funding and mental health programs for children.
The session begins Monday at 10 a.m. Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State on Tuesday and Chief Justice Mark Cady delivers his Condition of the Judiciary on Wednesday.
Follow David Pitt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davepitt