The 2015 Iowa legislative session begins today (Monday) and unfinished debates of the past — like whether to raise the state gas tax — are on the agenda. Finding a way to increase the amount of money to improve Iowa’s transportation system has eluded lawmakers for the past several years. Governor Terry Branstad says he hopes legislators make a decision “sooner rather than later.” “It is my goal to put together a whole series of options,” Branstad told reporters last week.
But Branstad doesn’t plan to publicly advocate one approach over another. He says that would give critics something to shoot at because it’s his idea. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs says it would be best if the governor were to “exert some leadership” and make a specific proposal. “Iowa used to be the envy of the Midwest when it came to roads and we’re now towards the bottom end of that,” Gronstal says, “and so I think it’s time to do something about it.”
The state fuel tax not only finances work on the Interstates and state highways, part of it goes to cities and counties for local streets and roads. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha, the top-ranking Republican in the legislature, says he’s concerned that officials in more than 30 counties have now borrowed money to fix roads and bridges because they don’t have enough revenue from the fuel tax. “I think the discussion is about as robust as any time I’ve been in the General Assembly,” Paulsen says. “I think there’s also to some degree a consensus that’s it’s time to make a decision.”
The main responsibility of the legislature is passing a budget plan for state government. Paulsen warns there’s not enough state tax revenue to fulfill past promises to spend more on education reform and property tax relief, so over 40-million dollars will have to be cut elsewhere. “We’ve done difficult things before,” Paulsen says. “I’m sure we’ll find a way to work through it.” Gronstal, the legislature’s top-ranking Democrat, agrees that “expectations” are going to have to be “tempered” when it comes to the budget as well as other issues.
“And it’s about figuring out a way to turn off the partisan switch,” Gronstal says. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock says legislators should approach the state budget as they would a family’s budget. “We always need to be mindful that it is the taxpayers’ money,” Dix says. Because Iowa’s unemployment rate is lower than most other states, the federal government is reducing the amount of money it will send to Iowa to pay for Iowans who’re getting health care coverage through Medicaid.
House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown says it’s “a challenge” for the state to pay greater share of the Medicaid budget, but he expects a bipartisan solution to emerge. “Our history has been to work on these issues together,” Smith says. “I would expect we would continue to do so.” Other issues on the docket for legislators including finding extra money for the state’s three public universities, to avoid a tuition increase for in-state students, and investigating why the new maximum security prison in Fort Madison hasn’t opened yet.
Formal activity in the Iowa General Assembly will get underway at 10 a.m. today (Monday). In the senate, 25 members who were elected to a four-year term in November will take the oath of office. Senator-elect Mark Costello of Imogene won a special election on December 30th to serve out the remaining two years of Joni Ernst’s term in the state senate and he’ll be sworn in today, too. Costello — the soon-to-be-state-senator — was elected to a seat in the Iowa House on November 4th. His replacement in the House will be chosen in a special election sometime in February.
In addition, there was a special election last week in northwest Iowa, but the results won’t be certified in time for that new House member to be sworn in today. It means 98 members of the House will take the oath of office late this morning.