Some issues will be very familiar when the 86th Iowa General Assembly convenes for the 2015 legislative session.
Raising the gasoline tax to repair Iowa’s crumbling roads and bridges got a lot of talk last year but no action ahead of the November election. Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen says things feel different this year.
“I think the discussion right now is as robust as anything I’ve seen in the General Assembly,” Paulsen says. “I think there’s a consensus that we need to make a decision.”
The gas tax promises to be one of the biggest flashpoints of the session. Republicans and Democrats will be gauging support and opposition among 17 new house members and seven new senators. Governor Branstad has left the door open to raising the tax, but hasn’t come out for or against.
"If you say this is what I recommend,” Branstad says, “then you give people something to shoot at.”
But with even a chance of a higher tax, a “Stop the Iowa Gas Tax” group has mobilized. Ways and Means Chairman, Republican Tom Sands, serves as gatekeeper for fees and taxes in the House.
“My position has been clear all along,” Sands says. “When it’s the will of the body and the will of the people the gate will open and we'll discuss it on the house floor.”
On other issues, both parties warn there won’t be much slack in the state budget this year. Republican House Speaker Paulsen says the state has promised to spend millions of dollars for a new teacher leadership program and property tax replacements for local governments.
“You throw in some of the situation with Medicaid and the health and human services budget and pretty quick you get upside down,” Paulsen says.
But neither party has ruled out tax cuts.
“We can put together a budget,” says Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. “We can probably put together a bill on taxes.”
Other concerns promise to rise to the top of the agenda. Advocates for the Regents universities will debate a new model for distributing state dollars which could result in more money for Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, and less for the University of Iowa.
“Number one priority is the regents funding model,” says Coralville Democrat, Rep. Dave Jacoby. He says “We need to look at our universities and make sure they're funded adequately and fairly.”
Another hot topic will be transportation costs for rural schools. As more and more schools have consolidated, districts have gotten bigger, and rural school advocates say the cost of busing kids is eating their lunch.
“I'm glad we're finally having a serious discussion about transportation,” says McGregor Democrat Patricia Ruff, a member of the rural caucus in the Iowa house.
One of the most effective lobbying groups from the 2014 legislative session will be back this year. Parents of epileptic children were behind the bill approved last year to legalize possession of cannabis oil. Sally Gaer says she still hasn’t been able to obtain the marijuana derivative for her epileptic daughter. She’s hoping lawmakers will make medical marijuana easier to obtain.
"They obviously know there’s a medicinal benefit," Gaer says. "They know it’s not classified properly, as the feds do. So hopefully things are going to change in the next couple of months.”
When new lawmakers are sworn in this morning, it will mark a milestone for women. Des Moines Democrat Marti Anderson says the House Democratic caucus is now fifty-percent female.
“This year we will have 43 members of the Democratic caucus in the House,” Anderson says. “21 will be women.”
That will make at least one caucus look a little more like Iowa.