Lawmakers reconvened at the State Capitol for opening day of the 2015 legislative session with the usual pomp and circumstance and promises of bipartisanship. But with a divided legislature, it’s not all sweetness and light. With a Republican controlled House and a Democratic Senate, both parties agree bills won’t pass this year unless they’re bipartisan, and both parties say there won’t be a lot of slack in the budget.
Democratic Senate President Pam Jochum says agreeing on a spending plan may be the biggest challenge of all. “Since Iowa voters created divided government one more time, here’s our challenge,” Jochum says. “We need to craft a balanced budget that is fair to all Iowans.”
Republicans say they are more interested in cutting taxes than Democrats, so throw that in the mix and agreeing on a budget will likely be difficult. Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen says as usual, everyone’s coming to him with their wish lists. “Just like you I've been contacted by various interest groups, lobbyists, even government agencies regarding how much more money they need to keep doing what they are currently doing,” Paulsen says. “Do we ever stop to ask, do we really need government doing all this activity?”
Some lawmakers are calling for legislation that almost certainly won’t pass a divided legislature like raising the minimum wage, an effort House Minority Leader Democrat Mark Smith supports. “Twenty-one states including our neighbors in South Dakota and Nebraska raised the minimum wage, raising the wages for nearly three-million workers across our country,” says Smith. Senate Democrats are also vowing to expand access to universal preschool, which is also not likely to win passage. Republican House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer is urging lawmakers to cooperate with each other. “Democrats and Republicans, urban legislators and rural legislators, freshmen as well as Jack Drake and Dennis Cohoon,” says Upmeyer a reference to long standing representatives.
Burlington Democrat Dennis Cohoon is one of the longest serving members in the Iowa House with fifteen terms. Cohoon has been on the transportation committee all that time, and says even if the gas tax is raised this year, it won’t be enough to repair Iowa’s roads and bridges. “I think that’s where we’ll really be discussing and not just raising just the gas tax, and then in three years say well it’s not enough, we need to look at it again,” says Cohoon. There are private talks between legislative leaders and the Governor seeking agreement on a higher gas tax, but Speaker Paulsen isn’t revealing much about those talks. “We had a candid and constructive conversation, uh we're going to meet again,” says Paulsen.
Before the House and Senate gaveled in, Republicans held their annual pre-session fundraising breakfast in downtown Des Moines. They can’t raise money now that the legislature has convened, but Governor Branstad leaves little doubt that in 2016 he wants a Republican controlled senate. “We need to begin right now recruiting and working to get great candidates in every one of those seats,” says Branstad.