Closing the 2017 legislative session
Lawmakers discuss achievements, disappointments
The state legislative session this year brought profound changes to several areas, from worker’s compensation and collective bargaining to firearms and fireworks, and area lawmakers had differing views on the last few months.
“I thought we had a lot of great legislation this session,” said state Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Montour. “The changes to collective bargaining is one (bill) that I’m very proud of.”
He also said he was happy to see a bill loosening restrictions on the sale of fireworks in the state go to the governor’s office.
Fellow state Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, differed in his view of the session as a whole.
“I think the biggest problem is that there were a tremendous number of broken promises by the Republicans in this legislative session,” the House Minority Leader said.
The promises Smith said Republican lawmakers broke had to do with wages and education, among other areas.
“They (Republican state lawmakers) campaigned on increasing wages by 25 percent, but in fact lowered the wages of 65,000 Iowans,” Smith said. “They talked about our schools being a priority, and yet it continued to be a year in which they very much underfunded public schools.”
He also took issue with the changes made in the school funding formula, including setting state supplemental aid for one year in advance instead of the previous, though often not followed, requirement of two years.
State Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, took a different view on the education situation this session. Specifically, he said the legislature passed state supplemental aid to schools in a timely manner.
“That was one of the biggest accomplishments on the education side of things,” he said. “I know people were really unhappy because they didn’t think it was enough, but considering the circumstances, I think they faired fairly well in that regard.”
Edler also said legislation allowing flexible spending of categorical funds will help school districts.
Along with education issues, Edler said he was proud to manage Senate File 403, an equipment rental theft bill signed by Gov. Branstad last week.
There were some bipartisan efforts at the State Capitol this year.
“As always, there were a good number of bipartisan pieces of legislation, and so I’m happy that we continued that process,” Smith said. “But there was very little that was done in the traditional bipartisan way.”
He also said the session was disappointing due to the state’s current budget estimates, which have been much lower than expected as of the December and March revenue estimating conferences.
“In 2013 we had a surplus of more than $900 million and then it’s gone from that surplus to, during this session, a deficit of $131 million,” Smith said. “That’s not the way to spend taxpayer dollars.”
The $131 million shortfall was covered with the state’s cash reserve fund in order to avoid a deficit, and the current goal is to replace those funds in the reserve over the next two years.
Smith said there were ways the budget situation could have been helped.
“There were some decisions made that could’ve helped with that (budget) situation, but instead made the situation worse,” he said. “One of those is the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, those are federal dollars that come in and it’s a 9-10 match.”
That meant Iowa taxpayers paid 90 cents on the dollar to the federal government.
“They chose instead to have a state-run program that will fall completely on the taxpayers of Iowa,” Smith said.
Fisher characterized the session as “productive and historic,” and said he was happy to see so many bills passed, including changes to collective bargaining and an omnibus firearms bill.
“In my five years, I can only think of one year where we got one piece of legislation through that I thought was really groundbreaking, and that was 2013 education reform,” he said. “This year we got probably five or six groundbreaking bills.”
The Republican lawmakers agreed that there were issues with legislation concerning cannabis oil for medical purposes.
“I was disappointed in the cannabis oil bill that was passed,” Fisher said. “That bill was trimmed up in the last day of the session, it did not respect the scientific process.”
Edler said the senate version of the legislation would have moved medical cannabis forward in the state.
Also disappointing to Edler was that an omnibus education bill did not make it out of the House before the end of the session. He also said there’s more work to be done in the area of parental and custody rights.
Fisher said he would have liked to see language prohibiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected pass the legislature, but no such language survived the session.
“We’ll keep trying,” he said on the heartbeat language.
Edler said his first year in the senate was a busy one, and he worked hard to make sure he understood what he was voting on. He thanked his friends and family for supporting him in his first session.
“In general, the people like what we’re doing, we’re finally getting things done,” Fisher said, adding he thinks Republicans will retain control of both chambers after the 2018 election.
“More people have reached out with an interest in running than anytime that I’ve been the Democratic leader and that I’ve seen in recent years,” he said. “People are very much watching what’s going on in Des Moines, and they are disappointed.”