The five biggest surprises of the Iowa legislature's 2011 session

The Iowa House and Senate finally passed a budget and got out of town yesterday with only about eight hours remaining before the end of the fiscal year.

Every legislative session has its own dynamic, and I’ve been thinking about what surprised me most about this year’s maneuvering in the capitol.  

1. Budget negotiations went down to the wire.

No one expected a speedy conclusion to the session. Having a Republican-controlled Iowa House and a Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate inevitably complicates efforts to cut deals quickly, as happened during the unusually short 2010 legislative session. But the two parties’ demands have been clear for months, as were each group’s lists of deal-breakers. Nevertheless, negotiators made no progress during the whole month of May. In early June, House Republicans pushed an omnibus budget bill containing collective bargaining restrictions and other unrelated measures that were non-starters in the Senate. Why waste everyone’s time?

Consider education funding, a major sticking point for both sides. House Republicans wanted no allowable growth for K-12 budgets for two fiscal years. Senate Democrats sought 2 percent growth each year and vowed to block a “starvation diet” for schools. You don’t have to be a professional negotiator to figure out the way forward: either 1 percent growth in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, or no growth one year and 2 percent the other year. The final education bill took the second approach, which Democrats signaled weeks ago that they would accept. Why did it take so long to get House Republicans on board?

Productive give and take on most of the budget bills didn’t start happening until the last week of June. Waiting so long was unnecessary. The delay forced legislators to pass a stopgap budget to avoid a state government shutdown while Governor Terry Branstad reviews the final budget legislation.

Speaking of the governor,

2. Branstad did virtually nothing to help wrap up the legislature’s work.

I remember Branstad’s earlier tenure, so I knew he favors a passive leadership style. Governor Chet Culver’s campaign tried to remind voters that Branstad had admitted to disliking tough budget negotiations. Still, I expected him to help broker a final deal after the legislature’s scheduled adjournment date passed.

If anything, Branstad’s actions made it harder for the two sides to negotiate in good faith. In April, he line-item vetoed a Democratic tax cut priority, having raised no objections to that policy when legislators cut a deal on that bill with the governor’s staff in the room. That angered Senate Democrats and undermined trust in the negotiating process.

Branstad’s draft budget suggested a middle ground on total general fund spending between the levels preferred by House and Senate negotiators. But after counseling “patience and perseverance,” he decided in early May to insist on the House Republican general fund spending target ($5.99 billion). That figure was about $160 million less than what Branstad had proposed a few months earlier. Why move away from a reasonable compromise when Iowa’s revenue collections and projections for fiscal year 2012 were improving?

Branstad could have lit a fire under negotiators by producing a plan for curtailing government functions if the next fiscal year began with no budget in place. A partial government shutdown could have threatened popular programs and imposed real hardship on Iowans. But Branstad didn’t warn the public about the risks of failing to pass a new budget. Instead, he endorsed the House Republican omnibus budget bill, which wasn’t going anywhere. When journalists pressed for details on how a government shutdown would play out, Branstad said trust me, “I know what I’m doing.” I never thought he was a strong leader, but come on, he could have done better than that.

3. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal kept his caucus together for six long months.

Gronstal enjoyed the largest Democratic Senate majority in Iowa history during the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions (32 to 18). Last November’s elections left him with just 26 Senate Democrats, several of them conservative. Some of those conservative Democrats have good reason to worry about getting re-elected in 2012. After the 2010 election, Senate Republican leader Paul McKinley talked a good game about encouraging a handful of Democrats to switch parties. But he utterly failed to get anyone in the majority to oppose Democratic leaders on any major issue during this session. No wonder rumors have circulated for months that State Senator Bill Dix will soon oust McKinley as minority leader.

Gronstal had caucus members on record opposing same-sex marriage and supporting a constitutional amendment on marriage, but they accepted his decision not to bring a marriage vote to the Senate floor. Gronstal had several anti-choice Democrats in his caucus, yet the chamber never passed a ban on late-term abortions. Instead, all 26 Democrats agreed on an alternative approach to stop a late-term abortion provider from opening a new clinic in Iowa.

The budget deal-making included some painful compromises for Senate Democrats, but Gronstal got every spending bill through his chamber. It would have taken only one or two Democratic no votes to muck things up. In contrast, House Republicans have a 60-40 majority and could afford to lose a few dissatisfied members in floor votes.

Next year’s legislative session will include more tough negotiating and lots of election-year posturing, but I don’t think anyone will doubt Gronstal’s ability to keep his caucus together.

4. The Senate didn’t act on some terrible legislation despite strong corporate support.

Earlier this year, three bad bills backed by powerful industries or corporations passed the Iowa House and appeared to have momentum in the Senate. I am pleasantly surprised that the session ended without any of those measures reaching a vote on the Senate floor.

A bill pushing nuclear power development was a top priority for MidAmerican Energy (background here). As long as I’ve been following Iowa politics, utility companies have had a lot of pull at the capitol. MidAmerican had no trouble getting a pro-nuclear bill through the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate in 2010. When the House passed this year’s even worse follow-up bill, 12 Democrats joined most Republicans in voting yes. MidAmerican is a major employer in Gronstal’s own district.

The Senate held several hearings on the nuclear bill, which easily passed the Commerce Committee. Republicans and many Democrats were on record supporting the bill. Environmental advocates were worried even this week that senators would send the bill to Branstad’s desk. I have no idea why Senate leaders decided not to bring it up for a vote this year. Perhaps nine Senate Democrats who argued for shelving it brought their colleagues around. Or maybe a poll showing the provisions were unpopular scuttled the deal. The bill will be eligible for debate at any time during the 2012 legislative session.

The proposed ban on secret recordings at farms or agricultural factories is another surprise casualty. In March, the Iowa House approved this bill with support from Democrats as well as Republicans. The measure quickly cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee. Democratic State Senator Tom Rielly was a big supporter and predicted it would pass the full Senate. Just this week, the advocacy group Mercy for Animals released a new undercover video alleging abuse at an Iowa hog farm, which Rielly cited as proof of the need to approve the ban on secret recordings. Yet for some reason, this bill never made it off the Senate’s calendar of unfinished business during April, May or June. Maybe it will come back during the 2012 session.

Thankfully, efforts failed to move Iowa’s water quality and monitoring programs from the Department of Natural Resources to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The Iowa Farm Bureau and other groups representing corporate agriculture pushed this “reform,” claiming it would improve efficiency. Advocates of clean water in Iowa said it would weaken oversight and enforcement of water pollution rules. The DNR’s mission is to conserve and enhance natural resources, while the IDALS mission is to promote Iowa agriculture. Agricultural runoff massively contributes to water pollution in Iowa. Seven House Democrats voted for the bill on the House floor, but that version died in a Senate Natural Resources subcommittee. The Senate Agriculture Committee supported transferring the water programs to IDALS, but their version of the bill never received a Senate floor vote.

The 2011 session ends with Iowa’s water quality and monitoring programs remaining under the DNR’s jurisdiction. The only change comes from a limited bill the Senate approved last week, which the House passed on June 27. It would transfer Iowa’s Water Resources Coordinating Council from the governor’s office to IDALS. That was less controversial because it takes nothing away from the DNR, and Branstad clearly has no interest in watershed management, which is the focus of the Water Resources Coordinating Council’s work.

5. Local governments and their lobbyists have little clout with Republicans.

I wasn’t surprised that property tax reform fell by the wayside this session. Iowa legislators have promised and failed to deal with that issue before. So much money is at stake, and there’s no easy way to replace lost revenues that city and county authorities need to provide basic services.

What shocked me this year is that heavyweight lobby groups like the Iowa League of Cities and Iowa Association of Counties seemed to have no sway with the governor’s office or Republican House leaders. Branstad’s property tax plan would devastate local budgets, because it would deeply cut commercial property taxes and limit the ability of city and county authorities to make up the difference. Also, Branstad’s proposal threatened existing business districts by granting an immediate large property tax cut for new commercial development while bringing the tax level down gradually for existing commercial property. Advocates for cities and counties lobbied hard on this issue, but the governor didn’t budge and insists that he will continue to push his reform plan in the future.

The House Republican approach didn’t cut commercial property taxes as deeply as Branstad wanted, but it still would deprive local governments of significant revenue. Nevertheless, House leaders had no trouble getting this plan through the chamber. They passed a different version of property tax cuts as part of their big omnibus budget bill.

I don’t know what will happen on property taxes during the rest of the Branstad administration, but I no longer believe that the League of Cities and Association of Counties will significantly influence what passes Republican-controlled legislative chambers.

The K-12 school funding debate indicated that school districts and superintendents don’t have a lot of clout with statehouse Republicans either. Zero allowable growth was unprecedented in four decades; even Republican-controlled legislatures from 1997 through 2006 never tried to impose that constraint. Local pressure didn’t move Republicans an inch. The only reason the final budget includes 2 percent allowable growth in fiscal year 2013 is that Senate Democrats insisted on it.

Any thoughts about this year’s legislative session are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Gronstal and Senate Minority Leader McKinley discussed property tax reform at length during the July 1 episode of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program (video and transcript here). During the same program, Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa asked Gronstal whether the nuclear energy bill was a “live round” for the 2012 session:

Gronstal: I continue to believe that it makes sense to explore that possibility as to whether that makes sense in the state of Iowa.  That’s what that legislation would have done.  I think to some degree the tsunami and earthquake in Japan kind of cast a pall over that discussion and I think you can make a case any new plants that are going to be built — the next generation nuclear plants are going to be a lot safer.  So, I think that’s still there, I think that’s still possible but this session of the legislature maybe overshadowed by other events […].

Consumer advocates, the American Association of Retired Persons, environmental groups and others who oppose a bill written by MidAmerican, for MidAmerican will need to be vigilant during the 2012 legislative session.

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  • do you think that the near disasters of the 2 nuclear power plants

    near Omaha will have any bearing on the nuclear power plant issue?

    BTW, maybe I am wrong (I find the legislature very hard to follow), but didn’t some bills disappear during funnel week only to reappear at the end of the scheduled term? For some reason I thought the part of the bill to squeeze the cities was dropped only to come back to life @ Apr.29.

    If so, isn’t this really unusual?


    • regarding the nuclear bill

      The cost and consumer protection arguments “should” be enough to sink the nuclear bill even without concerns about an accident. Why should consumers foot the bill and assume all the risk for plans that may never lead to anything? But I agree with you, legislators should also consider the flooding around the two Nebraska plants.

      It’s unusual for leaders to revive bills that died in the funnel, but by no means unprecedented. During the 2010 session, the “shall issue” law revoking sheriffs’ discretion on handgun permits seemed to be dead, but came back when Democratic leaders thought passing it would help some of their caucus members in tough races.