Republicans grab hold of Statehouse in flux
BY ROD BOSHART
Gazette Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES – In 2011, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad marked his triumphant return to the Statehouse by declaring there was a new sheriff in town.
Now, soon-to-be-installed Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, says voters delivered a message in 2016 they expect Republicans in control to “kick the door in” at the Capitol with a bold conservative agenda that will reign in government while stimulating economic growth and investment. That process is set to officially begin next week.
The winds of change fomenting from the right in Iowa are likely to reshape state policies in a number of areas and recast Iowa’s political landscape as Republicans bring majorities of 59-40 and 29-20-1 to the House and Senate, respectively, and prepare for an expected changing of the guard at Terrace Hill with Branstad possibly being confirmed as the next U.S. ambassador to China and turning the top executive post in state government over to his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds, while the 2017 legislative session is still in process.
The two-year run of GOP control of state government – the first trifecta of both legislative houses and the governorship by one party since Democrats held power in 2007-08 – officially begins when the 87th General Assembly convenes Jan. 9.
Conservative expectations are running high – from GOP interest groups to talk radio shows - that efforts to cut and reform taxes, ease government regulations, revisit voting laws, expand gun rights, restrict abortion, re-examine collective bargaining, consider new education options, ban traffic cameras and tackle a host of other issues repeatedly blocked by Senate Democrats will finally see action.
“Boy, it is clear that Senate Republicans and House Republicans and the governor and lieutenant governor want to act, they want to get something done and we’ll see what that is,” said Mike Ralston, a Statehouse observer who has led the Iowa Association of Business & Industry for a dozen years.
Ralston said GOP lawmakers have been preparing for this opportunity to govern “and they’re ready for it,” he said. “They want to do something good for Iowa but don’t over-reach.”
Chris Ingstad, president of Muscatine-based Iowans for Tax Relief, agreed that Republicans have their best chance to make significant changes at the state level in two decades, “but, as folks will tell you who were there a number of years ago that just because you get all three – House, Senate and the governor’s office in Republican control – it’s no slam dunk that all of these issues can be addressed or addressed to everyone’s satisfaction.”
House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, said the new political landscape presents a chance to “take big leaps forward” now that the Democratic roadblock has been removed and, while there is a sense of urgency in a state of flux at the Capitol, he is taking a longer view with an expectation that the new GOP direction will span more than two years going forward.
Among those watching and waiting are minority Democrats who fear the worst and hope for the best.
Outgoing Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said Democrats will work with the new GOP majority on most issues but they will “stand tall and firm” in areas where they have a philosophical divide. “If that’s what they’re going to pursue, just ideological legislation, it could be a long two years,” she noted.
Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said Democrats will focus on good jobs, good benefits, good education and standing up for Iowans – especially in the roughly 70 counties losing population – to make sure they don’t get hurt as Statehouse power shifts and some roles reverse.
“There are going to be things that people have taken for granted for decades that could be at risk,” he said.
Dix said Republicans hope to make the most of the opportunity they’ve been given by focusing on policy changes that will make the biggest difference for Iowans. That will mean recognizing that government has a spending problem rather than a revenue problem in recalibrating a path to growth and investment.
“States that are growing the fastest are the ones that are exercising fiscal discipline, making sure that government is there to insure an environment where success can take place, regulations that make sense but don’t punish and put people through a lot of extra hoops that cost money,” he said.
Branstad, Reynolds and the new GOP leadership team open their 2017 session work facing a shortfall in the current state budget year of more than $100 million due to eroding revenue growth that has caused three downward adjustments in expected tax collections since March and now requires a significant reduction in state spending by June 30.
Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, who will guide the Senate Appropriations Committee as its chairman beginning next week, said the need to scale back spending yet this year affords budget-makers the opportunity to begin a line-by-line analysis of areas where the state is duplicating programs or funding services that are outdated or deemed unnecessary.
“Everybody knows budget is tight and revenue is down,” he noted. “People don’t expect us or are not really expecting us to approve a lot of additional spending. People have recognized that we do want to reduce the size of government, we do want to create and find efficiencies and we do want to root out wasteful spending.”
Branstad spent the past week poring over revenue and budget numbers in preparing a two-year spending plan he intends to submit on Jan. 10 when he delivers what likely is his final Condition of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chambers.
The governor has indicated he favors making selective reductions rather than an across-the-board cut to balance this fiscal year’s budget, but he wants to protect K-12 schools, property tax credits and Medicaid from additional de-appropriations. He also wants to give K-12 schools up to 2 percent growth in state supplemental aid for the next two fiscal years and have lawmakers approve the funding in the session’s first 30 days.
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, has indicated a willingness to fund K-12 schools early in the session for the fiscal 2018 budget year but she and others are hesitant about making a second-year commitment too far in advance of fiscal 2019 without a better sense of how state tax collections will look by then given Republicans want to find savings to make way for income tax reductions and reforms during the 2017 session.
Legislators also are in agreement with Branstad over current-year spending cuts, which Upmeyer concedes will be no small task to accomplish.
“I’m not minimizing it. We will have to go in and really search for those opportunities, but I think we can do that,” she said.
“We need to go in and actually look at some of the things we’ve done in recent past years and see what is the lowest priority,” Upmeyer added. “We have a $7.3 billion budget so, while not minimizing the difficulty of finding $100 million, certainly that should be achievable. So we’re going to go through the process and find some places where we can surgically accomplish that.”