State lawmakers return to the capitol Monday for their 2018 legislative session. Majority Republicans achieved many conservative priorities last year, including scaling back collective bargaining restricting abortions, and expanding gun rights. More Republican initiatives are on the agenda this year.
At the December meeting of the Revenue Estimating Conference, once again, analysts revised downward their estimates of tax receipts flowing into state coffers.
Gov. Reynolds’ top budget aide said once again it will be status quo spending at best next year.
“I know it’s going to be a big shock, but it’s going to be a tight budget,” said Department of Management Director Dave Roederer said. “There’s probably around 290 million additional dollars.”
That’s new money coming in for next year, and most of that is already accounted for. So any raises for schools or other priorities will be hard fought.
Nevertheless, majority Republicans vow to proceed with one unmet desire from last year, and that’s cutting taxes.
“I would say at the moment we’re focused on reducing the rates and making Iowa more competitive,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock), describing his goal of cutting both corporate and individual income taxes.
A draft of one tax plan that’s circulating would push income tax cuts into the future when the state’s fiscal position may be more flush. That plan would raise some sales taxes to compensate.
Also left undone last year was cleaning the nitrates out of Iowa waterways.
Both the House and Senate have agreed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on water quality without raising any new revenues. But the House Bill targets the dollars to particular watersheds which backers say would maximize results.
Critics say the Senate bill would leave more decisions up to individual farmers. That bothers Kerry Johannsen with the Iowa Environmental Council.
“We're really concerned about the lack of accountability in that bill,” Johannsen said.
Johannsen says Gov. Reynolds has spoken favorably in the past about the so-called watershed approach the House bill takes.
“We can continue to look for opportunities to fund water quality projects and to make sure we’re doing it from a watershed perspective,” Reynolds said in an interview with Iowa Public Radio.
For now Reynolds says she’s not taking sides. The Senate bill had the backing of Gov. Branstad last year.
On other issues, lawmakers of both parties want to address Iowa’s deadly opioid epidemic.
Rep. David Heaton (R-Mount Pleasant) has high expectations.
“I think we're going to have a needle exchange and I think we're going to have a Good Samaritan bill too,” Heaton said.
Both ideas will likely be a heavy lift for law and order legislators. A needle exchange would be designed to keep addicts in touch with health care professionals and to halt the spread of disease. A Good Samaritan law would free drug users from possible prosecution if they call for help when a fellow drug-user is
After big victories last year for gun rights advocates, Rep. Matt Windschitl (R-Missouri Valley) predicts action on House Joint Resolution 13, a proposed constitutional amendment demanding strict scrutiny of any attempt to restrict Iowans’ gun rights.
For other lawmakers, better services for the mentally ill has risen to the top of the agenda.
“There’s a number of Republican senators who view this as one of the "must do" things this session,” Dix said.
But even before taking on the thorny issues, just like last year, job one will be cutting the budget for this fiscal year that ends in June because tax receipts have not kept pace. Last session, that meant cuts to human services and higher education.
It’s always hard to predict how long a legislative session might last.
“All the rumors are that it's going to be a short session but
they have a lot on their plate,” Johannsen said.
That includes thinking about upcoming elections, starting with the primaries in June. That might motivate lawmakers to get out from under the golden dome by their targeted adjournment date of April 17.
Follow Joyce Russell on Twitter: @russell_ipr