2018 Iowa Legislature opens with GOP optimism — and reminders of 2017
Sens. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, and Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, discuss the opening of the 2018 session of the Iowa Legislature and their priorities for policy changes. William Petroski / The Register
Amid ceremonial pomp and uplifting speeches, the Iowa Legislature convened its 2018 session Monday, with promises of a conservative, pro-business agenda that's expected to include debate over a tight state budget, tax reform, water quality funding and controversies over Medicaid and mental health care.
"Our work is not done. We still have pressing issues. We face challenges, but within those challenges, as you know, are opportunities," Gov. Kim Reynolds told fellow Republicans at a legislative breakfast in Des Moines. She praised the work of the 2017 Legislature, saying it was the “the most pro-jobs, pro-growth session in decades."
The Senate was gaveled to order at 10 a.m. and the House began two minutes later. Protestant clergy offered prayers in both chambers, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.
Republicans hold a solid majority in both chambers. In the House, the GOP has a 58-41 margin over Democrats with one vacant seat. In the Senate, Republicans have a 29-20 majority with one independent senator.
Speeches detail Republican agenda
Both Republicans and Democrats gave floor speeches calling for bipartisanship work towards goals that will benefit all Iowans.
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, used her opening day remarks to underscore the potential to making changes in the state’s tax code, particularly following changes enacted at the federal level by Congress.
“We have a huge opportunity to grow the state of Iowa with tax reform,” Upmeyer said. “We should be excited about this but we must also be pragmatic. It must be done in a way that benefits Iowa’s families while also protecting the sustainability of future budgets.”
Upmeyer also said lawmakers have a duty to respond to “the collapse" of Iowa's individual health insurance market.
“I am tired of waiting,” Upmeyer said. “It is time for us as a state to act.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said GOP lawmakers are ready to continue the work they began last session when they promised to "kick the door in" to enact change. That work included dramatically rolling back collective bargaining for public employees; nullifying local minimum wage increases for Iowa workers; limiting medical malpractice lawsuits; limiting litigation against livestock producers; expanding gun rights, defunding Planned Parenthood and imposing restrictions on abortions.
"Our goal is simple. We want our local businesses — our coffee shops, tire stores, and family diners — to grow and prosper, our communities to grow and thrive, and our children to grow up prepared to tackle the world," Dix said. "We want to relieve the tax burden on the people who make our state what it is, and ensure that every Iowan has the opportunity to thrive here at home."
Dix added, "The objective has always been the same — for more money to be kept by those who earned it."
State lawmakers face numerous challenges for the session that begins Jan. 8, 2018. Wochit
Democrats respond to GOP agenda
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said that no matter where Iowans live, they should have access to better-paying jobs with decent benefits; strong public schools; great cultural and recreational opportunities; and affordable and accessible health care. She also called for improved water quality and better care for older Iowans.
"Iowans want us to focus on issues that matter to their everyday lives – and ditch the extreme policy agenda items that give our state a bad reputation," Petersen said. In particular, she complained that too many Iowa families are paying the price for a state government that is failing to provide essential services and safety net programs for its citizens. She also warned against copying tax cuts implemented in Kansas, saying Republican legislators in Kansas were forced to abandon "reckless tax cuts" because they failed to deliver the promised increases in jobs and income.
Petersen also pointedly drew attention to a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by former Senate GOP Caucus Communications Director Kirsten Anderson. The case was settled in September, and Petersen demanded Monday that the Iowa Senate no longer be a sanctuary for predatory behavior.
"It is disgraceful that Kirsten endured sexual harassment and a toxic work environment by her Republican colleagues in this very chamber. It is also disgraceful that Iowa taxpayers were forced to pay $1.75 million for the bad behavior of the Senate Republican caucus," Petersen said.
The Senate Democratic leader declared that "there is a reckoning in our country" on the issue of harassment in the workplace. "The Iowa Senate has the choice: Do something serious to address this problem or be on the wrong side of history," she said.
After Petersen concluded her remarks, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers stood and politely applauded, which is customary after speeches by legislative leaders on the session's opening day. However, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, remained seated and didn't clap. He said later that it was disingenuous for Petersen to say she wanted to work in a bipartisan manner and to then launch a political attack.
House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, spoke critically about Republican “mismanagement of the state budget,” problems with the privatization of Medicaid health care, and access to mental health services.
“House Democrats believe it’s time for the Legislature to work together and get back to the basics,” Smith said. “That means focusing our efforts on good jobs and boosting our skilled workforce. It means renewing our commitment to public schools. And it means working together to make health care both more available and affordable.”
Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said allowing people to keep more of their hard-earned money is not a new idea. He cited comments by former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in support of implementing lower tax rates. He described this as part of a policy approach favoring low unemployment and encouraging job creation that generates revenue growth and more disposable income.
"I am confident we all want to see this kind of progress for Iowa, and this can be achieved if we have the courage to act boldly," Whitver said.
The 2018 session is the second year of the biennium for the 87th General Assembly, which is the formal name for the Iowa Legislature. Lawmakers are expected to remain in Des Moines for about 100 days, adjourning around mid-April, which is when their daily expense payments end.
Reynolds will outline her budget plans and policy priorities in the governor's annual Condition of the State address at 10 a.m. Tuesday to a joint session of the House and Senate. She will need to plug a budget gap recently estimated at about $37 million for the current state fiscal year, and she's expected to declare that state tax reform and water quality funding are two of her top goals for the session.